This, ladies and gentlemen, is the one thousandth item posted onto my site. I wanted to post something special so I had a look through my interview archive and found this massive interview with the legendary creator of Quatermass. This was conducted at Nigel Kneale’s home in April 1996. An edited version was published in SFX; here’s the full transcript.
“Oh, a long, long time ago. I should think it must have been around 1942 or something. A lot of my stuff was published in short story magazines which no longer exist. They did then, including American ones which were very good, and they took quite a bit of my stuff. But it wasn't science fiction.”
Some of your stories like 'Minuke' have a horror element.
“Yes, some of them did, but some did not at all. I was really, I suppose, trying to find out what I could do, and trying every kind of story.”
For Tomato Cain and Other Stories, you won the Somerset Maugham prize. Did that affect your career at all?
“Well, I suppose any kind of literary prize is a plus. And it certainly did help me to get into the BBC a year or two later. You say to them ‘Look, I've won a prize.’ and it makes them feel a bit more enthusiastic about you. Mind you, the result of it was very little because there was no posting at that time for writers. They didn't believe in them. They didn't even commission new material much. They tended to use stage plays: dress them up and simplify them for television, and that was it. The idea of writing new material as fiction was very limited. They did a certain number of documentaries but very few pure stories, and that's what I wanted to do.
“So mostly I found myself doing scissors-and-paste jobs, cleaning up stage plays, simplifying things that looked like insuperable problems: an actor might have to appear on two sets more or less instantly, one after the other. Now you'd just cut, but in those days the actor had to physically get across from one side of the set to the other side. So obviously some allowance had to be made for this. There were various ways of doing it. Very primitive, because the whole system was primitive. It was really a matter of dodging.”
“It was, yes. I think they had some serials. That was about the only live thing that went on in the drama department. This form of ‘six half-hour parts’ thriller. And actually it was a very good form, because you could do quite a lot with it. You'd got time to play with; you've got time to develop characters and stories and so on. At the same time, you're not lumbered with long stretches: one-hour or two-hour things. You can move the story more rapidly, and that was quite important. It was the only real invention in the drama style, and it was still a very valid one. Because now the budget and everything is so different, it probably isn't as useful, but it was then, and I felt very happy with that.”
Why did you go for a science fiction story?
“It really wasn't a science fiction story. It was a story for a general audience who really didn't care tuppence for science fiction - any more than I did - but would be interested in a thriller, which moved very fast for those days and presented that kind of awful dilemma that had grown out of an attempt to do what was on the edge of the possible, it seemed to me, which was to go into space. But what grew out of that - because that was all over in the first quarter of an hour - the rest of the story was about the awful thing that might happen. It was a version really of ‘Could something terrible come back from space?’ because nobody knows. Might it all be a horrendous mistake? What might come back? It was a quest story with a horrid result. And it was on something that was just beginning to be talked about in sensible, serious newspapers.”
“Yes, I think there was just beginning to be. You see, no rockets had been seriously invented since the V2, by the Germans, and that was a military rocket, nothing else. But the old V2s, such as could be grabbed by the Americans and the Russians were being taken away and experimented with, to see if they could develop a real intercontinental rocket and kill each other. So there was a big race on there, but of course it was all secret. At the same time it was obvious that this would be the next kind of move - into space. Everybody I suppose guessed that this would happen fairly shortly, and it did. It wasn't very long before the Russians launched their Sputnik. That was 1957, and that was only four years after The Quatermass Experiment.”
Were you aware when you wrote it that it was the first science fictional series on British television?
“I do remember that it was necessary to explain what the story was at the beginning. You couldn't just have a rocket and say there were men in this rocket, because it wouldn't have been credible. We had to explain what a rocket was, really. And also the problem was that a rocket had stages. That was a real pill because nobody could grasp that. A rocket would be a thing like a V2 that had no stages, just a pointy end and blunt end. But once you began to think about a serious rocket - particularly that included what was then a nuclear-propelled stage - then you had a rocket that would come apart and each bit would fire on the next bit. That was a totally wild idea; nobody had ever seen one. And the audience had largely never heard of it, so you had to explain what it was that poor old Quatermass was trying to do, that he had this machine that he'd invented. Then you could go from there and tell the story.”
