This October marked thirteen years since the passing of Nigel Kneale, one of post-war Britain’s most clairvoyant screenwriters. Like fitness enthusiast Jack Lalanne, who dominated American TV around the same period (1950s – 1980s), Kneale was someone whose energies seemed impervious to the passing decades.
Producing original material into his seventies, the Cumbria-born writer excelled at speculative fiction, but never defaulted to sci-fi tropes: each of his plots toyed with the rulebook, and his characters spoke in unforced, authentic dialogue. Though best known for his ground-breaking ‘50s Quatermass serials – which would go on to influence everyone from horror visionary John Carpenter to The League of Gentlemen co-creator Mark Gatiss – Kneale’s catalogue features many overlooked gems. Their insight can still be felt today.
The Crunch and Other Stories (1964/1986/1988)
Kneale excelled at the TV play. In The Crunch (1964), he crafted a potboiler: Belgrave Square is in lockdown, and Prime Minister Goddard (Harry Andrews) has assumed emergency powers. The ambassador of former colony Makang wants £215 million in compensation for his country’s plundered tin ore, and is threatening to explode a 10-megaton bomb from the basement of his embassy. Is he resolute enough to detonate the device, even in the face of British capitulation?
Ladies’ Night (1986) centres on misogyny, and sounds the early cry of the #MeToo movement. Gentlemen’s club Hunters – a Bullingdon-like nest of wing collars and stag heads – is honouring its fortnightly requirement to admit women. Weak-willed member Tripp (Ronald Pickup) feels emasculated by the presence of his wife Evelyn (Fiona Walker). His uncertainties are tested by the shotgun-waving Colonel Waley (Alfred Burke), and a new branch of the state: one formed to combat the traditions the club clings to.
Gentry (1988) riffs on Straw Dogs (1971) with its tale of a besieged couple fighting off locals. Who frontman Roger Daltrey plays the East End heavy who resents yuppie couple Gerald (Duncan Preston) and Susannah (Phoebe Nicolls) moving in on his manor. A swipe at gentrification long before Docklands had been cleared, the tension in Gentry begins to ratchet when the young professionals look over their bargain £100K terrace, and discover the gangster’s secret.
Commissioned off the back of Murrain – a play for ITV about a blighted pig farm, and the widow suspected by local hands of being its cause – Beasts saw Kneale focus on savagery: animal, emotional, and paranormal. A young Pauline Quirke stars in Special Offer as bullied shelf-stacker Noreen Beale, whose unrequited crush on manager Mr Grimley (Geoffrey Bateman) conjures a poltergeist. As cans begin to roll down the aisles of their own accord, workmates try to be “Friendly and bright” in keeping with their employer’s slogan.
But Noreen comes to realise the poltergeist responds to her, triggering an array of impressive practical effects: products leap off shelves, and the store becomes cloaked in flour. It seems there are some things that can’t be solved by “getting somebody down from head office.”
Other stories turn the horror genre completely on its head. Buddyboy stars Martin Shaw as pornographer Dave, who buys Finnyland, a derelict sea-life centre. His dreams of converting it into an adult cinema are threatened when he begins to hear the cry of the former star dolphin. “They’ve got these huge brains, as big as ours”, whispers the theatre’s owner (Wolfe Morris). As rooms begin to echo with submerged groaning, we realise that not all aquatic mammals are as cuddly as Flipper.
Proving that his knack for prescience never faltered, the concluding Quatermass serial imagined a very divided future Britain. Police numbers are skeletal, gang violence has skyrocketed, and young people have turned their backs on employment, marching under the banner of “Planet People”. But the destruction facing earth isn’t solely the fault of humans: mysterious lights in the sky are causing crowds to head to Neolithic landmarks, and then vanish. Grey-skinned children repeat an eerie “Huffity Puffity” rhyme. Can the jaded Bernard Quatermass (John Mills), lured out of retirement in Scotland, find out who or what is behind it?
Unfairly regarded as the Crocodile Dundee 3 of the Quatermass collection, there is much to relish in Kneale’s final outing for the crusading rocket scientist. Director Piers Haggard makes the most of a big budget, staging frenzied shootouts, riot scenes, and cities so feral even Chuck Norris couldn’t clean them up. “They were doing it for fun!” gasps the professor after he’s beaten in the street by public school dropouts.
Driven by an urge to locate his missing granddaughter (Rebecca Saire), Quatermass battles his way through a country where the three-day week has become radically shorter. His last outing contains enough nightmare fuel to rank alongside your favourite ‘70s public information films.
Kneale’s only attempt at an episodic sitcom shares traits with Channel 4’s Nathan Barley (2005). Viewed at the time as an attack on its fans, it’s more relevant now than it was when it aired, having anticipated the rise of comic culture.
Daydreaming repairman Des Kinvig (Tony Haygarth) notices sexy galactic explorer Miss Griffin (Prunella Gee) enter his shop. He can’t believe his eyes: this is everything the committed Trekkie, UFO spotter and browbeaten husband has ever dreamt of.
But is she real, or has Kinvig’s daydreaming simply shifted up a gear? Would a real woman snog our shabby hero so often without once complaining of beard burn? Workmate Jim (Colin Jeavons) is sceptical, and has more faith in his own conspiracy theories and the customers’ faulty hairdryers than he does in Miss Griffin’s tales of life on Mercury. Available after decades of being lamented on internet forums, Kinvig is a forgotten stepping stone between The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1981) and Red Dwarf (1988).
George Bass Contributor New York Times | The Guardian | New Scientist