back to article 1953: How Quatermass switched Britons from TV royalty to TV sci-fi

In June 1953 millions of Brits huddled around their newly bought TVs - all two million of them - and watched their new young Queen take the Coronation Oath before God, her bishops and peers amidst the gothic splendour of Westminster Abbey. Just over two months later a similar number clustered around their sets again, to watch …


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  1. DrStrangeLug

    The late great Nigel Kneale, truly a man that can put the scare young children without flooding the set in false blood.

    1. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      I can only upvote you once, but I would do more if I could!

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      A man whose legacy is, I think, sadly overlooked by many.

  2. Tanuki

    Prof. Quatermass was always one of my heroes: who can forget the way he triumphed over that little bit of local nastiness down at Hobbs End tube station?

    1. Antonymous Coward

      Not I

      Notice how it's spelled, not with a single "b" like the cricketer but with two. Perhaps it's a reference to "Hob" which was an old name for the devil.

      Is it safe to come out from behind the sofa yet?

      1. thesykes
        Thumb Up

        Re: Not I

        I was only a kid when I watched that with my dad, and that comment about Hobbs End is one of the few bits I can recall...

      2. Stevie Silver badge

        Re: Not I

        "Notice how it's spelled, not with a single "b" like the cricketer but with two. Perhaps it's a reference to "Hob" which was an old name for the devil."

        So you forgot the part where that possibility is discussed in detail by two of the lead characters then? 8o)


        1. TheOtherHobbes

          Re: Not I

          >Perhaps it's a reference to "Hob" which was an old name for the devil."

          You might think that. I couldn't possibly comment.

    2. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      "Prof. Quatermass was always one of my heroes: who can forget the way he triumphed over that little bit of local nastiness down at Hobbs End tube station?"

      Yes. Something very nasty down in the tube station at midnight.

  3. Uncle Slacky Silver badge

    "hard for many Britain’s to fill in"

    Britain's what?

    Or do you mean "Britons"?

    1. chr0m4t1c

      Re: "hard for many Britain’s to fill in"

      There's never an editor around when you need one.

    2. Steve Graham

      Re: "hard for many Britain’s to fill in"

      Yes, and we can also do without the fake Americanism of "gotten", thank you very much.

      1. Uncle Slacky Silver badge

        Re: "hard for many Britain’s to fill in"

        "Gotten" originates in (old) English, so it's really only returning from the colonies.

        1. Alan Brown Silver badge

          Re: "hard for many Britain’s to fill in"

          It's been in regular use in the antiopdean colonies for their entire existance too. (Besides, it's a nice shakespearean word)

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: "hard for many Britain’s to fill in"

            "gotten" was not used in NZ, nor Australia when I was there (NZer).

            Actually, even old English did not use it that much and now, when used, it is usually in the wrong grammatical context. Scots courts use "proven"; but that is an archaic usage, damn your eyes. We dropped thee, thy, and most Old English word endings around about the time Norse changed the language irrevocably. Even Shakespeare tended to restrict such endings to particular contexts.

            Certain religious immigrant groups to the Americas and Quakers, for instance, in England, consciously adopted archaisms to separate themselves from the rest of us, along with Webster's deliberate and inconsistent spelling changes for the same purpose (come on, how is "color" more representative of how we nearly all pronounce "colour", for example?).

            Your trouble is too much USA media and ignorance of your own culture. Shame.

        2. Stevie Silver badge

          Re: "hard for many Britain’s to fill in"

          ""Gotten" originates in (old) English, so it's really only returning from the colonies."

          Upvote for your superior historical knowledge in putting down the anti-American sentiment, sir.

          Can we do aluminium/aluminum next?

  4. keithpeter

    Was it colder then?

    "All that stomping around in gaberdine coats, occasionally removed to reveal further layers of tweed and rough knitwear..."

    Try Google Image search for 'Bill Brandt Street Photographs' or (early 60s) 'Roger Mayne'. Coats, vests, jackets, shirts, jumpers on what are obviously summer days (shadow angle in Mayne's photos especially when there is some sun).

    Was it colder then?

    I can remember early to mid 60s, and it was always summer and I was always hurtling around in a T-shirt, shorts and plastic sandals (grew up near the sea). I was probably just being a normal 6 to 9 year old.

    Yes, I hid behind the setee when the Darleks arrived.

    Mine's the Duffel coat going into the cupboard.

    1. Magister

      Re: Was it colder then?

      Remember the winter of 63 / 63?


      They still used to get pea soupers because of the amount of coal being burned to heat houses / offices / factories - not many people had central heating, so they put on extra layers of clothing. But I also think that we were a hardier lot; if you were cold, you ran around to get warm!

