The Kneale Legacy: An Interview with Andy Murray

Chatting with the Author of 'Into The Unknown: The Fantastic Life Of Nigel Kneale'

Nigel Kneale might well be the most important television writer you've never heard of. If you have enjoyed a piece of British science fiction made since at least the 1960s, chances are that you've encountered something either written by or influenced by his writings. It could be Doctor Who, its spin-off series Torchwood, or even works from across the Atlantic such as Stephen King's The Tommyknockers.

Kneale was, after all, the man who helped invent popular television in the UK. In 1953, when television was still in its infancy there, he wrote the six episode serial The Quatermass Experiment for the BBC. In it, Professor Bernard Quatermass tries to deal with the fallout of a British space mission gone wrong that sees its only surviving crew member slowly turning into an alien organism that could infect all life on Earth.

The Quatermass Experiment was a major success. It helped firmly establish Kneale's reputation as a writer for the new medium and in the years that followed he created two sequel serials. Quatermass II, broadcast in 1955, combined elements of Cold War fears and conspiracy thriller with an alien invasion. Quatermass And The Pit, broadcast in 1958-59, has the good professor helping investigate a mysterious capsule found on a London building site and which pre-echoes the rise of Ancient Aliens style ideas a decade before Erich von Däniken's Chariots Of The Gods. All three serials were remade as films, further extending Kneale's reach across the world.

Kneale on the set of the BBC's Quatermass II in 1955.

Yet while Quatermass remains Kneale's best-known work (indeed he even brought the character back on TV in 1979 and for a radio docudrama in 1996), his work went well beyond it. He wrote scripts for adaptations of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, John Osborne's classic play Look Back In Anger, and HG Wells' The First Men In The Moon. His other TV work included The Stone Tape which saw a group of scientists trying to solve a haunting with modern (for 1972) technology and The Year Of The Sex Olympics which foresaw the rise of reality television. That's to name just a few highlights from a career that included brief sojourns to Hollywood which continued almost up to his death in 2006.

Despite his influence, Kneale remains largely unknown outside of sci-fi fan circles. It's perhaps no surprise then that someone decided to try and remedy that situation with a biography of the writer. Andy Murray's Into The Unknown offers to do exactly that with a new and substantially expanded edition that covers not just Quatermass but the influence of Kneale across generations of writers and filmmakers, including some attempts to remake his work.

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Andy Murray to talk about Kneale, his legacy, and the new edition of the book.

The crashed spaceship from Hammer's 1955 film The Quatermass Xperiment

Matthew Kresal: In the introduction, I describe Kneale as perhaps the most important television writer that people have never heard of. Would you agree with that assessment and is that part of the reason why you decided to write the book to begin with?

Andy Murray: I agree with both those bits. He's certainly that important and he's certainly a figure a lot of people haven't heard of. I think it's probably down to the fact really that his influence was so huge at a certain point. His most important work obviously was in the fifties, sixties, and seventies. Though he's still very influential after that and very popular and obviously there are people who are still enormous fans of his, some of those people are working in television as writers, it's very interesting to see just how influential he's been on other writers. I think to a degree the important thing is that he's slightly forgotten now because that is slightly 'back in the day' and he's now regarded as a cult figure. Whereas then he wasn't. Quatermass and all those things he was doing were mainstream television, popular television. Now they're regarded as kind of cult thing whereas then he was just a popular writer.

Is that part of that shift in the way entertainment and TV has worked? Quatermass, as you say, in the fifties was part of the first big explosion of popular television in the UK and as popular British films when they were remade by Hammer on the big screen. Because of the way the industry and culture has shifted, Kneale has very much become a cult figure.

The whole question of Kneale and science fiction is very complicated. In the original Radio Times, the radio and TV listings magazine in this country, The Quatermass Experiment was billed as a “thriller in six parts.” It's not really called anything, but thriller is the thing. It wasn't really being called science fiction in the same way, it was just kind of imaginative. That in itself was quite unusual because there wasn't anybody to any degree doing what Kneale did on television before that. He was a real pioneer in the figure of television science fiction.

It's changing even now, especially in this country. I think Doctor Who is a big part of that. I co-wrote a book on Russell T Davies and a lot of people, when Doctor Who came back, people working in television would say to Russell “Why are you doing this? This is going to flop. Nobody watches science fiction anymore.” Obviously, that was proven wrong and Doctor Who was a huge hit.

It's this kind of evolving status of science fiction on television about whether it is a popular thing or a niche thing. It was very much a niche thing I think in the eighties and nineties. It was seen as very much cult. Now it's come round a bit again and it's much more popular I think.

