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1953: How Quatermass switched Britons from TV royalty to TV sci-fi

Contact is established and a genre is born

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Quatermass at 60 In June 1953 millions of Brits huddled around their newly bought TVs - all two million of them - and watched their new young Queen take the Coronation Oath before God, her bishops and peers amidst the gothic splendour of Westminster Abbey.

Just over two months later a similar number clustered around their sets again, to watch a tired, desperate scientist try and save humanity by pleading with a giant plant-like being that had absorbed the consciousnesses of Britain’s three pioneering spacemen.

One of these events was a completely stage-managed fantasy which nevertheless touched the collective psyche, proved the reach of this magnificent new medium and set the cultural tone for how we view one of our most cherished institutions for years to come. But which event was it?

Make do and mend with a stiff upper lip

It’s easy to watch the first two surviving episodes of the Quatermass Experiment today and smirk at the low-tech sets and incredibly mannered acting. But around this time Bernard Lovell was up at space telescope base Jodrell Bank searching for cosmic waves using army surplus kit and sealing wax. Some of us are old enough to remember when much of the British population spoke and acted like that for real. A generation which had been through a harrowing war, seeing and doing terrible things, but declining to talk too much about it.

It didn’t mean there wasn’t necessarily real emotion underneath somewhere. But we’ll come back to that. For now, here's episode one:

A quick recap of the events on screen, before we consider how the Quatermass Experiment set the tone for much of the UK’s subsequent pop sci-fi. Bernard Quatermass is head of the British Experimental Rocket Group, and we first encounter him as his team anxiously await the re-entry of Britain's first manned space mission. Things have gone wrong, and what was meant to have been a simple orbital experiment has seen the rocket go far deeper into the solar system before miraculously returning to Earth and, fortuitously, crash-landing in the Wimbledon area.

(Writer Nigel Kneale may have been blazing a trail in sci-fi writing, but he was following in HG Wells’ footsteps by ensuring that the no-man’s land otherwise known as Northern Surrey and the edges of London took most of the damage...)

When Quatermass and his team arrive at the wreckage - no HAZMAT suits, no exclusion zone, not even any police tape - they famously check whether the capsule has cooled down after re-entry by... patting it with their hands. On gaining entry they realise there is just one crewmember, the others apparently having disappeared from the sealed craft.

Surviving rocket man Victor Caroon - husband of Quatermass team member Judith - is clearly ill, and not just because he suspects his wife has been having it away with another team member while he has been exploring outer space. The procedure-bound police investigate while the men from the ministry get on Quatermass’ case. Quatermass has Caroon sequestered in a hospital and begins to suspect he has absorbed the other two.

And then... nothing.

Things pretty much stop there. Apparently videotape was also part of the 1950s rationing regime, as the BBC subsequently wiped the four remaining episodes. Suffice to say that amidst run-ins with a blinkered Scotland Yard, and arse-covering Whitehall mandarins, Caroon goes missing and a desperate search ensues, with an alien intelligence service also pursuing Caroon. During this time Quatermass realises an alien entity has absorbed the three men and thus threatens the very existence of mankind.

The on-the-run Caroon begins to look less and less human and more like an unkempt herbaceous border. The Caroon-alien creature is cornered in Westminster Abbey, where Quatermass persuades the submerged three human consciousnesses to rebel against the broccoli borg, thus saving mankind and setting much of the pattern for British TV sci-fi in the coming decades.

Perhaps it’s instructive to separate the staging from the plot. One important thing to remember is that the episodes were transmitted live, which imposes its own restrictions.

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