Quatermass and the Pit

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Television

Quatermass and the Pit is a British television science-fiction serial, the third of four in the famous Quatermass series by writer Nigel Kneale. It was originally broadcast by the BBC over the winter of 1958–59.

Generally regarded by critics and fans as the most successful of the Quatermass serials, it was the last one to be produced by the BBC in the 1950s, and the last television outing of the character anywhere for twenty years. In this instalment of the series, the eponymous hero Professor Bernard Quatermass finds himself becoming involved in the discovery of a bizarre object at an archeological dig in Knightsbridge, London. As the serial progresses, Quatermass and his allies find that the contents of the object have a horrific influence over those who come into contact with it, and darker implications for the entire nature of mankind.

In a 2000 poll of industry professionals conducted by the British Film Institute, it was voted at number seventy-five in a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes of the 20th century, where it was described as: "Completely gripping, under the guise of genre it tackled serious themes of man's hostile nature and the military's perversion of science for its own ends."


After the success of the two previous Quatermass serials — The Quatermass Experiment (1953) and Quatermass II (1955) — the BBC were more than willing for Kneale, now a freelance writer and not on the BBC staff, to pen a third instalment in the series. Since Quatermass II Kneale had been working mostly in film, writing the screenplay adaptations of his own television serials The Creature (as The Abominable Snowman) and Quatermass II (as Quatermass 2), and John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger. For Quatermass and the Pit, he was reunited with director Rudolph Cartier, who had helmed the previous two Quatermass serials as well as many other Kneale scripts for the BBC. It was to be the final collaboration between the two, who had formed the most successful writer/director partnership in British television of the 1950s.

Quatermass and the Pit built on the already popular status of the Quatermass character and created a story that enthralled much of the television-watching public: for many years it was stated that the final episode famously "emptied the pubs" as enthusiastic viewers rushed home to watch. In the words of the British Film Institute, "the series, like its predecessors, was compulsory viewing" . The review of the first episode in The Times newspaper praised the production: "The expository episode was a brilliant example of Mr Kneale's ability to hold an audience with promises alone; smooth, leisurely, and without any sensational incident, it was imbued in Mr Rudolph Cartier's production with unearthly echoes of horrors to come." The serial helped to popularise the science-fiction genre on television in the UK, and make it a respectable and adult format. The production is also notable for the distinctive electronic wailing noise that accompanies alien phenomena, which was created by the then newly-formed BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

As with the previous two serials and in common with most other television drama of the day, Quatermass and the Pit was transmitted live, from the BBC's Riverside Studios in London. However, it also had a large amount of pre-filming work carried out on external location and, for complex sequences not easily achievable in the confines of a live television studio, at Ealing Studios. For these filmed sequences, Cartier employed the services of the BBC's experienced film cameraman A. A. Englander, who was at the time one of the top film cameramen working in the UK. As usual, the pre-filmed sequences would be played into the live transmission as and where required.

The serial was broadcast over six Monday evenings from December 22, 1958 to January 26, 1959. Although all six episodes — The Halfmen, The Ghosts, Imps and Demons, The Enchanted, The Wild Hunt and Hob — were written as half-hour instalments, each was given a thirty-five minute timeslot due to the overruns most of the episodes of the previous two Quatermass serials had gone into. All six episodes were scheduled in an 8.00–8.35pm timeslot. The production drew very high viewing figures for the BBC, with the final episode gaining 11 million viewers, one of the highest BBC drama audiences of the decade.

As each episode was being transmitted it was telerecorded onto 35mm film, and these telerecordings proved to be of exceptionally good quality. Keen to take an example of what it felt to be an important piece of television, the British Film Institute took prints of these telerecordings, all of which survive in the BBC's archives. In 1960, an edited compilation version was prepared and screened by the BBC, broadcast in two instalments as 5 Million Years Old ( January 2, 1960, 8.40–10.10pm) and Hob ( January 9, 1960, 8.45–10.15pm). This compilation version also survives in the BBC's archives, and is very important because the scenes originally shot on film were removed from it and replaced with the corresponding original film sequences, meaning that these pre-filmed inserts survived in excellent quality for the re-mastering of the story. The compilation also had a magnetic soundtrack, which gave better quality than the optical soundtrack which was all that survived on the original episodes.

