9 April 2022


Nigel Kneale. Nightmares and Daydreams
(BFI Southbank)

Can any single genre pin down Nigel Kneale? He certainly used genres to allow ideas to percolate within their parameters but never fell back on the formulaic. For me it’s Kneale’s speculations, satiric power, emotional warmth, ironic viewpoints and dramatic intelligence that grip: all making for a highly unusual and original writer.
­čö╗When interviewed Kneale was often guarded about labels. He said he wasn’t an SF writer and hated the idea of being associated with horror. Yet look at some of his most important works, Quatermass and the Pit, 1984, The Year of the Sex Olympics and The Stone Tape. Here science fiction, horror, fantasy and thriller merge in a satisfying hybrid manner to make them uniquely Nigel Kneale. Of course he also borrowed and adapted ideas from H.P.Lovecraft, M.R.James and H.G.Wells and made them shine in his own visionary manner.

Kneale understood his sources, respected them and conscientiously followed through the implication and practice of ideas such as paranormal phenomena; a mongrel (possibly spawned by aliens) identity; thought control and media threats to impoverish language. Kneale achieved this not through an academic philosophising, though he is a reflective and thoughtful writer, but within popular culture. And all the time he played adroitly with his material. Kneale is a highly intelligent satirist and ironist with shrewd and darkly witty powers

Take his 1954 BBC adaptation of Orwell’s 1984 which has been generally described as depressing. Yet even in this dystopia Kneale introduces mad humour. Winston Smith (Peter Cushing) is asked by his neighbour if he could help unblock her sink. Whilst doing so her son (modelled on a member of the Nazi Youth movement) keeps screaming at him that maybe he’s to blame for the blockage. Aided by able acting Kneale’s script counterpoints absurdity, rage and horror – ignore the children else they might report you, the disloyal adult, to the authorities. Children are no longer relaxed as children. Parental and teacher control are mischievously inverted

Even the stark ‘ghost story’ SF play The Stone Tape introduces the minor character Crashaw (Reginald Marsh) and depicts him as comically satanic (all bulky frame, wild hair and hands stained red by chemical dyes). A pompous ‘old devil’ threatening to lower the nature of scientific research by wanting to develop a superior washing machine. Whilst on a surface level The Year of the Sex Olympics ridicules the disturbing power of television to manipulate it also derides the sexual liberation movement of the 1960s (Kneale was never a fan of that).

This month the BFI Southbank is celebrating Kneale’s writing. It runs throughout April. Ideally it should have been a two month retrospective with everything shown on the big screen. Yet if you throw in work such as the Quatermass serials, available on the BFI player, and the fact the Picture House at Crouch End are having alternative Kneale screenings then this is a very comprehensive season. My focus will be on three remarkable repositories of Kneale ideas – 1984, The Year of the Sex Olympics and The Stone Tape.

When George Orwell’s 1984 was published in 1949 some social commentators said it was a reversal of the title '1984' making it partly a satire about life in 1948. Not just dictatorial politics but shortages and rationing after the Second World War. A colleague of Winston Smith keeps asking him if he can get hold of razor blades. Smith replies that sorry he can’t as he’s been using the same blade for over six weeks.

And there are the proles, working in the canteen (probably a jibe here against the BBC canteen used by the production crew) who spoon out awful soup with or without salt, to be washed down with ‘victory’ gin. This is all in Orwell’s book and Kneale decorates his adaptation with mordant comedy.

Of course the real deprivations of 1984 concern personal freedom and the gradual diminishing of the human personality to have rights or criticise the state. Newsthink, Big Brother, Room 101, Thought Crime, Newspeak and Double think are expressions that have seamlessly entered our language.

Making allowances for the TV technology of 1954 (this is a telecast recording of the second live transmission of the play) it is remarkable effective. The confined space they had to shoot in and the restricted mobility of the camera makes for long takes which reinforce Kneale’s sharp dialogue. Given the controlling nature of TV that Kneale later depicted in The Year of the Sex Olympics it’s fascinating to experience a real BBC intermission in the production. It lasts for nearly five minutes (whilst the cast reassemble for the next live take) and we are forced to look on the face of Big Brother. It’s almost a Nigel Kneale in-joke long before Kneale got into his stride writing about the control of the media.

