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Quatermass and the Pit (1958-59)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Quatermass and the Pit (1958-59)
BBC, 22/12/1958-26/01/1959
6 x 35 mins, black & white
ProducerRudolph Cartier
ScreenplayNigel Kneale
CinematographyA. Arthur Englander
NarratorAlexander Moyes

Cast: André Morell (Professor Bernard Quatermass); Christine Finn (Barbara Judd); Cec Linder (Dr Matthew Roney); Anthony Bushell (Colonel James Breen); John Stratton (Captain Potter); Michael Ripper (Sergeant)

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Professor Quatermass is called in when building work unearths an ancient skull, which appears to challenge conceptions of man's origins. Further digging at the site reveals what appears to be a spacecraft.

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The third series - and perhaps the best - featuring Nigel Kneale's hugely successful creation, the steadfast scientific genius Professor Bernard Quatermass, Quatermass and the Pit (BBC) was also the last, until the character was resurrected for one final appearance in Quatermass (ITV, 1979). Running over six Monday evenings between December 1958 and January 1959, the series, like its predecessors, was compulsory viewing.

The professor was played this time by André Morell, the third actor to take the role. Morell, who had previously appeared as O'Brien in Kneale's adaptation of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (BBC, tx. 12/12/1954), typically played clipped-voiced officer types (as he did in David Lean's The Bridge Over the River Kwai (1957)), and he brought a natural authority to the part.

As in the previous stories, Quatermass was pitted against an extraterrestrial threat - in this case an ancient and hostile intelligence from Mars - in an exciting and intelligent story which mined mythology and folklore and carried serious political and philosophical ideas. The story begins with the discovery by workmen of a curious skull. Further digging uncovers what appears to be an unexploded bomb - not an uncommon find more than a decade after the war. The professor gets involved when it becomes clear that the skull represents a previously unknown human relative, and that the 'bomb' is in fact an alien vessel.

Although the special effects may appear crude now, the series remains powerful today thanks to an exciting climax and some genuinely thought-provoking ideas. Like many of Kneale's later works, notably The Stone Tape (BBC, tx. 25/12/1972), Quatermass and the Pit puts a scientific spin on the supernatural tale, in this case suggesting that mankind was visited in its distant past by an evil alien force, which left its mark in our own vicious nature and inspired our ancestors' depictions of demons and devils.

Another interesting feature of the series is the way in which Kneale uses his creation to attack the military and government's subordination of science to their own ends. The story begins with the professor furious after his rocket project is placed under military control, while one of the more satisfying moments comes when Colonel Breen (Anthony Bushell), Quatermass's arrogant and narrow-minded rival, meets an untimely end.

Mark Duguid

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Video Clips
1. An announcement (3:31)
2. The Rocket Group (5:25)
Complete episode: 'The Halfmen' (35:19)
Quatermass (1979)
Quatermass Experiment, The (1953)
Quatermass II (1955)
Cartier, Rudolph (1904-94)
Englander, A. Arthur (1916-2004)
Kneale, Nigel (1922-2006)
Morell, André (1909-1978)
Ngakane, Lionel (1928-2003)
Ghost Stories
Live TV Drama
TV Sci-Fi