Whether putting the era’s angry young men on the big screen, bringing terrifying ghosts into the home or burying Martians under the local tube station, the British screenwriter Nigel Kneale was a unique and pivotal figure in our screen culture.
Initially starting out as an actor in radio, Kneale soon split his time between television and film work, often overseeing the transition of his scripts between the two. Because of this, the influence of his screenplays – from the vital series of Quatermass dramas to weird fictions of the 1970s such as The Stone Tape (1972) and Beasts (1976) – is as vast as it is varied.
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Kneale especially understood the role of place in his work. Both urban and rural locations were more than mere backdrops: they were characters in their own right, even when realised in film or television studios. Thankfully, many productions of Kneale’s work did get out into the real world and excavated menace from actual buildings and landscapes.
Here are five locations from Kneale’s screenplays as they stand today.
The village from The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)
Beginning Hammer Studios’ storied turn toward all things terrifying, Kneale’s big-screen take on his own BBC screenplay The Quatermass Experiment (or ‘Xperiment’ as the film called itself, proudly displaying its X certificate), is a profoundly important film for British genre cinema.
Typical of Hammer, it made the most of the locations near to its studios at Bray in Berkshire, and the opening segment was filmed in the village there. After a space rocket crashes in the field, director Val Guest films the reaction in the village. The first shot we see is of The Crown pub on Bray High Street. The pub still stands today.
Next, we see further up the high street and a shot of another pub, this time The Hind’s Head (now part of Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck group), just as the emergency services shoot past towards the disaster area.
The shot follows the fire engines and various vehicles back along the high street and down towards the field where who knows what alien menace is waiting for Professor Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) and his team.
The graveyard from Look Back in Anger (1959)
Though better known for his horror work, Kneale also played a pivotal role in the British New Wave and kitchen sink dramas of the postwar years, adapting John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer (1960) with Tony Richardson.
Look Back in Anger really kickstarted this celebrated movement of films following angry young men. In one scene, the eponymous Jimmy (Richard Burton) accompanies Ma Tanner (Edith Evans) to the grave of her husband. The scene was shot in the graveyard of St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church off the Harrow Road and adjacent to Kensal Green Cemetery.
The second shot confirms the initially obscure location almost exactly, with the distinctive architecture of the bridge of Scrubs Lane over the canal and railway lines. The graves may be tidier today, but the remnants of a more industrial city remain.
The ruin from The Witches (1966)
Following The Abominable Snowman (1957), The Witches was Kneale’s second non-Quatermass film for Hammer. Directed by Cyril Frankel, it’s a strange village-based horror in which Joan Fontaine faces down an occult conspiracy. Though filmed largely in Hambleden in Buckinghamshire, the film’s most important moments, in particular its ceremonies and sacrifices, take place nearby in Henley-on-Thames, specifically Bix Bottom. We initially see the ruin from the side as the characters first explore it.
The church was once St James’, a medieval site that was abandoned in the late 1800s. Unlike in the film, there is no graveyard today and the overgrowth of the surroundings has long since been cut back.
Eagle-eyed viewers may recognise the location more readily from Piers Haggard’s classic folk horror The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971). The Witches foreshadows that film with some remarkably similar shots. The following two shots, for example, are framed almost exactly alike in both films.
Appropriately, the final ceremony of the film is also shot from the same angle as in Haggard’s film. If one thing is for certain, the church at Bix Bottom was the place for terrible sacred rites in the films of the period.
The church from Quatermass and the Pit (1967)
Roy Ward Baker’s haunting adaptation of Nigel Kneale’s celebrated screenplay was chiefly a studio affair. With its mystery predominantly surrounding the fictional tube station of Hobb’s End – where a Martian spacecraft is unearthed, leading to increasingly strange and horrifying events – very little location work was required. However, Baker chose one particularly effective location for a small but chilling moment.
The night-time sequence begins as Sladden (Duncan Lamont) is driven mad by the power of the craft. He stumbles through the streets, seemingly directed by the alien intelligence. He finds himself in a graveyard, clutching the gravestones as he tries to escape the power. The church is St Nicholas’, a beautiful and historic building near the river in Chiswick, London. Sladden eventually climbs beyond the church and through a gap in the fence. The graves have slightly altered but several remain, marking the spot exactly where Baker directed the scene.
Hearing of Sladden’s madness and his sanctuary in the church, Quatermass (Andrew Kier) and Barbara (Barbara Shelley) make their way there. They are seen wandering down the path known as Powell’s Walk before the camera pans and follows them into one of the church’s entrances.
The castle from The Stone Tape (1972)
1972 was a bumper year for television horror. BBC viewers that winter were positively spoiled with series like Dead of Night and the BBC Ghost Story at Christmas, A Warning to the Curious. Perhaps most unusual in this spooky season was Kneale’s contribution, the celebrated hauntology-drenched horror The Stone Tape. Though filmed largely in studios via multi-camera, director Peter Sasdy films several establishing shots of a real place throughout, as was common practice in that era’s television. The building was Horsley Towers and still stands today.
Set in the fictional castle of Taskerlands, the play follows an electronics company setting up a research establishment in the old building, only to find that the place is haunted. One room in particular seems to have recorded ghostly moments from the past.
A handful of shots show the lavish venue throughout the drama, all of which still reflect how the building is seen today. The entranceway, for example, which we see being swept, is exactly as it was.
The lake that is admired by Peter (Michael Bryant) and Roy (Iain Cuthbertson) also remains, but is a little tidier today.
The last shots we see of the location revolve around the main entrance. Jill (Jane Asher) leaves Taskerlands lost and unnerved. Today, the entrance is the hotel’s main door into this luxury domain. Horsley Towers is more likely to see a wedding rather than a haunting these days.
Nightmares and Daydreams: A Centenary Celebration of Screenwriter Nigel Kneale runs at BFI Southbank in April.