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Q&A: What was the first horror film you ever saw?
A creeping horror from the 1950s, recreated earlier this year and a story I hoped to bring back to life in the 2010s for Big Finish!
I’m on a creative retreat this week, so I hope you will forgive me for delving into my archives for a (slightly updated and expanded) post from my website.
Earlier in the year, reader Nicola Reeves asked:
What was the first horror film you ever saw?
Great question! I think it was the Hammer version of The Quatermass Xperiment, which I remember watching on a tiny black and white TV in my grandparent’s cottage long after I was supposed to be in bed. I must have only been seven or eight and they’d completely forgotten that the portable television was still in my bedroom. Bwa-ha-ha-ha!
The image was grainy and the sound tinny – especially as I had the volume turned right down so Grandad didn’t realise I was still awake, let alone watching late-night telly – but it scared me silly, mainly due to my first experience of body horror which kept me awake for hours, nervously looking at my arm for the first signs of alien mutation.
Thinking about it now, the movie probably sparked my fascination with plant horror, which still crops up (pun intended) in my stories. And yes, that includes the Drengir I created for Star Wars: The High Republic.
It was only much later that I not only discovered The Quatermass Xperiment was based on a BBC TV show scripted by the legendary Nigel Kneale but realised how much it had influenced my real gateway to horror – Doctor Who! While Quatermass has Victor Carroon’s terrifying transformation into a big murderous blob, it was Doctor Who that made me the monster fan I am today!
Which brings me to the update to this answer. Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to snag tickets for me and my eldest daughter to see a live readthrough of the original Quatermass Xperiment shooting scripts at Alexander Palace in London, in the same building the original series was broadcast 70 years before.
It was a monumental task for a cast led by Mark Gatiss as Bernard Quatermass, a role he was born to play. All six episodes performed in one evening in front of an audience? That’s three hours of drama, complete with stage directions as read by producer Jon Dear. Needless to say, it overran, quite considerably, and we got back to Bristol at 3am the following morning.
But the marathon production was worth it for so many reasons. First up was the location. I mean… look at it:
Then, there was James Swanton’s mesmerising performance as Victor Carroon. The man is a master of physical theatre and went far beyond a basic readthrough to contort his body into the most harrowing positions to bring Carroon’s terrifying transformation to life.
The finale was particularly enthralling, thanks to his looming shadow work as Gatiss delivered Quatermass’ closing speech to the creature.
Here it is captured on a photo from Jon Dear’s Twitter feed:
The wonderful lighting and sound design was by Chris Lincé.
Finally, what surprised me most was how Nigel Kneale’s stage directions were, especially when describing characters, something you would never usually hear. It brought home to me how scripts, whether they’re for comics, stage or screen, aren’t actually for the audience but are instead for your creative collaborators, the best way to get across what’s in your head in the hope that they will bring it vividly to life.
I am still staggered that in these days of remakes and reboots, we haven’t seen a successful reinterpretation of Quatermass. Indeed, there would never be a better time, as billionaires spend fortunes putting themselves into space. Perhaps a 21st-Century Bernard Quatermass would be working for a tech-bro rather than the British Experimental Rocket Group! And who knows what the amateur astronauts could bring back on a thoroughly up-to-date test flight?
As a footnote, I had a brush with Quatermass with my pal and collaborator Mark Wright more years ago than I care to remember. It was a time when we were pitching several potential projects for Big Finish, including an update for Space 1999 and, yes, Quatermass.
At the time, we were thinking of it being a period piece and suggested Sir Derek Jacobi for the title role. Word came back from BF that Nigel Havers, who they’d recently been working with, was a huge Quatermass fan, and so he became the focus of our pitch, which unfortunately never came to anything as the rights for the series are hideously complicated, to say the least (probably the real reason we haven’t seen a recent revival). I still wonder what our version of Quatermass would have looked - or rather sounded. A real ‘What If’ there, but I know I would’ve tried to invoke the terror I felt as a kid huddled in bed at my grandparent’s cottage…