In November 1986 episode three, Imps and Demons, was selected by the BBC for transmission as part of their fiftieth anniversary of television season, although Kneale felt the broadcast of a single episode on its own to be a waste of time. He did, however, assist BBC Video with the preparation of a 178-minute two-part compilation version of the serial, which was released on VHS in 1987. In 1995 this video was re-released by independent budget label Revelation, who also put out a DVD version of the same compilation in 1999. Fans were disappointed that the DVD was taken from the VHS masters and had no additional material.

On April 4, 2005, the BBC issued a fully-remastered DVD box set entitled The Quatermass Collection, containing the two surviving episodes of The Quatermass Experiment and the whole of Quatermass II and Quatermass and the Pit, remastered in their original format from the best surviving elements. The DVD also includes behind-the-scenes material and a comprehensive booklet giving production and remastering information.


This synopsis is based on the television version of the story.

A pre-human skull is discovered while building works are taking place in the fictional Hobbs Lane — formerly Hob's Lane, from an old name for the Devil. (In the film version the location of the building works is moved to the also fictional ' Hobbs End' tube station.) Dr Matthew Roney, a palaeontologist, examines the recovered remains, which are many thousands of years old, and reconstructs a dwarf-like humanoid with an unusually large brain volume, which he believes to be a form of primitive man. As further excavation is done on the site, something that looks like a missile is unearthed, and further work by Roney's group is halted as the military believe it to be an unexploded bomb left over from World War II.

Roney calls in his old friend Professor Bernard Quatermass of the British Rocket Group, an expert on matters of unusual scientific background, to stop the military from disturbing what he believes to be an archeological find. Quatermass and Colonel Breen, who has been placed in charge of the Rocket Group over Quatermass's objections, become intrigued by the site. More and more of the artifact is uncovered, and additional fossils are found inside which Roney dates to five million years in age — suggesting that the object is at least that old as well. The interior is empty, but a symbol consisting of five intersecting circles (which Roney identifies as the occult pentagram) is found etched on an inside wall which appears to hide an inner chamber.

The shell of the object is so hard that even diamond drills make no impression, and when the attempt is made, strange vibrations cause severe distress in the people around the object. Quatermass interviews the local residents and discovers that sightings of ghosts and other poltergeist activity have been common in the area for decades. Meanwhile, a worker is carried out of the object in hysterics — he claims to have seen a dwarf-like apparition walk through the wall of the artefact, a description which matches a 1927 newspaper account of a ghost sighting.

Somehow, however, a hole has been opened up in the wall which allows them to uncover the interior chamber, and they find the remains of insect-like aliens resembling giant three-legged locusts, with stubby antennae on their heads giving the impression of horns. As Quatermass and Roney examine the remains, they theorise that the aliens might have come from a nearby planet which was habitable five million years ago — Mars.

Meanwhile, another worker inside the craft triggers off more poltergeist activity, which forces him to wander through the streets in a dazed panic until he finds sanctuary inside a local church. Quatermass and Roney find him there, and he describes visions of the insect aliens killing each other. As Quatermass investigates deeper into the history of the area, he finds accounts dating back to medieval times about devils and ghosts, all tending to be centered on incidents where the ground was disturbed. He suspects that somehow a psychic projection of these beings has remained behind on the alien ship and is being seen by certain people who come in contact with it.

Quatermass plans to use an invention of Roney's, an "optic-encephalogram", to see these visions. The device will record impressions from the optical centers of the brain, in effect showing whatever the subject is seeing, hallucinatory or not. He wears the device and goes into the craft, but it is Roney's assistant, Barbara Judd, who is affected most. Placing the device on her, they record what she "sees" — a violent, bloody purge of the Martian hive, to root out unwanted mutations.

Quatermass begins to have a working theory on what is going on. He believes that in its most primitive phase mankind was visited by this race. Some humans were taken away and genetically altered to have special abilities like telepathy, telekinesis and other psychic powers. They were then brought back to Earth — the buried artefact was one of the return ships that had crashed. The idea was that, with their home world dying, the aliens had tried to make over our ancestors to have minds and abilities like theirs, created in their own mental image, but with a bodily form adapted to earth. In effect, we are the Martians.