      Not quite old enough to remember the original Quatermass, but I did watch "Quatermass and the Pit" (despite my mother thinking that it was too scary for me). It got me reading a lot of SF once I was able to get a library card.

      Things were definitely a bit shabbier then; there were still large areas of major twons & cities that had been damaged / destroyed by bombing and then had been knocked flat for safety; no money to re-build at that time. We used to play games in the abandoned bomb shelters or pillar boxes that littered the landscape, not quite understanding that our parents had used the same places for real.

      But there was a sense of optimism; the war was over, the economy slowly improving, new consumer goods available. Lots of really exciting scientific research in all areas. Perhaps not good times, but certainly better than the previous generations ahd had to tolerate.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Was it colder then?

        Yes. No central heating. And if there was, people were still being careful with money, fuel, resources.

        They tell me that there was still rationing on some things, but being only 1 in 1953 I was yet to experience shopping and housekeeping.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Was it colder then?

          Ration cards continued until 1956 or later. There were some cold Winters. Single glazing, draughty chimneys, Jack Frost patterns on the inside of windows in the morning, frozen hot water bottles on the bedroom floor if they fell out of the bed. Villages in mid Devon got cut off regularly by snow. My father, a country doctor, used to walk along the hedge tops to reach patients (most of whom did not have cars even in the countryside), carrying his medical case, because the car could not be used in those conditions. A chap teaching in a market town, some ten miles away, sometimes skied to school when the snow was good enough. So perhaps it was a cool decade.

          It was fun actually. Try turning down or off the central heating this Winter. See how many clothes you start wearing.

      2. Blitheringeejit

        Re: Was it colder then?

        >We used to play games in the abandoned ... pillar boxes

        You must have been a *very* small child at the time!

        I think pill-boxes were/are a rural thing - I only started to notice them when I moved out of the city, and there are plenty left, particularly at spots where roads cross rivers or canals. They were, after all, built to last.

        I also played on many "bombsites" in my 60s childhood - though on reflection I think most of these were slum-clearances of the 50s and 60s, not actual bomb craters. Manchester wasn't anywhere near as badly peppered as London, or other industrial centres like Coventry.

        Mine's the duffle coat with the mittens sewn onto a string running between the sleeves...

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Was it colder then?

          I recently bought the DVD of an early Ealing Comedy, 'The Magnet', nice story starring an 11 year old James Fox, and filmed on location around my home town, and over the water on the Liverpool bomb sites.

          And yes, I remember our local sweetshop cutting out the coupons from my ration book.

          Ah, nostalgia...

        2. Tascam Holiday

          Re: Was it colder then?

          > I think pill-boxes were/are a rural thing - I only started to notice them when I moved out of the city, and there are plenty left, particularly at spots where roads cross rivers or canals. They were, after all, built to last.

          I was playing in pill boxes, gun emplacements and acoustic mirrors while living in Kent in the 1980's. I think many of them are still there around Hythe, Folkestone and Dover. And there were some awesome (though somewhat dangerously dilapidated) martello towers from the Napoleonic era to be explored around there too.

          Ah-ha, at least one of the acoustic mirrors is still there:

    2. NogginTheNog

      Re: Was it colder then?

      That rather reminds me of black and white photos of football matches from the years ago, where every man in the crowd, and I mean EVERY MAN, wore a hat!

      Different days.

      1. toffer99

        Re: Was it colder then?

        and with all the grass and sky and trees in black and white, it was really boring. We couldn't afford coloured flowers till 1959.

    3. toffer99

      Re: Was it colder then?

      We used to dreeeeeeeem of plastic sandals...

  5. Stefing

    Great stuff!

    Quatermass and the Pit is still genuinely scary stuff - although the production values are higher than the early TV s episodes, of course.

    An extra egg to make a cake for the Queen - we're still being patronised in much the same... OH LOOK! A ROYAL BABY!

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    A thought

    Will all the shite available currently on TV actually be of interest to someone in the future?

    1. RainForestGuppy

      Re: A thought

      Of course, recording of Big Brother, Keeping up with the Kardashians, TOWIE, etc. will be used by Alien Historians to deduce why the Human civilization, at the height of it's technical prowess, degenerated into an bunch of brain dead, slobbering zombies.

  7. Ketlan
    Thumb Up


    Nostalgia - dont'cha love it.

    Worth remembering that sugar was rationed until 1957 and farthings we're still very much legal tender (and amazingly, there were sweets that could be bought for a farthing then).

    An interesting time and made a lot more interesting by such things as Quatermass and the Goon Show.

