Theatre 625:The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968)

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Settle down folks! “An American View” hasn’t suddenly shifted into a smut site or anything, although I predict that this article title will bring lots of the WRONG sort of internet traffic here. No worries, I just decided to take another plunge into the fine world of public domain BBC TV stuff by Nigel Kneale (as found on YouTube)! This week, we’re taking a look at the audaciously named TV movie The Year of the Sex Olympics, part of an anthology show called Theatre 625. Theatre 625 had some big hits including a remake of Kneale’s 1954 teleplay of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four in 1965. The Year of the Sex Olympics is particularly notable because it basically predicts our current media culture and the advent of reality television.

With an opening card proclaiming “Sooner than you think” one can see that Nigel Kneale was really worried about the issues lampooned here. Kneale had to have seen the advent of lowest common denominator programming like so-called “reality TV”, but I can’t find any articles or interviews with him on the issue of a TV genre that he accidentally created all those years ago. His death, in 2006, did bring some comments from others about it, such as the following snippet of a Guardian interview by Mark Gatiss (The League of Gentlemen, Clone, Doctor Who, Sherlock): “When Big Brother began on Channel 4 in 2000, I took a principled stand against it. “Don’t they know what they’re doing?” I screamed at the TV. “It’s The Year of the Sex Olympics! Nigel Kneale was right!””

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Kneale was apparently influenced to create The Year of the Sex Olympics due to his own concerns about overpopulation, the counterculture of the 1960s, and the societal effects of television. To most, this comes as no surprise as Kneale can be seen as a “cranky old man” that saw anything youth-related as evil in some way. To put this on perspective, Kneale was the very same man that cast “hippies” as the antagonists of his fourth Quatermass serial (something I will review soon) and routinely made it seem like anyone under the age of forty was in some way morally deficient in his writings.

This isn’t a bad thing by any means, just a sign of the times. Britain was in turmoil during this time, and many of the “Greatest Generation” (using an American term) had no idea why “Baby-Boomers” were always so pissed off. I’m part of “Generation Y”, and routinely get irritated with my parent’s generation and how they treat us, and reading up on stuff like this makes me see that they had it the very same way.

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The Year of the Sex Olympics depicts a world of the future where a small elite class (people called Hi-Drives) control the media and government. In order to keep power, these Hi-Drives keep the lower classes (Low-Drives) docile by broadcasting a constant stream of “entertainment” designed specifically to remove any ambition to act and to relieve all stress. Essentially, the Hi-Drives pull this off by concentrating on constant and total immersion into a world of reality TV. This includes mind-numbing programs including one baffling example involving rotund men with no shirts on hurling whipped cream at each-other, and various themed “sex shows” that masquerade as sports and arts, but are really just pornography.

One Hi-Drive, Nat Mender (Tony Vogel), believes that the media should be used to educate the low-drives, and not simply allow them to rot away. He has become disillusioned by his peers and society itself due to social norms forbidding him from having any real connection to his lover Deanie (Suzanne Neve) or his own daughter, Keten (Lesley Roach). For a while, Nat’s “boss”, Co-Ordinator Ugo Priest (Leonard Rossiter), tries a lot of different things to illicit new responses from his audience, one of which being old-fashioned slapstick comedy. Anything seen as traditional or old-fashioned is generally frowned upon by this society, so this doesn’t go over well. After the accidental death of a renegade artist gets a massive audience response of laughter due to it being broadcast live on-air, Ugo Priest decides to commission a new style of entertainment: reality television.

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The flagship show in this initiative is called “The Live Life Show”, and stars Nat’s family. They have been stranded on a remote Scottish island while the low-drive audience watches. This is pretty monotonous and boring until “reality” gets “spiced up” by Lasar Opie (Brian Cox), Nat’s former co-worker and one of the big-wigs that runs a lot of the TV production. The producers introduce a psychopath named Grels (George Murcell) to the island, and lets him loose on a murderous rampage.

Some of the Hi-Drives such as one named Misch are incredibly annoying, showing how awful their society is in the grand scheme of things. This isn’t annoying in the “this actor sucks” sort of way, but the “man, these characters are horrible people” sort of way. Their language has degenerated into a juvenile mixture of jumbled sentences full of missing words and slang, and constant whining. Anything that isn’t in some way pleasurable gets an awful response usually involving a temper tantrum.

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Comparing these people to something modern is easy, as she reminds me of some of the inhabitants of “the Capital” in the Hunger Games series based on their complete separation from reality and vapid personalities. It’s like someone took the trashy, almost mindless essence of your modern “famous for being famous” “celeb-utant” like Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian and ramped it up to an insane degree.

A great example of their speech patterns happens to be one of the first scenes in the show itself, and has Misch utter the following, as she is the host of the most popular sex show, Sportsex:

“Here we go again, bubbies and coddies! Comfy and cosy are you all? Tonight, we got lots of real super-king talent for you all, so keep your eyes with us! Stay looking! First we got those two top lovers, Cara Little and Stewart Tenderleigh! Hello there, Stewart and Cara! Been on this show a jumbo lot of times. Winners of the Kama Sutra Prize last year. Now in training for the Sex Olympics.”

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One thing of note that could be both good or bad depending on how you look at it, is that this serial is in black and white. This is due to the color versions being lost like many TV programs of the time due to “junking”. One can see that everyone is wearing seizure-inducing colorful patterned clothes and heavy bodypaint in such high quantities that the whole thing would probably look laughably outdated and silly. I feel that this sort of ”masks” the garishness of the future clothes to the point where they aren’t so bad. On one hand the show is incomplete, on the other it seems more “important” this way, somehow.

One can watch The Year of the Sex Olympics and immediately feel bad, because an over-the-top fear that a man had in the sixties has basically come true. Most television watchers consume shows just like Live Life Show on a daily basis, with the same camera angles, boring dialog, and manufactured turmoil to “spice” the reality up a bit. It’s an almost eye-opening experience to watch this, and really shows you how far our culture has been diluted in some ways. I’m not going to go for the hyperbolic statement that we are the Hi-Drives and Low-Drives, but it’s pretty close. People speak in annoying short-hand “text speak”, dress like Lady Gaga, and gawk at the exploits of those more wealthy than ourselves. Just give it a few years and we’ll have shows about fat guys that throw whipped cream at each other.