“That's right. They were going to record the whole thing. They did record the first two episodes, and they decided in their wisdom not to do any more. They were, I suppose, a little bit expensive, because there was no tape or anything. They had to be filmed off a tube which meant a half-hour's film, at 35mm, had to be devoted to this, because it was canned, and they didn't want the expense.”
Do you think it's possible that there could be some private off-air recordings? I know some of the early Doctor Whos have survived because somebody stuck an 8mm camera in front of the television. The quality's terrible, but it's better than nothing.
“Not much better, but I doubt if at that time anybody even knew the technique. The idea of putting a camera in front of a tube was so extraordinary that most of the population would never have heard of it. You very rarely see recordings, because the crudity was unimaginable at that time. I remember some drama I had to do with, and a character had to come in and produce an egg, and simply say, ‘Look at this.’ I forget what significance it had. But you couldn't tell what it was! The image was so fuzzy and ill-defined, I had to give him the line: ‘…this egg.’ You had that all the time. Things were not clear, and had to be made clear very simply for the audience who couldn't guess what was on their nine-inch screens. That didn't help either.”
“No, I hadn't. I'd never heard of them. They'd done a whole lot of stuff. They tended to pick up radio series and film them. Sometimes they got some downmarket ex-Hollywood star who had fallen on hard times, been hit for tax or something, and was glad of the cash. But they were really terrible films, made on an infinitely low budget. And funny times: 27 minutes long or 53 minutes. You wondered what they did with them.”
There were a few films afterwards that were fairly unashamed rip-offs of The Quatermass Xperiment, such as First Man into Space. Have you ever seen any of those?
“No. I've got something better to do. It only makes you cross if you suspect a rip-off. You go and see it and it isn't at all, it gives you the horrors of what you did.”
Do you think that, if you had scripted the first film, you could have produced a better screenplay?
“I'm sure I could have done better than what they had. It was just bad in many ways. Not entirely. It tripped along at a fair speed, but there were so many things wrong with it I couldn't begin to list them. This sort of thing, just to pick one at random. We had, in the story, a policeman - Detective Inspector or something from Scotland Yard - and he was played by a rather elegant actor and he gave a very subtle performance in the TV serial and it helped a great deal to bind the thing together, the whole story. And we had a very good actor called Reggie Tate, and he was absolutely excellent. He was troubled and bothered and anxious and very energetic at the same time; absolutely super.
“In the Hammer version, what had you got? Brian Donlevy who was permanently drunk. There's no other way to describe it. He only got the job because they wanted to have an American star and he was going cheap, so they got him. And our clever policeman was replaced by Jack Warner. He was a trundling common cop who had somehow risen through the ranks. It downgraded the whole thing into a sort of dizzy nonsense, because these weren't characters, they were just stuffed things.
“As for Donlevy - unbelievable. He just shouted. He had no idea what the story was supposed to be about, he just barked his way through it. He was quite terrible. They would do that, they would take dictation from the American distributors: 'If you don't have him and her - goodbye. It doesn't matter about the story; just have those two, and then we'll book it.' They just wanted the poster in; it didn't matter about the script.”
“There was no reason to. I knew him by that time. I knew him and his set-up, so we used it again. Otherwise you have to start from scratch, explaining how the rockets work.”
Was it your idea to do a sequel, or was it the BBC's?
“No, I think I thought of it. There must have been a certain pressure to write another one, but that didn't commit you to anything. The producer was quite keen on another one, and it just naturally happened.”
As far as I can tell it was the first ever sequel which is just a name with a number after it. You used to get Son of... and Return of... and now you just get So and So Part 8.
“(Laughs) Oh yes.”
Was there ever any intention to give it a different title?
“No, it was just Quatermass 2 and I thought: 'That'll do'. Then I rationalise it, that that was the name they had given the rocket.”
Yes, it's seen on a blackboard behind him at one point.
“That explained it. The rocket had been given his name. Strange, isn't it? Because there was quite a crop of lazy titles after that.”
“Yes, that happened between the first two series. That was more of a technical exercise than anything, of just being able to cope with an extremely complex story in the live studio. It was a fairly hairy-raising experience and it took a lot of dodging to make it possible in live terms. It had been on the boil as an idea for several years, but somehow nobody ever seemed to crack it. So I wrote the script and Rudy Cartier the producer said, 'Yes, I can do that. We can make it work, given the right people.'
