By 1979, Professor Bernard Quatermass – Britain’s first great made-for-TV hero – had been absent from the small screen for 21 years.
The BBC serials of the Fifties caused a national sensation, and the character had attained near-mythical status in British culture. Creator Nigel Kneale had been commissioned by the BBC to write a fourth serial in 1972, but it was abandoned due to spiralling costs.
Seven years later, the project was taken up by Euston Films, shown on ITV and given a cinema release as The Quatermass Conclusion. Kneale reckoned the results “were rather messy,” and his downbeat assessment was echoed in contemporary reviews – inevitably, given the length of time since such fondly-remembered originals and the fundamentally different production and tone of this apocalyptic incarnation.
Written as a response to the generation gap, civil unrest and airy-fairy mysticism of the Sixties, it has a streak of brutal nihilism that seems profoundly rooted in beleaguered post-punk Britain circa the ‘Winter of Discontent’.
John Mills’ elderly, vulnerable Quatermass returns to London in search of his runaway granddaughter, and is shocked to discover how far society has collapsed. As savage gang violence rages in cities, the countryside is roamed by a mindless youth cult deludedly awaiting transportation to a paradise among the stars.
There’s a Lovecraftian sense of humanity’s meaninglessness in the shadow of some vast unknowable cosmic intelligence, as crowds of young people are atomised and sports stadiums, places of mass congregation marked by ancient beacons implanted for the purpose of harvesting essence from human youths; Quatermass surmises alien lifestyle product.
This organised destruction of human life for such trivial reasons brings to mind the Vogons destroying Earth to make way for a hyperspace bypass.
The four episodes are infused with distressingly bleak imagery: “It’s like vomit,” says Quatermass of a sky green with obliterated humans.
Although the narrative is slightly blunted by the demands of different-length formats, this is a powerful, ambitious and affecting valediction for the good Professor.