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The Monday Meme: Ikea

john-robinson-bernard-quatermass-bbc-quatermass-ii-episode-2Image from Quatermass II (BBC TV)

I wanted to do something different this week for “The Monday Meme”. Usually I scour the interwebs for random Doctor Who images or anything that makes me chuckle. I feel like I’ve burnt myself out on the ones I’ve seen, because a lot of ones I find have been going around for months, if not years. Starting today, I want to do some for some more obscure shows – especially Quatermass! Let me know what you think in the comments, maybe, I can keep these AAVOBSF originals going and going!

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The Monday Meme: Chocoholic

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I wanted to do something different this week for “The Monday Meme”. Usually I scour the interwebs for random Doctor Who images or anything that makes me chuckle. I feel like I’ve burnt myself out on the ones I’ve seen, because a lot of ones I find have been going around for months, if not years. Starting today, I want to do some for some more obscure shows – especially Quatermass! Let me know what you think in the comments, maybe, I can keep these AAVOBSF originals going and going!

– Picture is from 1957’s Quatermass 2 from Hammer Films

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Something To Watch This Weekend: Quatermass Experiment (2005) on Hulu

Something To Watch This Weekend: Quatermass Experiment (2005) on Hulu

Looking for something to watch this weekend? How about the 2005 remake of the classic Nigel Kneale tele-play The Quatermass Experiment! Starring John Flemyng and David Tennant, this is a remake in the truest sense of the word. Using old scripts and LIVE FILMING, they went the extra mile to re-capture the sixty year old magic that basically kicked off UK science fiction as we know it today. Hulu keeps adding more BBC stuff every once in a while, so I’ll keep you posted if more gets added. And don’t be surprised if I do a review of this pretty soon!

 

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The Stone Tape (1972)

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I’ve looked at a few Nigel Kneale teleplays from the 1950’s this year, and I thought it would be a nice change of pace to find one of his later works to review for this very blog. I truly believe that Nigel Kneale is one of the often overlooked grandfathers of science fiction, as you can see his fingerprints on tons of modern genre TV (especially Doctor Who). That’s the main reason I’ve been slowly digging through all the Quatermass material I could get my hands on – to hopefully build some awareness if I can.

Today, I ultimately settled on The Stone Tape, mostly because I had never heard of it before this viewing. This was Kneale’s last accepted BBC script before he ultimately got fed up with them and jumped ship to ITV. After years of what he perceived to be meddling and broken promises by the BBC, Kneale took his rejected fourth Quatermass script, among others, and ran. Luckily The Stone Tape doesn’t shed any light on his professional troubles, and seamlessly blends sci-fi, horror, and drama into one cohesive film that was so well received that it helped establish a paranormal theory – the stone tape theory.

As Wikipedia states “The Stone Tape theory is a paranormal hypothesis that was proposed in the 1970s as a possible explanation for ghosts. It speculates that inanimate materials can absorb some form of energy from living beings; the hypothesis speculates that this “recording” happens especially during moments of high tension, such as murder, or during intense moments of someone’s life. This stored energy can be released, resulting in a display of the recorded activity. According to this hypothesis, ghosts are not spirits but simply non-interactive recordings similar to a movie. Paranormal investigators commonly consider such phenomena as residual hauntings.”

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In an effort to gain market share on his Japanese competitors, the head of the R&D department of Ryan Electronics, Peter Brock, has been struggling to develop a new recording medium that can revolutionize the industry. His team have set up shop in a new facility within an old Victorian mansion called the Taskerlands, a property that seems to have some unwanted lab assistants. Jane Asher (See my review of A for Andromeda for more of her) stars as the weak-willed computer programmer Jill Greeley. Jill spends the first few minutes of the film paralyzed by fear for a handful of different reasons: first a near miss car accident, then a ghostly sighting within the mansion. To Jill’s horror, a young woman can be seen committing suicide within a room that workers refuse to renovate.

After asking around, the team learns that The Taskerlands is, in fact, notorious for the death of a maid some one hundred years prior. Brock puts two and two together and realizes that this “haunted room” has somehow recorded the death of this poor girl. This phenomena, dubbed “stone tape”, could be the very breakthrough that the team is looking for, just as long as they can somehow harness it. As you can imagine, there are setbacks and all manner of paranormal incidents going on at the Taskerlands, and not everyone makes it out in one piece.

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The Stone Tape vaguely reminds me of a handful of serialized TV shows such as The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits for some reason. It’s not because it has a big moral at the end of the story or anything, unless that moral is science is bad, but the way it ends is one of those abrupt shock endings you get used to with that sort of show. The Stone Tape definitely has a better budget than those sorts of shows, but fans of that genre might be interested.

As with anything from the 1970’s, there is quite a bit of “culture shock” to get through when watching something almost 40 years after the fact. The entire plot hinges on the fact that everyone at Ryan Electronics fears that Japan will soon be taking over their entire country in just about every way, and finding a way to edge them out is the only way to stop it. This reeks of the general xenophobic mindset of the time, something that manifests itself with casual racism and “yellow peril” / Fu Manchu impressions from a few characters. These scenes made me cringe a bit, but luckily they weren’t glamorized, one man thankfully gets told to shut up. Seeing this, one has to wonder how poorly anything modern, full of the casual anti-Islamic sentiment we see in TV, will look forty years from now? I bet my grandchildren will be just as embarrassed as I am today.

My main quibble with this drama is something I brought up earlier, and another cultural relic from a long time ago. Jill is a laughably weak character, seemingly breaking down into fits of madness whenever anything bad happens. She’s like one of those stock “old-timey” female characters that has to be slapped whenever they go into fits for some reason. Granted, I’ve been in a few car accidents, so I know they can mess up your mental state. I can’t imagine someone being so indisposed afterwords that everyone around has to baby the person in question for weeks on end. Jill reminds me of the old stereotype that Doctor Who used to suffer in regards to it’s female companions, as she is seemingly only there to scream, fall down, and look weak. This does a great service of making most of the male cast look dashing and heroic in comparison, at the cost of making Jill unlikable.

