The Quatermass Trilogy 

A Controlled Paranoia

Quatermass 2

That decade (the 1950s) has sometimes been called one of paranoia, which means abnormal, sick attitudes and irrational fears. I don’t think it was irrational to be fearful at that time; there was a lot to be frightened of and stories like mine were a sort of controlled paranoia, inoculation against the real horrors.

Nigel Kneale 1996 (1)


During the 1950’s Nigel Kneale wrote three highly successful science fiction serials for BBC TV featuring Professor Bernard Quatermass: The Quatermass Experiment (1953), Quatermass II (1955) and Quatermass and the Pit (1959). Hammer Films made all the serials into feature films in 1955, 1957 and 1967 respectively. The common theme of the series was encounters with alien beings threatening to destroy humanity. While the trilogy reflected the anxiety and paranoia of the times arising from the Cold War and possible use of nuclear weapons, Kneale also raised much wider issues such as the ethics of scientists in a nuclear-age, technological change, latent totalitarianism in the British establishment, environmental pollution and the destructive nature of racism.

1. Historical Background to the Trilogy

Nuclear Britain

And we will all go together when we go.

Ev’ry Hottentot and ev’ry Eskimo.

When the air becomes uranious,

We will all go simultaneous,

Yes, we will all go together

When we all go together,

Yes we will all go together when we go.

- Tom Lehrer - (1959)

The explosion of the first atomic bomb at Alamogordo on 16 July 1945 and its subsequent use against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki heralded the beginning of a period of Cold War paranoia. Afraid that the United States might retreat into isolationism, the Atlee Labour Government secretly began its own  atomic weapons programme in 1947. After winning the 1951 election, Churchill was amazed that Atlee had managed to conceal the £100-million pound (approximately a billion pounds in present day terms) project from the public, Parliament and most of his ministers (2). Britain exploded its first atomic weapon on 3 October 1952 at the Monte Bello Islands, Australia. The Soviet Union had previously detonated its own atomic device on 29 August 1949, in the Ustyurt desert. On 31 October 1952, the United States tested the first thermonuclear device (Hydrogen or H-Bomb) at  Eniwetak Atoll in the Pacific, the Soviet Union exploded a “layercake” design bomb (not a true H-Bomb) in Siberia on 12 August 1953, significantly halfway though the TV serialization of The Quatermass Experiment. The Soviets exploded their first true H-Bomb on 22 November 1955 and the British tested its first H-Bomb on 15 May 1957 on Christmas Island. Nuclear tests continued in the 50s until a temporary moratorium between November 1958 and September 1961. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed in 1949 to counter expansionism by the Soviet Union although the United States and Britain still pursued independent nuclear programmes.  The world’s first known nuclear accident occurred at Windscale (now Sellafield) in October 1957 when the core of a reactor processing plutonium for bombs was destroyed by fire causing a plume of radioactive contamination to be released into the atmosphere over northern England. By the end of the decade, in addition to the UK’s own nuclear V-Bomber bases, the United States’ nuclear forces in Britain included B-47 bombers, intermediate range missiles and fleet submarines as well as jointly-operated facilities such as the early warning radar system at Fylingdales. The associated civil defense measures in the 1950s were to wartime specifications (3) comprising a 300,000 strong Civil Defense Corps, fortified bunkers for regional government, food stockpiles, plans for civilian evacuation and emergency billeting arrangements. Concurrent with the atomic weapons programme, nuclear powers stations were constructed in the 1950s; the first at Caulder Hall, Cumbria was opened in 1956. During this period of Ministry of Defences Biological Warfare Unit at Porton Down, Wiltshire tested the nerve gas Sarin, mustard gas, LSD and other toxins on servicemen “volunteers” who believed they were engaged in finding a cure for the common cold (4).

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was formed in January 1958 with Bertrand Russell as President, Canon Collins as Chairman and an executive committee that included Kingsley Martin, James Cameron, J.B.Priestly and Professor J.Rotblat. Notable sponsors included John Arlott, Benjamin Britten, Dame Edith  Evans, Trevor Huddleston, Compton Mackenzie, Henry Moore and Flora Robson (5) They organized the first annual 50-mile Aldermaston Easter March that year with over 4,000 participants, a number which grew to 100,000 in 1960. Arthur Marwick has described CND’s leadership as largely upper class and upper-middle class in the tradition of British radical dissent with contemporary opinion polls showing that it had the support of between one quarter to one third of the British public(6). At the height of CND’s popularity in 1960, the opposition Labour Party adopted a policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament although this was a symptom of internal power struggles within the party rather than a commitment on moral or ethical grounds. Kneale commented in 1996 “What did they hope to achieve, that they could melt the hearts of Iron Curtain foes? I didn’t believe it. Perhaps what they were really protesting about was their own nature, the danger of being human.” (7)


Don’t say he’s hypocritical

Say rather that he’s apolitical

“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?

That’s not my department.” says Wernher von Braun.

