Born on the Isle of Man, Nigel Kneale was a writer active in television, film, radio drama and prose fiction. He wrote professionally for over fifty years and was, in many ways, the father of serious science fiction drama on television. Kneale’s most famous creation being the legendary Professor Bernard Quatermass, a heroic rocket scientist who saved humanity from a range of very different alien menaces in a trilogy of stories written by the Manx writer in the 1950s.
The trilogy began with The Quatermass Experiment, in which the first-ever manned space rocket returns to Earth with two of the three astronauts on board missing and the third possessed by some kind of hostile alien organism. In time, this organism consumes and changes the last astronaut into something horrific: a creature that threatens to possess and consume all other life on Earth. However, Quatermass confronts the monster and, with a moving speech, reaches what is left of his friends humanity, persuading him to sacrifice himself to save the rest of mankind.
In the next story, Quatermass II, the professor is asked to examine strange meteorite showers falling in rural England. His investigations lead to him discovering a vast conspiracy involving alien infiltration at the highest levels of the British Government. Somehow these aliens, who have a group consciousness similar to the Borg in Star Trek, can control the minds of people exposed to an alien parasite concealed in their meteorite like projectiles. The aliens plan to colonise the Earth, but Quatermass manages to stop them by destroying their asteroid base in orbit, very sadly losing his close friend and colleague Dr. Pugh in the process.
Finally, in the best and last story of the 1950s trilogy, Quatermass and the Pit, Quatermass becomes involved in the discovery of a strange object near some ape men remains, millions of years old, at an archaeological dig in Knightsbridge, London. The odd object is first thought to be an unexploded World War II bomb, but then more ape men remains are found mysteriously inside the back of the object and later, more disturbingly, the decaying bodies of dead insect like creatures are found inside the front. The object turns out to be a nuclear powered spaceship, five million years old, the creatures: Martians and the ape men: their creations … us … the human race.
In the story we learn that when Mars was dying, the ancient Martians had tried to create a colony on Earth by proxy. They altered mankind’s early ancestors, giving them minds and abilities like their own, but with a body adapted to Earth. More worryingly, they also passed on to mankind their genocidal instincts to destroy anyone different from themselves. In effect, making us the Martians now. Fortunately the Martians died out before completing their plan and, as mankind bred and further evolved, most outgrew their darker Martian inheritance.
Unfortunately, somehow the spaceship reawakens the old Martian instincts, transforming more and more people into genocidal Martians on a race purge, destroying anyone unaffected by the ship’s evil influence. However, Quatermass finds a way to stop the ethnic cleansing before the Martians turn the Earth into a second dead planet. He also tragically loses another friend in doing so.
In each of the three Quatermass stories Kneale managed to tap into the popular interests and, more importantly, anxieties of the time. In The Quatermass Experiment, he played on the mass interest in the early space race and the new threat of nuclear war. The UK conducted the earliest post war tests of captured Nazi V-2 rockets in Operation Backfire, less than six months after the war in Europe ended, and the development of a British launch system to carry a nuclear device started in 1950. So there was a real fear that one of these rockets could come falling out of the sky bringing with it destruction, as one does in The Quatermass Experiment. Then, in Quatermass II, before Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Kneale exploited the popular paranoia about the threat of communist infiltration and subversion of the West. Like nuclear war, this was a real fear at the time. For instance, in 1951, two members of British establishment, Burgess and Maclean, had made international headlines by very publicly defecting to the Soviet Union. And, finally, with the Notting Hill race riots of 1958 still very much fresh in peoples minds, Kneale wrote Quatermass and the Pit admittedly as a fable about race hate.
Kneale’s Quatermass trilogy clearly had a huge impact that continues to be felt even today, influencing everyone from Chris Carter to Gene Roddenberry. The Quatermass Experiment (1953) was the very first science fiction production to be written especially for an adult television audience and cleared the way for the many others that followed it. Also, the three basic alien invasion storylines were first pioneered on television by Kneale in the Quatermass stories. In The Quatermass Experiment, we go to the aliens and bring them back, in Quatermass II the aliens come to us, and in Quatermass and the Pit we discover that the aliens were here all along.
But it would be a mistake to think that Nigel Kneale only wrote stories involving alien possession and invasion. An excellent example of this is The Abominable Snowman, a 1957 Hammer horror film based on Kneale’s own BBC television play The Creature. Again tapping into popular interest at the time, the film follows the exploits of an English anthropologist with an American expedition as they search the Himalayas for the legendary Yeti, the ape man of Tibet. In the real world, speculation about the existence of an unidentified creature living in the Himalayas had been sparked off in November 1951, when Eric Shipton and Michael Ward of the Everest Reconnaissance Expedition found several large footprints as they traversed the Menlung Glacier, and, two years later, Edmund Hillary made a similar discovery during his historic conquest of Mount Everest.
In the film, Kneale turns perceptions on their head by suggesting that the so called Abominable Snowman is not so abominable at all and, perhaps, even a great deal better than mankind who turn out to be the real monsters. The central idea being that the Yeti are our collateral descendants from the apes and are patiently and peacefully waiting for mankind to destroy himself, either quickly through war or slowly through pollution, before descending from the mountains to inherit the Earth.
Another excellent example is The Stone Tape, a Christmas ghost story from 1972 and Kneale’s last major original work for the BBC. Like Quatermass and the Pit before it (which suggested that poltergeist activity could be explained by the psychic abilities left to us by the Martians), The Stone Tape combined science fiction with the supernatural. The television play revolves around a group of scientists who move into a new research facility: an allegedly haunted Victorian mansion. Curious, they investigate the alleged ghost but soon determine that it is really just some kind of recording of a past event somehow stored by stone in one of the rooms (the stone tape of the title). Believing that this discovery may lead to the development of a whole new recording medium, which they were originally brought together to find in the first place, they throw all their knowledge and high tech equipment into trying to find a means of playing back the stone tape recording at will. However, their investigations only serve to unleash a far older and more malevolent force, with tragic consequences. Of course, The Stone Tape is where “the stone tape theory” familiar to many paranormal researchers today originates.
Kneale also wrote three excellent dystopian texts, a fourth Quatermass story The Quatermass Conclusion, a 1954 television adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four for the BBC, and The Year of the Sex Olympics. It is the last of these that proved to be the most prophetic. Broadcast in 1968 The Year of the Sex Olympics seemed to accurately predicted the creation of reality TV in the 1990s.
Set “sooner than you think” in the TV play society is divided between “low-drives” that receive no education and “hi-drives” who control the government and media. The low-drives are controlled by a constant broadcast of pornography that the hi-drives believe will pacify them. But after the accidental death of a protester during the Sex Olympics gets a massive audience response, the authorities create new TV programme, The Live Life Show. In the new show a family are moved to a remote Scottish island while the low-drive audience watches.
Hopefully, this goes some way to answering the question of who Nigel Kneale was. Of all the great science fiction writers to emerge from these islands since World War II, including the likes of Arthur C. Clarke, perhaps only Nigel Kneale comes anywhere close to matching H G. Wells in terms of lasting public impact and sheer brilliance. Both successfully tapped into the mass anxieties of their time and placed them at the centre of their stories, making science fiction accessible to the general public. In short, what Wells did for science fiction in print, Kneale did on television, clearing the way for intelligent science fiction drama on the small screen.