Cult Movie: Nigel Kneale, the man who changed the face of television sci-fi

Nigel Kneale, writer of 1950s sci-fi series The Quatermass Experiment and many other TV dramas
Nigel Kneale, writer of 1950s sci-fi series The Quatermass Experiment and many other TV dramas

IF SCREENWRITER Nigel Kneale had only ever penned The Quatermass Experiment (1953) he’d still be considered one of the most important figures in TV drama ever.

That BBC serial changed the face of science fiction on television. It was intelligent, grounded and genuinely thought provoking. It was perhaps the first series to empty the streets when it was on. People were gripped by Kneale’s multi-layered story of a British astronaut returning to Earth with more than he bargained for. It was essential viewing for sci-fi buffs and drama fanatics alike.

That Kneale went on to provide two brilliant follow-ups – Quatermass 2 (1955) and Quatermass And The Pit (1958) – and one undervalued and sadly belated final word with The Quatermass Conclusion (1979) only adds to his reputation. The first three went on to be produced for the big screen by Hammer, Conclusion was made by Euston Films, and the place in the pantheon of classic cult sci-fi of scientist Bernard Quatermass and his adventures in space travel was assured forever.

If it was just that era-defining franchise that he delivered we’d still be in awe of his work and the cultural impact it had.

The fact is Kneale also wrote one-off television dramas of the calibre of The Year Of The Sex Olympics (1968) – an astonishing prediction of today’s Big Brother culture – and The Stone Tape (1972) – one of the most chilling ghost stories ever broadcast on the BBC. He adapted legendary versions of 1984 and Lord Of The Flies for the Beeb, scripted films of the calibre of Look Back In Anger (1958) and The Entertainer (1960) and gave us wonderful ITV projects like his offbeat anthology series Beasts (1976).

All that incredible work, and Kneale was a busy writer until his passing in 2006, is brought beautifully into focus in the new edition of Andy Murray’s splendid biography Into The Unknown, released on Headpress this month.

Murray traces Kneale’s roots in the Isle Of Man and covers his earliest short-story writing with the same enthusiasm he displays in covering the more well-known aspects of his output and he tracks some of the key players – from John Carpenter to Mark Gattis – who name-check him as a key inspiration.

We find out how much he hated actor Brian Donlevy who played the central role of Bernard Quatermass in the first two Hammer adaptations of his work and learn how he refused to work for Doctor Who – a serial that bares a debt to his finest work – on the grounds that it revelled in scaring young children, which a bit rich coming from a man who scared the bejesus out of them at every opportunity.

We find out how he came to loathe the bean counters at the BBC and how he declined opportunities to write for The X Files as the Mulder and Scully characters were portrayed by “two non-actors”.

More than anything, though, it drives you to revisit his best work. Original, intriguing and deeper than any writer had delved in TV drama before, it remains magical stuff.