-Tom Lehrer- (1965)

Popular enthusiasm for space flight by means of liquid fuel rockets began in Weimar Germany with the publication in 1923 of Hermann Oberth’s Die Rackete zu den Planetenraumen (The Rocket Into Interplanetary Space). Oberth’s theories had previously been expounded by the American, Robert Goddard, and the Russian, Kostantin Tsiolkovsky but their work was little known. Amateur rocket societies were founded in all parts of the industrialized world most notably the German Verein fur Raumschiffahrt (VfR) in 1927, American Interplanetary Society in 1930 and, to a lesser extent, the British Interplanetary Society in 1933 (8). When the B.I.S. was reformed after the war, its 280 members included George Bernard Shaw and Arthur C. Clarke; by the end of 1956, its membership had risen to 3,000. The most important group, Raketenflugplatz Berlin, grew out of Oberth’s involvement as a technical advisor during the making of Fritz Lang’s science fiction film Frau im Mond (1929). At the same time, the ultra right-wing Colonel Karl Becker of the German Army Ordnance Office (a possible model for Colonel Breen in Quatermass and the Pit) began investigating the military use of rockets, which were not banned under the Versailles Treaty (9). Following the coming to power of the Nazis in 1933, German amateur groups and public discussion of rocketry were suppressed while the Army continued its secret programme which resulted in the construction of the massive complexes at Peenemunde and Mittelwerk using slave labour and the development of the A-4 (V2) ballistic missile. The Technical Director of Peenemunde and a key figure in the development of the A-4 was Oberth’s idealistic young protégé Dr Wernher von Braun who, although apolitical, believed that the ends justified the means in achieving space fight. At the end of the war, the Allies seized equipment from the rocket programme and acquired the services of many of the German scientists. Von Braun and the cream of the scientists went to America while the Soviets only found lower ranking staff willing to work for them. The Americans lent some of their German scientists to Britain for the short-lived “Operation Backfire” in which three A-4 missiles were launched from Altenwalde on the Baltic coast in October 1945. British rocket experiments began at the Woomera rocket range (Tarooma in the Quatermass series) in Australia in 1947 and later at the static test-firing site at Spadeadam in Cumbria to develop Britain’s own ballistic missile, Blue Streak. Britain considered a nuclear-armed missile essential because of doubts that the V-Bombers were capable of penetrating Soviet defences. However, Blue Streak was cancelled as a weapon in 1960 because of the vulnerability of fixed land-based missile sites to pre-emptive strikes and Britain could no longer afford to participate in the arms race. What could be salvaged from the Blue Streak project evolved into a satellite launch vehicle first tested at Woomera in 1964 (10). None of the British projects involved considerations for manned-flight and there was never a “British Experimental Rocket Group“ as envisaged in the Quatermass series. Under Von Braun in America and Sergei Korolev in the USSR, the superpowers produced intercontinental ballistic missiles which were capable by the end of the 50s of delivering nuclear payloads to their respective countries. The USSR made a spectacular propaganda coup on 4 October 1957 by launching the first orbital satellite, Sputnik I, and putting a dog, Laika, into orbit a month later. The Americans retaliated with their own satellite, Explorer I, in January 1958. In 1961 was the first manned space flights began : the first non-orbital flight was by the Russian, Major Yuri Gagarin on 12 April matched by the American Cdr Alan Shepard on 5 May. The first orbital flight was by Major Gherman Titov on 6 August followed by John Glenn on 20 February 1962. Despite such endeavors, the chief legacy in the public mind of the A-4 rocket and its subsequent offspring, the Atlas, Saturn, Vostok and Blue Streak was the threat of nuclear annihilation.

2. Authorship and Conception of the Trilogy

Thomas Nigel Kneale (1922-2006) was the son of a Manx newspaper publisher who studied at RADA and  Nigel Kneale played minor stage roles at Stratford-on-Avon. Following the success of his 1949 short story collection Tomato Cain and Other Stories, which won the Somerset Maughan Award, he joined the BBC Drama Section in 1952 as a scriptwriter. With the BBC he began a successful parnership with producer/director Rudolph Cartier (an émigré from Nazi Germany and Ufa contemporary of Billy Wilder and Emeric Pressburger) who felt that television drama should move away from adaptations of stage plays into large-scale productions. In 1953, Kneale and Cartier were commissioned to write and produce a serial to fill the mid-summer July-August slot when most of the country would be on holiday. Kneale saw the opportunity to “do something different, fast moving and adventurous.” (11) and as he recalled in 1995:

Around this time we were seeing the beginning of rocketry ; Von Braun had moved to California with some of the V-2s they hadn’t used up dropping on London. The Americans were removing the nose cones and replacing them with something harmless for experiments in the deserts….When I was thinking up the story nobody knew if it was safe to fire a rocket a long way and bring it back. There was a lot of unease about this at the time. Later when manned space flight actually begun, there was a tremendous thing about decontamination. People didn’t know what you might ‘pick up’ in space, so I thought I’d write a story about a space flight that returns with some very nasty contamination. In fact my original title for the story was Bring Something Back, but this was rejected - I suppose it did sound a bit like fetching some shopping. (12)

Kneale choose the name of the serial’s hero from the London telephone  directory and The Quatermass Experiment , which was transmitted live, became a national success and a landmark in television drama showing that the small-screen could compete with the then current Hollywood horror-cycle with more intelligent scripts and credible characters. An ailing British film company, Hammer Films, saw the possibility of turning the serial into a successful film.

