Where to begin with Nigel Kneale

A beginner’s path through the hauntological horrors of screenwriter Nigel Kneale.

5 May 2020

By Adam Scovell

Quatermass and the Pit 1967)

Why this might not seem so easy

The Year of the Sex Olympics, written by Nigel Kneale, is out now on BFI DVD.

Writing extensively for both film and TV, Nigel Kneale is one of the most important and radical British screenwriters of the last century. His work has haunted several generations of British viewers. Whether working for studios such as Hammer and Woodfall or redefining the role of television drama at the BBC, Kneale’s writing ventured into daring new territory, brilliantly reflecting the changes in media and society in the postwar era.

Best known for his politically toned science-fiction and his most famous character creation, Professor Bernard Quatermass, Kneale’s work is vast and rewarding but perhaps difficult to get to grips with simply because it spans two very different formats: multi-camera television and cinema. Watching work across both forms provides two distinctive flavours, but both equally Knealian.

Where to start – Quatermass and the Pit (BBC)

Kneale’s work came to the fore on TV, and his scripts for the BBC still present the perfect diving off point. The strongest is the last of his 1950s Quatermass trilogy, Quatermass and the Pit. Broadcast between December 1958 and January 1959, the six-part serial saw Kneale’s most famous character face his most terrifying scenario.

Quatermass and the Pit (1958)

Hobbs End tube station is being excavated in central London when a strange craft is unearthed. Professor Quatermass (here played by André Morell) is sent to investigate the cursed ship as implications regarding its possible influence on humanity become apparent. Mixing folklore, superstition and Cold War paranoia, the episodic version of Kneale’s story works startlingly well even today and still gets under the skin.

Quatermass and the Pit shows Kneale’s ability to address contemporary fears and concerns via ancient evils. His detailed script asks an array of uncomfortable questions, from whether our sense of belonging is really an illusion to the true source of humanity’s drive towards totalitarianism and violence. It’s one of the most pivotal and important TV dramas that the BBC ever produced, exerting a vast influence on the broadcaster’s genre output for decades to come.

What to watch next

Quatermass and the Pit was one of a number of scripts eventually taken by Hammer Studios, and their film versions are certainly a strong place to continue exploring Kneale’s work. In fact, Hammer’s version of Quatermass and the Pit (1967), coming eight years after the BBC original finished airing, is one of the studio’s strongest films. With Andrew Keir playing Quatermass and Hammer’s vibrant colours bringing horrific corporeality to Kneale’s demonic Martians, Roy Ward Baker’s film is unlike anything the studio ever produced again.

Quatermass and the Pit (1967)

Kneale’s other work with Hammer is less celebrated but often unfairly so, especially as it helped kickstart a whole cycle of British horror cinema that ran from the 1950s to the mid 70s. The studio’s adaptation of the first two Quatermass serials, Val Guest’s The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and Quatermass II (1957), are far better than their reputation, capturing the paranoia of 1950s Britain as it permeated everywhere from central London to hidden research facilities in the countryside.

The writer penned two other films for Hammer before Quatermass and the Pit, both incredibly effective. The first was Guest’s The Abominable Snowman (1957), an unnerving tale about a team in search of the yeti in the Himalayas. The second was Cyril Frankel’s The Witches (1966), a gripping, trippy thriller in which Joan Fontaine uncovers a black magic sect in an English village.

Yet Kneale’s strongest work was arguably for television, for which he wrote an array of original screenplays and adaptations from the 1950s to the 1990s. While several of his dramas are missing from the archives, including several episodes of the BBC’s The Quatermass Experiment (1953), we’re lucky to still have a wealth of Kneale’s work largely intact.

The Abominable Snowman (1957)

He caused a stir with one of his earliest screenplays, an adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 for BBC Sunday Night Theatre in 1954. Peter Cushing took the role of Winston Smith in this controversial broadcast, which was deemed politically subversive, being questioned in the House of Commons and tainted with anecdotal stories of viewers dying of shock. Similar controversy would arise later for his edition of Theatre 625, The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968). Even today, this is a hard-hitting dystopian drama foreshadowing reality television and its drain on human empathy.

The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968)

Kneale’s strongest work for television often dealt with ghosts or occult themes. His one-off play The Stone Tape (1972) is perhaps his most most unsettling work. It’s a ghost story but one rooted in modern technological obsessions, telling of a repeated historical trauma somehow locked into the walls of a building.

The Stone Tape (1972)

The same horrific elements can be found in many episodes of his series Beasts (1976), in particular the episode ‘Baby’, which uses ideas from the ghost stories of M.R. James to unravel a deeply disturbing tale of maternal curses and pregnancy.

The persecution of women often appears in his more horrific tales. Perhaps the most disquieting in this sense is his episode of Against the Crowd, ‘Murrain’ (1975). A woman is being bullied in a village by local farmers for being a witch, much to the dismay of a visiting vet. But are the locals merely superstitious or is the woman genuinely dangerous?

Against the Crowd: Murrain (1975)

That same local fear is found in one of his last screen works, his TV adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black (1989). Far more subtle than the 2012 big-screen adaptation, it found Kneale working hard to retain the same Jamesian influence present in the original novel. This time, female trauma is trapped in a deathly, terrifying cycle in the evocatively named Eel Marsh House.

Where not to start

The third instalment of the Halloween franchise, Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982), directed by Tommy Lee Wallace, is an unusual film to say the least – and it’s surprising to discover that Kneale played a large role in the film’s initial creation. Penning the original script, Kneale took his name off the project when the film transferred out of the hands of original director Joe Dante, and questionable changes were made to Kneale’s work. Adjustments were made to the dialogue and pacing, to the point where the resulting film feels like a satirical play on some of the writer’s familiar themes.

It’s a schlocky, entertaining film but barely reflects anything that made Kneale’s writing usually so vital and haunting.

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