Into the Unknown: The Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale. Book review

Into the Unknown: The Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale by Andy Murray,

Headpress, 2017 p/b £ 14.99

Reviewed by Nigel Robert Wilson

Reviewing biography requires a sense of fellow-feeling for the subject of the work. Being a beast of an unsympathetic nature this reviewer was a little loathe to review this book fearing a hagiography of sainted genius on the one hand and a set of lists to suit the thickest anorak on the other. These concerns were disabused by a readable account of a creative life struggling, as we all do, at the slings and arrows of the outrageous cupidity of the money-men. By about half-way through I was won over, not least by the many familiar cultural references that I knew rang very true.

Nigel Kneale, or Thomas Nigel Kneale as he was fully named became quite by accident one of the pioneers of television drama. This is what happens when new formats and markets open. All sorts of oddballs and freaks fall into them to be tumbled about by circumstances, then eventually sorted into the sheep and the goats, the quick and the dead, the men from the boys and such like. Kneale goes down in history as the man who invented Professor Quatermass; thereby opening the television medium to the opportunities of science-fiction, the supernatural after a fashion and that most foolish of all sensations, vicarious horror.

In his novel `1984’ the social commentator, George Orwell used the war-time bureaucracy of the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) as the template for how the state-socialist future would be organised. To the sensitive and the sensible this is truly a warning from history, but to the hungry working writer such as Nigel Kneale, or even Winston Smith, seeking a substantive creative opportunity such politics are something to be overlooked despite them remaining very relevant even to this day. At the top of the tree are the leading party members, well-healed and powerful; further down the ladder is the middle management confused, muddled, attempting to second guess their bosses, whilst at the bottom the proletariat remain hopeless in every meaning of the word. Yet the BBC reflects British society so it remains as a monument to the terrors of the class system, despite the many attempts to delude us all to the contrary. Nigel Kneale struggled with this dreadful basilisk for most of his early writing life until he was sufficiently recognised as a leading script-writer for both television and cinema to make his own choices.

This biography, although making due deference to `The Quatermass Experiment’ and `Quatermass and the Pit’ tells us more of the difficulties facing the creative writer in those days when the telly was a little polished veneer box in the corner of the sitting room with the wholly inadequate flickering reception of 425 lines of transmission. Muffin the Mule had nothing on it! In those days the big questions we like to think have now been answered were being asked. Was television more a home projection system? Was it a commercially rigged panel game medium? Or some sort of juke-box with vision? Select whichever expectation suits your current nuance!

To my mind Kneale’s greatest works are the Hammer film version of `Quatermass and the Pit’ and the television play `The Stone Tapes’. These are unforgettable productions. They share a pattern of old, buried, long-forgotten phenomena crashing unwelcomed into the modern day. Yet this modern day society was still living in the war and the Great Depression, with the glorious perceptions of the Victorian empire stacking up behind it. This was a society struggling to redefine itself but only capable of generating sex, drugs and rock’n roll. The political vision of the Sixties never took off as the not very rebellious children of the middle classes mostly took salaried positions within the state and even the BBC.

Kneale also adapted the script for Frank Tilsey’s `Mutiny’ into the very memorable film `HMS Defiant’ and H G Wells’ light-hearted work `The First Men on the Moon’. To his great credit Kneale refused to make a film script of that adolescent psychopath, James Bond. At this point he became elevated to the status of hero in my eyes as there is no point in James Bond other than as a monument to an imperial past that hasn’t got the basic decency to lie down to become a coffee-table history book with colourful illustrations and a bland narrative.

The one factor that Kneale’s entire oeuvre demonstrates is that in order for science-fiction, the supernatural and related horror fiction to be successful in the mainstream, they need to be grounded in a context which must necessarily possess some practical, objective, even scientific reality. By all means go on about monsters, ghosts and whatever else, only ground it all in everyday experience. Kneale condemned the ghetto of `horror’ as a place that spawns bad writing. You don’t have to review books for the British Fantasy Society to wholly sympathise with that opinion. Kneale was put off by fandom and even derided it in his later work. This may have caused him loss of status in some eyes, but he was a man of simple principle.

This biography contains a good description of the cultural changes that our society experienced during the life of Nigel Kneale. There is no better compliment to a successful writer than to say he was a product of his times. If you are interested in the development of the fantasy genre over the last seventy years, particularly on TV and film, then this book is worth your time and money

The one thing I didn’t know was that Kneale was married all his life to Judith Kerr, the lovely lady who wrote the delightful `The Tiger who came to Tea’ and the many `Mog’ stories. This added a wholly different dimension to Kneale. I now have to ask which one of them was the more successful writer. Let’s leave that to history.