Hammer Films was founded in 1947 as a production arm of Exclusive Films (and registered as a separate company, Hammer Film Productions Limited, in 1949) with James Carreras as managing director and Anthony Hinds a producer with James’s son, Michael, as his assistant (13). Operating on a small budget, many of Exclusive/Hammer’s early films were based on already well-known radio characters such as PC49, The Man in Black and Dick Barton with a ready made audience, therefore requiring little expenditure on publicity. In 1951 they formed an association with the American company, Lippert Productions, and made several films with American B-Movie actors such as Spaceways (1953) with Howard Duff. Hammer acquired the rights to The Quatermass Experiment from the BBC with Kneale excluded from the negotiations because as a BBC employee he had no rights to his own work. Kneale remembers:

It was something new and Hammer could smell it. Quatermass had been quite successful on television, and they were aware of it. The BBC were tarting it around for any sales they could get. I remember meeting Sidney Gilliat when he was very keen on doing it. He would have made a different film from the one Hammer made. Other film companies were scared by the ‘X’ certificate, though. It was fairly new, and they thought if the film had an ‘X’ it would never make money - nobody would go to see it because they’d be so nervous. At Hammer, however, James Carreras made a big deal out of the ‘X’ certificate. He, very cheaply, replaced the ‘Ex’ of ‘Experiment’ with an ‘X’. It obviously worked and they must have made a packet. This was the first one that made them successful and it earned them money, although I never found out how much. I would liked to have been asked to write the film but I was never given the chance. The BBC made a secret deal with Hammer which I was not involved in in any way. I was not considered important enough There was actually this indignation within the BBC ‘civil service’ that I should ever get anything out of this, so they saw to it I didn’t. I met one of these creatures in a lift and he said, ‘This is very embarrassing because there’s a lot of money involved and we can’t be in a position where the writer gets as much as a BBC civil servant.’…I was also excluded because Hammer had to have this American involvement. They didn’t so much need American money as American distribution - they had to have that. (14)

The film script was written by an American, Richard Landau, and reworked by the director, Val Guest, whose previous directorial work had mostly been confined to low-budget musical comedies. The veteran American actor, Brian Donlevy, was badly miscast as Quatermass who Kneale regarded as “…a very stupid man. Quatermass…was something new to him; he had to be clever, instead of just bad - a clever scientist. Donlevy didn’t think what he was doing. He did his usual thing - he was strong in authority, he knew how to do that, he knew how to shout at people. But it ended there” (15). Donlevy portrays Quatermass as a ruthless bully who, like the German scientists at Peenemunde, represents the divorce of ethics from science. This interpretation of the role seems to stem from Donlevy's limitations as an actor rather than a conscious attempt by Hammer to create an unsympathtic scientist. In Hammer's next science fiction film, X the Unknown (1956), the atomic scientist hero, Dr Adam Royston, as portrayed by the American actor Dean Jagger is much closer to Kneale's original conception of Quatermass as a concerned, humane and clever individual. The Quatermass Xperiment went on general release as part of a double-bill with Jules Dassin’s Rififi in August 1955 and was distributed in the States under the title The Creeping Unknown. Reviews of the film were divided; Today’s Cinema enthused that it was “one of the best essays in science fiction to date” and the News Chronicle gave a similar endorsement, “the best and nastiest horror film I have seen since the War. How jolly that it is also British!” while the Daily Sketch dismissed it as “a poor man’s Frankenstein.” (16) Also in 1955, Hammer’s partnership with Lippert ended and Carreras realizing that the success of The Quatermass Xperiment lay in its horror element decided that the genre was the way to rejuvenate Hammer. The company responded with X-The Unknown (1956) but it was the worldwide success of The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958) that set a profitable house-style of quality, camp gothic horror for over a decade.

While The Quatermass Xperiment was showing in British cinemas, Kneale and Cartier’s second serial, Quatermass II, was transmitted on television in October-November 1955. The previous year they had produced the controversial adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and its theme of how life might be in a totalitarian Britain was reflected in the new serial. Asked where the idea came from, Kneale said in 1983:

Well, I think the idea was contemporary to the ‘fifties. During that time government bodies were building early warning radar bases, germ warfare factories, mysterious isolated laboratories, all of which were hidden from the public in wild inaccessible places. Some of these fantastic institutions didn’t even exist outside of the fertile imaginations of the journalists who wrote about them. But I’ve always found top secret establishments most intriguing from a story point of view. It was therefore easy to see a public awareness of such places, so I based my ideas around that. (17)

Kneale took an active part in scripting Hammer’s version of the serial, Quatermass 2 (Enemy From Space in the US). He later said: “I was leaving the BBC at this point. I’d had enough. Five years of being in that hut was as much as any sane person could stand,” (18 ). Broadcaster Ewan MacColl has written of the BBC, “The place itself was so different from all the other places I have known, not like a place of work at all. Those who worked there were quite unlike any workers I have ever encountered. Even the ladies in the canteen seemed different. There was something rarified about the place, something unreal” (19). It is conceivable that Kneale’s experiences working for the BBC were the inspiration for the possessed Civil Service in Quatermass 2 just has Orwell’s wartime work with the BBC is reflected in Winston’s Smith’s work in the Ministry of Truth.