The added complication to that is whether Kneale saw himself as a science fiction writer. Kneale's relationship to genre was very complicated. He did like science fiction I think but I don't think he would have felt very comfortable with being called a 'science fiction writer,' he would have seen that as a bit reductive. He certainly wouldn't have been happy with being called a 'horror writer,' horror was a genre he was very weary of and when people acclaimed his work in the 'horror field,' he really didn't like that.

It's something I try to touch on in the book actually, in the final chapter, that now we're quite used to the idea that now people who work in science fiction are science fiction fans. People like Steven Moffat, Neil Gaiman, Russell T. Davies, Mark Gatiss, all those figures have come from being fans to working in the genre. Whereas Nigel Kneale was very weary of being called a genre writer and didn't want that association. That's a very different way of approaching it.

That's something you talk about in the book, his sort of ambivalent attitude towards the fandom that built up around him and science fiction genre in general, especially when it came to the fore during the late 1970s/early 1980s.

One of my favorite new bits of information I found out for the book was that I knew he'd written Kinvig, his sitcom, in part because he'd been to a convention and really hadn't liked what he'd seen there. So I did a bit of digging and found out which convention it was. It was SeaCon, the World Science Fiction Convention, which was in Brighton in 1979 and presumably Kneale was there because the Thames Quatermass, the 1979 Quatermass, was coming out so maybe he'd been encouraged to go along to this.

I got in touch with a guy called Bill Warren, who had been his kind of chaperone at the convention, and he said that Kneale seemed to enjoy it. He didn't get any sense of him not enjoying it. He does remember being in the green room at the convention and Richard O'Brien [creator of The Rocky Horror Picture Show] was there as well. Richard O'Brien was apparently dressed very outlandishly, very sort of bright, strange colorful clothes on. Bill Warren said he had shoes that looked as though he had actually painted them with house paint that day. And Richard O'Brien rushed up to Nigel Kneale when he saw him and said, “You made me what I am today!”

I like to think that kind of, in microcosm, says an awful lot about Kneale's relationship to fans. That people were doing that all the time, people who loved science fiction and other genre stuff, were rushing up to him and saying “You created me!” and he's saying “No thank you!”

You can detect to an extent as well, as you talk about in the book, with his relationship with John Carpenter, especially when Kneale came to Hollywood in the early eighties.

Yeah that whole wave of filmmakers seemed to really enjoy his stuff. I don't think Spielberg has ever said outright that he was a fan of Kneale's but you can see some of his stuff has influenced him. That very first student film Spielberg made, Firelight, is very much like Quatermass II. That whole wave of of people like John Landis and Joe Dante who clearly really liked his stuff which comes back to what we were saying about people who work in the genre who come from the position of being fans to working in the profession.

I think it was Kim Newman who said that there's nobody who's worked in British television since 1980 who hasn't been influenced by Kneale's work.

Absolutely. In many cases now it's gotten to the point where they might not know they've been influenced by him. His ideas have been homaged, ripped-off, whatever you want to call it, so many times that his ideas, particularly the Quatermass serials, are just like contemporary myths now or science fiction archetypes. People will just do a kind of invasion story, possibly not even being aware of who Kneale is or that they are being influenced by him somewhere along the way.

Professor Quatermass (André Morell) with a dead Martian in a still from the BBC's Quatermass And The Pit.

As you said, part of the reason to decide to do the book to begin with in the early 2000s.

Yeah, I wrote it in 2004 and was probably researching it in 2002–2003. I was interviewing Kneale at the time, doing lots of interviews with him then. I was always a Kneale fan. I was certainly one of those people who came to Kneale through Doctor Who, who grew up watching Doctor Who, started reading around Doctor Who and Doctor Who Magazine and noticing this name that you had never heard of before. I was born in 1972 so I wasn't of the original Quatermass generation.

Initially, I worked at an art center called Corner House in Manchester and we started to have screenings around Halloween. So we had a weekend called Darkness Over Britain every Halloween and the theme was British TV and film horror. It was a particular strand that, to be perfectly honest, what we were showing folk horror though no one was calling it that then. I wish had called it that then and written that book!

The first thing we ever showed the first weekend was The Stone Tape. Which I think had just come out on DVD then just but wasn't widely seen. It was a sellout. People obviously really wanted to see that stuff. So the second year that we ran it, it was quite the natural thing to say “Let's invite Nigel Kneale.” He came and it was quite a long process to get him to come. I think I've mentioned this elsewhere but when we first rang his house to invite him, someone had given us his phone number, he answered the phone and basically his reaction was “Oh, you don't want to speak with my wife?” His wife is a very popular children's writer [Judith Kerr, author of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit].

