August 15, 2012

The Quatermass Experiment (1953)

On 2 June 1953 Queen Elizabeth II was coronated in a formal ceremony at Westminster Abbey. The coronation was a cultural milestone in Great Britain, not simply because of the crowning of a new monarch but also because of the dramatic increase in the number of television sets owned across the country. It was the first coronation to be televised, a decision made by the young Queen in defiance of government recommendations to the contrary. British families desperate to "join in" on the event purchased televisions by the thousands.

In August 1952, just ten months earlier, the total television viewing audience in Britain was approximately four million people. At 11:00am on 2 June 1953, 20.4 million people crowded around small television sets across the country. Television in Great Britain was no longer an arts-orientated experiment, confined to a small viewing audience in London. Television had broken into the mainstream.
In early 1953 it became apparent that there was a six-week gap approaching in BBC TV's summer schedule. Writer Nigel Kneale was commissioned to pen an original serialised drama to fill this gap. Kneale was hired by the BBC in 1951 to read and adapt theatrical plays for television broadcast. In 1952 the BBC's Head of Television Drama, Michael Barry, convinced the broadcaster to put Kneale on a permanent contract. Barry argued that the BBC "cannot afford to lose his knowledge of television built up over nine months". Interestingly, prior to taking up his post at the BBC's Script Unit, Nigel Kneale had never seen a television broadcast.

Kneale was keen to write a serial based in science. In the process he drew upon then-current themes of rockets and space exploration, and social concerns about the dangers of science progressing too quickly. To this end he created the fictional British Rocket Group, and based his serial around the organization's chief scientist. For the scientist's name he randomly consulted a London telephone book, resulting in the now-iconic name of Bernard Quatermass. The serial title, originally The Unbegotten and then Bring Something Back, was ultimately The Quatermass Experiment.

To produce and direct this serial, BBC Head of Television Drama Michael Barry appointed Rudolph Cartier. Born in Austria in 1904, Rudolph Cartier entered the film industry as a writer and director in Berlin. When the Nazi Party came to power, Cartier - a Jew - fled first to America and then to London, where he worked on a string of low-budget feature films. In 1952, Michael Barry invited Cartier to join the BBC's Drama department as a staff producer/director, an invitation Cartier was keen to accept. In 1952 he collaborated with Nigel Kneale on the teleplay Arrow to the Heart (1952), and the pair developed  a strong working relationship. Cartier worked closely with Kneale during the scripting phase of The Quatermass Experiment, guiding the storyline into a form that could be more  easily told in the confines of the BBC studios. The entire production had  a budget of roughly £4000, forcing Cartier and his production team to innovate. Film inserts, then quite a costly exercise, were minimised.

Each episode of The Quatermass Experiment rehearsed from Monday to Friday at the Student Movement House in London, before camera rehearsals took place on the Saturday afternoon. The episodes themselves were performed live-to-air on the Saturday evening from the BBC's Studio A at Alexandra Palace. Soon after broadcast most BBC drama productions were broadcast from newer facilities in Lime Grove - The Quatermass Experiment was one of the final drama productions that Alexandra Palace hosted. The series was made with the BBC's original Emitron model cameras, then already 17 years old. Faults in the cameras gave the production a comparatively poor picture quality, with patchy areas of grey covering parts of the screen.

The production period was remarkably short by modern standards, with Kneale still writing the serial's later installments when the first episode went to air. "I think I'd written four episodes when the first one was shown," he would later tell TV archivist Andrew Pixley, "and I wrote the remaining two while it was going out. So nobody really knew what the end was - even the production team, certainly not the actors, which made it more exciting I suppose. The only people who were really in on the secret were Rudi Cartier and myself. The others had to take it on trust, which they were kind enough to do."

The Quatermass Experiment premiered at 8:15pm on Saturday 18 July, 1953, to a nearly unprecedented national audience of 3.4 million viewers. By the end of the series, growing public interest saw the audience increase to 5 million.

Due to the live nature of the programme, episodes regularly overran by several minutes. The sixth and final episode suffered a temporary break in transmission to fix a broken microphone, disrupting the climax of the serial and delaying the broadcast by six minutes.

At the time the BBC intended to telerecord each episode onto 35mm film, a recently developed process that involved using a film camera to record a television monitor of the live broadcast. This process had been used to record the Queen's coronation for posterity, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation had made enquiries about purchasing the serial for broadcast. Recordings of the first two episodes were made, but they were found to be of extremely poor quality - the second episode even included an insect that landed on the monitor during the live broadcast and remained onscreen for several minutes. The two film recordings were nonetheless held by the BBC Archives, and remain one of the earliest examples available of BBC television.

In The Quatermass Experiment, a spacecraft launched by the British Rocket Group crash-lands in Wimbledon, having overshot its intended orbit and lost contact with ground control. When Professor Bernard Quatermass and his team open the rocket ship, they discover that two of the three crewmen have mysteriously vanished.  The third, Victor Carroon, is slowly mutating into something alien - and appears to have absorbed the consciousness of his crewmates.

The serial was enormously successful on broadcast, and was the first television drama in Britain to become a genuine talking point - what contemporary television critics describe as a "watercooler show". The serial's climax must have been particularly resonant: only months after the Queen's coronation, The Quatermass Experiment saw a rapidly mutating alien organism grow to terrifying size within its hiding place of Westminster Abbey (the puppet used to represent the enormous alien was manipulated in the studio by Nigel Kneale himself).

The role of Professor Bernard Quatermass was played by Reginald Tate. Tate, a star of a string of British films including The Way Ahead, enjoyed playing the role. He died in 1955, while preparing to return to the role in Quatermass II.

The Quatermass Experiment presents a groundbreaking moment in British television - not only the first adult science fiction drama created for the BBC but also the first significant original drama series to capture a broad national audience. In an obituary for Rudolph Cartier in 1994, The Times described the series as "a landmark in British television drama as much for its visual imagination as for its ability to shock and disturb". While R.U.R. may have been the first science fiction production from the BBC, it is The Quatermass Experiment that can be considered the "father" of British science fiction television. Its legacy, flowing from the 1950s through nearly all BBC SF drama, continues to this day.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.