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As with many productions of the time, this movie has little in the way of special effects. In fact, the only sequences that really have these sorts of shots involve camera tricks to achieve ghostly images, pretty much on par with any other 1970’s BBC sci-fi or horror shows. The horror that builds in many scenes is usually achieved with lighting and sound in place of flashy visuals. These effects include, but are not limited to: Perhaps a blood-curdling scream, flickering lights, or a horrible noise. In many ways, this helps the production, as a cheesy guy in a suit could have ruined any tension that is achieved without it.

Personally I’m more of a fan of this sort of horror film than what most people like, that’s why I usually tell people “I don’t like horror movies”. I have grown tired of “gore porn” films that over-saturate the market today, as they are not scary to me whatsoever. What things such as The Stone Tape have over them is that they can build real tension without resorting to jump scares and blood to make the viewer squirm. I’m not saying it’s the best thing ever, or that I’m now super into horror, but it’s a step in the right direction for me.

The Stone Tape is pretty good despite the flaws it has. It’s by no means the best thing Nigel Kneale ever wrote, but it’s pretty good as a horror /sci-fi program. I will say that some cultural relics from the early 70’s including casual racism and borderline misogyny made me a bit uncomfortable, but neither ruined anything for me. If anything, they made me think of how we act today, and how that will look in the future. If you have a few hours to kill, and want to see an old-school horror movie with a sci-fi splash, you might like watching this, but finding it might not be easy. It was on DVD over a decade ago,but is out of print pretty much everywhere. I was able to find it in its entirety on YouTube, so that should be the place for you to look as well!

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BBC Sunday Night Theatre: George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four (1954)

In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy.

–          From George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four

 

In our modern world, any perceived intrusion of privacy (Google Glass for instance) is met with accusations of threatening an “Orwellian Nightmare”, or statements like “here comes big brother!”, but most miss the point entirely. George Orwell was not talking about the latest entertainment product fad, but the very real threats that he saw himself in countries like Spain, Germany, and the Soviet Union. While traveling around and living as a much less wealthy man that he actually was, Orwell did some research in order to write one of his first books and a handful of essays. Purposely clad in cheap rags and “squatting” in slums with other destitute people, Orwell had witnessed the danger of absolute political authority in an age of advanced technology first hand, especially during the Spanish Civil War. This “in your face” reporting style colored his very way of life and his political views to such a degree that he lashed out at a problem he could foresee taking over the world – totalitarianism. Nineteen-Eighty-Four was the result, a book that was feared for its perceived subversive nature by all governments alike.

 

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The BBC was fairly quick to create a version of the masterpiece for the fledgling television medium all the way back in 1954, just four years after the release of the novel. They commissioned an adaptation by the legendary Nigel Kneale to air live on a Sunday night. This was hugely controversial, as one could imagine, because the nationalistic post-war government was less than happy to see people in their same line of work “demonized” in such a manner; they even went as far as to attempt to ban similar programs from TV with legislature loaded with phrases such as: “the tendency, evident in recent British Broadcasting Corporation television programmes, notably on Sunday evenings, to pander to sexual and sadistic tastes”. BBC had previously produced a radio version with fewer problems, so the overreaction is a tad comical. Other companies, such as the American CBS, produced other adaptations for film, radio, and TV, but I have only seen this and the film respectively. Hopefully I can watch/listen to some other adaptations in the future – something that will pop up on here if it comes to fruition.

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It’s a miracle that I was able to watch this version (for free in the public domain no-less!) as they didn’t really record too many shows then. Much like an earlier Kneale penned show that I talked about during “Quatermass Week”, the original Quatermass serial, they only had a tape of it because they recorded a monitor during the live broadcast. With no home video market, or other infrastructure for a secondary market to speak of, it’s awesome that this didn’t become lost like so many other TV gems. Aside from the Kneale pedigree, this version of Nineteen-Eighty-Four is notable in that it stars a young Peter Cushing in one of his first big roles. Cushing would later go on to become a mainstay in Hammer Films, The theatrical Doctor Who films, and eventually Star Wars.

George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four is the cautionary tale of a man named Winston Smith. Smith is a low-ranking editor for the government’s “Ministry of Truth”, a thankless job that employs him to alter historical records for the benefit of the ruling party. The people of his home country, Oceania, live in constant fear of impending war and internal upheaval due to a strict regimen of brainwashing via propaganda and fear-mongering. Everywhere Winston goes, even his own home, the Party monitors his every move, one step out of line could mean death, or worse. But when it gets rough, he is supposed to be reassured by the heroic face plastered all over everything – that is the face of the Party’s seemingly omniscient leader, a figure known only as Big Brother. Winston slowly starts to defy his country by reading, thinking non-sanctioned thoughts, being an individual, and other horrible crimes! Big Brother will have none of that!

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The acting in this production is very top notch. I always feel that it is fun to see Peter Cushing play the “good guy” in anything as he is usually known for playing scowl-faced villains such as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. As we watch Winston Smith start to relish his new found spectrum of emotions rolling further down the slippery slope of thought crime, Cushing does a fine job of realizing this. There are moments where he breaks down in fits, shows passion when kissing the love interest, and anger while at rallies that shows his acting quality is really deep. I wasn’t really a fan of him as Dr. Who in those Dalek films made a few years later, but I can honestly say he can do a fine job as the leading man. I’d even go out on the limb to say that this this is my favorite role of his. Yvonne Mitchell also does a fine job as Winston’s lady-friend Julia, a role that probably set off the censors back in the day – all that kissing and such!

