The Madness of Crowds


Re-watched QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (1967) — not to be confused with family R&B act Quatermass and the Pips — because Fiona was on a Nigel Kneale kick. It stands up very well. I was shocked last time I watched the first Hammer QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT to discover that the studio’s warping of the title character from Kneale’s BBC serial, to make him an arrogant bully, in fact a model for the studio’s vision of Victor Frankenstein, really worked quite well. Of course, Kneale wasn’t an anti-science, pro-church, pro-military conservative, so he was horrified by this, but as a statement of the studio’s philosophy it is coherent and compelling.

Roy Ward Baker’s film, however, restores the sympathetic Quatermass of the original series, embodied here by the feisty Scot Andrew Keir, a Hammer stalwart, who plays him like an angry terrier in tweed. James (“Madness! Madness!”) Donald, another Scot, plays heroic archaeologist Dr Roney. Nothing like Indiana Jones — he’s a heroic intellectual, the one character who seems to have out-evolved our deplorable Martian inheritance (read a plot synopsis elsewhere if I don’t seem to be making sense).


We were debating whether the Jumping Leaping Man was played by the same actor in both TV and movie version. It turns out he wasn’t, but the performance is quite similar. Remarkable, since Duncan Lamont (ALSO raised in Scotland) would not have been able to refer back to the TV serial, since it went out live and no recording was known to exist. Happily, it’s since been found. (Nigel Kneale complained that the BBC had junked his ground-breaking series while keeping all the Oxford-Cambridge boat races — “They’re all the same!”) Both actors deliver the line “Jumping! Leaping!” with demented brio, but only Richard Shaw in the original supplements this with a creepy, hilarious and bizarre lolloping gait, which Fiona will impersonate at parties for interested parties.


Very taken with the closing credits, which simply show an exhausted Keir and Barbara Shelley in the burning rubble of Hob’s Lane. Kneale was inspired by racist riots in his depiction of a breakdown of civilisation in which part of society tries to “purge” another. The credits rise somberly as the shot goes on, and on — actually it’s on a loop, with dissolves linking each repeated section, but that doesn’t seem to matter, might even be better. It’s a solution to the possible abruptness of the ending — Kneale doesn’t need to have Quatermass make a speech summing up what we’ve learned, as the unfolding story has already made its points. But simply solving the immediate problem and fading up a THE END title would seem too sudden. This approach suggests lingering unease, trauma and real consequences.

It also reminded Fiona of the ending of John Carpenter’s THE THING, where the face-off has even grimmer implications (or maybe not — the two survivors in the snow are fearful of one another — Keir and Shelley’s characters are alarmed by what they have found within themselves). Carpenter is a huge Kneale fan — an attempted collaboration on HALLOWEEN III rather fell apart, and PRINCE OF DARKNESS is a sort-of tribute, but Carpenter’s emphasis on pure emotion was always slightly at odds with Kneale’s intellectual, even didactic aspect. Two guys who should never approach each other’s material.

Although THEY LIVE is distinctive in Carpenter’s oeuvre, isn’t it? Ideas-led. And the central notion, that the aliens are already among us, quite established and in fact running our society, can be traced back to QUATERMASS II.

18 Responses to “The Madness of Crowds”

  1. I’ve always found Donlevy insufferable in Quatermass I, easier to take in II, and overall much inferior to Kerr’s interp. Would love to have seen Andre Morrell. Kneal’s are by and large my favorite Hammer films, and Barbara Shelley catalyzed the best impure thoughts throughout my adolescence—sexy and intelligent at the same time.

  2. Morrell can be seen in full, in the dvd boxset of all remaining BBC Quatermass episodes. He’s very good, but the way Kneale condenses the material for the movie of PIT is extraordinary. He loses nothing in terms of the implication of the ideas or their effect on the viewer. Indeed the writing and the acting are compelling enough and strong enough to overcome one of the worst ‘special’ effects on film (Martian Hives Vision). For me, Andrew Kier is definitive (but then he was my first exposure to the character as well).

    It’s wonderful film. And though Morrell has a stirring speech at the end of the TV version (delivered to camera, more or less), the end of the movie is more haunting… it leaves us to consider the ideas ourselves. Our loss, and our potential for both incredible sacrifice, and mindless savagery. Kneale really was an astonishing writer.

