The Quatermass Experiment

Saturday, April 2, 2005 by

There’s still nothing – absolutely nothing – which comes close to matching the mix of elation and wonder that surfaces in the wake of a genuine TV event. It’s the same feeling that stops you from being able to go to sleep later that night because your mind is babbling. It’s also the sense of having witnessed a genuine piece of television history and not wanting to let go of it for as long as you possibly can.

BBC4′s revival of The Quatermass Experiment, 52 years after its first performance on BBC television, was always going to be an event of some kind, but the fact nobody knew what exactly how it would turn out – be it brave departure from TV convention or one almighty folly – was the real stroke of genius. For this was a live broadcast, the first of its sort for two decades, and the first fantasy-based one for even longer.

An entire generation of viewers, including this one, had never experienced this kind of TV before. It was to be that most rare of occasions: a true television first. How could anything match the anticipation waiting for it to start? What could equal the excitement and tension waiting for it to end? And above all what would happen along the way?

A Saturday night to remember, then. Only something like the death of the Pope could possibly upstage this. Which of course was precisely what happened, roughly halfway through transmission. It was justifiable enough reason to make anybody forget their lines, so when Adrian Bower, playing the journalist Fullalove, stumbled over a name and briefly, spectacularly, went to pieces, you could easily forgive him. Besides, not to be coy, this was exactly one of the reasons you’d tuned in.

It was the same when both Coronation Street and The Bill attempted live editions. Their usual dramatic fare was heightened by the added element of potential – for things to go badly wrong, for people to dry up, for bits of scenery to fall down, for even the entire show to fall off air. But in this instance those same factors were multiplied by the potential of the story itself: namely, one of the legendary TV thrillers of all time, which already carried the promise of its own twists and turns and shock surprises. The expectation of the unexpected was therefore all that much greater.

So you watched with one eye on what should be happening and the other on what should not. Was that loud crash of glassware which followed an actor’s sudden exit off screen deliberate or accidental? Was that a technician crouched in the corner trying desperately not to be seen? Would the boom microphone, whose shadow tantalising graced a number of shots, actually ever stray into view?

As if this wasn’t enough to keep you hooked, there was the business of saving the world from a strange part-real part-hallucinatory foreign intelligence. In the circumstances, both of the story and the nature of the broadcast, the cast were near exemplary. Jason Flemyng could’ve been a little more authoritative as the titular scientist, Mark Gatiss a shade more brooding as his disillusioned assistant. Otherwise everyone rose admirably to the challenge of the occasion, with David Tennant as, er, the Doctor inevitably stealing the show by dint of his alleged future time travelling career.

Nigel Kneale‘s original scripts had only been partly revised from their original form, and his conceits and exchanges stood the passing of years with remarkable vigour. The pace of the drama had also been expertly devised, beginning with very long, mostly static scenes between two or three people in a couple of locations, then gradually moving upwards in terms of scope and significance until the tempo was irresistible and you’d become completely hooked.

The final half hour was sensational. Bursts of dialogue fizzed and crackled all over the place. Scenes stopped and started. Cameras seemed to roam almost at random amongst a veritable mob of cast members, all of whom frantically jockeyed to deliver their lines in the right place and the right order. Sound levels came and went. Crew members strayed into shot. Spotlights were shone straight down the camera lens. A sense of everyone straining absolutely every sinew to get to the end was horribly palpable. And all of it, every single second, was utterly fantastic television.

The reason was simple. It was the ultimate in absorbing TV drama. You’d ended up entirely consumed by the nature of what was going on – both as a piece of storytelling, and a piece of groundbreaking television. The climax of the plot and the climax of the broadcast became one all-involving, nerve-jangling, hair-raising sprint to the finishing post. Would everything hold together before the credits rolled? With each scene increasingly feeling as if it were being done on the fly, of almost being made up on the spot, you couldn’t be sure.

But this just added to the power of the story. The precise kind of freewheeling spirit – or inspired panic – that was oozing out of the production matched the attitude of Quatermass and his colleagues as they too grappled to put their going concerns to bed. It was the perfect fit. Everything became blurred, a jumble of sights and sounds. You weren’t quite sure what was going on. The technical complexity of the last few sequences meant you had to literally tense your eyes and ears to work out what was happening. It was as exhilarating as TV can get.

And even then, rather than play it safe the production dared to save their greatest trick till last, walking their highest and narrowest rope during the final 10 minutes. While the army waited to bomb the Tate Modern gallery into dust, Quatermass shambled around inside the dark cavernous building, merrily parleying with the alien intelligence and engaging in a titanic psychological game of bluff. The tension was unbearable. An image came to mind of an extension lead stretched so tight that a plug socket was about to fly out of a wall. What if a light bulb blew? A fuse went inside a camera? It was impossible not to find yourself leaning ever further forward towards the TV screen, subconsciously willing everyone through the final lap.

The end came almost too quickly. Having dispatched the galactic consciousness back from whence it came, the Professor strolled out of the building and the credits flashed past. The closing scene required everyone to cheer and offer each other congratulations, undoubtedly the most straightforward stage direction of the entire evening. The same happened at the end of the live episode of Coronation Street. In both instances you knew the expressions of relief on people’s faces weren’t just down to acting.

In fact the entire thing had finished too quickly: a whole 25 minutes earlier than billed – evidence of how much leeway had been built into the schedules to account for, well, anything other than one of the world’s main religious leaders dying, and of how, as in theatre, the real performance almost always runs faster than the rehearsal. Moreover, the sheer cumulative force of the entire broadcast, the way it so spectacularly fulfilled its status as a genuine TV event, evoked the power and impact of any number of ostensibly great stage productions. And hence, from the auditorium that was your living room, there was only one thing left to shout: “More!”


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