Basically, he did come. He was probably about 78 then, this would have been 2001. He was just fantastic. He had so many great stories. And you just think 'Somebody should write these stories down.' It was making that quantum leap from thinking 'I wish someone would write a book about him,' to thinking 'Maybe I should try and do it,” so I did. I wanted there to be a book about Nigel Kneale, I wanted to read a book about Nigel Kneale, and in the end, I thought I could try.

So you already had that connection to sit down and do interviews with him. How many interviews did you ultimately do with him over the next couple of years?

Most of it was in a very concentrated few weeks. Basically, I think we both had copies of his credits and we did most of it over the phone actually. So I would ring him up and we would have very long conversations, sort of a couple of hours, or so. We did probably about ten of these phone conversations. Obviously, we would start off talking about his childhood and things like that before his career. But then ultimately we would go through like “Okay next, The Stone Tape!” and he would tell me whatever he could remember about The Stone Tape.

Some things he would remember in great detail. The things he remembered in great detail weren't always the big, significant credits. Sometimes shows he had done that hadn't been very well remembered or didn't exist anymore he would remember in great detail and have great stories to tell. He was almost eighty years old, he was an old man, but when his memories were good, they were great.

There were a few sessions that we did when I went down to see him in London. We did sort of additional interviews, maybe three or four interviews additional interviews as well. 

A poster for the first James Bond film 'Dr. No' which Kneale was approached to write for.

Something else you do in the book is look at these sort of “what if?” moments in Kneale's career such as his having been approached to write the first James Bond film, Dr. No.

I had never read that before and that came about because of one of the in-person interviews I did when I was at his house. We were talking about his John Osborne adaptations with Harry Saltzman, the producer. I think I said, almost as an aside, “He went on to do the Bond films. Did he ever ask you to write one?” and he was like “Oh yeah, he asked me to write one of those.” It was one of those moments where you think 'That's amazing! It's fantastic!”

Equally, I guess in a parallel universe that happened. I can't imagine what that it was like. He said “no,” I can't really imagine the circumstances in which he would have said “yes,” and if he did what it would have been like, and what he would have written. I guess we'll never know but that's the tantalizing thing about it. It's a fascinating thought, "what would that have been like?"

When I set out to write the book, I think I thought, "Okay, I'll cover his career." Then when I made contact with him and he was so free with his scripts, which he still had, I thought "This is great! I can cover all the things he didn't write or he wrote but didn't get made as well." But then you start thinking "This book will be a list of things he wrote which either happened or didn't happen," and you think, "How do you make this readable?"

To be honest, I suppose he had a long career. There are other writers who had long careers but he was very open about those sorts of projects that maybe other writers hadn't been quite so open about. It was probably not totally an unusual career he had that, you write things, sometimes they get made, and sometimes they don't. It was quite an unusual position to be in, to see everything he had written, whether it had been made or not, and I wanted to get that side across if I could without it coming across as too dry or too academic. 

The original book came out in 2005 and has been out of print for the better part of a decade. What led to the decision now to not only to put it back into print but to revise and expand it?

Initially, it was Headpress, the publisher, who came to me and said “There still seems to be a demand for the book. It's going for a lot of money on Amazon. Clearly people are still interested in Nigel Kneale. Let's put it out again.” My response to all that was, “Yes let's do that, but let me rewrite it.”

Right off the bat, you think "Well, he's died since the book was published." It's out of date, it needs to be updated, even if you do it in a sort of cursory way. You need to acknowledge that things have happened since. So it was kind of my decision to update it foolishly!

So I made the decision I'd go back and revise what I'd done already and expand it to some degree. I didn't really know how to go about that. I kind of thought, "Shall I start from scratch? How thorough should I be?" Ultimately, I just thought, "I'll sit down, open chapter one, and see how I get on." What I found was that was so much new information that had come out or information that I didn't have access to before that it was just too tempting to not put an extra layer of detail in. Again, hopefully without making it too dry and too much like a barrage of statistics, names, and titles. I just wanted to put more information in and have a new chapter as well.

I was quite surprised when I came to it how much there was to put in the new chapter. I was sitting there thinking, "What if I'm doing a new chapter and it says and then he died?" Actually, there's been an awful lot of activity. I knew for a fact that the potential BBC America reboot of Quatermass was on the cards so I spoke to people involved in that. They were very helpful but all they could really say was that “It doesn't definitely have the green light yet and we're just waiting to see.” It's slightly frustrating as they might announce it next week and the book would be out of date.

