Nigel Kneale

Creator of Quatermass


Thomas Nigel Kneale, writer: born Barrow-in-Furness, Lancashire 28 April 1922; married 1954 Judith Kerr (one son, one daughter); died London 29 October 2006.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the writer Nigel Kneale bestrode the world of British television like a colossus. At a time when the wildest science fiction, in books, magazines and on the big screen, seemed in imminent danger of becoming scientific fact, Kneale's clever and terrifying imaginings became obligatory viewing for a TV audience which had only just recovered from the shock of watching the Coronation.

The only writer who came anywhere near him in terms of sheer entertainment and popularity was the thriller-writer Francis Durbridge. But, while Durbridge wrote of a relatively ordered, though criminous world, Kneale dealt in terror - a world that seemed ever on the verge of collapse into appalling, awesome chaos.

His chief character, Professor Bernard Quatermass, was a brilliantly conceived and finely crafted creation. Whether menaced by a vast, quaking "blob" from outer space (The Quatermass Experiment, 1953; filmed as The Quatermass Xperiment, 1956), sinister bureaucrats hiding a monster (Quatermass II, 1955; filmed 1957), ghostly arthropods from Mars thousands of years ago instigating "the wild hunt" through the streets of modern-day London (Quatermass and the Pit, 1958-59; filmed 1967) or maddened "new-agers" bent on an orgy of self-destruction using alien "energy-beams" (Quatermass, 1979), Quatermass himself - variously played by Reginald Tate, André Morell, John Mills, the American actor Brian Donlevy and, last year, in The Quatermass Experiment, a contemporary adaptation of the cult classic, Jason Flemyng - remained a modern "Mr Standfast", the one fixed point in an increasingly dreadful and ever-shifting universe.

Kneale wrote many other television plays and serials, as well as film scripts, including one of the "Halloween" sequence, Season of the Witch (1983), as well as a ground-breaking and highly controversial small-screen version of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four (1954). He also foresaw "reality TV" in his devastating portrayal of future viewing The Year of the Sex Olympics (1967), in which a brainwashed and baying audience watch "live" on-screen sex as well as an axe-wielding psychopath raping and killing a woman trapped on an island before being bloodily despatched himself by the woman's partner.

As a salutary reminder of television's power to shock and desensitise, The Year of the Sex Olympics has few peers and showed just how much Kneale himself helped shape British television in its early days, as a purveyor of original, imaginative and thought-provoking drama.

Nigel Kneale was born of Manx parentage in Barrow-in-Furness in 1922, and moved to the Isle of Man to live when his father took on the editorship of the local paper in Douglas. He was educated at the Douglas High School, and later trained to become an advocate at the Manx bar before the Second World War interrupted his studies. Turned down by the Army on medical grounds at the start of the Second World War, he later moved to London and studied at Rada, becoming a spear-carrier at Stratford in the 1948-49 season.

Throughout this period, he was scribbling short stories, some of which were broadcast on the old Light Programme, while others were published in the magazines of the day, including Argosy, Convoy and The Strand. His first publication (in 1949) was the mixed short-story collection Tomato Cain, of which his publishers, Collins, thought so highly they commissioned an introduction from Elizabeth Bowen. "[An] inventive richness . . ." she wrote. "These tales . . . show a return to the great mainstream of the English story tradition - with which one associates Kipling, Wells, Saki, Somerset Maugham." She was prophetic. The following year Kneale received the Somerset Maugham Award for the book.

Needing money, but also wanting to write plays rather than merely act in them, Kneale joined the BBC television drama department, which was just starting to spread its creative wings. "I was determined to break away from all the drawing-room stage plays that TV did then," he said in an interview years later:

And most science fiction was American, gung-ho rubbish. I wanted to ground the story with believable characters and settings.

He became friendly with the BBC producer Rudolf Cartier, a contemporary of Billy Wilder and Emeric Pressburger who, like them, had fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Cartier had an inventive mind and pushed Kneale into taking risks in his serials, which were broadcast "live" and whose special effects were often dreamed up on the spur of the moment.

The ghastly pulsating blob which terrified viewers saw taking over Westminster Abbey in The Quatermass Experiment was in fact Kneale's own gloved hand wrapped in vegetation and goo and thrust through a blown-up photograph of the abbey interior. The climax of Quatermass II, in a sinister secret government laboratory complex, was filmed on an electricity substation near Slough.

Viewers were enthralled - perhaps to an extent because anything other than the usual fare of variety shown, educational series and quantities of American imports (even then) would have gained their attention, but also because Kneale spun a gripping yarn.

Emboldened by the success of the initial Quatermass aerial, he adopted Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four for TV. This caused a furore. Questions were asked in parliament about the use of rats in "Room 101" where Winston Smith (a particularly edgy performance by Peter Cushing who enjoyed the perils of "live" acting on TV) is tortured.

Kneale's greatest achievement as a melder of science fiction and horror was undoubtedly Quatermass and the Pit, which kept people out of the pubs while it was running. He cheerfully threw aliens from Mars, pagan rituals, the "Horned God" and race memory into the mix and scored a huge popular success. The later film was one of the best ever Hammer productions and was enormously influential in the United States, especially to horror-film-makers like John Carpenter (who once used the pseudonym "Martin Quatermass" for one of his own scripts in homage). Carpenter later persuaded Kneale to co-script Halloween III: season of the witch, although Kneale took his name off the credits due to its director's over- reliance on gory violence.

During the 1960s Kneale was one of the few writers not to fall out with John Osborne, with whom he collaborated successfully on the screenplays for both Look Back in Anger (1959) and the excellent Laurence Olivier vehicle The Entertainer (1960).

When not fusing science fiction with horror, Kneale came up with some of the finest, most unsettling pure weird tales for TV, including The Road (1963), in which spirits from a nuclear holocaust in the far future haunt an 18th-century hamlet; the chilling ghost story The Stone Tape (1972); and a riveting adaptation of Susan Hill's The Woman in Black (1989). In 1973 he infuriated M.R. James aficionados by editing a volume of James's ghost stories for the Folio Society and offering an essentially (and enormously persuasive) Freudian interpretation of the oeuvre.

But even at the end of his life Kneale was still tinkering with his most famous creation: working on a story of Quatermass as a young man caught up in Hitler's rocketry programme and helping a young Jewish woman to flee Berlin during the 1936 Olympics. Another project which never made it to production was a television adaptation of William Golding's Lord of the Flies.

In 1954 Kneale met and married Judith Kerr, who was later to become a highly popular writer for children. Their daughter Tacy went into film design, while their son, Matthew, later won the Whitbread Book of the Year award for his The English Passengers (2000), which was also shortlisted for the Booker.

Jack Adrian

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