Sunday, June 12, 2022

Into the Unknown: the Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale, by Andy Murray

I bought this after the event in April to mark Nigel Kneale's centenary. Originally published in 2006 (when Kneale was still alive), this is the updated 2017 edition. Its largely based on interviews with Kneale himself, conducted in 2002 and 2003, going through his various works in order. That's then peppered with other bits of interview and context. It's comprehensive - covering lots of stuff Kneale worked on that was never made - and full of fascinating detail. Yet it's also concisely told: a rattling good story.

Andy Murray is really good at identifying what makes so much of Kneale's work highly effective. One sentence, from Kneale himself on why the 1979 version of Quatermass didn't match the power of the earlier serials, is telling of his work as a whole: 

"The central idea was too ordinary." (p. 210)

Also excellent is teasing out common themes, interests, strengths. I'd always found it odd that the author of Quatermass and Nineteen Eighty-Four wrote sitcom and for Sharpe and Kavanagh QC. Now I see how these things all connect: Murray's especially good on demonstrating how the Kavanagh episode, about an old and respected doctor who might by a former Nazi, is thematically in keeping with Quatermass and the Pit, in which ancient and long buried evil is suddenly brought into the light.

There's a good sense of Kneale in all this - or rather of two Kneales. One is Nigel, the cantankerous, curmudgeonly writer, all too ready to say what he thinks about other people's failings and continually cross about money. The other is Tom: kindly, supportive and practical, a devoted husband and father - and model for the dad in the Mog books.* My sense is that many of the people Murray spoke to either met one or other of these men. There was something mercurial about Kneale; something fittingly impish.

Among the many fascinating details, I was struck that, though Kneale left his staff-writing job at the BBC to go freelance from 1 January 1957, he continued to make use of his office at the BBC - presumably in or around Lime Grove - which was convenient for meeting up with directors etc. His wife, Judith Kerr, continued to work in the BBC's script unit until the end of 1957 - her six-part adaptation of Buchan's The Huntingtower was broadcast in June and July (Murray says the Scottish dialogue polished by head of department Donald Wilson (p. 88)); another adaptation by Kerr, The Trial of Mary LaFarge, was broadcast on 15 December. Kerr left the BBC around this time as her daughter was born the following month.

That means she must have overlapped with David Whitaker, whose life I'm currently researching. He joined the unit around October 1957, his first work as a staff writer - for which he didn't get a credit on screen or in Radio Times - broadcast less that two weeks after Kerr's last. I'm rather taken by the potential of that overlap, given that Whitaker later asked Kneale to write for Doctor Who.

This has sparked some further thoughts - but more on that anon.

* How amazing to learn (p. 145) that the dad in The Tiger Who Came to Tea was in part modelled on Alfred Burke, at the time the star of detective series Public Eye, and a neighbour of Kneale and Kerr.

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