The Quatermass Experiment

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The Quatermass Experiment

The Quatermass Experiment opening titles.
Running time
Country of origin UK
Original channel BBC summary

The Quatermass Experiment is a British television science-fiction serial, transmitted by BBC Television in the summer of 1953, and re-staged by BBC Four in 2005. Originally comprising six half-hour episodes, it was the first science-fiction production to be written especially for an adult television audience. Previous written-for-television efforts such as Stranger from Space (1951–52) had been aimed at children, whereas adult sci-fi dramas had been adapted from literary sources, such as R.U.R. (1938 and again in 1948) and The Time Machine (1949). It was the first of four Quatermass serials to be screened on British television between 1953 and 1979.


The serial was written by BBC staff television drama writer Nigel Kneale, who had previously been an actor and an award-winning prose fiction writer before joining the staff of the BBC. He was interested in the idea of 'science going bad', and it was this interest in science and scientific concepts that led him to write The Quatermass Experiment. The serial was an expensive one: Head of Television Drama Michael Barry had to commit the majority of his original script budget for the year to the material. Kneale famously claimed to have picked his leading character's unusual-sounding name at random from a London telephone directory.

The serial was directed by Rudolph Cartier, one of the BBC's most highly regarded directors, and transmitted live with only a few pre-filmed inserts from Studio A of the BBC's original television studios at Alexandra Palace in London. It was one of the last major dramas to be broadcast from the Palace, as the majority of television production was soon to transfer to Lime Grove Studios.

The Quatermass Experiment was transmitted weekly on Saturday nights from July 18 to August 22, 1953. Episode one (Contact Has Been Established) was scheduled from 8.15 to 8.45 p.m., episode two (Persons Reported Missing) 8.25–8.55 p.m., episodes three and four (Very Special Knowledge and Believed to be Suffering) 8.45–9.15 p.m., and the final two episodes (An Unidentified Species and State of Emergency) from 9.00 to 9.30 p.m. In practice, however, due to the live transmissions each episode overran its slot slightly, from between two (episode four) and six (episode six) minutes. The long overrun of the final episode was caused by a temporary break in transmission necessitated by a failing microphone which needed to be replaced. The dramatic theme music for the serial was provided by Mars, Bringer of War from Gustav Holst's The Planets suite.

It was intended by the BBC that each episode should be telerecorded onto 35mm film, a relatively new process that allowed for the preservation of live television broadcasts. Sale of the serial had even been provisionally agreed with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. In the event, however, only poor-quality copies of the first two episodes would be recorded before the idea was abandoned, although the first of these was indeed later shown in Canada. These two episodes are the oldest surviving examples of a multi-episodic British drama production and some of the earliest extant examples of British television drama at all, with only a few one-off plays surviving from beforehand.


The story revolves around Professor Bernard Quatermass, head of the British Experimental Rocket Group, and begins with him anxiously awaiting the return to Earth of his experimental rocket ship and its crew, who have become the first humans to travel into space. The rocket is at first thought lost, having dramatically overshot its planned orbit, but eventually is picked up on radar and returns to Earth, crash-landing in Wimbledon, London.

When Quatermass and his team reach the crash area and succeed in opening the rocket, they discover that only one of the three crewmen, Victor Carroon, remains inside. Quatermass and his chief assistant Paterson ( Hugh Kelly) investigate the interior of the rocket, but are baffled by what they find. The space suits of the others are present, and the instruments on board indicate that the door was never opened in flight, but of the other two there is no sign.

Carroon is gravely ill, being looked after by the Rocket Group's doctor, Briscoe ( John Glen), who unknown to him has been having an affair with his wife, Judith ( Isebel Dean). It is not just Quatermass who is interested in what happened to Carroon: the newspapers and Scotland Yard's Inspector Lomax are also keen to hear his story. Carroon is abducted by a group of foreign agents whose government wants the information they believe he has obtained about travelling in space, but it is clear that there is something very wrong. He seems to have somehow absorbed the consciousnesses of the other two crewmembers, and is himself slowly mutating into some hideous creature.

As the police chase the rapidly transforming Carroon across London, Quatermass analyzes samples of the mutated creature in the laboratory, and realizes that it has the ability to end all life on earth. A television crew working on an architectural program spots the monster in Westminster Abbey, and Quatermass and the army rush in to destroy it in the last hour before it brings about doomsday.

