“The Magic Word Here is ‘Paradox’”

Jack Kibble-White interviews Nigel Kneale

First published November 2003

f you had to compile a shortlist of British television drama’s most influential figures, Nigel Kneale would undoubtedly figure near the top. A successful and critically acclaimed short story writer, Kneale was one of the first people to recognize the potential of television as a dramatic medium. His first major drama – The Quatermass Experiment (1953) – was a huge leap in television production and narrative complexity, and remains firmly etched in the memories of those who saw its original transmission. His follow up – an audacious, controversial but critically acclaimed version of George Orwell’s 1984 (broadcast in 1954) – is still regarded by many as the definitive screen adaptation.

Over the course of the 1950s and ’60s, Kneale continued to push at the technical and creative limits of the medium. 1968′s The Year of the Sex Olympics provoked the ire of self-appointed bastion of public decency, Mary Whitehouse, but proved to be a deeply prophetic work (prefiguring reality series such as Big Brother by some 30 years).

Into the 1970s and Kneale’s last major work for the BBC was 1972′s Christmas day ghost story, The Stone Tape. This one-off drama has, in recent years, enjoyed something of a renaissance thanks largely to the BFI’s decision to issue it on DVD. Kneale’s ability to take elements of the supernatural and provide a plausible explanation resulted in a tale that rather than nullifying the terrifying notion of phantoms, actually heightened the fear by making them somehow more believable.

In the mid-1970s Kneale departed the BBC for commercial television. His works for ATV continued to impress. The 1976 anthology series Beasts saw Kneale serve up six chilling stories although the series confused many by being difficult to categorise. It still, however, managed to entertain thanks to Kneale’s reliably enthralling storytelling. This was followed in 1979 by perhaps one of the most ambitious British television productions of all time. Euston Films’ Quatermass featured John Mills in the title role and a cast of thousands. It also signalled the demise of Kneale’s most famous character with the professor sacrificing his life at the end of the story to save mankind. For many this marked an end of an era.

Onto the 1980s and Kneale turned his hand to comedy, penning the seven part Kinvig for London Weekend Television. In 1982, Kneale wrote the script for Halloween III: Season of the Witch but promptly removed his name from the credits when he found the production drifting from his original vision. More recently Kneale has adapted Woman in Black (1989) and Stanley and the Women (1991) and has contributed episodes to both Kavanagh QC and Sharpe’s Gold – all for ITV.

Kneale is currently enjoying a resurgence of interest in his work. This is in part attributable to the BFI (who are reissuing some of his finest dramas on DVD) and also thanks to a welcome recent run of repeats on BBC4, prefigured by a Time Shift documentary.

Kneale remains an acutely sharp figure, and has retained his enviable sense of curiosity. He expressed great interest in knowing what the readers of OTT would make of this interview and – indeed – his body of work. To that end we have promised to pass on any comments we receive.

With over 50 years of material to discuss, Nigel began our conversation at the very beginning by recalling how he got into television in the first place.

NIGEL KNEALE: I’d never seen any television before I started. I’d written a book of short stories that had won the Somerset Maugham prize so I was respectable, but there was no money in short story writing. So I thought I’d try television and the BBC very kindly took me on as a minimal scriptwriter primarily to change stage plays into television. It was a lot of very primitive stuff – the adaptations were even more primitive than the stage plays they were taken from, but they were quite interesting to do. They were all broadcast live. Nothing could be recorded in those days except by aiming a movie camera at the television screen. It was at least another 10 years before they had any kind of recording medium. Consequently my early work like The Creature was wiped. It is a horrid experience to find that your favourite piece has gone.

OTT: How did you feel your version of 1984 measured up?

NIGEL KNEALE: There’s lot of very doubtful versions of 1984. I think ours was about the nearest to Orwell’s book. It sounds boastful to say that but I think it happens to be true. I remember having a fierce argument in the BBC studio with the producer/director of an American production. I thought it was a horrible bit of work.

OTT: Was this made around the same time as yours?

