It’s often remarked that we’re living in a golden age of television, one where the intermingling of the TV and film industries is widespread and fruitful. Sometimes, though, it’s worth remembering the days when the big and small screens had a different relationship, but when the end results were often no less golden.
Throughout January, HOME in Manchester is celebrating the great British screenwriter Nigel Kneale, who was born in Barrow-in-Furness a hundred years ago. Kneale died in 2006, but he left behind a unique and fascinating body of work. In a season curated by me and Professor Andy Willis, HOME will be screening several of Kneale’s most notable dramas, with a particular focus on his skills as an adaptor, either of novels and plays by others or of his own original TV scripts for cinema. It’s perhaps an undervalued skill, and Kneale was certainly no slouch where creativity was concerned. But the season will attempt to illustrate his particular ability to retell, say, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights in a relatively basic television studio environment, and his ability to open up John Osborne’s hit theatre plays Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer in a way that succeeds on the silver screen. Actually, his clearest achievement here might be the small screen adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black which he wrote for ITV in 1989. It beats the later, big budget movie version into a cocked hat.
Kneale tends to be remembered as a genre writer. There were other strings to his bow though, as the scope of the season aims to show, but science fiction and horror were fields in which he excelled and continues to be influential. His 1955 BBC TV play The Creature, about the then-topical hunt for proof of the legendary Tibetan Yeti, hasn’t survived, but he turned the script into a faithful film version, The Abominable Snowman, for Hammer Studios two years later.
Kneale had an uneasy working relationship with Hammer, but it was certainly productive. It was for them that he adapted bestselling author Norah Lofts’ 1960 novel The Devil’s Own as The Witches in 1966, a curious tale of suburban black magic that’s now regarded as an early example of folk horror. Hammer also made films out of Kneale’s three 1950s TV serials about Professor Quatermass and his knack for defeating alien incursions. The third, and arguably the best, was the remarkable Quatermass and the Pit, the towering reputation of which makes it a fitting closing screening in the season (there’s also an ‘in conversation’ event at HOME about Kneale with his biographer – that is, this writer and fellow Kneale expert, writer/performer Toby Hadoke).
If you care to look closer at Kneale’s career, you’ll see those threads that link the film, theatre and television industries dotted throughout. Much of his early TV work was produced/directed by Rudolph Cartier, a Viennese graduate of the legendary UFA film studios in Berlin. Cartier duly brought a touch of cinematic ambition to British television drama in the 1950s. Cartier and Kneale collaborated on Nineteen Eighty-Four, casting TV star Peter Cushing in the lead role of Winston Smith. It helped to propel Cushing towards film stardom, and the team reunited for The Creature, with Cushing going on to star in Hammer’s big screen remake The Abominable Snowman too, released hot on the heels of Hammer’s first Frankenstein film, which set Cushing on a new course as a British horror icon. Decades later, it was a revived Hammer which made the 2012 film version of The Woman in Black, by which point Susan Hill’s novel was perhaps best known for the long-running stage adaptation.
Truly, Kneale’s career was at its height in an early golden age of British film and television. Hopefully, admirers of his work will find much to enjoy within HOME’s centenary season, with more celebratory events and releases set to come elsewhere as the year goes on.
By Andy Murray, Film Editor
Nigel Kneale: Into the Unknown runs at HOME in Manchester January 5–25, 2022. For more information, click here.
Andy Murray’s biography of Nigel Kneale is available from all good booksellers, and direct from the publishers here.