“They got the right people. Peter Cushing, in the days before he was Van Helsing and all that nonsense, when he was really acting. He was one of the first real television actors. He loved doing it. He felt: 'Here we've got an audience of x million; let's show what I can do.' He was quite excellent, as was Yvonne Mitchell, who again was devoted to television. And Donald Pleasance - it was one of the first things Donald did. It was an absolutely first class cast, which made all the difference, and always will. We've had duff casts, and this is what happened ten, twelve years later when the same production was mounted with a much weaker cast. It nosedived.”
“The same script, just slightly updated. Christopher Monaghan produced it and directed it. Possibly people felt, 'Oh yes, I remember this one...' but I don't think it was the reason. I think it was a cast that was nowhere near as good. The original also had Andre Morrell who was wonderful. In the second version they had Joseph O'Connell who was also wonderful, but he was the only good one. They didn't have a Donald Pleasance or a Peter Cushing or an Yvonne Mitchell.”
Do you think Rudolph Cartier's input was very important to these productions?
“Yes because he was a very bold director. Of course Monaghan was a very bold director too. I think in the case of those two I wouldn't choose between them. But Rudy was doing his ten, twelve years earlier, and the equipment he had to use was much cruder. So considering that he had to beat that, he did wonders. The whole story of 1984 is that somebody stole a key prop.”
Ah, the paperweight story.
“The paperweight story. It was the worst thing that could happen because it was live. Peter Cushing had to come into a scene that was supposedly a junk shop that was actually sponsored by the State Police, and he picks up a paperweight and admires it: 'What wonderful things we used to have in the old world.' Somebody stole it just before transmission. The show had to go on, so they blacked the studio out: 'Will the person who has taken that prop please put it back.' 'No, I've got it and I'm going to give it to the wife.' So the assistant stage manager had to go home by bus where her little sister had one of these things. It was nothing like as good as the one we had, but it was something for Peter to pick up.”
Wasn't it Mickey Mouse?
“Mickey Mouse, with snowflakes.”
But then that gives it a whole different twist.
“It does rather, but it was the only one so that's how we had to do it. They always did the show twice, live, in a week, and I think by the second version - they wouldn't have got the original - but they'd got something that looked like it. But that was a hazard, a horrendous thing. Because you have to think very quickly. What do you do? Either stop the show and say, 'We can't proceed because a key prop has gone.' or do what we did.”
“Oh yes! Twice! They got him afterwards and Rudy said, 'Bring him to me. Why did you do that?' He said, 'Well, I wanted to go home early.' 'Why should you go home early when everybody else has to stay?' 'Well, I thought I would.' The snow of course was sawdust because anything brighter than sawdust would have burned out the tube. And so it had to be that. So Rudy said, 'When we do the second version, tell that man to take the day off.' But he was loyal to the BBC and he was there. It didn't show quite as much because the mouth of the cave where Peter Cushing and Stanley Baker were standing arguing was partially screened, so all you could see was this little face. I think the more forgiving people thought he was an abominable snowman on the loose: 'Oh, you could see it. They didn't see it but he was there.'“
Is there much difference between the original TV version of The Creature and the Hammer film of The Abominable Snowman?
“There wasn't all that much because a lot of the same people were in it. We had Peter Cushing as the anchor man, which is very important, and there were some other actors who had been involved. One or two new faces were in. Forrest Tucker was in it instead of Stanley Baker and he was fine - a good actor and a nice man. And so it came out looking very much the same only more expensive, obviously.”
“Probably both, I should think. Because you couldn't do it by just cutting, you had to do quite a bit of rethinking. For instance, in the third one, we had a magnificent set - 'The Pit' - which was all shot down at Ealing Studios which the BBC had just bought. The designer was a very bright chap and he had a very ingenious idea. It was supposed to be that they were digging the pit deeper and deeper, so he made a surrounding wall of timber and built it higher and higher. There was a thing that supposed to be a constructor's hut that was on ground level and it gradually rose to about thirty feet up. So obviously the pit had got deeper.
