31 October 2006

Nigel Kneale: 1922-2006

I was deeply saddened to hear of the passing of one of my favorite writers: Nigel Kneale, who died Sunday at the age of 84 after a long and distinguished career in British film, television, and literature.

Kneale was hardly a household name in North America, but in the UK he was (and is) quite revered as a literary genius and pioneer, whose best work was largely realized in the once-unprestigious realm of television science fiction. And most of it done live. His best known creation, Professor Bernard Quatermass (of the London Rocket Group), was the main character of a quartet of television serials penned by Kneale for the BBC, three of which were remade into feature films for Hammer Studios (the best of them, IMHO, was 1968's "Quatermass And The Pit", aka "Five Million Years To Earth", directed by Roy Ward Baker). Reginald Tate, Brian Donlevy, Andrew Keir, and Sir John Mills each played the character in respective features and teleplays, ending with the appropriately titled "The Quatermass Conclusion" miniseries in 1979. In 2005, the BBC restaged his first serial "The Quatermass Experiment" as a live presentation with Jason Flemyng starring as a younger Quatermass. It was very well done and it's a pity it's never been aired beyond England (hello, BitTorrent...).

Kneale's teleplays were major "water cooler" events in their day--legend has it that "The Quatermass Experiment" was such a sensation that the streets and pubs were empty for the entirety of its six week run. While most of his work was original, he also adapted Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty Four" in 1954 into its first dramatic incarnation, resulting in parliamentary debates over its (then) shocking imagery. His 1968 teleplay "The Year of the Sex Olympics" foresaw the glut of sleazy reality television that we're subjected to today.

Hollywood briefly courted Kneale, who wrote a remake of "The Creature From The Black Lagoon" for John Landis (never produced), and the original draft of what would become "Halloween 3: Season Of The Witch" for producer John Carpenter. Although the shooting script was credited to director Tommy Lee Wallace and Kneale distanced himself from the project, the final film does contain traces of his unique black humour and recurring theme of the supernatural colliding with the technological. Carpenter acknowledged Kneale's influence on his writing by using the pen name "Martin Quatermass" as his screen credit for "Prince Of Darkness", his underseen 1987 shocker that drew the bulk of its themes and imagery from "Pit".

Kneale's works were my introduction to science fiction as a device for something other than mere escapism and gee-whiz spectacle. In many ways, he anticipated the humanist and satiric voice of the British "New Wave" science fiction movement that would launch the careers of Michael Moorcock and Brian Aldiss (and the North American works of Harlan Ellison, Norm Spinrad, and others of the "Dangerous Visions" set). Kneale's scientists were rare heroes instead of megalomaniacal freaks who prided intellect and reason over might, governments and the military were usually ineffectual, corrupt, and downright dangerous, his alien "menaces" often revealed to be misunderstood or marginalized instead of simply malignant BEMs. Above all, his serials were damned good yarns, impeccably structured and chock full of trippy ideas and damning critiques of the issues of the day.

You can read all about this great man and his amazing body of work here.