Quatermass 2 had a budget of £92,000 of which United Artists contributed 75%; in return Hammer received non-perpetual worldwide distribution rights. Brian Donlevy played the lead again and received a fee of $25,000. Location shooting took place at Hemel Hempsted, the Shell Haven Oil refinery in Essex and the South Downs outside Brighton (20). Hemel Hempsted was one of 32 new towns designed to accommodate overspill from existing large towns and cities whose inner areas were in decline or had been blitzed during the war. By the 1970s, the policy (obliquely criticized by Kneale) was abandoned because of the disruption to family and social groupings, the decline in small industries and shops and acceleration of inner-city decline (21). Quatermass 2 was released on a double-bill with Roger Vadim’s “…And Woman Was Created” in May 1957. Picture Show commented that “The ‘X’ certificate given to this film is sheerly for the horror in it…it is sure to satisfy thrill-lovers with strong stomachs.” (22)

The third serial, Quatermass and the Pit, transmitted in December 1958 - January 1959 was the most expensive, ambitious and accomplished of all the Kneale-Cartier television productions. Clearly reflecting both the international arms race and a summer of racial tension in Britain, Kneale said of the serial in 1996:

When I wrote the Quatermass stories I couldn’t help drawing on the forces and fears that affected people in the 1950s. The last adventure, the one I called Quatermass and the Pit went way beyond concerns of the time and into an ancient, diabolical race memory. It sought to explain man’s savagery and intolerance by way of images that had been throbbing away in the human brain since it first developed. Racial unrest, violence and purges were certainly with us in the 50s and I tried to speculate where they first came from. (23)

The Hammer production of Quatermass and the Pit ( Five Million Years to Earth in the US) was filmed in 1967, nearly ten years after the television serial with a script by Kneale that closely adhered to the original although it had lost some of its topicality. For once the project had a relatively high budget and a first-rate cast headed by Andrew Keir, arguably the best actor to portray Quatermass. Free of the confines of live television and Donlevy’s wooden performance on film , Keir fulfills Kneale’s conception of an intelligent, humane and caring scientist. Writing in 1970, film critic John Baxter described the film as “Kneale’s finest idea, the culmination of everything in the other serials, a powerful statement of the evil and good that can lie in science, and a thriller of impressive skill.” (24 )

3. Plot Summaries of the Films

The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)

A space rocket crash-lands in the English countryside. While the emergency services deal with the situation, Professor Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) arrives with his team from the British Experimental Rocket Group to  determine what went wrong with the Group’s first manned flight. Of the three crew members, two have inexplicably vanished and the survivor, Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth), is unable to explain what happened. While Inspector Lomax (Jack Warner) of Scotland Yard begins a missing persons investigation, Quatermass takes Carroon back the Rocket Group HQ where a medical examination shows that he appears to be undergoing a physiological change. Film footage of the flight reveals that an invisible force entered the spacecraft and absorbed the missing crew members leaving Carroon. Carroon’s wife (Margia Dean) hires a private investigator to help him escape from the clinic in which he has been placed; by this time his contact with a cactus plant has begun a horrific transformation. Carroon is the carrier of an alien life form that absorbs all organic earthly orders it encounters and eventually mutates into an octopus-like monster capable of infinite reproduction. The creature seeks refuge in Westminster Abbey at the final stage of its reproduction cycle when the distribution of its microscopic spores will wipe out mankind. Quatermass destroys the creature by diverting all of London’s power supply to electrocute it. The film ends with Quatermass striding purposely away to commence work on another rocket.


Quatermass 2

Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) is involved in a road accident with a young couple and the man appears to have been affected by a meteorite that fell from the sky. Quatermass takes fragments of the meteorite to the Rocket  Group base where a nuclear rocket, Quatermass 2, is under construction. At the base he learns of what appear to be meteorites have picked up on the radar falling in the Winnerton Flats area. On reconstructing the fragments, the meteorite proves to be hollow, aerodynamic and symmetrical made of an unknown substance. Quatermass and his assistant, Marsh (Bryan Forbes) visit Winnerton Flats where they find a large industrial plant identical to their own moon-base project design. Marsh finds a complete meteorite and is affected by ammonia gas and “something else”, an organism that causes a V-shaped mark to appear on his face. Armed guards also bearing the mark take him inside the plant. Quatermass seeks help from a nearby new town which houses construction workers on the project but is told the plant is a top government secret. Making enquiries of Inspector Lomax (John Longden) in London he is told that the plant is making synthetic food. Together with Vincent Broadhead M.P. (Tom Chatto) who is also curious about the plant, Quatermass joins a regular trip to the plant for politicians led by a civil servant (John Van Eyssen) who is shown to have the mark on his wrist. The politicians are infected by the organisms and, on investigating one of the steel pressure domes,  Broadhead is killed by contact with the corrosive ammoniac “food”. On a second unauthorized visit to the plant, Quatermass discovers that the main domes house large alien life forms that have coalesced from the single cell organisms brought to earth by the meteorites. The organisms have taken over the minds of key government officials in order to build the secret plant and change the Earth’s atmosphere in order to colonize it. When Quatermass and Lomax tell the workers of the true nature of the “food“, they break into the plant and seize control from the affected guards known to them as “zombies”. While the workers destroy the domes and the alien creatures, the infected Marsh and armed “zombies” take over the rocket base but too late to stop the launch of Quatermass 2 to destroy the asteroid from which the meteorites emanate. With the destruction of the asteroid, the mark disappears from the infected victims and humanity returns to normal.