However, the plan was a partial failure: the aliens died out before completing their work, and as the human race bred and further evolved, only a percentage of it maintained these abilities, and even these only surfaced sporadically. For centuries, the buried ship itself had been occasionally triggering these dormant abilities. This explained the reports of poltergeists (people were unknowingly using their own telekinesis to move objects around them), the ghost sightings being traces of a race memory. It also explained the history of witchcraft and why people attributed it to a being they identified as the devil; the pentagram would have been the symbol for this alien race.

The government authorities, and Breen in particular, find this explanation preposterous despite being shown the recording of Barbara's vision, believing that the craft is actually a Nazi propaganda weapon and the alien bodies fakes designed to create exactly the impressions that Quatermass has come to. They attribute the vision to an overactive imagination, and intend to hold a media event to assuage the rumors that are already flitting through the population. However, Quatermass realises that if these implanted psychic powers survive in the human race, there could also still be ingrained in us a compulsion to enact the " Wild Hunt" of a race purge. Quatermass is concerned that the memories encoded inside the ship, which have already been picked up by sensitive people near it, will trigger that inclination and that those affected will begin to slaughter their own.

Despite his warnings, the media event occurs, and the power cables that string into the craft fully activate it for the first time. Glowing and humming like a living thing, it starts drawing upon this convenient energy source and awakening the ancient racial programming. Those people of London in whom the alien admixture remains strong fall under the ship's influence; they merge into a group mind and begin a telekinetic mass murder of those without the alien genes, an " ethnic cleansing" of those that the alien race mind considers impure and weak.

Breen stands transfixed and is eventually consumed by the energies from the craft as it slowly melts away and a holographic image of a Martian "devil" floats in the sky above London. Fires and riots spread, and even a passing aircraft is affected and crashes into the city. Quatermass himself almost succumbs to the mass psychosis, attempting to kill Roney, who does not have the alien gene and is immune to the alien influence. Roney manages to shake Quatermass out of his trance, and together they realise that the floating image is the source of the mass psychosis. Even without the craft and electricity, it is now draining the combined psychic energy of London.

Remembering the legends of demons and their aversion to iron and water, Roney deduces that a sufficient mass of iron connected to wet earth may be enough to short the apparition out. Quatermass gets a length of iron chain and tries to reach the "devil" but succumbs to the psychic pressure. It is Roney, in the end, who manages to hurl the chain into the fiery image and end the madness, but both he and the craft are reduced to ashes.

In the end, Quatermass holds a television broadcast, in which he praises Roney's sacrifice, saying that they now are armed with knowledge that will allow them to deal with any more Martian artifacts. He also warns that now that we are aware of the dark urges implanted within us all, we have to be careful about wars, witch-hunts and other communal violence — lest we Martians turn the Earth into a second dead planet.

Cast and crew

For the third time in as many serials, the lead role of Professor Bernard Quatermass was played by a different actor, this time André Morell. The original Quatermass actor, Reginald Tate, had died quite suddenly shortly before production of the second serial, necessitating a hasty replacement with John Robinson, who neither Cartier nor Kneale were ever completely happy with. For Quatermass and the Pit, with more time to consider their options, they chose Morell ("a civilised and debonair figure" in Kneale's opinion) who had previously appeared as O'Brien in their famous 1954 adaptation of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Roney was played by Canadian actor Cec Linder, possibly with an eye on the potential of selling the serial to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Linder later appeared in Lolita (1962), and in the James Bond film Goldfinger (1964) as the CIA agent Felix Leiter.

John Stratton played Captain Potter, Anthony Bushell Colonel Breen and Christine Finn appeared as Barbara Judd. For the first time, Kneale used a character from a previous serial other than Quatermass himself: the journalist James Fullalove from The Quatermass Experiment, although like Quatermass he changed actor, with Brian Worth replacing Paul Whitsun-Jones.

Nigel Kneale went on to continue his successful career writing for film and television, returning to the Quatermass character a final time with Quatermass in 1979 for the BBC's rival, the ITV network. He also penned feature films such as The Entertainer (1960 — based on another John Osborne play) and The First Men in the Moon (1964, from the novel by H.G. Wells).