NIGEL KNEALE: No it was a couple of years later. Michael Anderson made it. I got on well with him in later years – he had a nice smile. In fact we almost made a big, big blockbuster together but it was not to be as the production company ran out of cash. This tends to happen to things I wrote. Perhaps I had a bad affect! The largest film I took on was an adaptation of Brave New World in 1963. Jack Cardiff was going to direct. We spent weeks working out an approach, and I wrote a long script. It was all set up to be shot in Spain (at that time the production company behind the project was very thick with the Spanish government so they could raise money). So Jack set off to Spain and I was getting our children ready to go and join him and settle down for some months when suddenly the next day he rang up to say “It’s all off! They’re selling the cars!” The company had gone bust and fallen out of favour with the government.

I reckon I closed down at least two films companies, one of which was in Ealing in the mid 1950s. I wrote them an adaptation of The Lord of the Flies. It’s a nice story and I produced what I thought was a very classy script. The studio head was beside himself with happiness. He said “let’s do it right away” and so I continued on a second polished draft and then of course Ealing collapsed. They’d been helped out by MGM to keep them afloat but MGM pulled out and that was the end of Ealing studios and the end of my version of The Lord of the Flies.

Peter Brook, the stage producer picked up the rights and made what I thought was a very bad film. There were some very good young actors in it, but he just pulled the dialogue right out of the book. You can’t do that! It’s as bad in its way as someone shovelling in cheap effects into a horror film. You should have material that’s worth respecting anyway.

You never know who you’ll end up working with!

OTT: In 1955 you wrote The Creature

NIGEL KNEALE: It was about the Abominable Snowman. Well it was quite successful – a fearful job for the producer because he had to shoot the whole thing as if they were in deep snow at 20,000 feet and that’s not easy to do in a little studio in Lime Grove, but he got surprisingly close. I remember he wanted to make the abominable snowmen very, very big and the only way he could that was to get a dwarf in and dress him up as Peter Cushing, which he did very adequately. So there was this tiny figure overawed by this enormous snowman. We did everything that could be done in Lime Grove studios.

Of course Hammer studios bought The Creature and they remade it very decently. I wrote them a revised script for their film version and it was perfectly okay. However the Americans changed the title and because they’re simple-minded they decided to call it The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas.

OTT: That tells you everything you need to know really doesn’t it?

NIGEL KNEALE: I actually wrote a film in the mid ’60s when in fact I was believed to be dying (I had a mystery disease that was never solved). My doctor told me to be patient, so I wrote a script in bed. It was called The Big Giggle and was about a teenage suicide wave. It seemed in 1965 that it would be extremely likely that there would be a takeover by the youth, and the biggest thrill they could have was to kill them self – a version of that is happening now, the kids really do kill themselves, you see it in all the papers. So I wrote this thing for the BBC as a serial but they took fright. They said “suppose somebody does top himself while we are running the show – we’d be blamed”, so they pulled out. A year or two later Ronnie Neame the producer/director, picked it up, fell in love with it and wanted to do it and make a big feature film of it. He and I went along to see this chief censor – a fellow called Treveleyan and he said, “I cannot pass it”. Ronnie and I were very put out and so it was never made.

OTT: Do you have any one script or story idea that remains unmade but you particularly hanker after?

NIGEL KNEALE: Yes. I wrote a stage play, it’s the only one I’ve ever written. It was about a man called Crow who was a Manx slaver. He was based in Liverpool and he was very successful at shipping black men across the Atlantic to be sold into slavery. He said, “I have a record number of keeping slaves alive” so he was very pleased with himself. Finally of course, slavery was abolished and he was at a loose end. He wound up sitting on the quay at Liverpool talking to pals and that was the end of him. But he decided to write his memoirs. He wrote a book and I used that as a basis.

As we didn’t seem able to set it up on the stage I sold it to ATV whom I’d worked with before. They said “We’ve found some black actors” (casting wasn’t as easy as it now is) and it was all set up. However within one week of starting Lew Grade stopped it. Whatever his real motive was I don’t know, perhaps he didn’t like blacks. But he said it was because the scenery was costing too much. It was a bit late in the day to find that out. He simply said we’re not going to do it.

