Before the film starts, there’s the end of coverage of the Open Golf Championship.
Then, a trailer for the superb Star Cops. Trailer, not so hot. Love the stars at the end, though.
Then we have the Hammer Films movie version of Quatermass and the Pit. Adapted by Nigel Kneale from his own teleplay, this was the only film version of the TV serials made in colour, and is undoubtedly the best.
I’ve always thought that Quatermass and the Pit is the best of the three BBC serials. It’s the perfect blend of science and myth that Kneale loved so much.
The film runs for about half the time of the original serial, so the story cracks along, without really feeling truncated. The film starts with the discovery of fossilised skulls in the excavations for an extension to the Underground, at Hobbs Lane station (which I wish was real). Archaeologist Mathew Roney, played by James Donald, and his assistant Barbara Judd (played by Barbara Shelley) are brought in to supervise the dig, and explain how remarkable these finds are, indicating ape-like ancestors of ours living there up to five million years ago.
But this discovery is rather overshadowed when something large and metallic is discovered among the fossils which, when uncovered, appears to be some kind of rocket.
So an expert is consulted – the militaristic Colonel Breen, played by the excellent Julian Glover, who is an expert in World War 2 rocketry and munitions. And when he’s contacted, who should he be arguing with than our titular hero, Professor Bernard Quatermass, head of the British Rocket Group. Breen is telling him how the Group’s focus must change to accomodate the needs of the military, something Quatermass wants to avoid.
Quatermass and Breen visit the dig site, and both leap to their own conclusions, setting up the central dynamic of the film, between pure science and military dogma. Breen assumes it’s a German V-weapon, but Quatermass has other ideas.
In this movie, Quatermass is played by Andrew Keir, taking over from the frankly awful Brian Donlevy in the previous Hammer movies, and Keir’s Quatermass is exactly how you picture the character.
Quatermass soon finds stories about strange events in the locality going back to the middle ages, all caused by digging or otherwise disturbing the land. Even the name of the street was changed. “Hob’s Lane” is a reference to Hob, an ancient name for the devil.
After several failed attempts to drill through the hull of the ship, all of a sudden an inner bulkhead starts disintegrating, and inside they find the dead and suddenly decaying bodies of strange creatures.
This is one place where the film hasn’t improved on the BBC serial, whose aliens were a lot more interesting looking.
Quatermass believes these are Martians, and they had taken proto-humans, genetically manipulated them, and returned them to Earth, as a way to survive their extinction as Mars became uninhabitable. There’s an interesting exchange between Roney and Quatermass.
QUATERMASS Roney, if we found that our Earth was doomed, say by climatic changes, what would we do about it?
RONEY Nothing. Just go on squabbling as usual.
Pretty soon, it’s all kicking off. People are seeing visions of jumping martians, and causing object around them to fly around. Using a technologically unlikely gadget, they’re able to monitor Barbara Shelley’s mind as she’s experiencing these visions, and capture the images on tape. What they’re seeing, says Quatermass, is a racial purge on Mars, and that was how they maintained their unchanging society. And because our evolution was changed by the Martians, the uncovered ship is having a similar effect on us.
So when a TV crew are invited down, and a power cable shorts out on the ship, all hell breaks loose, and people start their own purge. Even Quatermass is affected, and Roney has to talk him down.
Poor Colonel Breen can’t believe what’s happening, and stays with the ship, and he has a sticky end as it all goes a bit Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Brilliant stuff. Assuming I can forgive a film which resolves a climax by having a man punch a woman in the face. I think it works in context, but it’s a bit of a shock.
Also spotted, in a short role as a journalist, is the lovely Sheila Steafel.
BBC Genome: BBC Two – 18th July 1987 – 23:25
After the film, BBC2 closes down with a look at programmes for tomorrow.