I have been writing television plays for about seven years. An interesting time to be close to the thing, as it included the phase of its most rapid growth in this country, from a social joke to a social problem. The 9-inch “goggle box” has expanded to the 21-inch Home Screen.

I have no claim to be a pioneer, of course. The covered wagon days of TV were long ago, before the war. But when I came to it I found people were still baffled. Plays in particular — what should they be?

I watched sad radio men trying to turn it into illustrated radio, using still photographs to keep that infernal screen occupied. And disappointed men from films despairing at limitations of time and space that confounded their too-loose scripts. In canteens and conferences I have heard arguments about the missing mystique, the TV Philosopher’s Stone that would confer legitimacy on a bastard medium, and make it an art-form overnight.

The favourite bet was on Intimacy. “It’s a small screen, so it stands to reason you have to get in close.” This appealed strongly. One enthusiastic producer made a cult of it, and shot play after play entirely in close-up, regardless of the monotony of a series of almost identical compositions. We heard reports of an American school of intimate TV writing. But apart from one or two like Chayevsky, their scripts turned out disappointing, their gimmick a weird, tiny rhetoric. Self-important and repetitious. Dead end. The probing for the heart of television’s mystery went vaguely on.

It was confusion of thought, of course, that afflicted us. Like expecting a mid-adolescent to have a formed identity.

Quatermass and the Pit (1958)

To get the ultimate out of any medium, it must be possible to define its limitations. And the limitations were indefinable. They changed almost week by week, both at the transmission and reception ends. I have written among other things three Quatermass serials, all produced by Rudolph Cartier. The first, in 1953, was shot on what were literally the oldest operational cameras in the world, with fixed lenses and “watch-the-birdie” viewfinders, tracking on bicycle wheels. The second, in 1955, came from a well-equipped studio and was telerecorded on film. When the third came up for production a few months ago, there were such enormous technical aids as console lighting and video tape. But more important is the development of the audience’s sets. In a few years screens will probably measure about five feet by three, and have far higher definition than today. Relatively, they will be as large as those in cinemas. The smallness will have gone for good, and anybody still battling out special techniques for it will be left with them on his hands. The “intimacy” idea will only be of antiquarian interest, like the tiny screens that produced it.

Already it is becoming clear that there is no technique, but a thousand. Increasing mechanical resources should make style as individual to the story and the teller of it as in any other medium — a book, for example, or a well-made film. Television drama at its best will be almost identical with film at its best. Both, I suppose, are essentially literary forms with the surface appearance of being dramatic forms. Like books, their shape is fixed, unaffected by audience or reader. You sometimes hear sighs about “young writers being forced to turn to television.” Forced? To move from, say, short story writing to real TV writing seems as natural as switching from stories to novels.

It is easy enough to get familiar with the grammer. Studio resources, movement of actors from set to set, and so on. More valuable is to know something about camerawork, about the scope of set design and special effects. Most valuable of all is close co-operation with the producer, who in most cases is the director too.

Pressure of programming and budget make every TV production a fast-moving business. Responsibility for casting, pre-filming, rehearsal, camera work and transmission all land on the producer’s shoulders. The writer can help a great deal by providing a fully workable script, both dialogue and visual, with film sequences broken down into detailed shooting-script form since they will be dealt with first. Then the producer can add his own ideas effectively, instead of wasting valuable time on problems.

The writer should make himself available throughout this highly complicated rush operation, to act as the central point of reference. After all, he knows more about the characters and purposes of his story than anyone.

Quatermass 2 (1957)

This close involvement is worth the time it takes up. Ideally, he becomes half of a two-man team, and the final shape of the story on the screen can reflect the original conception with a clarity that is easily lost when too many hands get to work.

The best TV producers welcome the writer’s full collaboration right through to the transmission date — assuming he knows his business.