“The floor was mud and they'd brought about 40 tons of mud into the studio. It had to be real mud. That was one that needed rethinking, because when we came to do the Hammer version, they didn't want the pit in that form, with open sky. They said 'There must be another way of doing it.' So you do it in an Underground Station. And it wasn't very good, but it worked. That was just another way of doing the same thing.”
How closely involved were you with the production of the TV series and films? Were you always on the set?
“Yes, pretty well. Except when I was writing the next one. I was heavily involved because the things were so hairy to do that it was just a matter of being there. 'What does this man mean when he says that? What exactly?'“
“Oh no. I was just asked to do them because I'd worked with Tony Richardson at the BBC. He just rang up and said would I do it. I think what had happened was that John Osborne had written a script for Look Back in Anger and couldn't get finance for it. So Tony rang me and said would I do it.”
I've got some titles which I've come across in various articles. Can you fill me in on these? Apparently you did a production of Wuthering Heights in 1953.
“Yes, I did. Another horror! It was done very hastily. Richard Todd was very much a film star, and he had a gap in his very busy life and had always had a fancy to do Wuthering Heights. It attracts actors - like Cliff Richard! - it's a part that they can see themselves in. Anyway, he was determined to play this, and Rudy said, 'Right, okay! We'll do it. But we have no script.' All hands...! I remember I wrote it in about a week. So we did it. I remember Yvonne Mitchell who did 1984 and was very big in television at that time, and had a great figure - she did Kathy. Now she was a very tall lady, and Richard was not a very tall man, so we had to work that one out!
“Again, there's always some horror attached to these things. The grooming of the horse! It was idiotic, I should never have done it. There's a scene where Kathy encounters Heathcliffe who is then in the beginning of his career, working as a stable boy, as he's reported to be. Of course there's no point in having a horse in a live studio; too many things can happen. But in the Props Department, which you always had to ransack, there was the hind part of a horse. This thing was dragged into the studio. It was an old one and its skin was hanging down in wrinkles. But you never saw that; you had to keep the camera up. And the director said, 'Keep the camera off the bit where there's no more horse!' But Richard had to curry-comb it, and when he'd curry-combed it he gave it a reassuring slap. And clouds of dust...! But that's the way it was. You had to hope: 'Well maybe the clouds of dust won't resolve on our home screens...'“
A thing you did in the early '60s called The Road which sounds very interesting. All about ghostly noises.
“Yes, I liked that. I kept meeting film directors later who said, 'Oh, I saw something on the telly that had a total effect on my career.' and they'd tell me the story of this thing. That didn't have any big stars in it. Rodney Bewes was in it, I remember.”
Was it a success?
“I should think it was. It didn't call for a sequel or anything because by the nature of the thing there couldn't be one.”
What was The Crunch?
“The Crunch was a very sharp number. It was simply the idea - ahead of its time - of an atom bomb ransom. The embassy of some little ex-colony had imported a very clumsy nuclear device - it was stored on their premises - and then said, 'If you don't give us x million pounds we'll explode it.' We had all sorts of people: Harry Andrews as the Prime Minister. We had tanks and God knows what else, because they surrounded the embassy. But the pretense was that everything was normal so none of this stuff really showed.
“I remember we had a lady who had to cycle down the street, right in front of this building that was full of thermo-nuclear stuff, pretending that she was just a lady cycling down the street. There was a milkman who delivered milk, but his milk bottles were all full of recording apparatus. It then became a battle of wills. The army came round and they were installed in next-door houses and things, waiting for any opportunity to shoot the lot. It finally worked out that the man in the embassy was not subject to reason, he was a kind of fanatic - very much the sort of situation that you see around now; an Islamic militant - who was determined in any event to set it off.
“We had Peter Bowles in it as a young officer who behaved outrageously foolishly. But Harry Andrews was the big star who gradually uncovered the horror, who had to go in there and surrender. And he did. He had to go in there and say, 'I'll give you anything. We'll arrange the instant transferral of however many millions you want through a Swiss bank. If you don't press the button, it's yours.’ Then he realised that they didn't want the money - they were going to blow us all.
