Professor Bernard Quatermass pioneered an ambitious UK rocket development programme and was the creator of the British Experimental Group. The commanding and exacting character was created by Nigel Kneale (1922-2006), who was himself one of the pioneering authors of British television drama. His three challenging and dramatic, six-part Quatermass serials were must-see viewing for BBC TV audiences in the 1950s, before a fourth and final outing was created for ITV in 1979. All four series were adapted into cinema movies, before Quatermass made his final outing on BBC Radio 3 in 1995, reflecting on his life's work.

Click for larger image The Quatermass Experiment
Manned space flights were years away, but this series presented them as near drama-documentary. Viewers were terrified by the realistic presentation of astronaut Victor Carroon (Duncan Lamont), returning from space in the grip of an infection that causes him to mutate into a monstrous alien. On the evidence of these episodes, Reginald Tate's performance as Quatermass is a slow-builder. There's a charming cameo appearance by Katie Johnson, as the little old lady on whose cottage the rocket makes an emergency landing. As Mrs Wilberforce, Johnson stole the show from Alec Guinness in that Ealing classic, The Ladykillers. The second clip includes the original BBC announcer who followed the broadcast of the second episode. (tx: 18/07/1953 - 22/08/1953)
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It is a shame that only the first two episodes of The Quatermass Experiment are preserved. Unusually, it's not that the others were wiped or burned. The method of preserving television programmes on film was still in its infancy in 1953, and based on the quality of episodes one and two, the results were not deemed to be of high enough quality to justify the expense of recording the following four episodes. The shows were performed live, broadcast from the BBC's original TV studios at Alexandra Palace in North London, whence they subsequently vanished into the ether, and into the memories of impressionable viewers...

Click for larger image Quatermass II
Nigel Kneale's follow-up imagined what would happen if aliens were to invade Earth by stealth, via meteorite bombardments. The falling pods excrete alien matter which infects anyone within touching distance. Victims fall under the influence of the alien source, but they are easy to detect: they develop scars on their faces. Quatermass discovers that an Essex village has been destroyed and a heavily-guarded government refinery project built in its place. Supposedly a factory for synthetic food, it turns out to be a breeding colony for alien monsters, nurtured on poison gas and processed human blood. (BBC TV, 22/10/1955 - 26/11/1955).
Reginald Tate had been due to reprise the leading rôle, but the workaholic actor/director suffered a heart attack just over two weeks before shooting was due to begin. John Robinson took over at short notice and makes a worthy successor, backed up by Hugh Griffith, Rupert Davies, Wilfrid Brambell, Roger Delgado and child actor Melvyn Hayes.

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The third story in the Quatermass canon is my favourite of all; equally I consider its 1967 Hammer adaptation to be the best of the Quatermass films. The upshot is that aliens have been on Earth since prehistory, straightforward enough. Yet the manner in which the narrative threads unfold and their devastating consequences are hugely disconcerting. The Martians indoctrinated prehistoric Man with their higher intelligence and race characteristics: a colonisation by proxy. When a Martian capsule is unearthed on a modern London building site, it is found to contain the remains of three Martians and numerous augmented ape men. The ship releases a wave of paranormal energy that possesses the city, tapping into the dormant Martian mental faculties bred into Mankind and provoking a gigantic race purge in the style of ancient Mars (and curiously reminiscent of the race riots affecting Britain and America at the time - Kneale was an adept social commentator). In effect, WE are now the Martians, and must do all we can to avoid their destructive example.

Click for larger image Quatermass and the Pit
The haunted-looking Andre Morell is just perfect as Quatermass, heading a strong ensemble cast that includes Cec Linder, John Stratton and Anthony Bushell. The music by Trevor Duncan is dramatic and thrilling. In devising a new signature tune he deviates from the pattern established in earlier Quatermass series, which used Mars - The Bringer of War from Gustav Holst's Planets Suite. Likewise Desmond Briscoe's evocative sound effects, from the then newly-created BBC Radiophonic Workshop, are shocking. (BBC TV, 22/12/1958 - 26/01/1959)
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In 1972 the BBC entered into discussions with Nigel Kneale to produce a new four-part Quatermass drama. The project was abandoned in 1973 due to budget issues, despite the start of model photography and Kneale carrying out script re-writes. The scripts sat on the shelf until 1977 when they were picked up by Euston Films, the subsidiary of Thames Television, for a million-pound ITV production starring John Mills. The 4x50mins episodes were then edited into a theatrical release entitled The Quatermass Conclusion.

Click for larger image Quatermass
1979, ITV/Thames © Fremantle Media
John Mills brought impressive new qualities to the character, who steps out of retirement in Cumbria for a TV interview and is projected into a dystopian nightmare of killer gangs and hippies. The production brings to life vividly a world in crisis, with fuel and food shortages bringing civilisation to the verge of collapse. That's when the Earth comes under attack from space, and the super powers can do nothing to prevent it. Nor, it seems, can the ill-fated Professor Bernard Quatermass. (ITV tx 24/10/1979 - 14/11/1979)
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Click for larger image That's TV Entertainment
Click for larger image Recalling childhood favourites for BBC TV's 50th Anniversary clip show, shown in November 1986, Ringo Starr and Cliff Richard explain how terrified they were by Quatermass II. No child riding a bicycle home in the dark ever felt the same again!

Click for larger image The Studio That Dripped Blood
On 26th June 1987, BBC2 marked the 30th anniversary of Hammer's most important and famous production, The Curse of Frankenstein, with this fifty-minute film narrated by Charles Gray, Hammer - The Studio That Dripped Blood. Key stars and production staff were interviewed. In this sequence, producer Anthony Hinds describes how he hit on the potential of the BBC Quatermass serials as heady sci-fi thriller movies. Plus, the trailer for Quatermass II with a hysteria-laden script voiced by Valentine Dyall.
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