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Kneale, Nigel

Entry updated 20 March 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(1922-2006) UK author and screenwriter, married to the well-known children's author Judith Kerr (1923-2019) from 1954 until his death; active from around 1944, very occasionally as by Nigel Neale. After attending the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and working as an actor, Kneale began writing short stories, twenty-six of which – some horror or fantasy – appear in Tomato Cain and Other Stories (coll 1949; rev 1950). Since then most of his writing work was for Television and film, often using sf themes, most commonly consisting of scientific rationalizations of ancient motifs from Horror fiction and Mythology.

Kneale's career in Television has been retrospectively obscured by the BBC's routine wiping of videotapes, in order to save money (this vandalism continued for years after American television series like I Love Lucy [1951- with various successors] had begun to generate large revenues through reruns); no visual record therefore remains of much of his work. His first success was a serial, The Quatermass Experiment (18 July-22 August 1953 6 episodes), novelized as The Quatermass Experiment: A Play for Television in Six Parts (rev 1959); it was the first adult sf story to be presented on BBC television. He then successfully adapted George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) for BBC TV (12 December 1954); it caused much controversy. Two more Quatermass serials for BBC TV were Quatermass II (22 October-26 November 1955 6 episodes), novelized as Quatermass II: A Play for Television in Six Parts (rev 1960), and Quatermass and the Pit (22 December 1958-26 January 1959 6 episodes), novelized as Quatermass and the Pit: A Play for Television in Six Parts (rev 1960). All three were adapted into feature films by Hammer Films, as The Quatermass Xperiment (1955; vt The Creeping Unknown), Quatermass II (1957; vt Enemy from Space) and Quatermass and the Pit (1968; vt Five Million Years to Earth). Kneale coscripted the second of these films, and scripted the third.

Kneale also scripted the BBC television morality play The Creature (30 January 1955), about a Himalayan hunt for the Yeti (see Ape as Human). This was broadcast live, with one live repeat performance in the following week but no recording; Kneale adapted this script into his screenplay for the Hammer film The Abominable Snowman (1957; vt The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas US), which uses several of the same actors including Peter Cushing in the star role. Later non-Quatermass scripts included First Men in the Moon (1964) and the horror film The Witches (1966), adapted from novels by H G Wells and Peter Curtis respectively.

Three further television plays, "The Road" (1963), The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968) and "The Stone Tape" (1972) were collected in The Year of the Sex Olympics and Other TV Plays (coll 1976). The first is an eighteenth-century ghost story in which the ghosts are apparitions of twentieth-century Technology; the second deals Satire with a future television-watching population and improved methods of apathy control; the third again combines Gothic horror with a rationalization of ghosts (see Supernatural Creatures) as recorded signals in a kind of natural Time Viewer. In 1971 "The Chopper", about a biker's ghost, was televised as part of the Out of the Unknown series. The 1975 ATV television series Beasts was scripted by Kneale, the beasts in question ranging from psychological to supernatural.

At the end of the 1970s Quatermass returned, this time to ITV, in a new television serial (24 October-14 November 1979 4 episodes) entitled Quatermass. An edited-down version, retitled The Quatermass Conclusion, was intended for cinema release, but in the UK was released only on videotape. An earlier version of the story had begun filming with the BBC in 1973, but was dropped completion. Ostensible reasons included refusal of permission to film at Stonehenge, and the BBC's growing resistance to Kneale's cultural pessimism; in 1979 the plot (featuring mystically inclined flower-children about to be harvested by Aliens via messages beamed through stone circles) had begun to seem old-fashioned. The book version by Kneale, Quatermass (1979), which appeared concurrently, is not a novelization, and diverges in detail from the television series. A final Quatermass story, The Quatermass Memoirs (4-8 March 1996 5 episodes) was released on BBC Radio, interestingly as part-documentary and part-fiction.

A clearer manifestation of the darkness underlying Quatermass can be detected in Kneale's script for the film Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1983), in which microchips made out of a Stonehenge monolith are used to booby-trap children's Halloween masks with a hideous destruction device, this being the plot of a madman who wishes (as perhaps Kneale did) that the true meaning of Halloween had not been vulgarized. It had now become clear from Kneale's sf/horror work that he had little interest in, or even much knowledge of, sf proper, a genre about which he consistently expressed contempt (sf being "very disappointing and horribly overwritten" and sf fans, he said in a 1979 interview, being either fat with wispy wives or wispy with fat ones); it is interesting, for example, that the two films he repudiated as having vulgarized his scripts, Quatermass II – which he kept from circulation for years – and Halloween III, are among the better ones. With hindsight, there is a clear pattern in Kneale's work in which ordinary people are seen as stupid and ignorant, and ready prey for the supernatural or science-fictional forces that will almost inevitably attempt to control them. There is a seigneurial, Edwardian element in this, a recoiling from the vulgar. This is a point worth belabouring, because Kneale was certainly a much better than average scriptwriter – the Quatermass series especially is exemplary – and his scripts were, paradoxically, very influential on sf, at least at the Gothic and irrational margin of the genre where sf meets fantasy (see Horror in SF), particularly among film and television producers, who never expect sf to make sense anyway.

Kneale's revulsion against what he saw sf as standing for came into particular focus with the 1981 television series Kinvig, which attempts to call forth derisory laughter at the granting (via a very beautiful Alien) of two sf fans' romantic longings for mysteries in a mundane world; it is a sitcom notable for its derisory treatment of the leading characters.

A useful biography is Into the Unknown: The Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale (2006; exp rev 2017) by Andy Murray. [PN/JC/DRL]

see also: Pseudoscience; SF Music.

Thomas Nigel Kneale

born Barrow-in-Furness, Lancashire: 28 April 1922 [often wrongly given as 18 April]

died London: 29 October 2006




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