Quatermass and the Pit

While building an extension to the London Underground at Hobbs End, workmen discover fossilized bones. Doctor Matthew Roney (James Donald), a paleontologist and his team, including Barbara Judd (Barbara  Shelley), unearth more finds and identify them as the remains of advanced Pliocene hominids at least five million years old. When they discover an apparently metallic object beneath the bones, the army is called in to deal with what they assume to be an unexploded bomb. Meanwhile, Quatermass (Andrew Keir) is being informed by Ministry of Defence officials that his Rocket Group is to be taken over by the Government with the object of placing ballistic missile bases on the moon. Against Quatermass’s wishes, Colonel Breen (Julian Glover) is appointed to oversee work at the Rocket Group. Quatermass and Breen inspect the Hobbs End excavation where the partly uncovered object is clearly of alien origin. Breen declares it to be a previously unknown German bomb and orders the sappers to expose it completely. As work continues, strange noises are heard and apparitions are seen. Quatermass learns that the site of Hobbs End has a history of supernatural occurrences dating back to Roman times. When the spacecraft is uncovered, more hominid bones are found inside and, within a sealed compartment, the intact remains of large three-legged, horned arthropods of demonic appearance. Quatermass deduces that the arthropods are Martians who performed selective breeding on Earth hominids to increase their intelligence, changing the course to evolution to produce Homo sapiens and thereby colonizing the Earth by proxy. The creatures found at Hobbs End are an instance of a landing that went wrong. Roney has invented a device that is able to amplify and record brain activity; Barbara volunteers to use it. What the possessed Barbara experiences is a terrifying racial memory of a purge, a cleansing of the hive, on the dying Mars, five million years ago. Despite the evidence, Breen and the Ministry dismiss Barbara’s experience as a hallucination and declare that the “German V-Weapon” is to be shown to the media. During the press conference, an electric cable accidentally falls on the Martian space ship, which comes to life transferring mass into energy capable of redirecting human energy. An apparition of Hob, the horned devil, rises above Hobbs End and Londoners, processed by ancient destructive urges, begin a racial purge of the “unfit” using telekinetic powers. London begins to turn into a Martian colony. Quatermass himself is affected and attacks Roney who is “different.” The immune Roney destroys the evil emanating from the pit, sacrificing himself in the process. Quatermass and Barbara, no longer affected, look in horror at a devastated London.

4. Commentary

In a contemporary review of The Quatermass Xperiment (25) David Sylvester wrote, “Nigel Kneale's brand of fantasy compares with the general run of science fiction as the 'psychological' thrillers of a Graham Greene or a Simenon compare with the average detective novel.” This betrays an uninformed and elitist opinion of the science fiction genre (and also the crime novel) that Kneale himself is guilty of in numerous interviews. “I don’t see myself as a science fiction writer, and I never have done,” he said in 1989 (26). “I find from my occasional sampling of science fiction that it’s very disappointing and horribly overwritten.” Although the literary roots of science fiction represented by Mary Shelley, H.G.Wells and Olaf Stapledon are essentially English, the first magazine devoted entirely to the genre, Amazing Stories, was founded in America by Hugo Gernsback in 1926. From its pulp fiction origins, science fiction had diversified into a major genre by the 1950’s, best represented by three quality magazines: Astounding Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy Science Fiction. The leading American authors at that time were Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, Alfred Bester and A.E. Van Vogt while in Britain, John Wyndham (John Benyon Harris) and Arthur C. Clarke wrote more in the Wellsian tradition. At the lower end of the market, “space opera” was popular reading matter and the adventures of Dan Dare and other comic book heroes widely read by schoolchildren. Common themes of 50s science fiction were nuclear warfare, post-apocalyptic societies and mutations caused by atomic radiation. In Hollywood, a new cycle of horror films began in 1951 with the Howard Hawks’ production The Thing From Another World. The cycle, with its frequent theme of aliens taking over human minds, reflected Cold War fears of Communist subversion while Don Siegel’s 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers (based on Jack Finney’s 1955 novel The Body Snatchers) can be interpreted as an allegory of both Communism and McCarthyism. In the 50s, written SF had broken free of its pulp origins, most notably by Ray Bradbury whose 1950 collection The Martian Chronicles had gained widespread acceptance in mainstream literary circles and his dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451 (1953) was compared favorably to Orwell’s Nineteen  Eighty-Four (1949). In Britain, writing as John Wyndham, former pulp writer John Benyon Harris was responsible for two highly successful earth-in-peril novels, The Day of the Triffids (1951) and The Kraken Wakes (1953). Also writing in this Wellsian tradition, Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1954) concerns benign aliens of demonic appearance who guide Mankind’s evolutionary course, a theme to re-appear in Clarke and Kubrick’s script for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Kneale must have been aware of these authors (Bradbury included Kneale’s short story The Pond in his 1956 anthology The Circus of Dr Lao and Other Improbable Stories) yet he never acknowledged their influence.