One thing that I immediately enjoyed about this adaptation of the novel is that it unlike the film I briefly mentioned earlier (produced in 1984 starring John Hurt), this TV drama has a lot more dialog and featured characters from the book; in fact one could say that it’s “truer” to the book. Since this version of the piece was shown live, and was produced as a stage play, it is far less cinematic than film. That isn’t to say that it’s all just people talking in drab rooms like other TV productions of the time as they do employ a handful of pre-filmed segments (such as exterior shots) which really make it feel bigger than it is. This same technique was later used in Quatermass II resulting in the same great mix of live action and filmed segues, a choice used to make scenes transition easier. I think that this “total package” is to an advantage when comparing the two as the Hollywood film felt hollow for some reason despite the striking visuals and amazing actors, and this feels both terrifying and engaging all the same.

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The technical aspects of the home medium of the film are a mixed bag as one would assume from something like this. Since this film is in public domain, I do not believe there is a cleaned-up DVD re-master of it anywhere. The version that I watched (The one I have posted on the bottom of this very review) is obviously from a popular video sharing site, and has mediocre quality. I think it was ripped from a VHS tape to add insult to injury. If there is a better version out there, I was unaware of it, so I make any criticisms based on what I had at hand.  Just like Quatermass, one can tell this was filmed from a camera pointed towards a TV monitor as there is a black haze around the outside of the picture. While this is to ne real detriment to the movie, it does make it look far older than it actually is and makes certain scenes blocked in a weird way. There is also a lot of ‘ghosting” of the images, and weird changes in contrast and light – both due to the recording process as well.

BBC Sunday Night Theatre: George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four is a solid adaptation of the original book. While there are problems with the off-air recording and how it has aged all these years, the play is still very watchable, and is the better of the two adaptations I’ve seen. As I stated before, this video, as well as other Nigel Kneale classics are in the public domain, and can be found easily on video sharing sites such as Youtube. In the political climate we live in, many have a hard time knowing what goes on in a totalitarian regime. The odd documentary on World War II may suffice for some, maybe a few North Korean news stories or videos will work for others, but for me George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four is the closest we’ll get into a look at what goes on in these places. Whenever someone tries to change history, or whenever they try to outlaw free thought we need to heed Orwell’s warning. If we don’t Big Brother could be watching us.

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Quatermass 2 (1957) a.k.a. Enemy from Space

After the immense success of the first Hammer Films Iteration of the Quatermass saga, The Quatermass Xperiment, it was nearly two years before another film was produced in the series. Hammer attempted to get another one off the ground, but Nigel Kneale (who got no money for the first film) vetoed the idea immediately. Kneale felt that his creation had been abused the first time around, and wanted more control over what the BBC did with his material. Hammer went on with a film in 1956 anyway called X the Unknown. The movie, starring Dean Jagger as a new character essentially the same as Quatermass, did decently well, but failed to reach the critical and monetary heights of its predecessor. Hammer dropped the whole “X” related X certificate gloating in their marketing, and worked with Kneale himself to produce a new screenplay that would see Brian Donlevy back in the saddle for another adventure. Enter Quatermass 2 or Enemy from Space as it was called overseas.

The title card
The title card

The plot of Quatermass 2 is largely the same as the previous television version Quatermass II, with a few changes made for a shorter runtime, and a much larger special effects budget. I would say that this TV-to-movie remake is actually far closer to the original TV version than the first Quatermass film and more of a science fiction piece, as Quatermass Xperiment was definitely altered to be horror. Professor Quatermass is once again trying to improve the human race through his scientific endeavors, this time by trying to gather support for Moon exploration and eventual colonization. He is sidetracked early on by budget setbacks as well as the discovery of a curiously large amount of meteorites falling recently in the area, a fact that really piques his interest. He goes to an area where the impacts have been the most numerous only to find that there is a destroyed city and an ominous government facility (which looks similar to his planned moon colony) in its place inhabited by people with “V” shaped marks on their skin.

"and here is where I'll store my shoe collection"
“and here is where I’ll store my shoe collection”

I loved The Quatermass Xperiment with one quibble – Brian Donlevy wasn’t “cup of tea” when it came to potential actors playing Quatermass. He was a bit too harsh and unlikeable, a fact that led to me likening him to “[…] Hugh Laurie’s Doctor House M.D. fighting aliens […]”. My fears were tested in one of the very first scenes involving Quatermass and his “crew”; we see him throwing a suitcase down and belittling his associates like a bully. He insinuates that they are wasting his time, and they may lose their jobs. It was here that I feared the worst – not only was Donlevy back, but he was gruffer than ever. Then he softened, he apologized and explained the predicament they are in. From here on we have a “better” take on the character. Quatermass is still “no nonsense” as with the first film, but none of the borderline bipolar personality disorder is there. I think it may be up to Kneale’s writing here that Donlevy seems to be a bit more “level” as this script was essentially written with his TV character in mind, but whatever the reason – I’m happy.

"It's only a model"
“It’s only a model”

As I mentioned earlier on, Quatermass 2 is not as much of a horror film as its predecessor, though it does keep some of the horror trappings in place. Much like the mutating astronaut in the first film, there are many shocking scenes that really put the viewer on the proverbial “edge of their seat”. I think one of the most shocking moments has to be a scene towards the middle of the film involving Quatermass leading a group of “inspectors” through the government-run domed city that lay on the ashes of a small town. A member of parliament named Vincent Broadhead, as played by Tom Chatto, wanders off during the investigation as he realizes that they are being shown things that the dome dwellers want them to see. Upon attempting to gain access to one of the domes, he is covered with a thick black tar-like substance that ultimately kills him. His prolonged death, complete with a tumble down a series of stairs and ladders and accompanied by stinging 1950’s horror music, is pretty gruesome and holds up here with other similar death scenes of modern films.

"You don't look so good, you have a cold?"
“You don’t look so good, you have a cold?”

I commented that Hammer films was pretty good at making their science fiction and horror films look more realistic than other films of the time, and much of this can be chalked up to the production’s director and cinematographer being ahead of their time. The director, Val Guest, utilized many cinema verite’ (documentary style cinema) techniques such as hand-held cameras and location shooting in an oil refinery to great success. His cinematographer, Gerald Gibbs, picked great locations and framed shots worthy of far more expensive films. I’m not a huge fan of “day as night” scenes that populated these older films, but some of these are really well done. Others, as one might expect, looked like they film daytime through a pair of sunglasses rather than a convincing night shoot.