It's quite a nice thing in a way. Kneale's career and life is over, he isn't going to write anything new, but his influence isn't over. I know for a fact there are other potential Kneale projects in the offing that people can't talk about. There's a sense that he will go on, his writing will go.

Is it fair to say we might be on the brink of Knealian Renaissance?

It's possible. I don't discount that possibility. If the BBC America reboot happens, there will be a bombardment of documentaries and articles. “What is Quatermass?” “Who is Nigel Kneale?” That will inevitably happen.

I mean just this year, my book's come out. Total coincidence but We Are The Martians [a collection of essays about Kneale's career] just came out a couple of weeks ago. There's another book by Toby Hadoke [comedian and cult TV expert who's worked on the Classic Series Doctor Who DVD range] is writing a book about Quatermass. The Crunch [a TV play Kneale wrote in 1964] is coming out on DVD over here later this year over here. So there seems to be a flurry, something in the air with so many Kneale mentions at the moment.

Tim Burton, one of many filmmakers who has tried to bring Quatermass back to the screen.

One of the things you mention in the book and in the last chapter especially is a lot of those potential projects. A lot of big names involved with them, like Richard Donner and Dan O'Bannon working on a remake of The Quatermass Experiment in the 1990s, and Tim Burton more recently. There seems to be a fascination with Kneale's work but things never seem to quite work out in Hollywood.

It just seems to come to a point. There is something about Kneale's writing. BBC Radio did a new version of The Stone Tape a couple of years ago and possibly the same applies to the live remake of The Quatermass Experiment from 2005 where I think it's possible to look at his work from a more modern perspective and think “This needs updating a bit. We need to rework this, we can't put this out as it is.” Once you start doing it, it falls apart or you lose something. I don't know what it is but there's something in his writing where it's easy to be dismissive about or slightly critical of. But if you start trying to revamp it, you lose the essential essence of what he did. He has a very distinct character and style to his writing and anybody who reworks it is at risk because it's like a house of cards, once you start to mess with it, it falls apart in some ways.

You can look at The Quatermass Experiment and say what's great about that is the story and the ideas maybe rather than the characters and the dialogue. No disrespect to them but that's what stands out most of all. Once you try to retell that story and change the characters and the dialogue, you also kind of lose something of his writing. That's probably the mark of a really good writer. Maybe it smacks of the fifties, sixties, or seventies or whatever it is you're talking about, but he knew what he was doing and every nut and bolt was there for a reason. I don't think it pays to try and second guess him as a writer.

There's something about Kneale's work with is both timeless and of its era at the same time.

Exactly. Maybe that would have been interesting in terms of the Tim Burton thing. I had no idea that was on the cards at all and I haven't read much about it apart from what I put into the book. That, as I understand it, was planned as a fifties period piece. Maybe that maybe would have worked slightly better, I don't know.

I know Burton was a fan of, and this is probably very telling, but David S. Goyer rewrote Quatermass And The Pit as Legacy and Kneale was very disparaging about that. It was quite radical in the rewrite, it didn't even have a Quatermass character in it. Again, it just takes the ideas and really runs with it. Kneale didn't like it and did what he could to stop it from happening. Whereas, he really approved of what Dan O'Bannon did with his script for The Quatermass Experiment remake, which was very faithful to his work. He didn't like people tinkering with his work.

To risk asking a question in bad taste, is the fact that he's no longer with us the reason perhaps the reason all these projects are coming to the fore?

Possibly. That's probably a sort of wider question in popular culture about whether figures come in waves. Or whether all this Kneale activity is related to the fact he died eleven years ago. Is that a cycle in some way?

I don't think all this activity has anything to do with him dying in as much that anything that any of these books that have been published are anything but respectful towards him. It was kind of an issue when I rewrote the book that I was aware that it was so much from his perspective and that he had a reputation. People said he could be difficult to work with and there were people who held him in high esteem but there was another angle on that.

There is a point when I spoke to Paul Quinn who made The Quatermass Memoirs, the radio series. He kind of acknowledges this idea that Kneale did have a reputation and that he was warned before hand with people within the BBC warned him “Be careful with Nigel Kneale,” sort of thing. Again, when I reworked the book I thought, "Who can I talk to about that sort of thing?" I think when Toby Hadoke writes his book, there will be more of that. He'll explore different perspectives of what working with Kneale was like.

I don't really know why there's been this wave of activity. Maybe it's just something with the idea that things come around again. I don't know. 

Matthew Kresal
Matthew Kresal

Matthew Kresal was born and raised in North Alabama though he never developed a Southern accent. His essays have been featured in numerous books and his first piece of fiction was published in the anthology Blood, Sweat, And Fears in 2016.

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The Kneale Legacy: An Interview with Andy Murray