    Showing my age? Rubbish. :-)

    1. mamsey

      Re: Brilliant!

      "The Quatermass Experiment", "Quatermass II " and "Quatermass and the Pit " all good early sci-fi, but the one I'm still waiting to see is "Quatermass and the Goon Show", should be excellent.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: till waiting to see

        rofl .. can't be clicked too often!

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Already done

        The Goons did an episode called "The Scarlet Capsule (or Quatermass OBE)", which was based on Quatermass. I think it would lose something if they tried to put it on the screen...

        1. Lamont Cranston

          Re: Already done

          "Mind the door"

          Was that the episode that featured the line "Stand on my shoulders and pull me up"? Somethings just work better on the radio!

          1. TeeCee Gold badge

            Re: Already done

            You mean "Minador". That cryptic word heard in the darkness that Professor Ned Quatermass spends much time attempting to discern the meaning of.

            Unfortunately you've just given the game away.

  8. Amorous Cowherder

    More power to it's elbow, a real homegrown classic but didn't really cut it for me. I prefer the dulcet tones of the late, great Rod Serling myself!

    Cue music....* doo-de-doo-de-doo-de-doo-de *

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Six of one and half a dozen of the other...

  9. Alan Bourke

    Nigel Kneale was fantastic

    ... and the Stone Tape is the scariest thing ever broadcast on British TV.

    1. Jim 59

      Re: Nigel Kneale was fantastic

      Seeing 1 minute of the Stone Tape in a documentary was scary enough. Ditto The Road.

  10. andy gibson

    scariest thing?

    I thought that was Ghostwatch? :-)

    1. TheOtherHobbes

      Re: scariest thing?

      Actually the scariest thing ever is The Apprentice.

      A whole level of horror that mere fiction can't touch.

  11. Tim Walker

    How much the Doctor owes to the Professor...

    It's been said plenty of times before, not only how Nigel Kneale coined the three basic plots of British TV sci-fi with the three Quatermass serials (in order: "we go to them", "they come to us" and "they've always been here"), but how much "Doctor Who" openly borrowed from the shows, even to the point of three whole "Who" stories from the Pertwee era, being specific tributes to them.

    "The Ambassadors Of Death" (1970) is practically a rewrite of "Experiment" (British astronauts make contact and aliens send replicas of them back to Earth); "Spearhead From Space" (1970) does the same for "Quatermass II" ("meteorites" bring an alien intelligence to Earth, launching a covert invasion); and "Quatermass And The Pit"'s "alien present on Earth for centuries, seen as the Devil" plot was the basis for "The Daemons" (1971).

    Not that Kneale was flattered (at least, not that he admitted) - he reputedly hated "Who" and criticised it scathingly as a silly children's show that plundered his work (you judge).

    Also: worth mentioning that "Experiment" was remade by the BBC in 2005, and broadcast as a live performance, just as its ancestor had been. Ironically, David Tennant (Dr Briscoe) had just heard a few days before, that he'd landed the role of The Last Time Lord, so during transmission a fellow cast-member changed a line to greet him as "Doctor"!

    1. Dave Bell

      Re: How much the Doctor owes to the Professor...

      There were a lot of programmes in the 1950s which set the standards for what followed. Blue Peter as the foundation for all the magazine-style shows of today, from news to Top Gear, is only the most obvious.

      1. phuzz Silver badge

        Re: How much the Doctor owes to the Professor...

        Don't forget The Sky at Night, started in 1957, and still going strong.

    2. M7S

      Re: How much the Doctor owes to the Professor...

      There's also a namecheck in "Remembrance of the Daleks" whilst some non-Terrans are giving it large to the local soldiery:

      Rachel: 'I wish Bernard was here,'

      Allison: 'British rocket group has its own problems,'

      A nice touch.

      I hope there will be mention of the (Sir) John Mills version sometime. I was lucky enough to see the full length version once.

      1. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge

        Re: How much the Doctor owes to the Professor...@M7S

        I was just going to mention the late '70s version with Sir John Mills. So sad, and a really horrifying picture of societal breakdown. I have the book, and still read it every now and again when I feel sufficiently brave.

    3. Mike Richards

      Re: How much the Doctor owes to the Professor...

      Not forgetting that Tom Baker fought the Krynoid - a nasty space plant that had a taste for human flesh in 'The Seeds of Doom'. One of the more terrifying bits of my childhood.

  12. Vulch

    A pedantic ex-BBC VT engineer points out...

    In 1953 the BBC was still five years away from having any kind of magnetic video recorder. VERA arrived in 1958 and used spools of wire. Most programmes were done live, and a film recording (Cine camera pointing at a monitor with a long persistence phosphor) would only be made if there was a chance of an overseas sale.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Re: A pedantic ex-BBC VT engineer points out...