“Then inside the embassy, the fanatic was faced by the ambassador. He had been totally taken in. He was a decent man who thought it was an honest, if desperate, demand, and having been told he could have the money said, 'Right, let's call it off.' And then found of course this man was a fanatic, so had had to go in and overpower him. This was done through Eastern practices that they both subscribed to. So the man was able to nerve himself sufficiently to go in and secure it while being shot at with a machine gun. So that was the original nuclear blackmail story.”
“That was a very nice show. It was at a time when they had just started with Oh Calcutta and things like that, with soft porn being a terribly good thing. So it doesn't argue that soft porn isn't a good thing. This posited a world audience who are all couch potatoes, because there was no work to do, and they would be fed automatically. So all they had to do was have a very short life, just long enough for some, at least, to breed, and then die at the age of about thirty. And that's the world. But a few creatures want to opt out. The world in general won't listen; the world had become the audience, all the inhabitants. Except for the people who put the show on - they were still having fun.
“It was absolutely influenced by television; the people having fun are the people making the shows. The audience aren't. So really it was a comment on television. So then a small family group said, 'Look, we don't want this anymore. We want to go away and live on a desert island and suffer if need be.' Just one small nuclear family, like they used to have. They want to go out there, so they're sent to some terrible place. Not a desert island with palm trees but a sort of terrible bleak place somewhere up in the Orkneys. They settle down to their lonely life, but the whole place has been bugged. They are a television show. And then it gets really nasty. Brian Cox was in it, he was the most horrible person. It was the first TV show he'd ever done, and he was wonderful in it.”
A couple of years later, there was something called Wine of India.
“That was junk. That was about the assumption that everybody was given spare parts - heart and lungs and so on - so that they could define your life. You're given a life contract - 120 years or something - and they guarantee to keep you not just going but in perfect health for that time. But when the contract day arrives you must go. So the scene is a funeral, but all the people are alive. The pair of people who are to die are there as host and hostess, and most of the people who are there are their relations. At the end of the show they distribute what of their valuables they wish to present as mementoes. Everything goes.
“And then they themselves have to walk through a curtain exactly like the thing in a crematorium, except that these people are alive. And the whole thing is a show. You have a producer and an assistant producer, exactly like in a television gallery, putting the show on. And the ‘wine of India’ was; at that time they didn't have any Indian fizzing wine, so it was meant to be something that didn't really exist. They were given slightly drugged drinks for the party, and that was the wine of India.”
You did The Stone Tape in 1973.
“Yes, that was quite a good one. It was a ghost story. Chris Morahan suggested it and I wrote it. It was copied from the BBC's research establishment in Surrey. It was simply that a large commercial firm take over an old house like that as a research establishment, then they discover it's haunted. This is useless, it's holding up production. But what can the ghost be? There's no doubt that there is a ghost. They use all these electronics to track it. It still gets shown at the National Film Theatre from time to time.”
What was Mrs Whittington's Fall?
“That was quite a nice one. It was quite different altogether. It was just about an American retired couple who get stuck in a small French town, and they find all sorts of goings-on in the hotel they're in. There's a greatly despised child who was the child of a German soldier and a French girl. Of course he was being given a hard time, so the Americans had to adopt him, and take him back to a happy life.”
And Ladies' Night?
“That was just a horrible gentlemen's club where they don't want any women, as they usually don't. They're allowed to come one night a week. This is a particular ladies' night, and one man who has been bullied by his wife, behaves disgracefully by shouting at them and accusing them of being what they are - a lot of bullies. And the husband gets so horrendously overcome that when they retire for the night he hits her over the head with an ornament and kills her. This meets with the entire approval of everybody else in the club! The only question is disposing of the body.”
“Not too bad. That was this thing about witches and witchcraft. It was quite decently done until the last moment. These days, people who believe in witches are ridiculous. It shows. Do you know the film The Wicker Man? They got away with it. It had Christopher Lee in it. It was the best thing I think he's done. Wonderful, superb performance, terribly frightening, much better than Dracula. It showed what he could really do. There was quite a lot in that witch thing, it wasn't bad. It needed Christopher Lee.”
Why was there such a gap between the TV version of Quatermass and the Pit and the film version?
“Somebody asked me that, and I don't have the correspondence. They wanted to make it more spectacular but they didn't want to pay for it. So it was always next year, then they didn't do it. It kept getting put off, year by year, it's as simple as that.”