So he’s my enemy.

OTT: What was that piece going to be called?

NIGEL KNEALE: Crow. The man was called Captain Hugh Crow – he’s an historic figure in the Isle of Man.

OTT: I’m guessing it would have been the mid-1970s when you sold this to ATV?

NIGEL KNEALE: Sometime in the ’70s.

OTT: Looking back on some of your earlier works such as Quatermass or The Year of the Sex Olympics, how relevant do you think they are to today’s society? Which of your works do you think predicted the future with most accuracy?

NIGEL KNEALE: I don’t know. It’s hardly for me to say.

OTT: The Year of the Sex Olympics seems remarkably prescient.

NIGEL KNEALE: I liked that one. It had some clever people like Leonard Rossiter in it. The cast loved it completely.

OTT: Certainly when you look at things on television right now like Big Brother it seems to have a lot of resonance with what you were saying.

NIGEL KNEALE: I’m glad to say I’ve never seen Big Brother – not once. The very description of it turns me off.

OTT: But when you first heard about it did you think “Ah! That’s like The Year of the Sex Olympics“?

NIGEL KNEALE: No it never occurred to me. Big Brother sounded like a silly stunt and that’s what it is. But Nancy Bank-Smith (the television critic of The Guardian) came around and wanted to talk about that point. We talked for quite a while and she went and wrote a rather fulsome review of The Year of the Sex Olympics. So, she wrote this piece about me guessing the future. Well sometimes I suppose I did get it right. The story came when I went to see a play by Ken Tynan about the therapeutic benefits of pornography. It was a kind of minor hit but it was extremely boring. It mostly consisted of the cast members undressing and so I thought suppose rather than say “pornography – terrible, horrible you shouldn’t have it”, you said “pornography – there is a virtue in it”, what would that virtue be? What I had was a wild guess. I imagined a world that had a policy through the UN to show as much pornography as possible. The aim would be to keep people happy and not let them build up any tension. Things like wars would be finished – they would never happen again because people would be too busy chasing each other. It seemed to me to be an entirely probable situation.

In the course of the drama, you show the brighter ones who get the job of running the show and the duller ones who would be the new working class. They are kept on and looked after quite kindly until they die at the age of about 28. In their few brief years of consciousness you pacify them by giving them as much pornography as they can take. Then they realise that not only is the world pacified but it is also rotting slightly. Nobody is enjoying life; even watching the pornography all the time is getting boring. But suppose a few want to escape that way of life and go back to a completely primitive way of existing? This would mean going to some deserted place and fending for themselves. In this future families are finished, but they reconstruct a family – husband, wife child. They are transported to a very desolate place where they will have to make their own food (in fact we used the Isle of Man again. I knew precisely where to shoot it). But as the chief character (Brian Cox) says – it’s a show so something’s got to happen, and so he neatly plants a psychopathic murderer secretly on the island who does his stuff and kills. The huge world audience roar with laughter. They’re happy – the world is getting dull and they want a few laughs. The only thing they can laugh at anymore is somebody dying.

But the stuff we went through producing it – we knew we were pushing our luck. It was done very lavishly. I remember we got right up to production time and then a very terrible woman called Mary Whitehouse tried to intervene. All she’d seen was the title but she proclaimed, “It’s about sex! I must get this one stopped!” She sent some minion into the BBC to try and get the Director General to ban it. But, Hew Wheldon (who was the Director of Television at the time) just threw her out. He said, “You go ahead. I’m going to take full responsibility – I want it”.

But even at the last when we were in the studio rehearsing the moves and lines, the electrician’s union decided to strike. There were electricians wandering in the studio pushing past the actors who were trying to do the show. They said “we can’t do this” and Wheldon said, “we’re going to do it even if we have to sack the entire electrical trade union”.

OTT: Were they striking because they objected to the content?

NIGEL KNEALE: I don’t know. What Wheldon did was pick one of the more troublesome ones and send him to the front gate with instructions to “throw him out!” And they did and that broke the strike.

