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Classic TV Revisited: Quatermass




Saving the world 1950’s style TV sci-fi pioneer Professor Bernard Quatermass paved the way for Dr Who and influenced series such as The X-Files. Over the years the prof was played by Reginald Tate, John Robinson, Andre Morell and John Mills.

Why was it so good?
The granddad of sci-fi had the compulsive writing of Nigel Kneale and an enduring character in Professor Bernard Quatermass. It also featured the three main classic sci-fi plots – human returns to earth as alien; invasion from outer space; and extra-terrestrials living among us.

How did it begin?
In 1953 BBC head of drama Michael Barry spent his entire budget of £250 on commissioning Nigel Kneale’s script. The result was the groundbreaking six parter The Quatermass Experiment in which an astronaut contaminated by aliens returned to Earth as a 100 foot vegetable creature.

Was it a hit?
A nation brought up on genteel dramas was riveted by the adventures of an alien vegetable wreaking havoc in London. Incredibly it cost just £3,500 to make and the series starring Reginald Tate as scientist Quatermass also used very early, crude special effects.

Quatermass 1979 John Mills

Such as?
Author Nigel Kneale played the monster using his gloved hands covered in vegetation and leather stuck through a blown up still of Westminster Abbey!

How scary was it?
Quatermass II which was shown live in 1955 was considered horrific at the time and was broadcast with a warning to those of “a nervous disposition”. The six-parter made for £7,500 told how Martians had invaded Earth by taking over human minds and bodies. John Robinson took over the role of Professor Quatermass. Soon to be famous names taking part included Wilfred Brambell of Steptoe And Son fame.

Did it get any scarier?
The BBC’s last series Quatermass And Pit was shown in 1958 and 1959 just as the space race was gaining momentum. Viewers were hooked on the tale of how dormant Martian influence on Earth is unleashed when an archaeological dig finds an ancient capsule containing alien insects. This time Professor Quatermass was played by Andre Morell.

Could it be revived?
Never say never. ITV made a four part drama starring Sir John Mills as Quatermass in 1979. In it he battled to stop aliens from “stealing” young humans and taking them to their planet. It also starred Toyah Willcox. It was never as good as the oft-repeated original but was still powerful enough. There have also been three spin-off films with the likes of Brian Donlevy, Jack Warner and Sid James and radio and stage versions in the ’90s. Then 2005 saw a lacklustre BBC one-off remake of the original story.

Distinguishing features?
Sci-fi innovations and dodgy special effects.

Do say:
I was so afraid I thought little men from Mars were about to come through my front door.

Don’t say:
It was the pits compared to Star Wars.

Aired on BBC, 1953-1959 and ITV, 1979.