Friday, 3 June 2016
First viewed : 31 October 1979
This four-part sci-fi drama wasn't universally loved but I really enjoyed it. Of course I was too young to remember the original Quatermass serials in the fifties which certainly were well-regarded so I wasn't burdened with making comparisons. Those were made by the BBC and writer Nigel Kneale wrote this one for the Beeb too. Shooting started in 1972 then was abandoned due to the costs but the BBC held on to the rights until 1975. Kneale was mainly working for ITV by then and eventually persuaded Euston Films to pick it up. This troubled genesis is important as the deranged youth cult at the centre of the story is based on hippies rather than punks. This is a vision of the future with a chunk of the present missing.
The exact year of the setting is imprecise but it's the near-future and society has broken down. The cities are virtually no-go areas with muggers and armed gangs attacking anyone who ventures there , with an unsavoury privatised police force barely keeping them in check. he youth have joined either a violent gang or the Planet People, a wandering bunch of hippies who believe they will be transported to somewhere better. The old are later discovered to be cowering in a huge scrapyard and scavenging by night
Into the midst of this dystopia stumbles the aging Quaatermass ( John Mills ) who has been living as a recluse in the wilds of Scotland but is now searching for his grand-daughter who may have joined the Planet People. Invited to take part in a TV programme to discuss a pointless US-Soviet space exchange, he condemns it venomously just before an unknown disaster breaks up the ships. Rescued by fellow guest Joe Kapp ( Simon McCorkindale ) a young Jew trying to keep the flame of scientific research alive, he is taken to Joe's rural retreat where his friends and young family man a couple of radio telescopes. Shortly afterwards, they witness the destruction of a gathering of Planet People at the fictitious stone circle of Ringstone Round and Quatermass realises that there is an extra-terrestrial threat once again.
The sci-fi aspect though is just window-dressing. The story is really about inter-generational conflict and Kneale was attacked for having such a jaundiced view of youth culture with Quatermass's bumbling but still resourceful old man having to save the youth from itself. It also presents a viscerally bleak view of the way society was heading in the seventies which many found too hard to watch particularly after Kapp's lovely family and friends are all wiped out at the end of the second episode.
Kneale himself didn't like the end product, particularly the casting and criticised both Mills and McCorkindale as wrong for their parts. I can't see a problem with either of them especially not Mills and the high production values, apart from the space scenes which are Blake's Seven - creaky, are also a big plus with the action scenes well-realised. I bought Kneale's novelisation that Christmas which is even more bleak and cynical than what was on screen.
The series is also quite prescient. The confrontation between the Planet People and the cops at Ringstone Round is eerily predictive of the Batttle of the Beanfield a few years later and in the ironically violent leader of the PPs, Kickalong ( Ralph Arliss ), you can see a model for David Koresh and his ilk . We haven't really had youth vs age conflict spilling over into public disorder yet but maybe that's still to come.
The series was repeated on ITV3 a few years back and still stood up well.