OTT: Would you say that The Year of the Sex Olympics was your favourite script?

NIGEL KNEALE: Well it was the one where I pushed my luck the most. It was a beautiful colour production with a superb cast who all believed in the story and did it superbly well. We were pushing our luck in every way, but it was made, it was broadcast and it was to me absolutely first class – terrific. I loved it. All we could have added to it was more cash. It probably didn’t have any sort of audience because people would have thought it was going to be rude and even those who did watch might have found it too complicated.

I liked the writing in it and am very glad it’s been rescued by the BFI.

OTT: The Guinness Book of Classic Television describes The Stone Tape as “one of the most frightening pieces of television ever made”. Was this your objective when you set out to write it?

NIGEL KNEALE: No. Never never. Why would I want to do that? I wanted to write a story that demanded the viewer’s attention. The magic word here is “paradox”. You set up a story and it turns inside out and that is, for me, the most exciting sort of story to write. The viewer thinks it’s going to be about something and it does the opposite. Now if the more simple-minded people found that a frightening experience well, too bad. Real horror movies are dead easy.

20 years ago I was in Hollywood to write a script for John Carpenter. He’d made Halloween I and II and wanted another. I told him “I didn’t like the first two but I’ll write you an original and quite different story”. I just told him the story in a cafĂ© and he said, “Yes let’s do it!” (which is not the reaction you ever get in this country). So I wrote a very good script – if I say it myself. It’s one of the best I’ve ever written. But he was busy working on The Thing. Now the object of that film is to frighten and it did so beautifully – very stylish. So in the meantime, the thing I’d written was being sidelined and Carpenter handed it over to a buddy of his called Tommy Lee Wallace who had never directed anything. So they took my script and to bring it down to the price they reckoned they could spend on it, they ruined it – they took all of the invention out of it. So I took my name off it and was contacted by the American Writer’s Guild who said “Do you really want to take your name of it? People here are trying to get their names on things!”

It would have been the only good Halloween film too. What they put into it was slashing and cutting of eyebrows and all the standard crap for a horror movie, precisely the stuff I avoided. They shortened the thing by about half and everybody hated it. But that’s show business I suppose.

OTT: Turning back to The Stone Tape. You said you didn’t set out to write a story that frightened people. What do you think it was about that drama that scared people so much?

NIGEL KNEALE: I don’t think it did scare people. It is unusual. Certainly, it isn’t a ghost story where people go into a haunted house. There have been two or three made on that basis, but I didn’t want to do that. The Head of BBC Drama asked me if I could write him a ghost story for Christmas. I said “yes I probably can” and I worked this thing out. For me I found it very interesting to get away from the haunted house convention and things like the ghastly American film The Haunting (it makes me slightly sick to think about it, it’s such junk). The thing about The Stone Tape was to turn it inside out so that the people involved are in fact scientists attempting to uncover a new recording medium. By happy chance they find one all too soon and it’s ghosts. However initially they’re not in the least frightened. At first they are just angry at the hold up in their work and only become frightened when they get out of their depth at the end of the story. We as the viewer know far more then they do, because we are let in on something that is never in their sights. That’s the paradox – the whole story takes a twist. This greedy bunch of people who are after a new recording medium think the ghostly phenomena might be the way to do it. The stone is the medium.

OTT: People often remember you as a writer of speculative fiction. Yet a number of your dramas deal with hauntings (The Road, The Stone Tape, The Chopper). Does the ghost story genre appeal to you, or was it the opportunity to subvert its conventions that was of most interest?

NIGEL KNEALE: The trick is the paradox – turning your story inside out. Now if it is something that appears to be of total normality and then suddenly turns inside out and is a different thing all together then that’s fun to write.

OTT: Is this notion of trying to find the paradox something that informs everything you write?

NIGEL KNEALE: Yes otherwise it’s not interesting. You’d plod through a dreary story and either the ghost will manifest itself or it won’t and that’s the end. To me that’s a very boring story – I couldn’t write it. Something like The Haunting is not worth the slightest consideration from me.