      But despite that many episodes of Quatermass still exist. Lots of them now reside at

      1. Vulch

        Re: A pedantic ex-BBC VT engineer points out...

        And the quick sample I've just looked at all show the classic signs of FR, soft, vignetting around the edge and, as someone mentioned in another comment, things crawling across the screen.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: A pedantic ex-BBC VT engineer points out...

          I didn't say they were perfect, I was just pointing out they are there. Anyone that hasn't seen Quatermass will be able to see what it was like. And FWIW I've just been watching the first episode of The Pit again and it's none too shabby at all.

  13. Mark Winpenny

    Not wiped

    Video tape wasn't used by the BBC until about 1958 so episodes 3 to 6 could not have been wiped. The widely believed reason is that the first two episodes were tele-recorded (film cameras pointed at TV monitors) but the results were so bad they didn't bother with the final 4 episodes. In episode 2 you can actually see an insect walking across the TV monitor which was used for the tele-recording - an early TV bug.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Judging from how often my Mum mentions Quatermass, I'd argue it had a greater impact on her than the royalty on the telly.

    I remember watching a rerun of the final Quatermass series that a friend's parents used to videotape for us. Once a week we'd sneak out of school and go around his house at lunch time to watch it. Judging from comments on the Interwebs, most people don't rate it as a finale to the series, but it was pretty compelling viewing and quite unsettling for me and my mates.

  15. Kubla Cant Silver badge

    I never saw Quatermass on TV because we had no set. (My parents had one on trial in the early fifties, but evidently felt it was a lot of money to pay to watch The Potter's Hands inside a goldfish bowl.) In my teens I bought the script for Quatermass and the Pit as a book. It was brilliant. Proof, perhaps, that the pictures are better in your head.

  16. F. Svenson

    Sealing wax?!??!?!?!

    All this time I thought it was "Ceiling wax", and it made no sense...

    This changes everything.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Re: Sealing wax?!??!?!?!

      Use some next time you encounter a damp squid

      (and yes, for almost half a century I was puzzled because, surely, all squids are damp?)

  17. Smallbrainfield

    The plot of this sounds suspiciously like that of 'Lifeforce'.

    I wonder if the makers watched Quatermass and thought, lets make that, only with a naked woman wandering about and vampires.

    1. Daniel B.

      Re: The plot of this sounds suspiciously like that of 'Lifeforce'.

      That particular movie was based on a novel called 'The Space Vampires'. But then the novel itself could be someone doing a Dracula and Quartermass crossover...

  18. Juan Inamillion

    That stirred the memory gland

    I started watching that clip and realised I could remember most of it....

    And hiding behind the sofa watching 'Pit'... seriously scary...

  19. Sandpit

    Made up rubbish

    "And that monster - borging individual consciousnesses - could easily be seen as a metaphor for communism, or even consumerism"

    Er no. This may have been new to TV but SciFi was a very well established genre in other media by the 1950s. No need to invent metaphors 30 years before they were trendy.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Made up rubbish

      Ah, my library staple borrowing from 10 onwards, Groff Conklin and the Galaxy short story compilations. And I ended up a computer man, I wonder where that started?

  20. Stevie Silver badge


    "The Brits did have experience of rockets, having been the first real targets of Werner von Braun’s creations less than a decade before."

    Well *that* explains the old "Woomera Lawn Dart" thing perfectly! No wonder we couldn't get the bloody things to keep going upward if *that* was the "research" model!

    Someone should have told the so-called "scientists" in charge to get a few Germans on the team, like the Russians and Americans did. *They* watched the bloody rockets going *up*!

    1. Vulch

      Re: Bah!

      “We despise the French, we are mortally afraid of the Soviets, we do not believe the British can afford us." - German Rocket Scientists after the war.

    2. Anonymous Coward

      Re: Bah!

      Britain did have a successful rocket programme for launching the Prospero satellite but it was cancelled.. If you have 25 minutes to spare this is well worth watching. No captured German scientists involved, unlike the US and USSR efforts.

  21. Stevie Silver badge


    You know, the one thing that stands out for me when I look back on that period as typified by the bleeding edge TV shows, both in the UK and in the USA, is the ready acceptance of high quality Science Fiction as suitable viewing fodder for the masses.

    When I say "high quality" I am, of course, referring to the ideas and writing of scripts to encompass them rather than the production values in the face of tighter than a fish's rear end budgets. The extrapolation of basic ideas in Quatermass and The Pit is as purely Science Fictional as any of the acknowledged masters of the field would agree, and presenting it as a visual story showcases the masterful character work Neale did. Would that the same process could triumph over Teh Shinee today.