When Quatermass IV came along, was that going to be a Hammer/BBC co-production?
“No, Hammer were never involved. It was going to a BBC production; it nearly was. But then they thought it was too big a spread, too expensive, and they went cold on it. I thought it would never show again, but then it drifted into the orbit of Euston Films who - rightly or wrongly - made it, very lavishly indeed. They spent an enormous amount of money on it, but they didn't get the casting right, and that's what killed it for me anyway.”
Who was miscast?
Who would you have liked to have seen in it?
“Different people. They were very hard-working people and it wasn't their fault, they should just not have been in it, which does happen. If more attention had been paid to the casting - it wasn't a matter of expense - but something was wrong there. Maybe the idea was too esoteric or something; it didn't have a conventional monster.”
It's a very dystopian future.
“It was long after the old Quatermass stories of the 1950s, and I thought well, so much has changed that we've got to take account of that. We can't just do another one and say, 'This is a follow-up.' It had to account for the gap. Also, in that time, long after having persuaded people it's possible to have a rocket, Apollo rockets were being fired at the Moon. Things had changed completely, so the thing from outer space had to change too. It wasn't a chap in a rubber suit any more. It had to be something more unaccountable and quite different. Maybe that was asking too much. It needed something but I don't know what.
“There were so many things wrong. I think partly we were hampered by one of the conditions, and that was that they wanted to sell it in two directions. They wanted it to be a TV serial in four pieces, and also a viable movie that wouldn't go much over two hours. The only way was to write various scenes which were not exactly padding but could be taken out. It was a terrible thing to do, but we did it. There were scenes earmarked from the beginning never to be shown except on television, which is a rather desperate arrangement, but it was the only way they could finance it. It was a mad thing to do; I don't think anybody's tried it since. Probably the horror story of that was enough. They thought they would be able to show it - in America certainly - and I think the thing was then too disjointed to be viable.”
“I had nothing to do with them, I just didn't want to know. I could guess all too well the sort of horrors: the screaming blonde on the poster, with the people ogling, distraught, as things fell over. Posters for horror films, they'd actually been quite intelligent at one stage, but reduced to screaming blondes. It was not what I ever set out to do. It was very sad. I did a series for ATV called Beasts and one of those was in fact about the making of a horror film. I liked those very much. It was just meant to be funny, which of course the making of a horror film is. It was very briefly about a horror film, but the usual awful thing: they'd hired a real actor, a senior actor, but only for three days, so they could stick his name on. Calamity occurs - he says, 'Right, I'm going.' - and if they take his name off there'll be no film.
“The man who plays the monster, inside the rubber suit, who has been having a terribly hard time having a nervous breakdown, has been rescued to play this part. And he finds that his rival, who's run off with his wife is right there on the set as the Captain of the Guard. He has a complete nervous breakdown on the spot, and comes onto set in this terrible rubber suit with steel hands and things, and kills the man, quite genuinely. the man he's supposed to be strangling, this time he really does it, because he's gone over the edge, he's become quite insane. They clear the set, and there he is, breaking up the set and making monster noises, still in the rubber suit and completely bonkers.
“They get his wife who's deserted him to talk him round through a megaphone. She appears to have won, so they say, 'Right, she can go in and talk to him face to face.' except that he's covered in rubber. But he attacks her, and then we get the classic thing of the monster holding the blonde! She escapes by the skin of her teeth, and the Captain of the Guard, her new love, decides to finish it by killing the monster, but the other man is no longer in the rubber suit. He's out and in his vest, and kills the Captain of the Guard. It went very well.”
I know you had a lot of hassle over Halloween III. How did your original script for that differ?
“Oh, totally. Well, mine was funny and quite lavish. There was a tremendous amount in it. They just said, 'Oh we can't do it because I'm afraid it's too big.' And they shrunk it right down and put all sorts of things in like people's heads being drilled. Crappy, awful stuff like that!”
Did you like the first two Halloweens?
“No, not much.”
So why did you agree to write the third one?