"this night time sun is so bright!"
“this night time sun is so bright!”

The main change in the plotline of this film against its source material happens at the end of the story. In the original TV serial, Quatermass and his assistant Pugh donned spacesuits and flew the Quatermass 2 rocket to an asteroid heading towards the earth. This final act was very silly and made the original piece fall apart in about every way. This has been replaced with the launch of the same rocket modified into a nuclear warhead in an unmanned state, and an escape from multiple 200 foot creatures. This finale resulted in something similar to a “kaiju film” from Japan – a man in a suit stomping over a model of a city. I actually preferred this ending, as it makes the alien threat a bit more…well… threatening.

"there goes the neighborhood!"
“there goes the neighborhood!”

Overall, I really enjoyed Quatermass 2. Unlike the first part, I can compare both the TV series and the movie to each other fairly well as the entire TV version survives. All of my problems with the first Quatermass film – mostly Brian Donlevy – have disappeared entirely in this production. I know that many regard Quatermass 2 inferior to the first in every way, but I disagree. Not only is it on a far larger scale, it has better acting, and more thrills. It will be quite a long time before another Quatermass film pops up, but if the hype is anything to gauge I’m in for a treat. Next up on “Quatermass Week” we have both versions of Quatermass and the Pit, a beloved favorite of many.

"One angry mob, at your service!"
“One angry mob, at your service!”

X: The Unknown (1956)

… or The Quatermass film that wasn’t…

 

After the successful release of The Quatermass Xperiment essentially re-launched Hammer Films, they attempted to get another slice of the proverbial pie, by doing a sequel the very next year. Hammer had a huge stumbling block in the way as Nigel Kneale, the man behind the original BBC dramas, wanted nothing to do with this. The BBC had sold the film rights to Quatermass out from under him for the first installment, a fact that soured him towards both companies completely. This coupled with the casting choices of the first film, changes to plot compared to the TV version, and his lack of monetary compensation meant that Hammer was not allowed to use his character for a sequel. Hammer decided to keep the silly “X-rated” promotional tactics going and created what essentially amounts to a “ripoff” of their own film franchise. X: The Unknown starred Dean Jagger as Dr. Adam Royston, a character that seems to essentially be a stand in for Quatermass had this been a true sequel.

Title Card
Title Card

Aside from the problems associated with Kneale, this film had another huge controversy that put this production into jeopardy. The film’s first director was An American film director by the name of Joseph Losey (credited as Joseph Walton at the time). Losey had basically fled Hollywood to make films in Europe as he was added to the infamous “Hollywood Blacklist” that denied work to communist sympathizers in the industry. Everything was running smooth until Jagger, an American actor himself, refused to work with Losey. This resulted in Losey’s departure from the film two days into production due to “illness”. Since Hammer had spent the majority of the budget acquiring such a renowned actor as Jagger, it seems that it was a situation of “either he goes or I go” with Jagger winning out. The job went to Leslie Norman soon after.

"you smell something?"
“you smell something?”

The plot of X: The Unknown follows Dr. Royston, a scientist from an Atomic Energy Laboratory at Lochmouth, as he investigates a troubling situation involving a threat to the human race. The British Army has been conducting radioactive material detection drills at a remote Scottish base in what appears to be a mud pit. These seemingly harmless training exercises (they involve a game of “hide and seek” with a Geiger counter) somehow attract a creature from a subterranean lair, leaving two severely radiation-burned soldiers in its wake. This creature can apparently vanish and feeds on radiation. It then goes on a rampage and grows larger and larger in a similar fashion to the creature in The Blob. In fact, this movie was so much like The Blob, that I assumed it was a direct copy, only to find out that X: the Unknown was actually made two years earlier! Sadly, due to production issues, a squandered budget, and other issues, this movie remains quite obscure, and The Blob became of classic of it’s time.

"That's enough playing in the mud for today!"
“That’s enough playing in the mud for today!”

I mentioned that Royston was a stand-in for Quatermass, but that’s not completely true. Thankfully the production team came up with a slightly different take on the lead character – making him an atomic energy specialist rather than a rocket scientist. Jagger takes on this role in an entirely different manner than Brian Donlevy in Quatermass, acting a bit softer, even eccentric to a degree. When we first see Royston, he gets in trouble for wasting time on an amateur made experiment seemingly made from Meccano model sets. He allows his subordinates to do his real work, the work he’s getting paid for, while he tests radiation’s effect on radio waves, something dubbed an “anti-radiation device”. The fact that they show this scene for so long, makes you realize that this will be important later on, maybe this “frivolous” experiment won’t be so “frivolous” after all (wink wink!). I really liked the character of Dr. Royston, and almost wish they did more with the character.

Sadly, I was not a huge fan of this film for many reasons, but most notably the cast. Dean Jagger is easily one of the best actors in this film, and had he been surrounded by a great cast, things could have been different. There are a few people that simply made the whole production seem like a cheesy “monster of the week” flick. The acting in some places reminded me of just about every 1980’s “slasher film” – overacting in every scene and actors being a caricature of a real person. All the tired tropes you can imagine like the dumb soldier, the slutty nurse, and the jerky government official are in place, and none of these seemed like a fleshed out character – more like a prop of some sort. I commented how I liked the “realism” of the original Quatermass TV serial and the subsequent movie. There is really none of that here, as the writing, acting, and plot seems exactly like any other B-movie of the time. While I can’t really commend his acting here, this film is notable for the inclusion of a VERY young Frazer Hines playing a kid named Ian. Frazer later went on to play one of the most beloved “companions” in Doctor Who – Jamie McCrimmon!

