On Sunday evening Belfast Film Festival offered the bum-numbing experience of watching the 1959 black and white television series Quatermass and the Pit. Six half-hour episodes with a ten minute comfort break in the middle.
A couple of people slipped out at the end of episode two, and a few went awol during the break. But around 40 of us invested the full three hours and stuck it through to the end.
A skull is found on a build site. The resulting archaeological dig uncovers more remains of prehistoric hominoids before unearthing a large metal tube that turns out not to be an experimental unexploded German bomb. From there the plot introduces a mix of pentacles, ghosts, perceptions of black magic, some very dodgy pickaxe handling, alien arthropods with three legs, plates and bricks flying across the set and an optical encephalograph that shows a race purge on Mars.
Spoiler alert … though to be honest, there’s a pretty low chance that you’ll go out and buy the DVD to watch the adventures of Quatermass. (All three BBC series are available for £9.99 on Amazon.)
In the end, it turns out that Martians colonised the Earth five million years ago. And the history of poltergeist outbreaks around the building site were merely the product of Martian faculties implanted in human ancestors. And once again, rocket scientist (about to turn government scientist) Prof Quatermass is around to analyse and advise.
It's a funny word... worn out before anything turned up to claim it: Martian.
The amazing thing is that a large amount of each episode was performed and broadcast live, with small segments filmed in advance and inserted into each episode as it was broadcast. Half an hour, six weeks on the trot. Televisual theatre.
As science fiction goes, it’s pretty good. It descends from a normal building site, to an archaeological dig, to an alien invasion, and on to a psychotic city of London without difficulty, combining science with fiction, and without resorting to humour to cover the cracks.
Having had a frustrating experience as a child reading a Quatermass novel which was missing its final page, and having enjoyed a repeat of the BBC Four “live” Quatermass Experiment remake, it was good to catch up with one of the original shows.
One other observation is that as head of the British Experimental Rocket Group, the central character of Prof Bernard Quatermass reminds me a little of David Kelly, the British UN weapons inspector who died in 2003. Like Kelly, the fictional Quatermass wasn’t afraid to speak out and speak up about what he believed in, even if that means annoying civil servants and government minsters. Unlike Kelly, Quatermass perhaps dealt better with the resulting pressure.
Still, I’ll give my vote* in May to the first party who will pledge to encourage more scientists to wear bow ties on an everyday basis.