Being an Anglophile, I’m often puzzled at what British bric-a-brac (Brit-a-brac? Don’t hit me) can randomly become popular. Take that depressing “Keep Calm and Carry On” legend, embossed on towels and journals and a bewildering array of disposable merchandise. To me, it’s worse than the Spice Girls.
First of all, if you can’t open your diary without needing to see those words, your life may not be fulfilling you. More importantly, to me it conjures up an enervating picture of the most complacently dreary face of Britain—miserably plodding along and deriving comfort from a design that would seem unusually grim in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
But in a funny way, this banal sentiment captures the mentality of that landmark of British television (and de facto godfather of TV science fiction), Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass. Quatermass’, and Kneale’s, legacy is enormous, and has been repeated at length everywhere—Doctor Who, X-Files, The Night Stalker, the Alien films, the films of John Carpenter … and more loosely, nearly every science fiction-themed film or series ever. Hell, there was even a prog rock band named after him. But the character of Professor Bernard Quatermass—the genius behind the British Rocket Group, who saved the world from horrific fates that had a worrying tendency of undermining everything he believed in—helps me see the full complexity, and nobility, behind that blunt pragmatism.
My first encounter with Quatermass was the 1967 Hammer film of Quatermass and the Pit, starring Andrew Keir. Since then I’ve seen most of the others in haphazard order. I walked in knowing its importance, and the debt Doctor Who owed it. So I was rather surprised—maybe (foolishly) disappointed—with the Professor. Instead of the dynamic, heroic, wise Time Lord, here was a grumpy cynic perpetually gripped by self-doubt, which he suppressed with a pathologically grim determination. Indeed, the title of his debut, The Quatermass Experiment, makes him sound more like a mad scientist than heroic savant.
In Quatermass II, when his friend is dragged away by sinister guards, he feebly protests that they can’t do that sort of thing in Britain, then goes on his way, without even trying to knock the machine guns out of their hands and steal their uniforms (although he does disguise himself in a later episode). In Pit, he’s as susceptible to the Martians’ psychic manipulation as everyone else, and in his final appearance in 1979 (played by John Mills), he spends the first episode wandering the now-desolate England muttering “Why?” to himself.
But as time passes, I appreciate the maturity of such a hero. Not only does Quatermass perfectly embody the ideal scientist—his emphasis on empiricism, his pragmatic embroidered optimism, his devotion to his work—he also embodies the genius of his creator Nigel Kneale and the strange post-war England he was created to entertain. No wonder he was popular among 1950s British audiences—with the palsied grip of post-war malaise (rationing continued until 1954!), they probably took comfort in a hero who, in the face of certain doom, actually was keeping calm and carrying on, not just telling people they should. And winning through as well.
What do we know of the Bernard behind the Professor Quatermass? Little—‘Quatermass’ is a wonderful old Norman name, with echoes of H. Rider Haggard’s adventurer hero Allan Quatermain, also alluded to in the brief mention of young Bernard “mapping the tropics” in Experiment. Between then and firing the first men into space, he somehow found time to have a family, and his daughter Paula appears in the sequel to be in her father’s image—pursuing a career in science and with enough sangfroid to continue working when her fiancé is possessed by alien foam.
There is the tiniest suggestion of parental neglect behind her dedication—Bernard was probably battling outer-space slime molds while she was taking her first steps—and by the time his grand-daughter Hettie appears in the 1979 Quatermass, she is a zoned-out member of a destructive cargo cult, the Planet People; she hardly even registers her grandfather’s presence, never mind helping him, until the very bitter conclusion.
When John McCarty describes Quatermass as “the cliché of the cerebral, pipe-smoking scientist” (20) he’s clearly missing the point. Despite his tweedy appearance, Quatermass has little in common with the ‘boffin’ type incarnated by Barnes Wallis, played with cuddly brilliance by Michael Redgrave in The Dambusters. There is quite simply nothing cuddly about Quatermass. He seems singularly devoted to his work and doesn’t get on with people—even colleagues like fellow British rocket scientist Dr. Leo Pugh (Hugh Griffith) get occasional sharp words. If Paula didn’t keep calling him ‘Father’, you would swear he hardly knew her. And as for politicians or unsympathetic military officers—his vitriol towards any narrow-minded careerist makes the Pertwee Doctor’s exasperation with Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) in 1970s Doctor Who seems downright chummy.
The animosity between Quatermass and Colonel Breen (played with bellicose dullness by Anthony Sharp in the television version and Julian Glover on film) is clearly intractable, not even tinged with minute respect. This ties in with Nigel Kneale’s general vision of Britain as a borderline police state, which tends to ignore or undermine the influence of its wisest resources.
In this light, Quatermass is less the hero in his world, and more a scientific Cassandra figure. After his central role in the Experiment, the early episodes of the three sequels begin with his dire warnings being briskly ignored. When his worst fears are confirmed, there is no hint of apology, and Quatermass dutifully hunkers down and cleans up the mess. It’s writing genius—whereas a scientist everyone listens to can easily become an authoritarian bore, an ignored one gains audience sympathy, and his long odds of victory increase the tension. The sequels strive to raise the stakes by bringing progressively more pressure against Quatermass—from the comparatively small-scale disagreements among the British Rocket Group, it’s quite a leap to pitting him against the entire British government!
Then Quatermass and the Pit goes one further, with society breaking down into violence, and the Professor having to conquer an enemy within himself as well. Amid such troubling thematic territory, only a hero of Quatermass’s integrity, and potential for self-doubt, would do. To imagine, say, Captain Kirk making that glorious, enlightened speech at The Pit’s conclusion would tip it into parody. His struggles with his own demons, and plea that people think about their actions, make for possibly Quatermass’s finest moment, both beautifully written by Kneale and masterfully performed by veteran actor Andre Morell.
I’m tempted to name Morell the best Quatermass, but it’s a funny and unique difficulty that they should be so interchangeably brilliant. That doesn’t sound like much of a compliment, but it’s uncanny how well Reginald Tate, John Robinson, Morell, Andrew Keir, and John Mills play the same role in the same fashion, and yet are all equally distinguishable (if—to employ another paradoxical doesn’t-sound-like-a-compliment compliment—indistinguishably distinguished). Unlike the various Doctor Who regenerations, who are obliged to instantly differentiate themselves from their predecessors, Quatermass achieves in its actors a consistent, excellent level of scientific aplomb and gravitas, tempered with humility and self-doubt.
I’d say that self-doubt is the chief attribute missing from the most contentious interpreter of Quatermass (and the one exception to my rule)—the caustic, un-charismatic turn by Brian Donlevy in the two Hammer adaptations The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and Quatermass 2 (1957). But it’s a contentious point—so contentious I need to return to it—which I will summarise thus: he is unquestionably miscast, but the movies themselves are brilliant (And yes, tune in next time for more…).
Kneale took a long break from Quatermass after 1959. This served to finally root the character in that decade, so it’s hardly surprising that 1960s and 1970s revamps didn’t quite succeed (which, along with Jason Flemyng’s 2005 Experiment, demand more space and will be fully unravelled later…). As Britain’s mood swung up and down, turned away from and then embraced materialism, and even lost track of its own contradictions (Mick Jagger’s knighthood should really have caused causality to collapse), the need to ‘Keep Calm and Carry on’ dissipated. But don’t buy those wretched posters—watch Quatermass instead.
Fifty-nine years after Bernard Quatermass of the British Rocket Group sent Victor Caroon into space, his essence continues to dwell at the heart of British science fiction: sceptical, cautious—but above all brilliant.