Sylvester compares The Quatermass Xperiment with the first creature from space film , Hawks' The Thing from Another World (1951): 

The monster from outer space which is the villain of The Quatermass Experiment is a kinsman of the Thing which figured in Hollywood's The Thing from Another World. The Thing, roughly speaking, was a sort of mobile vegetable. Its cell structure and powers of reproducing itself were those of a plant; its anatomy was that of a heavyweight boxer. It threw its weight about like a tearaway looking for trouble, and its mode of attack was founded on brute force. In short, it was not so inhuman after all: it was just another monster of the King Kong kind, except that, being a plant, it did not, in approaching the human race, differentiate between the female of the species and the male. (27)

The way in which the monsters are dispatched in both the films and the TV serial give an indication of the producers’ perceptions of their audiences. In The Thing from Another World, a misguided scientist (Robert Cornwaithe) attempts to communicate with the creature and thwarts the efforts of the military to destroy it. The Thing pushes him aside before being electrocuted. Donlevy deals out a similar fate to the giant octopus in Westminster Abbey showing no remorse for the dead astronauts as he plans his next experiment. The ending of Kneale’s serial is both original and moving, with no way of killing the creature without releasing its spores and destroying mankind, Quatermass (Reginald Tate) carries out a form of exorcism and appeals to the three astronauts that are part of the monstrous amalgam to overcome the evil and “send it out of earthly existence” (28). Hammer’s retreat to a conventional ending showed a lack of faith in the original source and a low perception of its audience’s intelligence.

Monsters in American horror films of this period such as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) featuring a radioactive dinosaur re-awaked by nuclear tests or the mutated ants of Them (1954), followed a pattern set by King Kong (1933) of giant creatures on the rampage in large cities. However, Kneale’s aliens indifferently use humans as involuntary symbiotic hosts as part their life cycle or as a means of continuing their species by proxy. Unlike these films, the strongest emotion evoked by the Quatermass stories is one of disgust. In The  Quatermass Xperiment there is the physiological deterioration of Carroon whose arm resembles an exfoliating cancer, the gelatinous remains of the missing crew members, the slime the creature leaves in its wake and the deformed bodies of those humans and animals it has drained of life resembling victims of atomic radiation. Quatermass 2 has foul-smelling gases (a farm worker in the TV serial describes the pseudo-meteorite as “stink…like dirty stables“), human pulp, corrosive slime and faecal aliens writhing in the excremental “food” inside the pressure domes. The action in Quatermass and the Pit takes place almost entirely in a mud-filled excavation in which the decomposing, green slime oozing, bodies of the Martians with a “stench of rotting fish” are discovered (mud oozed down the opening titles of the TV serial) while the autopsy of the Martians closely resembles scenes from Hammer‘s Frankenstein series. In his earlier 1949 short story, The Pond, Kneale evoked horror by descriptions of “a vast belching bubble of foul air…great patches of slimy weed“ and the taxidermist protagonist’s death by being stuffed with “reeds and green water-plants and slime” (29). Mary Douglas, an anthropologist, has proposed that culture determines our disgust response and that we are disgusted by things that do not match our social classifications-things that are alien or out of place (30) Kneale creates images and alludes to things that are universally disgusting: faeces, urine, rotting flesh, foul odors and deformed bodies, a literary technique used more by writers of horror and supernatural fiction such as Poe and H.P.Lovecraft than science fiction authors. Like the experiment on Barbara in Quatermass and the Pit, in real life Dr Mary Phillips carried out brain scans on people while showing them pictures that would disgust them (31). She found that when we feel disgusted, a part of the brain is stimulated which is much older than the part that deals with rational thought. It is millions of years older than the oldest human civilizations. She concluded that disgust was so deeply ingrained that it could not be determined purely by cultural influences (a Martian racial memory perhaps?).

