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Quatermass (1979)
Director: Piers Haggard

review by J.C. Hartley
Spoiler alert!
Bizarrely, I have this serial in my memory-bank as being somehow associated with my final days at school in 1976; in fact it went out a bit later during a fairly traumatic year for me personally and for the country as a whole. Following economic problems, strikes, shortages, disruption to public services, and a concerted campaign by the right-wing press, the UK electorate had returned Margaret Thatcher as Britain's first woman Prime Minister in May of 1979. Following a happy year studying advertising in Watford, after leaving school in 1976, I had dropped out of a Bachelor of Arts course in Manchester in 1978, returned from Paris after a failed relationship, and spiralled towards a fateful appointment with A&E after a booze-fuelled Christmas party in which I split my skull open on the concrete floor of a Cumbrian cow-byre. Somewhere among this car-crash trajectory I managed to catch the return to the screen of Nigel Kneale's eponymous rocket-scientist Bernard Quatermass.

Called out of his retirement in the west of Scotland to take part in a television science broadcast in London, Quatermass (John Mills) is shocked at the anarchy he encounters in the capital. Rescued from a potentially fatal encounter with an urban gang by fellow scientist Joe Kapp (Simon MacCorkindale), Quatermass condemns the space station link-up between the USA and the USSR as a publicity stunt between two regimes espousing corruption on one side and tyranny on the other. Quatermass uses live TV to make an appeal to find his lost grandchild Hettie but is cut-off. When the live broadcast from orbit resumes, viewers see the space station destroyed after which veteran American astronaut Chuck Marshall accuses Quatermass of being involved in sabotage.

Kapp takes Quatermass under his wing, driving him to his rural home where he lives with his fey and overwrought wife Clare (Barbara Kellerman) and their two young daughters. Nearby is Kapp's listening station with two satellite dishes and his team of three. Interrupted by an invasion of 'Planet People', a hippie millennial cult believing that they are to be transported to a new home among the stars, Quatermass and the others witness a violent gathering at the stone circle Ringstone Round, which is cruelly cut short by a ray from space which reduces the assembly to ash. Quatermass and Kapp rescue a survivor, Isobel, from charismatic and violent Planet People leader Kickalong (Ralph Arliss) and, the next day, Quatermass and District Commissioner Annie (Margaret Tyzack) attempt to get her to London for tests.

In London, Quatermass and Annie are ambushed, in a gang war between rival groups Badders and the Blue Brigade, and become separated. Quatermass is befriended by a community of elderly people and meets one of their number, whose career as a perfumer with a soap manufacturer inspires Quatermass to speculate that the alien visitant is harvesting young people for some hormonal essence. Quatermass is found by Annie and is returned to London. Sitting in on a cabinet meeting, Quatermass and Annie hear the destruction of a space shuttle, and the death of US astronaut Chuck Marshall and a Soviet colleague who have been attempting contact with the alien entity.

A massive rally at Wembley Stadium sees Quatermass narrowly escape death, first when a young cabinet minister, swayed by the Planet People cult, orders an army unit to kill him, and secondly when he is protected by the concrete in an underground car park when the gathering above is harvested by the alien machine. Quatermass, Soviet scientist Gurov (Brewster Mason), and a team of elderly researchers, join forces to isolate the essence that is attracting the aliens. Having created a digital signal to transmit to the alien machine, Quatermass is reunited with Kapp who has been traumatised by the loss of his family in another alien harvest.

Using the sound of a rally, and various other triggers, including the digital profile of the hormonal essence, Quatermass and Kapp attempt to lure the alien vessel to Ringstone Round, so that they can detonate a thermonuclear device; although this will be no more than a warning commensurate with a bee-sting to someone attempting to extract honey from a hive. The sound and activity attracts a party of real Planet People who investigate the site. Kapp is killed by Kickalong while attempting to warn him; and Quatermass spots his granddaughter Hettie and suffers a massive heart-attack. Hettie recognises Quatermass and helps him detonate the bomb.

A coda has Gurov explaining that the alien device has not returned and that children are once more able to play games and sing their innocent songs, while we see children playing at Ringstone Round, now a meadow of poppies while they sing the nursery-rhyme associated with the ancient site.