It’s a pity that the colour version of The Year of the Sex Olympics was wiped clean. Its characters wear floral, hippy kaftans that don’t look quite so vivid in the surviving black and white telecast. However the power of Kneale’s writing comes through. Though not quite as there are a few glitches on the sound recording that muffles the severely abbreviated Kneale dialogue and vocabulary that the TV programme controllers mouth.

In Olympics Kneale’s concern is the social division between the controllers (the TV people high-drives) and the controlled (their audience of low-drives). In 1984 we have the servants of Big Brother: those workers in The Ministry of Truth who are warned to keep their distance from the proles (proletarian working class). Both Orwell and Kneale shared a strong dread about the dumbing down of language and simplification of thought.

One of the most poignant moments in the play is when high-drive Nat Mender (Tony Vogel) struggles to complete the telling of a story to his daughter Keten (Lesley Roach). He cannot find an imaginative enough language for his made-up story. The anguished father stops and asks her forgiveness. Yet the word “love” has been deeply repressed, or more likely doesn’t exist anymore, which forces the tearful Mender to painful keep repeating, “I like you.” to Keten who we realise is dying from her accident on their remote Scottish Island – the family have been placed there for a recording of The Live-Life TV Show to supposedly educate the low-drives and boost the ratings.

Kneale had an impressive craft for creating emotionally involving characters who in scenes, such as this, pierce his challenging and prescient reality television drama to reveal a cruel victimisation – no doubt Keten’s eventual death will break audience apathy, re-introduce, what one controller desires “a tension that an audience can take” just enough to make them laugh. Previously a protester, displaying his ugly and disturbing art-works, accidentally died on the set of a live Olympics Sex TV show that delighted the audience at home.

Yet perhaps the most tragic character in all of Nigel Kneale’s work is Jill Greely (Jane Asher) in The Stone Tape. [Left] She’s a member of a research team who move into a renovated Victorian mansion. Whilst attempting to discover a new recording medium, that will by-pass standard recording tape, Jill encounters the ghost of a young maid who died in 1890. Peter Brock (Michael Bryant) the head of the team thinks this isn’t a ghost but that the stone in the room has preserved an image of the woman’s death. And this stone tape could be the new recording medium they have been seeking. Further investigations are undertaken by Jill, haunted by the maid’s presence, to prove that the stone is actually recording incidents that go back thousands of years to reveal a malevolent source. Brock refuses to believe Jill who is eventually killed by the tape.

For me, The Stone Tape is probably Nigel Kneale’s masterpiece and his finest single TV drama. Fifty years on it still chills as a quasi ghost tale / scientific thriller extending and refining the ideas that Kneale first explored in Quatermass and the Pit.

Though Kneale refuted the label of horror writer he was attracted to ghosts. The Woman in Black is screening as part of the Southbank Neale month. I admire the Susan Hill novel, was excited by the stage version and dismayed by the new film version. It’s this ITV film from 1989 that proves the most memorable realisation of such a spooky tale. And for once perversely gratifying that evil triumphs over good.

Equally Quatermass and the Pit is Hammer at its best. Perhaps the TV serial allowed Kneale’s concepts more space to breathe but director Roy Ward Baker does a terrific job on this big screen adaptation.

Two rare Kneale outings are also on show - his 1963 BBC adaptation of Wuthering Heights starring Claire Bloom and Keith Michele. Maybe not the best adaptation of Emily Bronte yet a strong and atmospheric version. I wondered if Kneale was attracted to the wintry setting of the novel to unconsciously draw on imagery from his earlier 1957 film The Abominable Snowman. Both it and Heathcliffe appear monsters of sorts that suffer a freezing fate!

Finally I was fortunate to attend a special table reading of a lost Neale drama. The Chopper was made as part of a BBC sci-fi anthology series Out of the Unknown. This is about a mechanic who discovers that a motorbike (chopper) is haunted by its last owner. The actors read very well. I think the BFI should do this again. Maybe one day we could have a reading of the wiped Kneale TV play The Road?

This centenary celebration of the remarkable screenwriter Nigel Kneale is not to be missed. Irrespective of what genre appeals to you come and experience the alchemy of a major British screenwriter whose influence continues to excite and inspire.
  • Alan Price

British Film Institute Nigel Kneale Season, details:

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