Shooting film inserts is the first active part of the production. These can be substantial, and provide a most useful extension of the story beyond the cramped studio sets where three or four constantly moving TV cameras will take up much of the available space on transmission day. Film adds both physical freedom and atmosphere. The impact of the TV version of Nineteen Eighty-four, which Rudolph Cartier and I did together, was increased a lot by exterior sequences in an apparently half-ruined London. In Quatermass and the Pit, the uncovering of a space-ship from deep, real mud was shot from the full height of a Transatlantic crane — a session in a film studio that later added valuable realism to scenes in the electronic studio, where “mud” means a sprinkling of peat over canvas and the small Mole-Richardson is the biggest crane there’s normally room for.

There are TV producers who fight shy of film inserts. Some are purists who argue that the entirely live show has a flow and a homogeneousness which are spoilt by them. More often it has been due to unhappy experiences with badly scripted — or even totally unscripted —snippets of film, shot at the wrong tempo and uncuttable. “Film of Fred going to work. On the way he meets Valerie and presently they enter the factory together. Cut to studio.” Anybody who watches television will have seen the results of that sort of thing. You still see them occasionally — exterior sequences of half-identifiable characters, wandering in long, panning shots taken silent, to be covered by recorded music in the studio. They were generally rationalised as: “Well, film inserts are a mistake, anyway.” On an even lower level, film has functioned as a mere linking device. Meaningless scraps of stock would occupy the screen while an actress changed a wig or furniture was reset on the studio floor: they seemed to be the alternative to stage captions reading “The same, two days later” and showed an equally dim grasp of elementary presentation. (I’m not anti-producer, just anti-bad producer. Like any other business, television has its quota of clowns.)

But whenever filmed sequences are properly made — meaningful scenes with natural sound, with overlaps for grafting — they blend into the live production so that the audience is unaware of them. In the last Quatermass serial, for instance, some 45 minutes were on film out of a total screen time of 3 and a half hours — and a surprisingly satisfactory number of expert colleagues failed to spot exactly which 45 minutes. All the technically difficult scenes, involving special effects which it would have been risky to tackle live, were filmed, giving the producer much greater control.

Control…precision. These are the elements that until recently were always unpleasantly lacking in live television.

Quatermass and the Pit (1967)

Weeks of rehearsal would culminate in the studio on transmission day. Now the filmed and live scenes would join for the first time. All the actual sets, props, effects were there at last. Now and only now could the actual effect of the play be assessed — when it was too late to alter anything. Not only that, but disaster could strike in many forms. Your leading man could fall sick or drop dead. It’s only remarkable that more haven’t done so. I have watched actors clad for midwinter struggling through a transmission when studio lamps plus a heatwave had raised the temperature to 115 degrees, and property candles melted in their sticks. Or the side of a camera might fall off and hit the floor with a clang during a whispered love scene. (One type of camera was notorious for this.)

Most destructive of all, to the production and the author’s intentions, was the wandering booby. Appearing in his dust-coat at the court of Henry VIII, or outside a 40th-floor window of a skyscraper. One play of mine had what was intended as a tense, penultimate scene in a Himalayan ice-cave at 22,000 feet. Two heavily clad characters were acting hard on transmission when a figure appeared outside the cave. It wore a dust-coat and was busily sweeping up the eternal snows. A booby, it turned out, who was in a hurry to get home and thought he would clear up early. In those days plays were repeated live a few days later, so at the second transmission he was firmly warned. To make sure, the cave was rendered booby-proof with a black sky-cloth and a large stack of boxes. But, with a waywardness that had something wonderful in it, he managed to appear again. They should put up a statue to him at the Television Centre, a monument to the old days.

Now video tape enables the whole production to be prerecorded. Actors have had some of the burden lifted from them, of being judged on a first-night performance without benefit of retakes. Technical mishaps will soon be obliterated. The day of the booby is almost done.

There will be a few who regret it. The canteen mystics who insisted that an actual live performance held some extra telepathic force. And saner ones who feel that those first night nerves can on certain occasions bring out acting of such quality that the audience would no more notice the side of a camera falling, than a pin. I think that’s true. I saw it happen in our Nineteen Eighty-four, for instance.