Originally destined for the BBC in the early 1970s, the Quatermass script reflected social problems in the UK, power-cuts, conflict between industry and organised labour, flower-power, the growing rift between the establishment and youth movements, and political unrest at home and world-wide. Writer Nigel Kneale, no fan of science fiction, according to his widow, speaking on the blu-ray of Quatermass And The Pit, always grounded his fables in the here-and-now.

The Quatermass Xperiment reflected genuine concerns about alien viruses being brought to Earth by the first space-shots; Quatermass II riffed on conspiracy theory, the dehumanisation of industrial labour, and the influence on elected government by vested interests. Quatermass II, with its factories run by alien infiltrators growing hideous creatures in tanks, also set the template for many of the stories in the Jon Pertwee-era of Doctor Who. Quatermass And The Pit famously tapped into late-1950s race riots for its depiction of genetically-modified humans culling their 'normal' brethren.

When the BBC ditched the Quatermass project, apparently due to rising outside broadcast costs and its dystopian themes, the script was eventually picked up by Euston Films, famous as the home of the violent and realistic cop-show The Sweeney. The hippy Planet People appear to be a hangover from the early-1970s origins of the script, Kneale it seems would have preferred an update to acknowledge punk attitudes, concentrated here in the character of the murderous Kickalong. Heavily-armed urban gang the Badders are, in the context of the drama, inspired by the Baader-Meinhof gang and the Red Army Faction, and one assumes the unbelievably 'posh' thugs who accost Quatermass at the start of the programme is some sort of satiric reflection on the support the RAF received in bourgeois circles. I must admit, with only a minimal understanding of the issues involved in the 'German Autumn', as a callow youth I was swayed by the Robin Hood mythos of the gang, even penning a song-lyric about the threatened extradition of Astrid Proll from the UK in the late-1970s.

Failure to receive permission to film at Stonehenge, a situation that arose when Quatermass was still a BBC project, results in the unlikely scenario of armed police preventing an incursion by a comparatively small group of Planet People at the much smaller Ringstone Round. However, anyone who remembers the increasingly violent policing of travellers, attempting to celebrate the summer solstice in the early-1980s, will recognise the validity of this sequence. The extensive use of outside broadcast, and the scenes of urban decay, are strengths in this production and, generally speaking, the cast is well-marshalled to give a sense of the numbers involved; there is no question of 'where is everybody' that so diminished the deserted dystopia of The Final Programme, for example.

Executive producer for the production is the legendary Verity Lambert. Spotted among the cast are Toyah Wilcox a year after Jubilee, as one of the Planet People, murdered by Kickalong for befriending Kapp. The great Kevin Stoney, veteran of Doctor Who, as Mavic Chen and Tobias Vaughn, as well as most of the cult-TV of the 1960s and 1970s, such as The Prisoner, The Avengers, Blake's 7, Spy Trap, and I, Claudius. Stoney has always been 'Uncle Kevin' for me, as I used to go out with his niece. Also nice to see Elsie Randolph as Stoney's replacement as acting Prime Minister, Randolph frequently played opposite Jack Buchanan on stage and screen in the 1930s, as well as appearing in the Hitchcock movies Rich And Strange (aka: East Of Shanghai, 1931), and Frenzy (1972).

Kneale also wrote the edit for the film version of Quatermass, marketed in the USA as The Quatermass Conclusion. This is a straight-forward edit, except that Quatermass is not accused of sabotage by the Americans early in the story, and he is not separated from Annie and befriended by the elderly community. Consequently, he reaches his conclusions about the harvesting of the youth independently, without the input of aged perfumer Mr Chisolm. The bizarre variety show, apparently called 'Kick Up The Bum', which Quatermass hijacks to broadcast his theories to the Americans, featuring animal-headed dancers assaulting a giant female mannequin with a banana, looks like something conceived as a cross between The Wicker Man and The Year Of The Sex Olympics.

There are no extras on the discs except for the usual aids to navigation, titles, and trailers. A booklet comes with the blu-ray package. It might have been nice to hear from extras-stalwarts like Mark Gatiss and Kim Newman, but at least we're spared the wrong-headed ravings of pop-culture plagiarist Dominic Sandbrook.

Quatermass



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