Rudolph Cartier continued as an in-house director for the BBC, helming many more highly successful productions such as the opera Otello (1959), Anna Karenina (1961, starring Sean Connery) and Lee Oswald: Assassin (1965). He died in 1994, at the age of ninety.

Film, sequels and DVD

As with the previous two Quatermass serials, the rights to adapt Quatermass and the Pit for the cinema were purchased by Hammer Films, although it was not until 1967 that the film was made, possibly because Kneale had been unhappy about the previous Hammer versions. Hammer kept the original title, although in the United States the film was known as Five Million Years to Earth. Kneale adapted his own script, with Scottish actor Andrew Keir starring as Quatermass.

The film, although not particularly commercially successful, is regarded as the most faithful Quatermass cinema adaptation, and a very good film in its own right. The film was released on Region 2 DVD in 2004.

The scripts of Quatermass and the Pit were released by Penguin Books in 1959, as part of the series with script books of the previous two serials. Twenty years later in 1979 these were re-released by Arrow Books to coincide with the fourth and final Quatermass serial, Quatermass, which was then being transmitted on ITV.

This final serial starred John Mills, and proved to be the last screen outing for the character, bringing his story to a close. However, in 1996 Kneale penned a radio series entitled The Quatermass Memoirs for BBC Radio 3, which mixed a factual account of the character's history with a fictional strand of Quatermass writing his memoirs. Quatermass was again played by Andrew Keir for this production.

In April 2005, BBC Worldwide released a boxed set of all their existing Quatermass material on DVD, containing digitally restored versions of all six episodes of Quatermass and the Pit, as well as the two existing episodes of The Quatermass Experiment and all of Quatermass II, along with various extra material.

The 1971 Doctor Who serial The Dæmons features plot elements which bear remarkable similarities to Quatermass and the Pit, including an extraterrestrial race that was the basis for legends of demons and magic being explained as psychokinetic force. In a parallel to Hobbs Lane, the setting of The Dæmons is a village named Devil's End.

Another Doctor Who serial, 1977's Image of the Fendahl, also has a plot strongly influenced by Pit, featuring a telepathic creature from the "fifth planet" known as the Fendahl. After the destruction of its homeworld, the Fendahl came to Earth and influenced the evolution of humans to possess psychic powers. When its "skull" (marked with a pentagram) is discovered in an archaeological dig, it proceeds to take over the descendants of the engineered humans in an effort to colonise the Earth.


The 1959 Goon Show episode The Scarlet Capsule, written by Spike Milligan, is a parody of the BBC serial, complete with the original Radiophonic wail.

Some workmen employed by Government's Dig Up the Roads Plan for Congesting Traffic Scheme, while working as an alternative to striking, unearth an ancient skull ("Must be a woman...the mouth's open."). Professor Ned Quartermess, a.k.a. Neddie Seagoon ( Harry Secombe), sceptical of claims that the remains might be unexploded German skulls from World War II, discovers a fossilized Irish stew, and then uncovers a strange scarlet capsule containing the fossilized remains of three serge suits and the bones of a bowler hat. Willium "Mate" Cobblers hears a voice saying "Minardor". Several people are struck down by flying Irish stews, and Quartermess becomes convinced there is a poltergeist at work, and starts evacuating the local population — including Peter Sellers as a woman whose seductive voice causes the script to be heavily censored.

Eventually the scheming Hercules Grytpype-Thynne (Sellers) persuades Quartermess to blow up the capsule — with his sidekick Count Jim Moriarty (Milligan), whose life he has coincidentally insured for a large sum, tied up inside. But the blast blows everyone up — at least until the next episode — and a BBC announcer ( Andrew Timothy) reports that the capsule was actually a London Underground train containing three striking Tube workers that had been shunted into a siding and forgotten. "The Mystic word 'Minardor' was in fact 'Mind the doors'. Not a very good ending, but at least it's tidy, don't you think?" He is then struck down by an Irish stew.

The series was also parodied by the popular BBC television comedy series Hancock's Half Hour, in an episode entitled The Horror Serial, transmitted the week following the final episode. In it, Hancock has just finished watching Hob on the television, and becomes convinced that there is a crashed Martian space ship buried at the end of his garden. Sadly, this episode no longer exists in the BBC's archives.

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