“Going At Ghosts With Science”: ‘Into the Unknown: The Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale’

Reviews / October 2, 2018

Into the Unknown: The Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale
By Andy Murray
Headpress, Revised and Updated Edition, 2017

“They had a home-made religion, purely superstition—which I’m not sure I don’t entirely prefer… It was just there. It wasn’t a thing you made anything of, you were just conscious of it. I remember my brother, when he was a boy, went with his dog up in the hills. It came on dark, and they just kept going in the direction of home. And suddenly the dog began to howl, dreadfully, in a completely deserted area. There was no one near in every direction. The dog suddenly upped and went, and ran like a haunted creature. And Bryan found himself running too… That was a very easy thing to happen. That was the real island. There was a certain mystery about the whole place. It’s always been that way.”

—Nigel Kneale on his childhood on the Isle of Man, as quoted in Into the Unknown

Legend of 20th century science fiction Nigel Kneale (1922-2006) would likely bristle to be described as such. Andy Murray’s terrific biography, Into the Unknown: The Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale, readily conveys Kneale’s sometime ambivalence at being pigeonholed as a genre writer. But the full parade of Kneale’s fascinating life gives perspective to the inseparability of the mundane and the fantastic, the ineffable blend of the themes of science and magic that marks Kneale’s entire body of work. Kneale’s Isle of Man childhood, where he experienced first-hand the power of folk tradition and social magic, is the likely source for this common thread that runs through his more than half-century of short stories, teleplays, and films. Ultimately, what Kneale’s work tells us is that our collective attempts to grapple with our environments, our surroundings, our very selves are products of profoundly human relationships, and of the tides of belief and power that bind us all together.

The Isle of Man, where Kneale grew up, is a tiny island enclave off the Western Midlands coast of Great Britain. The island’s unique mix of indigenous Celtic and invader traditions (Norse, Scottish, and English) created an insular culture full of folklore, ghost stories, and faerie visitations that Kneale held close to his heart his whole life. Kneale could not serve in World War II due to his severe photophobia, an allergy to sunlight that itself seems like something out of one of Kneale’s stories. In the postwar period, Kneale tried his hand at acting, but it was his short stories about Manx life, collected in 1949’s Tomato Cain and Other Stories, that first gained him accolades and attention. Adaptations of the stories appeared on BBC radio, but a new medium, hungry for content, was just then seeking out new voices: BBC Television. Murray’s descriptions of the early days of the BBC, where new methods of television directing and production were being invented on the fly, are fascinating. Kneale’s innovative approach to storytelling, along with his ability to contribute not just as a writer but as an overall creative force on all of his early TV productions, is vividly conveyed through Murray’s extensive interviews with Kneale. Into the Unknown, for much of its length, reads like a compelling and riveting one-man oral history.

Of course, Kneale is best known for his creation of one of the great British fictional characters of the postwar period: the doughty ur-boffin Professor Bernard Quatermass. The Quatermass serials of the 1950s, broadcast on BBC Television, were the kind of monoculture-driven event that is increasingly impossible to come by in the 21st century; millions of Britons tuned in during an era of minimal television ownership. Murray explains fully the “radical” breath of fresh air that The Quatermass Experiment (1953) represented in an already daring and experimental period in early live dramatic television production in Britain, not just in its special effects but in its staging and its dynamic use of cameras. Moreover, the 1950s Quatermass serials perfectly encapsulated the particular anxieties of a postwar Britain still suffering from the privations of war, a loss of prestige on the world stage with the slow crumbling of Empire, and a feeling of inferiority to the country’s new, predominant American cousins. (It’s probably no surprise that one of Kneale’s other big projects of the 1950s for the BBC was a controversial 1954 adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.) In Quatermass II (1955), the professor takes on an alien conspiracy to control humanity. Alien invaders secretly “mark” humans at the highest levels of British government and industry, obviously a trenchant critique of a security and corporate apparatus that had grown exponentially and secretly in British life the decade since the Allies beat the Nazis. Murray also notes that Quatermass’s organization in Quatermass II is now “the rechristened British Rocket Group (here losing its “Experimental” tag),” the Quatermass serials again subtly expressing a desire for British ascendancy on the world aerospace stage in the embryonic years of the Space Race.