I’ve had a fair old range of things. I prefer doing original scripts because I totally control the story – it’s all mine. Films don’t work like that but television does. You get to Hollywood and you are in the land of big money where they don’t like to see only one screenwriter’s name. It’s much better if you’ve got four or five. They believe we’ll think “a lot of people have written this so it must be brilliant”, but it’s invariably worse. I made a rule for myself that the only television things I would do would be my own stories.

OTT: A lot of your work seems to deal with prophesising the near future. What drives you to write such dramas? Is it the intellectual stimulation of attempting to extrapolate how current issues might evolve, or are you trying to send a warning?

NIGEL KNEALE: I can’t warn anybody – that makes it sound like very serious stuff. That’s just for propagandists in parliament; I don’t think that way. I like inventing stories. Very often it’s exciting to write about an imaginary future based on trends, you work out what things could wind up as.

OTT: Something else I wanted to ask you about was how the LWT series Kinvig came about.

NIGEL KNEALE: Well I can tell you how that came about exactly. I had been invited to give a talk in Brighton at a fan festival. So I went in all innocence and found I was surrounded by loonies! They all go there in depressingly large quantities and dress up as fairies or bogeys or werewolves and have a week off. I found the whole thing acutely depressing. These are creatures who say “science fiction – how frightening!” I hated them and couldn’t wait to get out. That gave me a desire to show them up, show them how awful they are. People who believe in flying saucers are the scrapings from the bottom. You still have them – somebody this weekend let some balloons off and some of these people immediately saw them and said “oh look there’s the aliens”.

So I thought you could have a chief character in a comic series who devoutly believes in aliens and all the rest of that tat, and he latches onto a pal who has more time then sense – they both have their lives to waste. They have all the time in the world to play games about aliens and make up stories. We had some very good people in it and I was extremely pleased with the results. I held a talk after one of them and there was a woman who was in a terrible state: “Why did you do this to our beliefs?” she asked. I said “I wrote it precisely because you talk like that!”

OTT: I got the impression that lots of people had missed the point with Kinvig when it was broadcast.

NIGEL KNEALE: I have no idea and I didn’t frankly care. I got it! We had some lovely actors Tony Haygarth and people of his stature, and they thought it was fun to do and London Weekend pulled out the stops and did some nice scenery. It was just based on a fantasy of these silly pair of men, one of whom believes devoutly in these flying saucers and the other one who doesn’t but is amused by this – that was the key to it.

Now what they imagine is that a flying saucer happens to have landed nearby in Putney and they get to visit its crew (which consists of one beautiful lady and about three grotesque elves). I thought that was so obviously a confection, that it was apparent that you’re not meant to believe in it as any kind of drama, but there were those who did. They said “oh I wanted to see more of these things”. Christ! This is all intended to be a joke, a send up of the whole awful science fiction thing.

I never really saw myself as writing science fiction anyway. I always put humour into my stories because if you construct a horrific scene of some kind you have to balance that with an equal quantity of humour. If you want to make something credible then make it funny as well, because a script of an exciting kind that has no humour is, for me, contemptible. If I run through all my stories I have applied that to anything I have written and they had to be my stories. Of course I did some adaptations …

OTT: Like Kavanagh QC

NIGEL KNEALE: Yes. I was invited along to talk about it. The producer had a notion of a possible story but I said “I’ll write my story and we’ll shoot that”. I thought I would write one about what was a very hot topic at the time, somebody who appeared to be a popular and successful doctor in some unnamed town but who is in fact an ex-Nazi who once ran a concentration camp and managed to squeak his way through the war (as some did) and set up a practice. Nobody knows – not even his wife – what he was, because he was able to get out in time and set up a new persona.

It’s a bit close to home this one because my wife is a refugee from Nazi Germany. She got away by one day (the day before Hitler got in as Chancellor). I always wanted to use what I knew of her background in a story and Kavanagh QC was just a device to tell this story about this creature whose disguise is rumbled. By the way, this did happen. I’ve actually been in a courtroom with one of these characters who appeared to have lost his memory – maybe he had or maybe he hadn’t – but he was on trial as a mass killer. I knew that background. Kavanagh is just one of the characters. It’s my story.