The trilogy shows a Britain still coming to terms with the aftermath of the war, the Cold War and the newer threat of nuclear warfare; terrifying objects still fall from the sky that are believed to be bombs or part of secret industrial processes and an obsessive secrecy reflected in the alarming posters at the new town community centre in Quatermass 2 which warn TALK ABOUT YOUR JOB-LOSE IT!, REMEMBER-SECRET MEANS SEALED LIPS! and C-H-A-T-T-E-R SPELLS CATASTROPHE! The narrative of The Quatermass Xperiment is similar to that of the Boulting Brothers’ Seven Days to Noon (1950) in which a disturbed nuclear scientist (Barry Jones) who threatens to detonate a nuclear bomb in London is tracked down, like Carroon, by the police and military to a Westminster church where he is killed. Similarly, Quatermass 2 echos the Boulting Brothers’ follow-up film, High Treason (1951), in which the same hero Superintendent Folland (played by Andre Morrell, the third actor to portray Professor Quatermass on TV) foils a fifth column Communist plot to take over Britain.  The conviction of Klaus Fuchs as a Russian spy in 1950 and the defection of Burgess and Maclean in 1951 had led to a widespread popular belief that Communists had infiltrated every layer of society and were controlled by the Soviet Union (32) while Clement Atlee warned of “the enemy within.” However, despite subsequent revelations about Philby, Blunt and Cairncross, the extent of Soviet influence was greatly exaggerated and the “Golden Age” of KGB operations in London ended in 1951 (33). Some critics have given a Marxist interpretation to the uprising in Quatermass 2 in which the workers overthrow the infected “zombies” and their masters within the pressure domes where “the violence can be related to underlying social tensions to do with class and race conflict apparent in Britain at this time…” (34). Although Kneale has dismissed the McCarthy witch-hunts against "subversives" in America as nonsense, he has said “the trouble was that in Britain we really had them and where it mattered” (35) and that it was against this background of secrecy and treachery that he wrote about an even darker world with darker secrets and likened the conclusion of Quatermass 2 to the failed uprising in Hungary a year later. Nevertherless, it is inconceivable that any British film of this period could have shown workers gunning down the management except in a low-budget fantasy film.

The representation of gender and class within the Quatermass trilogy is presented in conventional 50s television and film thriller terms with traditional middle-class masculine protagonists and women marginalised to the roles of wives, secretaries and assistants. In one telling scene in Quatermass 2, the professor orders his secretary to leave the room while he discusses weighty matters with his male colleagues.  Joy Leman (36) has described Barbara Judd in Quatermass and the Pit as a “crucial link between the cold rationalism of science and the ’feminine’ domain of emotional promptings, hunches and intuitive interpretations.” While Barbara Shelley is the most credible actress in both the serials and films (despite an extensive wardrobe of unsuitable outfits for working in an excavation) her clairvoyant powers are merely a plot device and her more prominent role in the film as the beautiful heroine was for commercial reasons. It is Quatermass himself who, in Holmesian tradition, by careful observation, shrewd guesses and scientific intuition proposes hypotheses to explain phenomena. Kneale in comparing the TV serial to the film adaptation has tellingly remarked, “I think our screaming girl (Christine Finn) was better than Hammer’s screaming girl” (37) although neither actress does any screaming in their roles. The key male protagonists (scientists, policemen, journalists, politicians and soldiers) are middle-class, middle-aged professionals. Depictions of the working-class in the TV serials tended to be restricted to actors like Wilfred Brambell who specialized in comic stereotypes, while the Hammer adaptations drew more on the traditional stagey representations of class that typified films of the 40s and 50s.

Although racial conflict is a key theme in Quatermass and the Pit, the only black character in the film (and the whole series) is a workman in the opening scene. Kneale’s TV script specifies a “colored workman” who was played straight by Lionel Ngakane but in Hammer’s version the role becomes a stereotypical, superstitious Negro (Elroy Josephs) of the eyeball-rolling variety. 1948 marked the beginning of large-scale immigration of West Indians, Asians and Africans who were largely employed in under-staffed sectors of the economy such as the health service and public transport. Home Office figures show a rise in “colored” Commonwealth immigrants from 2,000 in 1953 to 58,300 in 1960 (38). In August and September 1958, race riots occurred in Notting Hill, London and the Saint Ann’s Well Road inner-city area of Nottingham that shattered any notions of British tolerance and increased public pressure on the government to restrict immigration. A contemporary account of the Notting Hill riots said “mobs of angry whites roamed the streets, sometimes numbering in the hundreds. They chased down and beat any vulnerable blacks they could find, broke the windows of shops which sold to blacks, and fought with the police who were trying to restore order.” (39) The resultant 1962 Immigrants Act controlled immigration along racial lines; discrimination and intolerance continued culminating in Enoch Powell’s infamous “rivers of blood” speech in 1968. The racial conflict during the summer of 1958 is reflected in the climax of Quatermass and the Pit although the violence is by whites against whites who are “different.” Quatermass’s significant liberal-minded concluding warning in the TV serial about the need to control man’s destructive urges, including race riots, is omitted from the film.


The trilogy begins with a threat that can be dealt with by communal action to a conclusion of total pessimism in which it is impossible to transcend the darker side of human nature. The Quatermass Xperiment evokes the war-time spirit of civilians and military working together led by a tough-minded individual to defeat an outside singular enemy threatening to destroy civilization. In Quatermass 2 the threat is from an Orwellian “enemy within” that has infiltrated a secretive British establishment and humanity can only be saved by a small group of unaffected scientists, politicians, policemen and journalists trying to make the public aware. Although not an explicit Red Scare film, the nightmarish totalitarian uniforms of the “zombies” leave no doubt in the mind as to what Kneale is alluding to. Quatermass and the Pit is the most complex and bleakest film in the trilogy, portraying the human condition as an irreversible alien experiment and Kneale’s only remedy (Quatermass’s closing oration in the TV serial) is restraint against “the ancient destructive urges in, us, that grow more deadly as our populations approach in size and complexity those of ancient Mars. Every war crisis, witch-hunt, race riot and purge…is a reminder and warning. We are the Martians. If we cannot control the inheritance within us…this will be their second dead planet!” (37).