    I can't be sure, but the idea of a living space ship may well have originated with Quatermass and The Pit (the TV show).

    1. Blitheringeejit

      Re: Um...

      >the ready acceptance of high quality Science Fiction as suitable viewing fodder for the masses

      By which I assume you mean the masses who could afford a TV set in the 1950s? I would imagine that was a pretty middle-class slice of the population, so probably educated and (unlike the modern middle classes) somewhat disposed towards reading, thinking, and considering complicated ideas.

      Which is not to say that the working classes of the time weren't similarly disposed - again unlike their modern equivalents. But not many of them could afford a telly.

      Beer because it's Friday, and all the folks who made all the excellent, thought-provoking, intelligent TV of my childhood deserve one. What a shame it's all gone so horribly wrong since... (Where's the grumpy old man icon?)

  22. Stevie Silver badge


    Neale==Kneale of course. Stupid brain.

  23. Herby

    At least it didn't follow...

    In the steps of Plan 9.

    "It could be worse"

  24. Ivan Headache

    Never saw Quatermass as we didn't have a TV

    But I remember people talking about it and the papers discussing it.

    There was another series at the time which I remembeer reading about.

    The Scarf - apparently people weren't going to church because of it.

  25. Ivan Headache

    Never saw A For Andromeda either

    But the book was much better than any TV series could ever have been.

  26. Triggerfish

    Nice one nan & parents

    Dr Who was never scary for me because you thought Quatermass and the pit, and Sapphire and Steel*, and Hammer house of horror was not only suitable but must have viewing for a young child.

    Then again giving me The Rats, The Shining and Cujo to read when about 12 or 13 probably didn't help either. :)

    *which El Reg you should also do an article on.

  27. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Decent English

    It may have been a little staid, but I'd so much rather rather listen to reasonably proper English than the uneducated, dumbed-down stuff that we get today.

  28. Anonymous Coward

    "Talking of Hitler's V weapons"

    Damn! A very decent article nullified by transgression of Godwin's law

  29. Christian Berger

    Not wiped, videotape didn't really exist back then

    The BBC stared its VTR project in 1952 and it took them till 1958 get get something that was barely usable, with 20.5 inch tape reels running at 200 inches per second(!) giving you 15 minutes of play time.

    Actual usable VTRs came out in 1956 with the Quadruplex format, which lasted well into the 1970s and early 1980s. You can even edit it:

    The problem they had with the Quatermass series was that even telecine was in its infancy back then. So they essentially had a film camera put in front of a monitor. The quality often was abysmally bad. Sometimes with flies on the screen and such things.

  30. Christian Berger


    Here's a film of the aforemention VERA VTR from the BBC

    Here's BTW a comparison between kinescope (filming of a screen, and early video tape)

  31. JimmyPage Silver badge

    All these comments

    And no mention of Nigel Kneales incredibly prophetic "Year of the Sex Olympics" ?

  32. Peter Christy


    "Apparently videotape was also part of the 1950s rationing regime, as the BBC subsequently wiped the four remaining episodes. " Actually, broadcast videotape didn't exist until 1960 (some seven years after the original Quatermass). The programme was broadcast live. The few programmes that were repeated later in the week had to be done live all over again!

    The only way to record a program back then was via a "telerecording" channel - basically a 16mm camera pointing at a TV screen. Quality was not particularly good, but it did enable programmes to be sold worlwide, which is probably what happened to the Quatermass recordings. Very rarely were programmes archived back then.

    So don't blame it on the videotape purges of the 60s - that all happened MUCH later!

    Pete (retired videotape engineer)

  33. Tim Greening-Jackson

    Gripping stuff

    There was a 1955 Hammer production of The Quatermass Xperiment which is actually surprisingly good if you like cheap British sci-fi. Bizarrely, though, it had Brian Donlevy cast as Quatermass presumably because at the time it was thought that one had to have an American leading man (e.g. Dana Andrews in Night of the Demon).

    Donlevy was more associated with tough-guy roles and watching him as Quatermass is like watching a permanently angry Enoch Powell who walks like he's shat himself. Bizarre.

  34. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Just wanna say we don't need nor require a Quatermass 'reboot' or some-such-thing - that's to you Hollywood folks. Nor do we need a prequel or another sequel thanks.

    I've just watched Wargames II and, well, Jesus H Christ on a pogo stick.

  35. Belardi

    And just think... the BBC was about to erase all the Monty Python tapes... but Terry Gillian bought them and brought them home.

    BBC didn't see the value of repeats. :(

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