One of the most influential, and enduring British fictional characters of the 1950s was Professor Bernard Quatermass, who was first imagined in 1953 by TV writer Nigel Kneale for a 6 part mini-series called The Quatermass Experiment.
In this early, live production, Quatermass must prevent disaster when an astronaut returns from orbit infected with an alien virus that threatens to destroy the world.
Sadly, only 2 of those 6 episodes survive, but fate has been kinder to the numerous sequels.
Before the decade was out, there would bet two more highly successful mini-series produced; Quatermass II, and perhaps the best of the lot, Quatermass and the Pit.
The Quatermass Experiment would be remade as a Sci-Fi movie by Hammer Films, called The Quatermass Xperiment (released in the US with the more generic title The Creeping Unknown) starring American actor Brian Donlevy.
Although Nigel Kneale was unhappy with the performance by Donlevy, and displeased with plot changes – including a different ending – the film proved to be a success in the UK, and in the US as well.
The Quatermass Xperiment was to become Hammer Film’s first horror success story, and the first Hammer film to be widely distributed in the United States.
I blogged about the third BBC mini-series, Quatermass And The Pit just over two years ago, when episodes were available on GUBA. Those shows no longer appear to be available, but may now be downloaded fromthe Internet Archive.
Quatermass and the Pit would be made into a successful Hammer film in 1967, released in the US under the name Five Million Years To Earth.
In 1955, two years after the successful debut of the first Quatermass series, Kneale wrote a sequel that traded on cold war fears in the guise of an alien infiltration of the highest ranks of the British government.
While a ratings hit, this first surviving example of a British science fiction TV series is viewed as the weakest of the three mini-series. Partly because the actor who played Quatermass in the original series – Reginald Tate – collapsed and died shortly before filming was to begin.
A new actor was chosen – John Robinson – but his performance was deemed stilted and awkward by some critics.
The budget for this second series was double that of the first, allowing the live studio performances to be augmented with pre-filmed outside shots – giving it less of a stage bound feel.
This series has been compared to the US Classic film (and terrific book by Jack Finney) Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
While few would put this production in the same league, this series is not without its merits. It is an important part of early TV history, and provides us with a fascinating glimpse of British sensibilities and fears during the height of the cold war.
A fourth Quatermass series would be produced for British Television in 1979, albeit not this time for the BBC. Instead it would be a 4-part series starring John Mills produced for Thames TV called simply Quatermass.
An edited down version was released as movie, but it saw only limited distribution.
In 2005, Jason Flemyng recreated the eponymous role in a live retooling of The Quatermass Experiment on BBC Four.
Additionally, the Quatermass character has appeared in serialized stories, books, three movies, BBC radio plays, and even theatrical productions.
And the longest running British Science fiction program of all time – Doctor Who – has lifted (or recycled) many of the themes first aired in the Quatermass stories.
Homages and `inside’ references to Quatermass have appeared in numerous TV shows, books, short stories, and even as the name of a progressive rock band in the 1970s.
Professor Bernard Quatermass – strong, moral, intelligent and resolute – has rightfully been called Britain’s first Television `hero’.
A pity we haven’t the entire first mini-series to watch, but for those willing to settle for just the first two parts, you can view them here.
Although not in the public domain, you are likely to find the Hammer Quatermass films showing on cable movie stations from time to time.
They are well worth watching as well.