The Quatermass Xperiment Dir. Val Guest (1955)

Quatermass 2  Dir. Val Guest (1957)

Quatermass and the Pit  Dir. Roy Ward Baker (1955)

Nigel Kneale wrote a forth TV serial in the late 1960s entitled Quatermass (aka The Quatermass Conclusion) starring John Mills which was made and transmitted in 1979.


(1) KNEALE, N. The Quatermass Memoirs, BBC Radio 3 , March 1996.

(2) ANDREW, C. and MITROKHIN, V. The Mitrokhin Archive,  Harmondsworth: Penquin Books, 2000, p. 519

(3) CAMPBELL, C.War Plan UK,  London: Burnett Books, 1982 , pp. 115-116

(4) CARE, A. “Poisoned By Their Own People”,  Independent Law Page, 3 October 2000. 

(5) ROBERTS, F. Sixty Years of Nuclear History: Britain's Hidden Agenda Charlbury: Jon Carpenter, 1999, p. 53.

(6) MARWICK, A.British Society Since 1945, Harmondsworth: Penquin Books 1996, p.122

(7) KNEALE, N. The Quatermass Memoirs.

(8) LEY, W. Rockets, Missiles and Space Travel, London: Chapman and Hall Ltd, 1957 pp. 443-444.

(9) NEUFELD, M.J.The Rocket and the Reich,  Cambridge, Mass.:Harvard University Press, 1995, p. 6.

(10) UK SPACE, Blue Streak1999.

(11) PETLEY, J. & NEWMAN, K. “The Manxman ”, Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol. 56, no. 662, (March 1989) , p.91.

(12) HEARN, M. Rocket Man, Interview with Nigel Kneale 1995. Hammer Horror (Issue 7, September 1995)

(13) PORTER, V. The Context of Creativity: Ealing Studios and Hammer Films, British Cinema History, Eds: Curran, J. and Porter, V. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1983.

(14) HEARN, M. Rocket Man, Interview with Nigel Kneale.

(15) Ibid.

(16) McKENZIE, A. “An Interview With Nigel Kneale”, Starburst, June 1983.

(17) HEARNE, M. & BARNES, A. The Hammer Story,  London: Titan Books, 1997, p. 17.

(18) HEARN, M. Rocket Man, Interview with Nigel Kneale.

(19) MACCOLL, E. Journeyman,London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1990, p. 234.

(20) HAMMERWEB, Quatermass 2 .

(21) CLAPSON, M. Review of the New Towns Record, 1946-1996: 50 Years of UK New Town Development , H-Urban, H_Net Reviews, September, 1998. 

(22 ) HEARNE, M. & BARNES, A. The Hammer Story, London: Titan Books, 1997, p. 21.

(23) KNEALE, N. The Quatermass Memoirs.

(24 ) BAXTER, J. Science Fiction in the Cinema, London: Tantivy Press, 1970, p. 97.

(25) SYLVESTER, D. “The Anglicisation of Space”, Encounter, January 1956.

(26) PETLEY, J. & NEWMAN, K. “The Manxman”.

(27) SYLVESTER, D. “The Anglicisation of Space”.

(28) KNEALE, N. The Quatermass Experiment,  Harmondsworth: Penquin Books, 1959, p. 192.

(29) KNEALE, N. “The Pond”, The Circus of Dr Lao and Other Improbable Tales, Ed. Ray Bradbury, New York: Bantam Books, 1956, pp 93-98.

(30) CHANNEL 4, Anatomy of Disgust, TV series, August 2000.

(31) CHANNEL 4, Anatomy of Disgust.

(32) GUY, S. “Somebody presses a button and it’s goodbye Sally: Seven Days to Noon and the threat of the Atomic Bomb”, The Family Way: The Boulting Brothers andBritish Film Culture, Eds. Alan Burton, Tim O’Sullivan and Paul Wells. Trowbridge, Flick Books, 2000, p. 153.

(33) ANDREW, C. and MITROKHIN, V. The Mitrokhin Archive, Harmondsworth: Penquin Books, 2000, p. 543.

(34) HUTCHINGS, P. “We’re the Martians now”,British Science Fiction Cinema,  Ed: I.Q. Hunter, London and New York: Routledge, 1999, p. 40.

(35) KNEALE, N. The Quatermass Memoirs.

(36) LEMAN, J. “Wise Scientists and Female Androids: Class and Gender in Science Fiction”,Popular Television in Britain,  Ed: John Corner, London: British Film Institute, 1991, pp 108-124.

(37) HEARN, M. Rocket Man, Interview with Nigel Kneale.

(38) ARNOLD, G. Britain Since 1945: Choice, Conflict and Change, London: Blandford, 1989, p. 51.

(39) HELBING, T. The Notting Hill Riots and British National Identity.

(40) KNEALE, N. Quatermass and the Pit, Harmondsworth: Penquin Books, 1960, p. 188.