Cast and crew

Nigel Kneale went on to become one of the most highly regarded scriptwriters in the history of British television following the success of The Quatermass Experiment. As well as the various Quatermass spin-offs and sequels, he penned such acclaimed productions as Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954) and The Stone Tape (1972). Kneale also appeared on-screen, in a sense, in the final episode of the serial: he 'played' the monster seen in Westminster Abbey at the climax, his hands operating the 'creature' stuck through a photographic blow-up of the interior of the Abbey. The monster was actually made up of gloves covered in various pieces of plant and other material, prepared by Kneale and his girlfriend, later wife, Judith Kerr.

Rudolph Cartier had emigrated from Germany in the 1930s to escape the Nazi regime there, and was already one of the BBC's top television directors, once described as "the man largely responsible for the genre as we know it". He went on to collaborate with Kneale on several further productions, and became a major figure in the British television industry, directing such important productions as Kneale's Nineteen Eighty-Four adaptation, the two further BBC Quatermass serials, and one-off plays such as Lee Oswald: Assassin (1966).

Of the cast, Quatermass himself was played by the experienced Reginald Tate, who had appeared in various films including The Way Ahead (1944). Sadly, he was to die just two years later, while preparing to take the role of the Professor again in Quatermass II. Victor Carroon was played by Scottish actor Duncan Lamont, who later appeared in the film Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) and as a different character in the film adaptation of Quatermass and the Pit (1967). Appearing briefly as a drunk was Wilfrid Brambell, who would later appear as a tramp in Quatermass II.


The Quatermass Experiment gained very favourable viewing figures for 1953, opening with an estimated audience of 3.4 million people for the first episode, building to 5 million for the sixth and final episode, with an overall average of 3.9 million for the entire serial.

As well as the ratings, the serial gained a very positive response from those who had watched, with several letters praising the production being sent to the BBC's listings magazine, the Radio Times. The writer and producer were also praised for their work by readers of TV News magazine, by which they were nominated for one of the publication's 'TV Bouquet' awards.

Film, sequels and DVD

The popularity of The Quatermass Experiment did not go unnoticed in the film world, and Hammer Films quickly purchased the rights to make a feature film adaptation, which was released in 1955 and starred the American actor Brian Donlevy. It was directed by Val Guest, who also wrote the screenplay, and Nigel Kneale was very unhappy with the result—he had been unable to work on the project himself due to his BBC staff contract.

For the cinema, the film had been titled The Quatermass Xperiment, to play up the film's X-certificate status. In America, the film was re-titled The Creeping Unknown.

The BBC was also very pleased with the success of The Quatermass Experiment, and in 1955 a sequel, Quatermass II appeared. This was followed in 1958 by Quatermass and the Pit, and both of these also had feature film versions made by Hammer. The character returned to television in a 1979 serial, simply titled Quatermass, for Thames Television.

A script book of The Quatermass Experiment, containing several production stills from the missing episodes, was published by Penguin Books in 1959, and re-published in 1979 with a new introduction by Kneale.

In April 2005, BBC Worldwide released a boxed set of all their existing Quatermass material on DVD, containing digitally restored versions of the two existing episodes of The Quatermass Experiment as well as the two subsequent BBC serials and various extra material. This includes PDF files of photocopies of the original scripts for episodes three through six. However, they range in quality from readable to (in an extreme case in episode six) illegible.

2005 remake

On Saturday 2 April 2005, the BBC's digital channel BBC Four broadcast a live remake of the serial, abridged to a single one-hour-forty-minute special from the original six thirty-minute episodes, although it was scheduled in a two-hour slot—underrunning whereas most of the original episodes had overrun. Adapted from the original scripts by Executive Producer Richard Fell, the new broadcast was directed by Sam Miller. Kneale acted as a consultant, and the production was the BBC's first live made-for-television drama broadcast for over twenty years.

Actor Jason Flemyng played Quatermass, with Mark Gatiss as Paterson, Andrew Tiernan as Carroon, David Tennant as Briscoe, and Adrian Dunbar as Detective Lomax. The broadcast suffered only a few errors with some fluffed lines, several on- and off-camera stumbles, background sounds occasionally obscuring the dialogue, and, at the programme's end, a cameraman and sound man in shot. On two occasions near the middle of the broadcast a large on-screen graphic advising viewers that a major news story — the death of Pope John Paul II — was being covered on BBC News 24 was overlaid onto the action.

The story was basically identical to the original, although set in the present day. The climax was moved from Westminster Abbey to Tate Modern (as the latter was easier to replicate in studio) and there is no visible monster.

Although the broadcast was live, the colour and contrast were manipulated to make the picture look more like film—a common practice in modern videotaped drama, but one that could be seen as ironic in this case. Drawing an average audience of 482,000, The Quatermass Experiment became BBC Four's second-highest rated programme of all time, behind The Alan Clark Diaries. The production was released on DVD, with an audio commentary and various other extra features, in October 2005.

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