Sunday, April 24, 2022

Nigel Kneale: A Centenary Celebration

What a thrill to be at the Picturehouse Cinema in Crouch End yesterday, in the shadow of Alexandra Palace, for the centenary celebration of writer Thomas Nigel Kneale, born 28 April 1922 - and not 18 April as some parts of the internet insist. This point was made by MC Toby Hadoke in his opening introduction to the day's festivities. And that, I think, was the theme of the day: to get this right. All credit to everyone involved.

The first panel, "Nigel Kneale, Quatermass and the BBC", was chaired by Kneale biographer Andy Murray and featured Dick Fiddy from the BFI, Toby Hadoke and comedian Johnny Mains - the latter daring to admit that he doesn't much like Doctor Who. Kneale famously hated that series, but many of us got into Kneale's work via Doctor Who. I've been trying to puzzle out why, and think a lot of fandom - of anything - is trying to recapture the strong feelings of our past. For those thrilled and terrified by Doctor Who as kids, Kneale offers a grown-up version of those feelings, and - since he was so often borrowed from - an understanding of how they were kindled.

The panel was a good, breezy introduction to Kneale and the impact of his work on television in the 1950s, though a lot of the ground here was familiar to me from Toby's recent Radio 4 Extra programme, Remembering Nigel Kneale, and Cambridge Festival's "Televising the future: Nineteen Eighty-Four and the imagination of Nigel Kneale". I'd also just read Andrew Pixley's 1986 interview with Kneale.

Next up, we watched the extraordinary opening episode of The Quatermass Experiment from 1953 (available on the Quatermass Collection DVD set). It's a while since I'd last seen this, and I'd forgotten how blurry, clunky and techbnobabble-heavy its early scenes are as we watch serious, posh scientists at their desks in a tracking control room. But that soon gives way to the extraordinary sight of a house half-demolished by the world's first crewed space rocket. We see before the characters on screen that there's an old woman trapped in the exposed upstairs; she's played by Katie Johnson who two years later was the similarly dotty Mrs Wilberforce in The Ladykillers, only without her scene-stealing cat. It's just one of a number of well-observed comic characters enlivening the serious horror plot, adding a touch of realism - and fun - to the fantasy.

Having read The Intimate Screen by Jason Jacobs, I can understand why The Quatermass Experiment made such an impact: an original drama for television, rather than an adaptation of a stage play or book, that makes full use of the strengths of the medium to conjure an intimately creepy atmosphere. It's so busy, so populous, so nakedly ambitious - and all broadcast live. All these years later, it is thrilling. No wonder it stuck so powerfully with those who saw it at the time. As several panelists said, Quatermass was a thing that terrified our parents, that we first heard about from them decades afterwards - a folk memory of horror. (My mum says the girls at her school would make a lot of noise at the start of each episode, so the grown-ups in charge would not hear the warning of it not being suitable...)

Next up was Tom Baker in a bookish office to narrate Kneale's short story "The Photograph", in a 1978  episode of Late Night Story - a sort of grown-up Jackanory. It's an unsettling story about a sick child, but I was mostly struck by how little Baker blinked throughout what seemed to be a single take (and presumably involved him reading the story off an autocue). 

Then Douglas Weir discussed the the new restoration of Nineteen Eighty Four (1954). The audience gasped at a particular example showing Peter Cushing's Winston Smith walking through Hampstead. The version screened by BBC Four a few years ago had Cushing moving through what looked like silver fog; the restored version shows him moving between trees, individual leaves crisp and clear. (I'm on the new Blu-ray release, by the way, just about audible asking Toby Hadoke and Andy Murray the question about Kneale's never-made scripts.)

Next was the panel "From Taskerlands to Ringstone Round – Nigel Kneale in the 70s", chaired by Howard David Ingham with panelists William Fowler, Una McCormack and Andrew Screen. I've been guilty of overlooking Kneale's 1970s output - The Stone Tape (1972), which I'd at least seen, and the anthology series Beasts (1976), which I haven't yet. That led into a screening of Murrain, Kneale's contribution to a 1975 anthology, Against the Crowd (included on the DVD release of Beasts).

David Simeon - who sadly couldn't be at yesterday's event - plays a vet called to a small village by a farmer played by Bernard Lee from the James Bond films. The farmer has some sick pigs and his water supply has dried up, plus a young boy in the village has had something like flu for a month. The farmer and the villagers think this all the work of a local woman, played by Una Brandon-Jones (who I recognised at once as Mrs Parkin in Withnail & I). The villagers want the vet's help in dealing with her; he's determined to champion science over superstition, insisting that "We can't go back" to the old ways. It's a compelling piece: real, sometimes funny and increasingly sinister. With a start, I recognised some of the scenery: the Curious British Telly site says Murrain was recorded in Wildboarclough, not far from where I now live. A local film for this local person, indeed.

Then Matthew Sweet chaired a panel on "Kneale on Film" with panelists Jon Dear, Kim Newman and Vic Pratt. This covered a lot of stuff I didn't know about: Kneale's work on the movie version of stage plays Look Back in Anger (1959) and The Entertainer (1960), and the mutiny-at-sea story HMS Defiant (1962) - all a long way from the weird-thriller stuff. Because of that, I'd not been much interested; the panel made me want to look them out and understand the weird stuff in context. I want, too, to see his last work, a 1997 episode of legal drama Kavanagh QC.

A clip from the movie version of The Quatermass Xperiment ((1955) showed infected astronaut Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth) stalk a Little Girl (Jane Asher), who offers it imaginary cake. Asher then joined us to discuss this early role and her later, more prominent part in The Stone Tape (1972) - which was then shown in full. I'd seen this before, but it was fascinating to see beside Nimbos, who didn't know what was coming, and in the context of the day's other offering. Again what struck me was how funny it was, especially the visual gag of Reginald Marsh's hands being outlandish colours as he experiments with dyes. Toby Hadoke pointed out that Neil Wilson appears as a salt-of-the-earth security guard having been seen as a salt-of-the-earth policeman in The Quatermass Experiment, so I wonder how much Kneale consciously used the same actors over the years.

This was followed by a live reading of Kneale's 1952 radio play, You Must Listen. Mark Gatiss played the lawyer who has a new telephone installed in his office, only to find he can hear a young woman talking sauce to an unheard lover. Again, it's very funny, the lawyer embarrassed and outraged but the telephone staff all keen to listen in on this rude stuff. And then, as before, it becomes ever more sinister as we realise this saucy woman is an echo from the past. In that sense, it dovetails with The Stone Tape from 20 years later, and with elements of the other stuff we'd seen. How well chosen all these examples were; we could see we were engaged in an experiment ourselves, to trace the resonant echoes of Kneale.

By this time Nimbos and I were flagging as the short breaks between screenings had not been long enough for us to eat any food, and I was getting a bit wobbly. So we sadly missed the panel on “'The inventor of modern television': Kneale’s influences and Legacy" chaired by Jennifer Wallis with panelists Stephen Gallagher, Mark Gatiss, Andy Murray and Adam Scovell. The day ended with a screening of the movie Quatermass & The Pit (1967), and then much natter in the bar.

It was all a bit overwhelming. There was the sheer amount of stuff covered and shown, but also the way the selection encouraged us to tease out shared themes, techniques, stylistics. Then there was the visceral thrill of being in company, catching up with so many friends. I had a long drive home today, passing close to Wildboarclough and its Murrain, brain abuzz from things learned and spotted and argued. That's the thing about Kneale, who died in 2006, and the stuff he wrote that was largely screened long before I was born... 

It is potent. It is alive.

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