Nigel Kneale 

31 October 2006


Nigel Kneale on The Late Show in 1990

Television and science fiction are made for each other. The two fit so well together – especially in black and white – that it’s hard to imagine that science fiction as a genre existed at least two hundred years before the cyclops in the corner made its debut.

But it takes a certain level of genius to realise this, and a certain higher level of genius to turn this realisation into truly amazing (and scary) televison.

Nigel Kneale, who has died aged 84, was the genius television had been waiting for. His work, spanning the BBC, ATV, Thames and Hammer, still stands the test of time fifty years after his first work aired.

Kneale had been an actor and a playwright for BBC radio before becoming a staff writer in the Drama Department of the reborn BBC Television Service. His first play was screened in 1952, but his first hit was shown a year later.

The Quatermass Experiment brought small-scale fear and high drama into the drawing rooms of the small public audience for television. Following hot on the heels of the founding-event of TV as a medium, the coronation, and of the creation of televison’s first star in Gilbert Harding, ‘Quatermass’ pushed audience – and television – boundaries further than they had gone before.

Professor Bernard Quatermass is leading the British Experimental Rocket Group, with eyes on sending men into space and ultimately to the moon and Mars. His first experimental launch sends a crew into orbit, from which only one will return… Over six weeks, the tiny available audience was hooked, and television was firmly something everybody but everybody needed to have.

When Kneale followed it up with a dramatisation of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, complete with a repeat – both performed live – his place in television history was already sealed.


Quatermass II in 1955 was another hit for the Television Service, whilst Hammer’s The Quatermass Xperiment was a further hit, this time on the big screen with suitable mid-Atlantic casting. Kneale went on record to condemn the film version for many reasons, but collected the royalties and continued to work for Hammer, suggesting his condemnation was little more than skin deep.

More film and television Quatermass adventures followed before Kneale switched away from science fiction to become an accomplished screenplay writer, including working on the classic stage-to-screen adaptation of Look Back in Anger.

By 1968 he was back on TV, this time for BBC-2, with the gaudy-coloured but strangly accurate Year of the Sex Olympics, charting how television of the future would be obsessed with making real people perform for ‘reality’ television and how the viewing public would become obsessed with and then repelled by the relentless parade of sex and flawed personalities set before them. Leonard Rossiter starred.

His next big sci-fi adventure was truly terrifying The Stone Tape for BBC-1 in 1972. More horror than SF, it used the mise-en-scène of SF to scare the hell out of its audience, this time using Michael Bryant and Jane Asher to bring forth the horror – Asher being particularly, but strangely uncelebratedly, suitable for frightening the nation when she puts her considerable talent to it.

By 1976 Kneale was at ATV making the soon-forgotten Beasts and then at Euston Films in 1979 for the not-terribly-well received Quatermass Conclusion (aka Quatermass as on the title card or Quatermass IV in the publicity) with Sir John Mills at the height of his blank-eyed-playing-for-money middle years.

The 1980s were less good for Kneale: his star waned with TV executives who, finding television unexpectedly entering a new golden age, were keen to dump science fiction as a genre to concentrate on fiction-past – most certainly not his forte. Work in the 1980s was patchy, with what did make it to screen never hitting his previous heights.

His talent was recognised and remembered by the BBC, with the then-new BBC-4 celebrating his work with a documentary in 2003 and following it up with a live remake of The Quatermass Experiment in 2005 – sadly digested down to just one episode, which itself ran at such a clip as to end early, having also been slightly spoiled by needing a banner across the screen halfway through to advise people that they might like to turn to News 24 (Pope John Paul II having chosen that moment to make his exit after a good fortnight of people queuing).

But that’s live television. And Kneale himself would no doubt have been the first to note that the immediacy of live TV benefited the genre of science fiction more than the odd distraction acted as a detriment.

(Thomas) Nigel Kneale, born Barrow-in-Furness 18 April 1922; married 1954 Judith Kerr (one son, one daughter); died Barnes 29 October 2006.

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