Contact Has Been Established
In 1953 British television changed forever. The Quatermass Experiment was far from being the first sci-fi show the BBC had attempted, but it was the first to be specially written for television, for an adult audience. Previous attempts had either been adaptations of novels, or made for children. This was the first time anyone had dared to imagine that sci-fi could be achievable as an original, adult drama production. It deserves to be remembered as the grandfather of sci-fi, and it was a huge success. Virtually everyone who owned a television in Britain was tuning in to watch by the final episode, which is sadly something we can’t do now, because four out of the original six episodes were never recorded. In fact, we are very lucky to be able to watch the first two episodes. All six were broadcast live from Alexandra Palace, and the recording of the first two was an experiment, with a view to selling the series abroad. The idea was abandoned after that, due to the poor quality of the results. This was understandably about the blurriest half hour of television I have ever watched, and getting a good screen shot for the blog was far from easy!
The pace of drama has obviously increased hugely over the years, and nowadays the events of this first episode would probably be dispensed with in a three minute pre-credits sequence, but not for one second did this fail to hold my attention. There is certainly something to be said for a slow build up of tension. Irritating journalist James Fullalove actually puts that into words very well, comparing the anticipation of the opening of the crashed capsule with children waiting to open their presents. The longer you have to wait, the more the excitement builds.
“Little boys, who look anxiously over your shoulder.”
It’s a great metaphor, although in this instance those little boys are a pain in the butt, making a nuisance of themselves while the scientists try to work. Seriously, wouldn’t they cordon off the area from all those jerks? There’s even a drunkard with a rattle wandering around, interrupting Marsh while he’s trying to concentrate on his work, and the reporters are everywhere. Speaking of which… there is such an unintentionally funny moment where Len Matthews and his wife are being interviewed, and they get to the end of the scripted scene (“I got busy putting out the fire…”) and then everyone just pauses and stops acting while the camera is still on them, before we cut away to the next scene. The first rule of acting: don’t stop!
But this is live television, and in many respects it’s a fascinating insight into such a different world. Everything is so unfamiliar to a modern viewer: the mechanical nature of all the equipment (plotting positions in space on bits of tubing, etc), something that is potentially a nuclear bomb falling and nobody thinking about radiation, those weirdly unnatural telephone conversations people used to have on television where they repeated everything the other person said for the benefit of the viewers (“Hello, where? West side of Wimbledon Common?”), the suggestion that journalists could “use discretion” (was there really a time when they had ethics?), even the newsreader looking down at his desk to read the whole time, never once making eye contact with the camera. Watching this really brought home to me how the world has changed beyond recognition so much, and this is not ancient history. It’s a window into a world my parents lived in during their youth (they were teenagers at the time this was broadcast). Fascinating.
Whenever I watch an old British television show, I like to play the game of spot the Doctor Who actor, which is probably something lots of fans do. This was an absolute bonanza: Moray Watson (Sir Robert Muir from Black Orchid, but I’ll always remember him as the General from The Darling Buds of May), Duncan Lamont (Galloway from Death to the Daleks), Paul Whitsun-Jones (The Smugglers and The Mutants), and even our Sam Seeley from Spearhead from Space, Neil Wilson as one of the policemen. But my favourite performance in the whole episode was not a Doctor Who alumnus, as she sadly passed away before the decade was out: Katie Johnson as Miss Wilde. She is of course best remembered for The Ladykillers, in which she plays a very similar role. What a privilege it is to be able to see her performance in The Quatermass Experiment. We are talking about an actress who was born in 1878 (imagine that), started acting on stage in 1894, and appeared in her first film in 1932. She plays such a sweet old lady here, apparently unfazed by something from space dropping on her house, and is only concerned for the welfare of her beloved cat. She also has impeccable manners:
“Would you take Henry first please. Thank you.”
If her reaction seems unnaturally calm, here’s why:
“What is it officer? Have they started again?”
The war generation. This is a portrayal of an old lady who has lived through the blitz, and she takes everything in her stride, while her life is turned upside down. We could all learn something from Miss Wilde and the people of her generation, the ones who kept calm and carried on.
By the end of the episode the mystery is nicely established, with two of the three occupants of the capsule missing, although there’s no way they could have got out. Victor Carroon is the lone survivor, remarkably so, considering he appears to be wearing a black sack with a window over his head. We’ll have to tune in next time to find out, for the next blurry instalment of The Quatermass Experiment. It’s live television, it’s a clumsy and very 1950s attempt at sci-fi, but I love it. This is where it all started… RP
Something that deserves to be called the grandfather of science-fiction, or grandmother in the case of Mary Shelley for Frankenstein, is one of many phrases that helps me look back on all the vintage science-fiction from an even broader perspective. It’s nice to know that the Junkyard can be a good home for such motivational analyses. Thank you, RP, for including The Quatermass Experiment on the Junkyard. 👍🏻
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For many years I so desperately wanted to watch this serial. You can only imagine how disappointed I was to learn that only the first two episodes were ever recorded. I’m glad that the other Quatermass miniseries still exist, at least.
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Missing episodes are so often a crushing disappointment, but I suppose we should be grateful for what we do have! I’ll have a couple of articles about A for Andromeda soon, which is another series that is frustratingly incomplete.
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