My own first encounter with the work of Nigel Kneale [pictured right, 1960] came very late on in his career, and strictly speaking it's a non-encounter. In 1979, when I was seven, ITV screened Quatermass, Kneale's belated 'conclusion' to the 1950s serials about the same character. I wasn't allowed to watch it. My parents, who'd grown up in the Fifties, associated Quatermass with nerve-fraying fear and decided it would be too much for my young mind. I can't remember ever being stopped from watching any other programme.
A good friend of mine - he'll forgive me for mentioning that he's a shade older than me - tells a similar story. His Mother, whilst she'd been a WREN in the fifties, had gone on an outing to see the Hammer Quatermass films. They scared her out of her wits, and even today, it seems, the mention of the name Quatermass turns her white as a sheet.
It's a familiar tale in Britain. Take these quotes, for instance:
"I was terrified by Quatermass. I mean, that show. The one where they did it in some, like, electro-hydro station somewhere, and they all got some mark on them when they'd been - I don't know if they were aliens or the mad professor had created them. I think they were aliens. So I was always terrified that someone would say, 'hello…' [mimes being zapped in the neck]. And then I would start walking like this [affects zombie walk]"
"That's the first thing I ever remember watching on television, and going every Saturday to watch this, and then riding the bike home at night and going past all those trees thinking, 'is it going to grow and grab me,' y'know..?"
The first quote is from Ringo Starr. The second, Cliff Richard. An entire generation seems to have grown up petrified by the work of Nigel Kneale. In the days before 'genre television' had been identified and compartmentalised, audiences en masse thrilled to Kneale's unique and inventive style. It had elements of what we now call horror, and a dash of science-fiction, but it was more straightforward that that. It was just good. It's tempting to over-simplify Kneale's career, though, along the lines of 'he wrote Quatermass and it was scary'. Over fifty years he's written a staggering amount of original work, taking in film, television, radio and prose fiction. His quality control has remained inspiring. It's possible to argue that the Quatermass scripts are just the tip of the iceberg.
Writing for television might not be rocket science, but back in the early 1950s, it might as well have been. This was an entirely new field, a blank page, devoid as yet of techniques and established approaches. Many of today's leading television writers revere Kneale as the undisputed forefather of British TV drama. His work exerts a staggering and palpable influence even today, several decades after much of it was lost forever when the transmission tapes were wiped and reused. Nigel Kneale is not a household name in this country, as the likes of Dennis Potter and Alan Bleasdale are. This book is an attempt to explain why not and, more importantly, why he deserves to be.
Before we begin this biography, we'd like to say that, in our opinion, it is not suitable for children, or for those of you who may have a nervous disposition.
[More to follow.]