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Quatermass Experiment, The (1953)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Quatermass Experiment, The (1953)
BBC, 18/7-22/8/1953
6x30 min episodes, black & white
Produced by Rudolph Cartier
ScriptNigel Kneale

Cast: Reginald Tate (Profesor Bernard Quatermass), Isabel Dean (Judith Carroon), Duncan Lamont (Victor Carroon), Hugh Kelly (John Paterson), John Glen (Dr Gordon Briscoe), Ian Colin (Detective-Inspector Lomax), Frank Hawkins (Detective-Sergeant Best)

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An experimental spacecraft returns to earth with two of its three-man crew missing and the third turning into an alien monster. Can the brilliant Professor Quatermass save the day?

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Following the success of Number Three (BBC, 1953), a one-off science fiction play co-adapted by Nigel Kneale, the BBC's Head of Drama, Michael Barry, commissioned the young writer to pen a six-part series. The resulting drama, with working titles including The Unbegotten and Bring Me Something Back...!, was ultimately called The Quatermass Experiment, and became one of the most influential series of the 1950s, launching its eponymous hero on a career which spanned four television serials, three Hammer feature films and a radio series.

Kneale's success with the scripting lay in his rejection of the self-imposed constraints of televisual drama, most obviously the overt theatricality of many early BBC productions. Instead he delivered a strong, fast-paced and intelligent drama which, crucially and unusually, was created specifically for television. He shrewdly played on the public's fears of extra-terrestrial menaces, recently heightened by the infancy of manned space programmes, and injected further topicality by staging the monster's destruction in Westminster Abbey, which less than three months earlier had been watched by record television audiences during the Queen's coronation.

Kneale had already worked with the innovative Rudolph Cartier on Arrow to the Heart (BBC, 1952) and the director's progressive, at times operatic, vision of drama ensured he was the perfect choice to realise this groundbreaking thriller.

The serial, which was broadcast live, achieved strong ratings and excellent audience feedback, but during transmission of the final episode a technical problem resulted in it temporarily being taken off air. Music was played while a remedy was sought, but the inappropriate waltz selected, coupled with the hiatus at a crucial moment, meant that dramatic momentum was lost, and later research revealed this impacted badly on viewers' enjoyment. By this point, however, Quatermass's exploits had become a national talking point, and even before episode six, Hammer Film Productions Ltd were moving to secure the movie rights.

In truth, Reginald Tate, who died shortly before Quatermass II (BBC, 1955), delivers a slightly lacklustre performance in the central role. Contemporary critics were negative and the relatively modest budget of just under £4,000 is apparent. Yet, with its originality, mass appeal and dynamism, The Quatermass Experiment became a landmark of science fiction and the cornerstone of the genre on British television. It also confirmed the viability of adult serials and cemented Nigel Kneale's reputation, although sadly, only episodes one and two of this seminal serial exist today.

Gavin Collinson

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Video Clips
1. Beginning (2:59)
2. Crash landing (3:05)
3. Radio interview (2:06)
4. A survivor (2:54)
Complete first episode (32:08)
Quatermass Xperiment, The (1955)
Quatermass (1979)
Quatermass II (1955)
Quatermass and the Pit (1958-59)
Brambell, Wilfrid (1912-1985)
Cartier, Rudolph (1904-94)
Johnson, Katie (1878-1957)
Kneale, Nigel (1922-2006)
Live TV Drama