Frazer Hines as Ian
Frazer Hines as Ian

One can immediately tell that this film has a small budget, but the effects, what little of them there are, are at least competently done. For around half the movie we barely see anything other than burn make-up on someone’s back. It’s pretty good makeup, but we’re comparing it to the mutating man in Quatermass, so there really is no contest. The majority of the movie has no real scenes that warrant the X-rating the movie got. That was until the aforementioned “slutty nurse” and “horndog doctor” come into play, making out with no cares in the world like they are in a Jason Vorhees movie. The monster attacks the doctor leading to a rather silly close-up shot of the doctor yelling:

"ahhhhhhhhhh!"
“ahhhhhhhhhh!”

 

Followed by a wax head melting to show a skull underneath – pretty grisly for a 1950’s movie!

 

Remember kids: don't open the Ark of the Covenant!
Remember kids: don’t open the Ark of the Covenant!

But for every good effect like this one in place, there are ones not quite there. They aren’t bad, like dressing a dog up like a dinosaur, but they involve the monster so it’s really unfortunate. I honestly thought that there would never be a monster reveal and would find out that it was invisible all along. When the movie FINALLY reveals the creature one hour into the 72 minute film, it is a blobby stop motion creature. I’m not saying that it was the worst thing I’ve seen, but it’s underwhelming after all the hype. They do some decent shots of it placed into the background of scenes and oozing over fences, but small-scale model shots of it up close aren’t as good.

don't leave kids unattended in monster attacks!
don’t leave kids unattended in monster attacks!

All in all, I felt that X: the Unknown was not as good as it could have been.  After the numerous problems behind the scenes and a script that wasn’t really there, what is left is a film desperately trying to play “catch-up” with its predecessor. Much of the plot is largely the same, except with a larger body count this time around and a slightly different monster. We never find out what the monster is, and the whole movie ends with Dr. Royston using his “anti-radiation” experiment to kill the creature, something you see miles away. This really goes to show how special the right script and director can be in a film like this, and I can see why it was set right for the eventual return of Quatermass. Hammer wised up and got Kneale to work with them, hired the original director, and some of the actors from the first film. They basically pretend that X: The Unknown never existed.

I think we can sum the whole thing up with a bit of dialog from the end of the film:

Elliott: “what was that?!”
Royston: “I don’t know, but it shouldn’t have happened…”

Movie Poster
Movie Poster

 

Quatermass II (1955)

Recently, one would have a hard time making it through the day without hearing about government corruption and conspiracies by officials on every news outlet, social media site, and from people you know. Whether it be the gun control debate in America or the media regulation debate in the U.K. it seems we live in a time with just as much paranoia and uncertainty as the 1950’s that Nigel Kneale was writing all these great science fiction stories in. Quatermass II comes directly from this mindset, as Kneale was dealing with these issues himself. Rather than using a blatant allegory for the cold war or the red scare, as many American productions were doing, Kneale went for an allegory on the overstepping of Bureaucracy in government, government cover-ups, and government secrecy. According to Wikipedia, a lot of this came from his own problems with having to sign a binding document called The Official Secrets Act, due to being a BBC employee, and longstanding paranoia with “secret” military bases in the media.

john-robinson-bernard-quatermass-bbc-quatermass-II
“I didn’t mess my hair up, did I?”

The story in Quatermass II follows the titular character trying to figure out why a small town in the countryside was wiped off the earth to make way for a super-secret government facility. Not to mention that said facility looks suspiciously like a model of a moon base he has on his desk. Of course the story isn’t that simple, as the whole thing revolves around an alien invasion, a conspiracy to the uppermost seats of government, and a rag-tag group of scientists and civil servants trying to stop it.

"I'm not sure I understand contemporary art..."
“I’m not sure I understand contemporary art…”

By this time Bernard Quatermass is a bit more abrasive, even hardened from what he had to deal with years before. This is compounded by the failure of a nuclear rocket test he oversaw that killed hundreds, possibly wiping all his funding and putting him directly responsible for the disaster. I like to think Kneale changed the character on purpose to show character growth, but one could chalk this up to the fact that the character had to be recast right before production. This happened because Reginald Tate sadly died suddenly right before location shooting was to commence, and John Robinson was cast on very short notice. I actually really like Robinson in this role; he seems moody at times, but has a heroic tendency that makes him very likeable. You can tell that since he had to deal with an extra-terrestrial threat that could have eliminated life on Earth; he feels that he has special knowledge and duty to deal with these sorts of problems. A special nod should also go to the supporting cast, especially Hugh Griffith as Quatermass’s right hand man Dr. Leo Pugh. Pugh is a great addition to the cast simply because he seems to be everything that Quatermass isn’t. He’s likeable, has a welsh accent, and comes across as something of an absent minded mathematician.

Quatermass is a hipster: he was stealing storm trooper clothes before it was cool
Quatermass is a hipster: he was stealing storm trooper clothes before it was cool

Quatermass II is far more enjoyable for me than its predecessor for many reasons. First of all, the budget has been ramped up pretty drastically considering the production has quite a bit of location shooting inter-spliced with the live footage. This not only makes the plot move faster, as the cast isn’t confined to one or two rooms for an entire episode, but it gives the production less of a “stage play” vibe. The cinematography also seems to be stepped up a lot with a lot of artistic shots making this play look a lot more “epic” than it is. This means no more static ten minute scenes of two people talking by a prop; we might get a panning shot or two! One of the first shots of Quatermass happens right after a soldier states that “he knows a guy named Quatermass”, to which his fellow soldier asks “The rocket man?” seconds later, we are treated to a nice zoomed in shot of a person scanning the front of a rocket with some device wearing a clean suit and gas mask. He steps down, removes the mask, and reveals the hero of the play. Improvements aside, the main reason I really like this production is that it is ALL intact; in fact this is the oldest complete BBC science fiction production on record!

whoooooosh!
whoooooosh!

The only downside in these episodes is that the final act of the drama suffers from the same fate that many BBC science fiction productions would later be known for: a plot that is far too ambitious for its own good. When it seems the bleakest, Quatermass and Pugh decide to rig up the only remaining nuclear rocket and fly to the impending alien threat. This entire segment got away from the production crew a bit and comes off a lot sillier than it really should have been due to budgetary considerations and technical limitations. All in all the whole production is STILL really good, despite this.