“I was actually over there to do something on The Creature from the Black Lagoon which was quite fun. It was a nice story. In conference with John Landis and Jack Arnold and Carpenter came up and said, 'Can you think of a sequel to Halloween?' So I saw the two that he made - I didn't like either very much - and I said, 'Well, if I have a free hand to write an entirely new story that owes nothing to these, and you put the word Halloween on it, but put some more words so it's clearly not the same brand, I'll do one.' So I did. It took a month from beginning to final script. It was a good script; I've still got it. When I was shown the travesty they'd made out of that I said, 'Take my name off.'“
Have you ever thought of maybe trying to get your original version published?
“No. Nobody wants to publish scripts. Anyway, I’m sure it wouldn't be technically possible. I'm sure they own it, or they'd claim they own it.”
You were going to make a version of Lord of the Flies at one point.
“Yes, that was very, very good. Ken Tynan and I had met a few times, and he rang up. He had actually become the script editor for Ealing Films in its last stage in about 1956. Ken was busy at Elstree; they were under the wing of MGM at that time because they had no money. So: 'Lord of the Flies, yes, good.' I wrote the script. He thought very highly of it. 'When will we go?' 'We'll go immediately.' He had actors and directors all lined up. And then they just went bankrupt. But it was a quite sophisticated script. And then Peter Brook picked it up and made a mess of it. Because he couldn't write dialogue at all. He tried to get round it by ad-libbing, but it didn't work at all. He couldn't make films. A shame we couldn't do that, because we would have done it rather well.”
Recently you resurrected Quatermass for a Radio 3 series. What persuaded you to do this?
“It was just that the producer rang up a year ago with this suggestion. I thought about it and we just used old archive material and bits of the old series. It was quite amusing. There was no financial inducement: God knows, it was Radio 3! So we did it.”
Had you done any radio before that?
“I think there were a couple of radio things in about 1970.”
I find that odd given your dissatisfaction with the way your scripts are presented. Radio is one of the purest media.
“Certainly. The first thing I ever wrote for radio was in about 1950 and it was about a mine disaster. A documentary, really, and about as far away as possible from anything I've done since. It did very well, and it's still alright. I'd probably write it in the same way now.”
There's talk of remaking the Quatermass films...
(Pulls face) "I think it's just talk. But also I find I have remake rights. They can't move without my specific permission and that will be very hard-won. It's not a question of the cash, it's a question of who. They were very high at one time on doing Quatermass and the Pit. And they got Dan O'Bannon, who wrote a script, and he sent me a copy, and it's very good. The dialogue's terrific. But of course they made a fuss and said, 'We don't like this script, it's too good.' It was a first draft, but he didn't trust them. He said, 'I doubt if they'll do it.' and he was quite right, they didn't.”
Have you seen any of the other scripts?
“I have seen one attempt. It was like something written by a feeble-minded child. Incredibly, without any rights. O'Bannon was paid properly under a contract when a set-up appeared to exist. This other thing was a clown doing it on his own back, saying, 'I'd like to do this' without any sort of deal or anything. They were very stupid not to have done O'Bannon's version, because it was a very intelligent updating to America. The Quatermass character was a descendant of Quatermass, and it was quite funny in legitimate ways, not tongue in cheek, but very bright, very good. They didn't like it.”
Was that the one that Hammer wanted to do?
“Yes. They wouldn't have even then been free to make it.”
One of your most notorious productions was a sitcom called Kinvig.
“It was terribly, terribly simple: all the flying saucers and everything were materialisations of the things in this poor creature's mind. For instance, he had a little shop, and in this shop he sold all sorts of junk - it was actually modeled on a real shop. In fact I met with somebody who said she knew the shop: 'I saw the show and I know where it was. And there's that terrible little man in it.’ I said, 'Yes, yes it was him.' So the flying saucer is a replica of the lampshade that he could never shift. But we didn't get that. What we got was a stainless steel flying saucer that cost a fortune, because the designer thought it looked good.
“Now that kills it. Unless you see that this awful flying saucer was imagined out of the lampshade, there's no joke. You put a real flying saucer in there, made of stainless steel, you've killed the joke. They didn't see that. It was very sad. But we had a wonderful cast, and lovely people. Colin James was the simpleton who believed in flying saucers. With a twisted logic: 'Ah, but it only seemed like that. The truth behind it was...' And I have actually had this, somebody saying, 'That story was true, wasn't it?' I said, 'No, I made it up.' He said, 'Ah, you only think you made it up.' You can't beat that one.”