OTT: So you felt you were able to take that programme and use it as a vehicle for your own ideas?

NIGEL KNEALE: Yes. All stories should have some honesty and truth in them, otherwise you’re just playing about.

OTT: Which of your dramas do you feel has been best realised on the screen?

NIGEL KNEALE: That’s a very tough one – I don’t think there’s any answer to that one really. I have worked with different directors of course. I did all the old Quatermass ones with Rudolph Cartier and we got on very well. I’ve worked with quite a few others since. The most difficult directors are those who are like John Carpenter – they will take their own way. You can’t really trust them.

OTT: I seem to remember you saying that the production of the Euston Films’ Quatermass was perhaps too big.

NIGEL KNEALE: No. It was possible that too much money was spent. Euston Films spent a fortune. For example, they built a whole entire 18th century observatory when in my original version I had simply written about a bit of rather battered countryside and railway engines. But the whole production was splendidly done. I was actually surprised and a bit shaken to see it. However, if they had claimed a few more top people for the cast I’d have been happier, I think. They got some good ones but they could have done with a few more – you can never have too many good actors.

In the story the survivors were a Jewish family headed up by Simon MacCorkindale. I do know about Jews having been married to one for 50 years, and I love them. I thought these would be the probable survivors because that is their history. They would find a way of surviving and would keep their knowledge and apply it. In the story the father has made himself a pair of huge radio telescopes and is searching the heavens. He is a scientist with great value to the world, but his value doesn’t really exist because the Earth is being attacked from a totally unknown force in space that turned the human population inside out.

The humans are vaporised by whatever the forces are that simply wants to use them as fodder. We never see what these things are because they are several million miles away and our skills don’t extend to finding that. Even the man with the clever radio telescope can only try to guess where these forces are.

It was originally for the BBC but they lost heart in it. They said it was too gloomy. Well yes it was supposed to be gloomy. Stripping the Earth of its population is a gloomy thought. But maybe it was just not destined to be jolly.

OTT: And of course Quatermass dies at the end.

NIGEL KNEALE: Yes he kills himself. Whatever these things are, they regard the human population as consumable. The creatures on Earth must make a sign that they are aware of what’s going on and they do this by making this hyper hyper suicide bomb.

OTT: Did you have any qualms about killing off Quatermass, or did you feel it was the right conclusion for the story?

NIGEL KNEALE: No, by then the previous stories were 20 years old. There were three serials made by the BBC that were then turned into films by Hammer. They were much simplified and shorter because the originals ran for three hours in serial format. Hammer couldn’t afford that (Hammer couldn’t afford anything!) So they were cut down to ordinary feature length (which was about 90 minutes). Of course the John Mills version runs for about four hours. It’s really quite long. The fun of all this was that all the time we were pushing at the limits of telly.

OTT: What television programmes do you tune into today? Which television writers do you admire?

NIGEL KNEALE: I don’t judge other people’s work and I don’t see enough of it either. I’m in my 80s and not a keen television fan. There are technically better productions I expect, but there are some terrible things too, stuff I wouldn’t even bother to keep on the screen. As for other writers – I don’t know any. The only folk I can judge are people like Woody Allen who I think is a genius, largely because I think he has beaten the system. He has his own company, and his films are all his own ideas. It’s his direction, and so it comes out the way he imagined it. Sometimes it doesn’t come off, sometimes it does, but he’s not spending $50 million he’s spending an amount he can control and that’s a very clever thing to do – to be in charge. Most of the people in Hollywood aren’t in charge of anything. Some of his ideas are so wild I can only admire him to the limit. I think he is the only really great writer we’ve got at the moment.

I put on Henry VIII last night. There’s been better. The BBC production years ago was very good. This new one wasn’t too bad though – there were some very good actors. But there’s nothing outstanding out there right now, and certainly not on the script side.