I actually enjoyed Quatermass II more than the first serial and the first Hammer Films production. The plot was not only more ambitious, but was a feast for the eyes in comparison to part one. John Robinson is a great choice for Quatermass despite his quick casting, and I’m sad to see that this was the only serial he did under the umbrella – he was unavailable for future incarnations. All in all, I would almost recommend this serial to anyone wanting to get into the character over the other material I’ve seen, as it really captures the essence of everything, granted I’m watching these in order and Quatermass and the Pit might blow me away. Next up here on Quatermass Week, I’ll be taking a look at the Hammer Films version of this very drama. Will I like it as much? Check back to find out!!

"These space suits are a joke right?"
“These space suits are a joke right?”

The Quatermass Xperiment (a.k.a The Creeping Unknown) (1955)

When we last saw Bernard Quatermass, he was fighting an alien threat in a dingy low-budget studio, but imagine what would happen if money was sunk into the project! I usually have reservations for these TV to movie conversions, as the production companies had a tendency in those days to “mess up” the original plot and characters. I recall watching the Peter Cushing Doctor Who and the Daleks movies, and not really liking them too much for this very reason. They were bright and colorful, but somehow were also soulless and bland. In the case of Quatermass, however, only two episodes of the serial exist today, so watching a film based on the original script is amazing, as I can now see what happens after the slow and talkative first few episodes. So here we have The Quatermass Xperiment, from Hammer films – can it live up to the original?

The Red "X" poster flaunting the X-rating
The Red “X” poster flaunting the X-rating

Before any Grammar Nazis try to correct me, dropping the “E” in the title isn’t a typo on my part! Hammer Films deliberately went for an “X-Certificate” rating (nobody permitted under the age of sixteen) with the release of this film. This included branding all the posters with a huge red “X” to make them stand out. This audacious plan was met with reservations within the BBC and Hammer Films, but ultimately was a success. The Quatermass Xperiment was one of the first films from the ailing production company to be sold overseas (as The Creeping Unknown) and basically kicked off their “Hammer Horror” line, which became synonymous with the company.

One will immediately notice that the character of Bernard Quatermass isn’t the same reserved thinking man that he was in the TV serial. Now played by Irish-American actor Brian Donlevy, the character was reinvented to be gruff and more action oriented. According to Wikipedia: “’Donlevy, in his own words, specialized in “he-men roles–rough, tough and realistic’”; a far cry from the way the late Reginald Tate carried the role. Basically think of Hugh Laurie’s Doctor House M.D. fighting aliens, that is Donlevy’s Quatermass to a tee. At first I wasn’t too thrilled with this take on the character, but when viewing the movie as a whole – Donlevy’s take works best with the movie. The entire serial’s tone has also shifted to go along with the new Quatermass; it’s darker, dingier, and more grotesque. This honestly reminds me of the evolution of Doctor Who; specifically in that once the show changed to a 45 minute format, the character became more of an action hero.

brian-donlevy-bernard-quatermass-hammer-1955
Quatermass is not amused

The plot has been changed around a bit as well, mostly for time constraints. This condensed time means that things that took an entire episode to explain before had to be cut down. An example of this is: in the serial, episode one was mostly dialog between Quatermass and his assistant about how distraught they all were because of the disappearance of the rocket. This segment was completely removed meaning that the movie kicks right into gear when the rocket crashes to Earth (in an awesome special effect scene). Better special effects and more money also mean that scenes involving dialog to explain a situation can be replaced with an effect shot, a scene change, or an action scene. Since I don’t have anything to compare it to, I will state that the rest of the film is definitely more of a horror film than a science fiction film, thus explaining most of the aforementioned differences. The plot centers on the transformation of the creature and it wreaking havoc, not Quatermass and his team.

the-quatermass-xperiment-crashed-rocket
Oops!

I mentioned the special effect shots being pretty cool earlier, and for an older film they do not disappoint. Most 1950’s era science fiction films had terrible costuming and set design in my opinion; Quatermass stands heads and tails above a lot of them. Granted, most of my knowledge of films in this genre of this era are the kind of movies that would end up on Mystery Science Theater 3000. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that most 1950’s science fiction is sort of camp. There is one effects shot in particular towards the middle of the film that got my attention. Quatermass and his crew are studying a grainy film that was taken onboard the rocket during the ill-fated flight. At one point, one of the astronauts walks up onto the wall – suggesting a low-gravity environment of some sort. It couldn’t have been a huge special effect, but a remarkable one in its simplicity. I’ll even excuse that the crew seems to be piloting the craft by turning a series of steering wheels mounted on the far wall.

quatermass-astronaut_walks-on-wall
Lionel Richie’s “Dancing on the Ceiling” was a big hit on the ship

There are some truly grotesque horror shots in the film, ones that definitely lead the movie being branded X-rated at the time. While there isn’t any gushing blood or gore, there are things like shots of dead bodies with their skulls caved-in and an entire zoo of dead animals left in the wake of the monsters rampage. I was actually pretty surprised at a few of these considering the puritanical nature of most film violence at the time, and now can see how Hammer got its shocking reputation early on. The creature make-up is also pretty impressive at times. When we finally get a good look at the transformation Victor Carroon has undergone (as played by Richard Wordsworth ), he has his arm bandaged up, and the now swollen mass of cactus like spikes and putrid flesh in its place is a bit unnerving.

quatermass-hammer-1955-monsters-arm
“You look fine, just walk it off, man!”

It was also during this scene that I truly saw the influence that this movie has had on later pop culture. Doctor Who has used a similar “man turning into a monster” plot most notably in The Lazarus Experiment, and much earlier in The Ark in Space. Other shows and films such as The Fly (the newer one) and even an anime film I love called Akira all seem to have been somewhat influenced as well, directly or not is up to speculation. This really shows that Nigel Kneale really had the pulse of televised science fiction and horror under his belt, as he seems to have basically influenced most of it for the last sixty years!

