Nigel Kneale

From Academic Kids

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Nigel Kneale in 1990, discussing his career on BBC Two's The Late Show.
Nigel Kneale (born Thomas Nigel Kneale on April 18, 1922 in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, England, UK) is a Manx television and film scriptwriter, who has worked mostly in the UK. He is best known for his creation of the character of Professor Bernard Quatermass, who has appeared in three serials for BBC Television, one for Thames Television and three feature film adaptations of the BBC serials for the Hammer company.

Early life and career

Although born in England, Kneale's family were from the Isle of Man and returned there shortly afterwards, where he was brought up in the capital, Douglas. His father was the editor of the local newspaper, and his brother Bryan is a renowned sculptor. Kneale enjoyed life on the island, but a skin condition meant that the weather there did not suit him and in 1947 he left for mainland Britain.

After initially pursuing a career as an actor, Kneale decided to switch to writing after "a season carrying spears at Stratford-upon-Avon" convinced him he would never make it very far as a performer. He began working in prose, in 1950 winning the Somerset Maugham Award for his collection of short stories, Tomato Cain.

He had first moved into broadcasting when he began writing plays for BBC Radio in 1948, subsequently concentrating on script work and becoming one of the first permanent staff drama writers for BBC Television. His first television work, on the play Arrow to the Heart, was broadcast in July 1952. He quickly forged a reputation as one of the premier scriptwriters of BBC Television, and in 1953 teamed up with noted television director Rudolph Cartier - who had written Arrow to the Heart before Kneale had been brought in to polish up the script - to create the legendary science-fiction serial The Quatermass Experiment.

1950s and Quatermass

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Reginald Tate as Kneale's heroic scientist Professor Bernard Quatermass in The Quatermass Experiment (1953).
Lasting for six weeks over July and August, The Quatermass Experiment tells the story of Professor Bernard Quatermass of the British Experimental Rocket Group, and the consequences of him sending the first manned mission into space when a terrible fate befalls the crew and only one returns. It was a huge popular and critical success, and Cartier and Kneale became the No. 1 team of BBC drama.

They worked on literary adaptations of Wuthering Heights and most famously Nineteen Eighty-Four together, in the latter case creating a television production which became almost as famous as the book itself, being labelled both horrific and subversive, provoking death threats and raising questions in Parliament.

A second Quatermass serial, Quatermass II, arrived in 1955, the same year in which Hammer released their adaptation of the Professor's first outing, The Quatermass Xperiment, the spelling changed to play on the film's X-certificate for its horrific content. Kneale was displeased with the adaptation, however, on which he had been able to do no work as his BBC staff contract prohibited it.

However, soon after this he left the BBC, and was thus able to pen the screen plays of both the Hammer adaptation, Quatermass 2, and their version of another of his BBC collaborations with Cartier, The Creature, filmed as The Abominable Snowman.

Despite no longer being on the staff of the BBC he still wrote for them, in 1958 penning what many believe to be the greatest of all the Quatermass serials, Quatermass and the Pit. A sophisticated tale of racial tension, the origins of mankind and primaeval fears, it drew much critical acclaim and a huge audience for the time, allegedly emptying the pubs on the night of its final episode. There was no way Kneale could top that, and it proved to be the character's last BBC television outing, although Hammer did produce another film adaptation of Quatermass and the Pit, again with Kneale adapting his own script, in 1967.

Later film and television career

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The Stone Tape, a Kneale play from 1972.
As well as having adapted his own serials for the screen, Kneale also forged a successful screenwriting career adapting other peoples' work for the cinema. He wrote the screenplays for successful film adaptations of Look Back in Anger (1958), The Entertainer (1960) and The First Men in the Moon (1964). Later on in his career he provided the original screenplay for the horror film Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982), although he was so displeased with all of the changes that were made to it that he had his name removed from the credits of the final cut. In the same decade, he collaborated with John Landis on the script for a planned re-make of the 1950s film Creature from the Black Lagoon, but this was never eventually produced.

Much varied television work came for Kneale in the 1960s and 1970s, including stand alone plays such as Year of the Sex Olympics (1968), Wine of India (1970) and The Stone Tape (1972) for the BBC and the horror/sf series Beasts for ATV (1976).

Although Kneale often uses science-fiction backgrounds and settings for his scripts, he denies that he is a science-fiction writer and indeed has often expressed an intense dislike for the genre. He sees himself as a writer predominantly of 'straight' drama who happens to sometimes use science-fiction trappings in his stories, although this has not stopped him from becoming a great favourite and something of a legendary figure amongst fans of the genre, particularly in the UK.

In the early 1970s Kneale discussed the possibility of making a fourth and final Quatermass serial with the BBC, and although this project eventually came to nothing, Kneale took his scripts to Thames Television, who produced Quatermass (also known as The Quatermass Conclusion) in 1979. A glossy, expensive production, it starred Sir John Mills in the title role and brought to an end the Professor's story, although subsequently in 1996 Kneale penned a drama/documentary set before this and featuring the character for BBC Radio 3, entitled The Quatermass Memoirs.

In 1981 Kneale tried his hand at writing comedy for television for the first time with the series Kinvig, although it was not a success and he did not attempt to stray outside of drama again. In recent years his output has decreased in his retirement, although he was still writing for television well into the 1990s, contributing episodes to the popular ITV series Kavanagh QC and Sharpe. In the late 1990s Chris Carter approached Kneale to write an episode for The X-Files but Kneale declined the offer.


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Kneale with his wife, the writer Judith Kerr, and the original 'monster' they created for the climax of The Quatermass Experiment, pictured in 2004.
In the year 2000 two of Kneale's productions, Quatermass and the Pit and the 1954 version of Nineteen Eighty-Four featured in a poll of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes of all time compiled by the British Film Institute, and in 2003 the digital television channel BBC Four produced a special documentary celebrating Kneale's life and work. All of the existing Quatermass material, Year of the Sex Olympics and The Stone Tape are all available to buy on VHS and/or DVD, although Year of the Sex Olympics is presented in black and white because the original colour masters were wiped.

In April 2005, the digital channel BBC Four produced a live re-make of The Quatermass Experiment as part of a special 'TV on Trial' season, debating whether television had ever had a true 'classic' era. Kneale's original scripts were adapted into a single two-hour version (although in the event the broadcast ran to only one hour forty minutes) by producer Richard Fell, and Kneale acted as a consultant on the production which was broadcast on Saturday April 2.

Kneale married the scriptwriter Judith Kerr in 1954, and they have two children. Their son Matthew Kneale is a distinguished writer himself, winning the Book of the Year prize at the prestigious Whitbread Book Awards in 2000 for the novel English Passengers. Their daughter, Tracy Kneale, works in the special effects industry, and has worked on the popular Harry Potter films.

He lives in Barnes, London.

External links


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