  3. Fiona liked Shelley’s go-go boots — the fashions are very 1967, while otherwise the world of the story is mired in post-war austerity of the 50s. The overlaying of the two periods probably gives a more accurate sense of what 1967 London was really like…

    I think if you accept that Donlevy is meant to be the villain of the first Hammer film, his obnoxiousness works. The second film comes much closer to Kneale’s intentions, and his abrasiveness is dialled down a bit. It’s a relief to be rid of him in Q&TP.

    Kneale was somewhat critical of John Mills in the final TV series, feeling he betrayed too much doubt, and Quatermass was a man of certainty. I liked the effect — a wavering hero added to the dystopian quality, as if even this scientific firebrand was guttering out.

  4. Duncan Lamont was also the original Victor Carroon.

  5. It’s a low-budget analog to Kubrick’s “2001”

    Instead of a black slab, mankind was given birth by Martian insects.

  6. Kneale’s version explains a lot more about human behaviour…

    The Kubrick-Clarke vision suggests our bad traits are our own doing — they taught us to hunt with tools, we turned to murder.

    Clarke apparently had the idea first — one of his short stories originates the idea of aliens intervening to speed our evolution along. Kneale’s version suggests a Martian House of Pain, a la Dr. Moreau, though the science wasn’t around for him to propose genetic engineering, just “methods unknown to us.”

  7. I recall the TV Martian vision being actually more impressive than the film version, which isn’t even up to Bentine.

  8. Michael Bentine was exactly the reference we used!

    Speaking of which:

    Kneale wrote something no low-budget film would be likely to pull off — their best bet would have been to present it as still images, since it’s the movement that really make it look like a puppet theatre. The technique worked fine for the Cottingley fairies, but they were motionless…

  9. Galton and Simpson also parodied Q & the P in an infuriatingly lost episode of Hancock called “the Horror Serial”.
    Apart from this:

  10. chris Schneider Says:

    I’m glad that someone else loves the end of this film the way I do. And Ido think that Tristram Cary’s funereal music is a significant factor.

    Haven’t seen the television version. The theatrical movie is full of virtues, but … something about Baker’s direction makes me think “television” ( in the pejorative sense). Perhaps it’s the medium close-ups and the bright orange hues. And then there are the, ahem, special effects. The Evil Face into which the crane crashes and the visionary footage — or, as I like to think of it, “ants on a hot-plate.” Oh dear.

  11. Ants on a hot-plate would be great. Rice on a speaker. Anything.

  12. The props department couldn’t even handle full-size Martians, so expecting them to make an army of little ones was a bit optimistic. They could have added even more static, but the characters looking at the imagery on the screen have to do an insane amount of over-interpreting as it is — no way could they guess they’re looking at a racial purge.

    Might be better to not let the audience see the monitor at all, and just play it on the good actors instead of the bad miniatures.

  13. I do have a Duncan Lamont anecdote of sorts:

    My brother once found an inscribed gold watch of Duncan Lamont’s in our local South London park (Wells Park, in Sydenham)
    He found it on a patch of green where we used to play cricket.
    Being fans of all things Hammer horror, and familiar with Quatermass & The Pit, we used to joke that ‘Dunc’ must have lost it while he was “jumping and leaping around” in the park one day!

    Watch was returned by mail (his address was on the reverse), and Mr Duncan Lamont wrote my brother a very nice letter of gratitude in return, and confirmed he was indeed the actor of the same name, small world!

  14. Marvelous!

    Lamont died during the filming of a Blake’s 7 episode, and his scenes were reshot.

    The previous jumping leaping man, Richard Shaw, died at a signing at the 10th Planet Bookstore.

  15. Fiona here – Minnie Bannister has the largest part I think she ever had in the Goon Show, because she’s effectively playing Barbara. Love Eccle’s reactions to doing the drilling (pity he doesn’t do the ‘Jumping! Leaping!’ speech) and David was immediately taken with “The Ministry For Certain Things.” I feel some pilfering coming on for the forthcoming Whitsuntide Adventure, which is appropriate because Whitsuntide’s a bit like a c***y version of Quatermass.

  16. Duncan Lamont did do Quatermass duty before this film. He was Victor Carroon in the BBC production of Quatermass Experiment.

  17. Thanks, yes, someone on Facebook was pointing out the same thing. And he’s a sinister butcher in the Kneale-scripted Hammer flick The Witches.

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