So there we have it, it wasn’t the first piece of film cast into the Quatermass catalog, but it was definitely the one that got the property noticed. Not only has the plot from this movie been used over and over countless times, but I haven’t seen anything more influential to other science fiction and horror for a while. As I stated, I’m not sure I like Donlevy as much as Tate in the role of Bernard Quatermass, but the two characters couldn’t be any more different. Aside from the plot, it’s honestly better to think of the film and the TV show as separate entities; a fact that is hard for me to do, but the quality of this movie makes it easier. I’m not a huge horror fan, much less older horror movies, so any film of the genre that keeps my attention must be good. Hammer Films went on to make two more Quatermass films, both of which I will be looking at on here! Come back again tomorrow as I take a look at the TV version of Quatermass II, continuing “Quatermass Week!”

quatermass-monster-final-form-1955-hammer
These Texas cockroaches are HUGE!

The Quatermass Experiment (1953) Episodes 1 and 2

Lately I’ve been mostly concentrating on extremely recent science fiction to talk about and write reviews for, but not this week. This week, we will be looking at the Grand Daddy of ALL British science fiction on Television, the program that started it all a DECADE before Doctor Who. Of course I am speaking of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass Experiment. It’s a while before we really kick into the Doctor Who 50th anniversary celebrations, but the seemingly forgotten SIXTIETH ANNIVERSARY of Quatermass is even closer, July to be precise. So, in order to kick off “Quatermass Week” on this blog, let’s talk about parts 1 and two of the 1953 serial The Quatermass Experiment.

quatermass-epiriment-bernard-quatermass-reginald-tate
“I’m getting too old for this sh-“

Originally shown in six parts, The Quatermass Experiment is a miracle of pure luck. I won’t write about any of the BBC’s pre-1980’s archival practices as I could do an entire article solely on that subject; many have written books on it to be precise. But I will point out that Quatermass is a victim of the worst idea the BBC ever had just like Doctor Who. We are truly lucky to have any of the episodes remaining at all, much less two of them. This was the infancy of TV, and things like home video were laughable to BBC executives at the time; in fact the show itself was broadcast live, making things like preservation a lot harder. There was an effort to record the footage directly from a monitor showing the live broadcast, but the results were quite poor, even a fly on the lens can famously be seen throughout a large portion of episode two!

I have been unable to obtain the DVD collection that the Doctor Who restoration team worked on; a set that seems awesome based on stills I’ve come across. I, sadly, had to find this on a popular video streaming site, and deal with visuals that I assume came from a VHS tape. While perfectly watchable, the version I watched was noticeably blurry in places and suffered from all the maladies that one would imagine having come from a camera recording off of a TV screen.

quatermass-1953-rocket-reginald-tate
“you massage the rocket like this…”

From the initial marvelous seconds of The Quatermass Experiment, I knew I was in for a treat as the pumping brass of Gustav Holt’s The Planets– Mars, The Bringer of War filled my ears. What an awesome choice for the theme of a show like this. Smoke rolls past a title card that says “The Quatermass Experiment” – simple but effective. The plot follows the ground crew of the first manned flight into space. Headed by Bernard Quatermass, The British Experimental Rocket group is on pins and needles, as communications with the first astronauts has been severed for over two days. It seems that the vessel drifted out of its planned orbit, and began soaring out into space. The ship does eventually crash back to earth near Wimbledon, but not all is okay. One of the three crew members remains, and he is acting weird.It seems “something else” may have also come back with the ship:

Ancient-Aliens-Giorgio-Tsoukalo-hair

One thing that really sticks out to me with this storyline is its realism. Many science fiction stories of this time were largely of the space opera variety. By that I don’t mean the modern sense of that genre, but the sort that lead to the genre being almost a pejorative term until the 1970’s. Keep in mind that this was done a few years before Sputnik ever launched, and there honestly isn’t much futurist shenanigans to see. No Ray-guns, no winged helmets, no dashing hero on Mars, just realistic hard-science fiction. Aside from the shape of the rocket being rather silly, one would assume that this show was made during the “space race”.

Quatermass is another of those great “smart heroes” that persist in UK genre fiction. Rather than being a dashing hulking action hero, Quatermass is a no-nonsense man that seems to know more than everyone around him. Reginald Tate does a fine job of portraying Bernard, and it’s sad that he only did one serial as him. He sadly passed away before Quatermass II was set to film. People today aren’t really used to seeing the heroic scientist archetype in action outside of video games (Half-life for instance) which is a shame. It was a trope that persisted in much of early science fiction, but was pushed to the side by the John Carter character model. The closest thing I can relate to Quatermass is older iterations of “The Doctor” from Doctor Who. In fact, Nigel Kneale was not a fan of the show because he felt it ripped off Quatermass. While the ending doesn’t exist on this serial, I do plan to watch the other versions of this drama (the 1955 Hammer film and the 2005 remake) to see the final conflict between Quatermass and the creature. I know they duke it out, but I’m not sure how everything leads up to that.

quatermass-1953-astronaut-suit
I’m glad real space suits didn’t look like this

So there we have it, the original British science fiction hero! Not only did The Quatermass Experiment show that adults could enjoy science fiction stories just as much as kids, but it laid the way for sixty years of British science fiction afterwards. If you watch any serious science fiction drama such as A for Andromeda or Day of the Triffids, you can see little hints of Kneale’s masterpiece. Whether it be the dark nature of the play, or the completely realistic way in which it is told, I think this drama holds up to today’s standards (much like most old TV, as opposed to old movies) and everyone should check it out. In America, we sadly can only get the Hammer films of the series and the later 1970’s serial, but one can import the Quatermass Collection set from England, just consult my handy guide on region-free DVD players on tips to do that. As I stated, I found this serial “by other means”. Some of these older serials, Like Quatermass II, are in the public domain, so they can easily be found on video sharing sites, so us Yankees aren’t completely in the dark.

Coming In February…

quatermass-week-sixtieth-anniversary

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