MARCH/APRIL 2010
MARK HOLCOMB

THE APOCALYPSE WILL BE TELEVISED

BRITISH TELEVISION WRITER NIGEL KNEALE NEVER MET A CULTURAL TOTEM OR TV TROPE HE COULDN’T REDUCE TO RUBBLE.

DISCUSSED: Sentient Shrubs, A Vegetal Behemoth,Self-Absorbed Little Green Men, Britain’s Corroding Global Status, Malign Whatsits, Cosmic Belligerence, Mediated Sensationalism, Televised Murder, Journo-Celebrities, Cyclical Evil

There’s an anonymous cameo in the 1953 BBC sci-fi shocker The Quatermass Experiment that’s significant in inverse proportion to its screen time. Late in the live-broadcast serial, its author, then Beeb house writer and soon-to-be full-time television provocateur Nigel Kneale, turns up as an oversized, sentient shrub.

It’s in the sixth and final episode, in which error-prone astrophysicist Bernard Quatermass attempts to talk a tortured, interplanetary-virus–ridden astronaut—or astronauts, since some spaceman-on-spaceman absorption has occurred—into committing suicide. By this point the rocketmen have collectively mutated into a vegetal behemoth and taken refuge in Westminster Abbey, where it/they plan to shed a few thousand spores and destroy life as we know it.

Happily, Quatermass’s appeal to the travelers’ vestigial compassion succeeds, and the woolly critter wills itself to die, but not before we catch a solitary glimpse of it oozing from the tracery. And there’s Kneale—or his hands, anyway, as he and his wife had glued gobs of moss onto a pair of gloves which Kneale then poked through a photo of the Abbey to approximate the giant extraterrestrial horror he’d conceived.

It’s impossible to say how this penny-pinching scene plays, since only the first two episodes of Experiment survive.[1] Nevertheless, it’s emblematic of what Kneale, who died in 2006 at age eighty-four, did best: get his hooks into a sacrosanct totem of human civilization and illuminate its substantive ineffectuality in an anarchic act of artistic desecration. Or at least as close to it as he could get on state television. As with all his work for the BBC and later ATV and ITV, few nerves were left unstruck.

  1. The BBC had a habit of wiping recorded live broadcasts in order to reuse tapes, and much of Kneale’s early work fell victim to the network’s thriftiness. His controversial but popular 1953 adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was preserved in its entirety, but The Creature, a 1955 spin on the decade’s abominable snowman mania, and The Road, a 1963 sci-fi ghost story that’s vintage Kneale, are long gone.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Mark Holcomb writes about books, movies, and TV, and his work has appeared in the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Film Quarterly, and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn, but seriously misses the West Coast.

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