Of course, complete technical control is essential. Without it, no hope could exist of television ever becoming an art-form. (What would have happened to literature if words changed their meaning under the pen, or to painting if colours kept altering and running off the canvas?) But even with that, has it any chance? Does its future hold an all-electronic Citizen Kane or Bicycle Thieves? Or is it doomed to become a mere home-projection system endlessly blaring out commercials, rigged panel games, endless streams of vile little quickies? A sort of juke-box with vision.

Quatermass and the Pit 1967)

It depends on the audience, and I suppose on their elected representatives in whose hands is the fate of the rival networks. Viewers are already separating into clear groups. The larger one is the happily habit-formed; demanding the Mixture as Before, the next series of quickies exactly like the last one. Then there are the others, the enquiring ones whose interests have actually been extended. The first group are the fodder, the second the only possible justification, of TV.

It is with the second group, the minority as usual, that the writer must be concerned. He can put real characters and ideas before them, parts in which actors can extend themselves. He must have the awakening and continuing interest of that audience. In the long run his freedom depends on them — his freedom, that is, of the networks.

For that is the attraction of television at the present time — its readiness to tackle subjects that the film industry might balk at. Minority-appeal pieces, or what later turn out to be majority-appeal pieces but which at first are new and frightening to the delicate senses of impresarios. TV is more receptive simply because its programme space has to be filled somehow, and costs are relatively low. But this can sinisterly change. The habit-formed may demand their Mixture in larger and larger quantities as an inalienable right. And the quickie-makers will find ways to meet that demand. (Talent? Watch out for script-computors.)

At this point somebody says: “What’s Kneale talking about? He himself writes science-fiction serials, those Quatermass things.”

Well, I don’t like the term “science-fiction”, but if we’re going to bandy it about, it could be applied just as well to the world we live in. The form is appropriate, if taken seriously. And that is the way I do take it. I try to give those stories some relevance to what is round about us today. The last one, for instance, was a race-hatred fable that broke through to an encouragingly large and intelligent audience. On the technical side, it went about as far as possible towards exploding the “intimacy” fallacy. Huge sets, long shots, crowd scenes were the order of the day. One critic remarked: “Not only does it sweep away detachment, but it obliterates also the feeling of being a solitary spectator; one reacts to it with enlarged response as a member of a communal audience.”

Nineteen Eighty-four (1954)

The serial, I should point out, is a different animal from the quickie series to which I have just been taking objection — those are unconnected little anecdotes from many, often hasty hands, bundled together under a generic title. The serial, in contrast, is a complete play. A six-part one, for instance, has a total running time of 3 hours. (A recording of my last serial is being experimentally re-shown in two 90-minute halves.) Within that framework it is possible to tackle a fairly complex idea in detail, using a full range of characters. It gives you time to shape a whole background. More important, there is time to build up gradual suggestions into springboards for the audience’s own imagination. Unless this can be set off, after all, television is what its critics accuse it of being — a soporific.

I have written other types of TV play, am planning more. Meanwhile I have been involved with films — writing screenplays of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (an intimate subject presented in widescreen, just for a change) and The Entertainer. My short experience here seems to confirm that the demands of the, so far, larger screen are not very different from television’s. Less load for the dialogue to carry greater freedom of physical action — on the other hand , there are pressures. Economic, since the costs involved are so much greater. Distributors’ pressures, censorship pressures…

In any case, it looks as if most of those who work for either will soon enough be working for both — a combined film-and-television industry.

Films have already had a lot of their surplus fat sweated away, and seem the better for it. Television is still putting it on — puppy fat, perhaps, but most of it unhealthy. What both need is more muscle.

Will their descendant be stronger and more adventurous than either of its forbears?

Or, gloomy thought, flabbier than both?


Nightmares and Daydreams: A Centenary Celebration of Screenwriter Nigel Kneale runs at BFI Southbank in April. The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), Quatermass II (1957) and The Abominable Snowman (1957) are on BFI Player from 7 April.