Quatermass and the Pit
The question that’s always at the back of my mind when I’m watching Hammer’s Quatermass movies is - I wonder if the original BBC TV programmes are better? I haven’t watched any of them you see, but I do know they’re supposed to be modern television classics and, given that the movies are a lot of fun but not exactly, you know, classic, the question does remain. It’s sitting quietly and politely, like you imagine a BBC-in-the-fifties question would, but still definitely there. However, while I was watching Quatermass and the Pit the question stood up, wandered over and poked me in the eye; because I think that the TV version of the Quatermass and The Pit is maybe, probably, better.
Not because the movie isn’t good, mind. It looks fantastic for a start, and is much more classically cinematic than your usual Hammer film, which is bound to make it much better looking than the live BBC TV play it’s based on. They had to film it on the MGM backlot in England, because Hammer’s studios were busy, and so the Hobb’s End set where nearly everything takes place has a believably cramped and tumbledown feel to it that could only come from being able to fake it in style.
Professor Quatermass is much better in this one too, with Hammer regular Andrew Keir in for the slightly tone-deaf American Brian Donleavy. Nigel Kneale, the writer of the films and the TV plays, bloody hated Donleavy and was thrilled a British gent was putting on Quatermass’ hat. But even though Keir is pretty good, and his beard is nothing short of magnificent, BBC’s Quatermass was played by Andre Morell. Now, I blooming love Andre Morell, and his particular brand of thoughtful intensity would have worked a real treat in The Pit. There is such a lot of flustered panic knocking about that having someone like old Andre in the middle of it, trying quietly to figure out what exactly is going on while the rest of the world goes mad, would have been absolutely perfect. In other words, even though Andrew Keir is much better as Quatermass than Donleavy, it’s tough to believe that Andre wasn’t better.
But honestly I think it boils down to the fact that during the climax of the movie I didn’t have a clue what was happening. I know it was something to do with a magic machine that could transmit live pictures of people’s subconscious thoughts to a TV screen, a massive blue Martian’s head floating above London, flashbacks to that Martian’s civilization in the middle of a London church, ghost dwarves, and nothing less than the origins of all bloody humanity. But exactly how it tied together, I really haven’t the foggiest.
Now, apparently nothing substantial was changed from the TV play, and all of this barmy stuff was in there too. However, the BBC had six episodes to explore all these cool and crazy ideas about Mars, where the film only has time to throw them at us as we race towards the climax. Which means Quatermass doesn’t so much uncover the truth as run behind it panting, hoping desperately to catch up with it before the movie’s over. The very end of the film, for example, rests on something one character yells at another just before they rush outside to confront the giant Martian. Now if they had been able to give this idea about a fundamental Martian vulnerability its own scene and a little time to breathe, I could have properly appreciated the archaeologist’s pluck at the climax because I would have understood what he was doing; more than that it would’ve been a nice moment in its own right, given what he yells is actually a pretty cool idea. But the truth is, everything just moves too pigging fast. There is a lot of stuff going on here, take it from me, and where in a TV series the stuff would have had time to be the twists and turns of a great mystery, here they’re just shocks and reveals that pile up and up, until by the end you’re thinking ‘Eh? What?’ instead of ‘Ooh! I say!’
The thing is, I actually enjoyed the movie very much. It was strange and different, and pretty damn spooky for a story about Martians. I really did like Keir and his beard, and Julian Glover is always a reliable slime-bag. The look of the film had real style too, with the Martian ship having a pleasingly strange, yet also pretty cool, design which is of course what all spaceships should look like (I’m willing to bet it beat whatever vacuum cleaners and filing cabinets the BBC taped together). And I loved all the hokum about demons of ancient manuscripts and burger-van bothering poltergeist men. I even enjoyed what I understood of the mythology, because who doesn’t like the idea of unearthing a five million year old spaceship containing the secrets of mankind’s birth?
But if you want the audience to properly enjoy your bonkers plot biscuits, you have to give them time to digest until they’re ready for another one. If you keep force feeding them biscuits as fast as they can eat them then, sooner or later people get full. And believe me, I am a fan of bonkers plot biscuits. I normally can’t eat them fast enough. But you know when you eat too many biscuits and your mouth gets so dry that you think to yourself - that’s it for me and these biscuits! That’s how I felt at the climax of The Pit.
So I suppose I should just take the question’s finger out of my eye, and watch the BBC Quatermass stories. I would like to see a British Quatermass in the first two, and I’d dearly love to see the amazing story of The Pit be given the time and tension it deserves. Or, I don’t know, I could just watch the movie again and pick up everything I missed the first time. After all, bugger the BBC, I am a Hammer man. Maybe, in the end, it’s just better to give things you love another go. Speaking of which…