Time Shift: The Kneale Tapes

Wednesday, October 15, 2003 by

One of the greatest feats in documentary-making is to track down a seemingly unknown, perhaps anonymous member of the public from a piece of archive footage and show them as they are today. The recent Time Shift on “Cold War Kids” was able to do just that (cutting from footage of an episode of Jim’ll Fix It to a modern interview with the “Fixee”).

Yet the production team have gone one step further with “The Kneale Tapes” actually bringing back the alien that featured so memorably in The Quatermass Experiment. The glove puppet added little in the way of substance but its presence was entirely charming and wholly indicative of the due care and attention that is regularly on display in BBC4′s finest documentary strand.

As with many of Time Shift‘s subjects, Kneale is a partially forgotten and often misremembered figure from an earlier age. Today people tend to think of him as the grandfather of TV sci-fi, and so categorize his work alongside series such as Doctor Who and Day of the Triffids. “The Kneale Tapes” goes some way to redress this common misconception ensuring that Kneale receives appropriate credit as one of the key figures behind the development of television drama as a whole. In particular, his realisation that television should be as able to retell dramatic fictional stories as effectively and complexly as theatre is given due credit here.

In reviewing Kneale’s work there is much to talk about. Time Shift wisely limits itself to a few key interviewees to compliment Kneale’s own reminiscences. Of these Mark Gatiss, Jeremy Dyson and Kim Newman provide informative and often highly personal reactions to each of the featured works. It is evident that all three are keen enthusiasts of Kneale’s writing, but are also well able to contextualise its significance within the development of television drama and science fiction and horror (a term Kneale apparently dislikes intensely) as a whole. In particular Gatiss’ effusive praise for Quatermass and the Pit is highly contagious. Meanwhile Andy Murray (Kneale’s biographer) reliably moves the narrative forward, ensuring that at all times we remain aware of where we are within the chronology of Kneale’s life story.

The man himself makes for a fascinating and surprisingly accommodating interviewee. With a reputation for irascibility, the Kneale we see here is forthright but pleasant and seemingly willing to talk about any and all aspects of his career, including – most interestingly – some of the internal wrangles he experienced when attempting to bring his work to our screens. The sections featuring Kneale with his wife are particularly enjoyable, providing us with a sense of the character behind the reputation. Certainly this reviewer had no expectation of coming away from the documentary with any sense of Kneale as a playful character.

Given the 40 minute running time it is inevitable that “The Kneale Tapes” is unable to offer a fully comprehensive overview of Kneale’s 50 year career, and resultantly his later works for ITV (including Kinvig and Beasts) don’t even get a mention. This is a shame particularly with regard to the former series as the notion of Kneale as a comedy scriptwriter is one that would surprise a number of viewers. However to dwell on what is not featured is to do this hugely entertaining documentary a disservice. What we do have is informative, thorough and imbued with a genuine sense of nostalgia and enthusiasm. Besides, any television programme that causes the BBC to repeat the masterful The Stone Tape should be praised to the rafters.


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