If somebody's sufficiently paranoid, then they can explain anything.
“It is a purely paranoid performance.”
In a similar vein, there are people who are determined that they can analyse work and determine what you're really trying to say.
“It's very similar.”
There's a book about Hammer which is convinced that the scene in The Quatermass Xperiment where Victor Caroon, with his cactus arm, goes into the chemist, is a metaphore for the evils of masturbation.
(Collapses in giggles.) "That's a new one! Oh, I love that. Very clever. A more realistic version of that is: when we did it, the actor who played the character on television, Duncan Lamont, was very good. My wife and I were doing the special effects, such as they were. We had to convert his hand, so we had lots of twigs and bit of stuff and we stuck it on him - with Bostick! Bostick was kind of new then, and Duncan couldn't get it off for a week! He soaked it off somehow in the end, with liberal use of petrol. Terrible stuff. We should never have done it.”
Could you not just have slipped a glove on him?
“They were afraid about it peeling off under the heat, I suppose. It didn't peel off, that's one thing you could say, it didn't peel off.”
Have you seen much current TV science fiction?
“No. It doesn't look very interesting. They're mostly very trivial things, aren't they? That Blake's 7 thing. I remember seeing one or two episodes, because there was a girl in it that we knew, and being appalled that she should have been reduced to the circumstances where she took the job! Unbelievably terrible - all these wooden faces arguing with each other. They tend to do that, because they can't think of any real character, so they just think, 'Shout at each other. That represents conflict in the crew.'“
What about if you had been approached to write an episode of something like that? Would you have turned it into something better?
“You can't. A thing like that is dead in the water. I wouldn't touch it. And the same with Star Trek - terrible, terrible. I've seen odd ones of that, but again, the wooden actors. And my God, they're wooden! And the awful premise that whatever they encounter will be other chaps with rubber heads. It's so crude, that I wouldn't want to go anywhere near it.”
It's had some very fine writers, like Richard Matheson.
“Well, they must have been very hard up or the taxman was after them or something. There must have been a reason. Because I could think of better ideas in my sleep. Things like The X-Files; I'm happy to say I've only seen one episode of these two non-actors struggling with their lines. I despair! There must be somebody somewhere struggling to write something that's any good.”
But The X-Files is a huge hit so all the TV companies are looking for ‘a new X-Files.’
“I know. Terrible, terrible.”
More recently, you've written some stuff for Sharpe. Was that more fun to do?
“That was great fun to do. Because the book that I was offered, they'd used practically all of it. The heroine had been not only used but killed. All that was left was you had to blow up an entire city - 'Yes ... I'll have to think about that' - and there wasn't anything else. They'd used it in dribbles, it was the second book. So I said, 'Let me think of a story, and if you like it, we'll do it.' So I came up with a completely new story, using only the first part of the book. I gave the Duke of Wellington some horrendous female relatives, which was fun. Cornwell's stuff is very well researched, competently written. He's a good writer. He knows his stuff militarily, he knows his Peninsula War. His plotting is a bit overdone, and in too many places unbelievable, so I'm not a great fan. But it was fun to break away from some of that, and play with the box of toys. I'm now busy writing a Kavanagh QC.”
What's that like to write for?
“That's presenting some horrendous problems with the story.”
Were you approached to write these things?
“Yes. So I said yes to the story, and my hair stood on end. It's nothing to do with science fiction, believe me. I brought it on myself. But that won't appear for a year.”
Finally, despite all this other stuff that you've written, you're still known as 'Nigel Kneale, the bloke who wrote Quatermass.' Has that been a help or a hindrance?
“Hard to say. I suppose it's a help in probably the wrong way. Because what it tends to bring me is people who say, 'Can we do another Quatermass?' or something like that. Also, you get typed. You have a successful career up to a certain point, then you say, 'I want to break away and do something different.' But they go, 'No, do what you've done before. We can sell that, we know we can sell it.' It takes a lot of determination to fight that off.
[Nigel Kneale, eh? Lovely old geezer and completely outspoken. A wonderful interview to do 20 years ago, and a delight to revisit it now. I hope you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read of the first thousand posts on my site, Here’s to the next thousand… - MJS]