For a creator who continually averred that he was not political, much of Kneale’s best work cannily exposes the hypocrisies of those in power. His prediction of the dumbing-down of mass entertainment, 1968’s telefilm The Year of the Sex Olympics, was particularly prescient. Kneale’s unproduced six-part series from circa 1965, The Big, Big Giggle, about a near-future dominated by roving gangs of drug-addicted, nihilistic, and eventually suicidal teens also seemed to ride the wave of the zeitgeist. While certainly influenced by Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962) and the Mod/Rocker wars, Murray also notes that Giggle‘s depiction of a youth culture gone sour and turned inside-out by rampant drug-taking was oddly predictive of the rise and fall of the hippie movement a half-decade hence (a theme that would be revisited in 1979’s fourth Quatermass serial). The BBC wouldn’t touch The Big, Big Giggle due to its controversial subject matter and the exorbitant special effect budget projections. But The Big, Big Giggle wouldn’t be the first or last Kneale project to disappear into history due to neglect.

Even if all he ever did were the Quatermass serials and his high-tech-meets-M.R. James tale of an EVP-like investigation at an English country home, The Stone Tape (Kneale told his BBC producer in 1972 that he would write a haunted tale for Christmas broadcast, but “only if we could do a ghost story which had an altogether different twist—such as going at a ghost with science”), Kneale would be considered an immortal. But it’s in Murray’s evocations of Kneale’s forever-lost legacy, of productions whose recordings were destroyed (or indeed never recorded for posterity) where Kneale’s genius really seems to shine. Kneale’s 1963 teleplay The Road finds him revisiting his thematic obsession of science vs. magic through a pair of 18th century British gentlemen—one a London-based natural philosopher, the other a less-polished country gentleman—investigating a haunting. It’s revealed that the screams and cries and mysterious noises heard by the 18th-century countryfolk are actually the sound of a traffic jam on a motorway in the modern day, echoing down the centuries due to the energy released by an apocalyptic nuclear exchange. As Murray astutely notes, The Road is emblematic of the main themes of Kneale’s career: “In Kneale’s work, the central dramatic conflict often stems from an untamed, primal element—something from the past, from the subconscious, something buried—crashing into the present day, and playing havoc with a bright, shiny future.” This expertly describes the plots of Kneale’s two arguably best-known works, Quatermass and the Pit (1959) and The Stone Tape, and reflects a uniquely British concern about postwar technological progress, an uncertain future, and the bones and ghosts that still lie deep in the buried corners of British folk memory.

Two entire generations of British genre fans and eventual creators grew up on Kneale’s sci-fi work—Quatermass’s final adventure, Quatermass, was broadcast in 1979, 26 years after the professor’s debut—and Murray is sure to talk to them: writers and producers on the latter-day Doctor Who series (it’s no secret that the good Doctor—especially, as Murray points out, Third Doctor Jon Pertwee when he worked on Earth for UNIT—is a pale reflection of Bernard Quatermass), Mark Gatiss and Jeremy Dyson of the League of Gentlemen, and comic writers Grant Morrison and Warren Ellis, among others. But it’s Kneale’s unlikely influence on American creators (Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are among them) that’s perhaps most surprising. John Carpenter has repeatedly stated his debts to Kneale; Carpenter, like Lucas and Spielberg, watched the British motion picture adaptations of the Quatermass serials in his youth. These Kneale-penned films were clearly a substantial cut above the typical B-movie/atomic monster fare of the 1950s and ’60s. (Carpenter’s collaboration with Kneale in 1982’s Halloween III: Season of the Witch ended in some acrimony, with Kneale taking his name off the film because of changes to the script and its overt violence.) Today, a whole new generation of fans worldwide has been rediscovering Kneale’s work through re-releases on DVD and new re-imaginations (such as recent BBC radio adaptations of The Stone Tape and The Road). Andy Murray’s biography is even-handed, incisive, and packs the story of Kneale’s life and career with enough obscure arcana that even the most die-hard Quatermass fan will discover something new.

Michael Grasso

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