Good things comes to those who wait.
When the Quatermass serials were released on DVD some years ago, I got in touch with Steve Roberts at the Restoration Team – wizards who have done so much for archive TV releases, not least Doctor Who – to offer my services. I didn’t know Steve at all, and he didn’t know me (nor did anybody in the world of archive TV – I had yet to start talking about Doctor Who in my stand-up and so my anorak was not, at that moment in time, tax deductible). My social and professional circle then (hard to believe) was pretty Doctor Who/science-fiction far free bar a couple of notable exceptions. Life was very different. But I harboured a hope that one day my vast storehouse of Quatermass documents and interviews would find a wider audience in a professional release.
Anyway, Steve was very polite and, I am pleased to say, ensured that the photos I had offered him (which had been given to me by the actor Cec Linder and the designer Clifford Hatts) were put onto the disc and into its accompanying booklet (written by that doyen of archival arcana Andrew Pixley). There was no time or money to do the commentaries I had – in a moment of uncharacteristic boldness – suggested, but I was still grateful that I had had some minor input into what I figured would be the only release of this kind that these programmes would get. It niggled that the promised credit for handing over my treasured and unpublished photos didn’t appear (an omission that took place down the line from Steve) and that we wouldn’t have commentaries with some of the surviving cast and crew with whom I was in touch – but I understood the various practicalities and that the release we got was far more impressive than the time and budget it had been allocated dictated it should have been. On a more personal note it was my first encounter with Steve – who was a gateway drug to his colleagues all of whom I now consider very good friends, and whose input into my personal and professional life has been far more important to me than any such relative trivialities.
Fast forward to 2018 and Charles Norton, another crusader in the cause of cowbwebbed classics of the cathode ray, mentioned that he had pitched a Quatermass Blu-Ray release. Knowing he is receptive to stupid ideas and that there was time to get them acted upon, I got giddy and started pushing ideas his way. He was, as ever, receptive and keen, but also realistic about the budget (if any) we would have. We ultimately looked at doing a commentary on selected episodes of Quatermass and the Pit, at one location and all on the same day. That was the only way we could really afford to do it.
We eventually did all six episodes and every single element was recorded on a different day and at a different location.
Best laid plans and all that.
Luck was on our side in some respects. One of the few (three – we think) cast members still with us, Mark Eden, is married to Sue Nicholls who is a work colleague of my partner so I knew they lived literally up the road and that we had an “in”. By a weird coincidence, many years ago I made a reference to Quatermass at a comedy gig (largely for my own amusement) on the one night Andy Murray, Nigel Kneale’s biographer-to-be, was in the crowd. He introduced himself and we’ve been mates ever since. He also lives five minutes from my house (there must be some sort of Kneale Ley line running underneath south Manchester and causing his acolytes to gather here). So that was two contributors we could nobble off without too many practical problems.
Except… neither Andy nor Mark were available on the same day. Oh well, an extra day is fine – it just meant Charles having to travel to Manchester twice but was no skin off my nose (though I shouldn’t really be taking extra days off – I could only really afford to do one day on this project. But it’s Quatermass so I’m not going to say no am I? This is why I can’t afford socks). Andy brought Hobnobs to the recording of his episode which was delightfully apposite and is a measure of the man. It’s a good job we weren’t doing the other serials as we’d have been munching on cacti and drinking black, ammoniac slime. Hobnobs are much nicer.
I had just tracked down another surviving actor, Keith Banks (the third, John Hamblin, is in Tasmania : so we drew a line there although I wouldn’t have put it past Charles to jump on a plane, trailing his microphone and dropping his mobile as he did so, in order to get five minutes with him). Keith and I had exchanged letters earlier in the year and even though he is in his 90s he was an engaged correspondent and I was confident he’d participate. He was happy to but didn’t want to travel. That’s OK, one more extra day wouldn’t be a problem. Would it? Oh, but then visual effects assistant Peter Day was also happy to help but he too needed a different day at yet another location that would take some getting to (at one point Charles and I crossed a motorway roundabout with no pavement and blind corners and I realised that much as I love the serial, if doing a seven hour round trip wasn’t a bit of a silly thing to do in its name, then perishing in the path on an articulated lorry really was).
Rounding off the track were two people we were confident we could get on the same day and at the BBC. One of my drinking buddies in London is TV legend Clive Doig who I knew had been a cable basher on Quatermass and the Pit (“What’s a cable basher?” asked Charles and only then did I realise I had no idea). I hoped Clive would be game because he’s an entertaining fellow possessed of a sharp wit and a good memory. Ditto Dick Mills (sound assistant). Both were more than happy to oblige and I knew would give us excellent value. But neither was available to play on the same day. Sigh. So we went to Clive’s house when he was back from his holidays and, before he went on his, did a separate recording day with Dick at Television Centre (which was the day and place that all of the recordings were originally intended to be done when the commentary plans were being laid by mice and men).
But hey, we had an eclectic line up and enough for each episode. Judith Kerr, Nigel Kneale’s widow, was also keen to take part but ultimately the dates let us down (in her early 90s, she still has an extremely full calendar and works at a rate that shames this 44 year old). A near miss and one I know Judith was disappointed about because she loves talking about Quatermass and her late husband of whom she is so proud. It wasn’t for want of trying on the part of Charles, Judith and Judith’s wonderfully helpful agent Philippa though.
So much for the living, what about those sadly no longer with us? Well, over the years I had corresponded with several people from the serials and three key contributors – designer Clifford Hatts, visual effects wizard Jack Kine and Production Assistant Paddy Russell – had, for various reasons, elected to record their memories for me on cassette tape. These archive interviews have now been interspersed in the commentaries with the more recently recorded conversations and so these fabulous people are represented, on the Blu-ray, by themselves. As someone so grateful to them for indulging a geeky teenager all of those years ago it touches me that they’re preserved on tape and that their voices can echo through time and speak to us today. It’s a living record of the kindness they showed a young stranger and of my enduring gratitude to them.
Add to that a bit of Nigel Kneale from a BBC interview and Peter Crocker telling us about the restoration and we have a track with various first-hand perspectives and mostly never-before-heard recollections. Only Charles’s dogged flexing of budgets and resources and his ambition to make this as definitive as possible could have made this happen. It was knackering process that eventually took us all over the country, sometimes for an interview that only lasts ten minutes – but it’s the sort of commentary I, as a consumer, would like to hear, which is the only rule one can follow when doing these things. I do a bit more of a proactive presenting job than on many commentaries though – there were various gaps which I have plugged with (I hope) interesting facts and observations which I have gathered from decades of interviews, letters, archives, paperwork and, I hope, informed insight.
I recently uncovered a stash of photos which I would have loved to have had as exclusives for my book, but the geek in me couldn’t have a definitive Blu-ray out there with a photo gallery which was incomplete because I had held stuff back for my own gain (even though I’m essentially giving away stuff I went to great time and personal expense to find). I’d even forgotten scan one picture which I had found in Paddy Russell’s things, but a delay with the authoring meant we could squeeze that in at the last minute (a little part of me – if I am honest – had hoped that my genuine mistake would have left me at least one exclusive for the book but when I remembered it and Charles mentioned the delay my conscience wouldn’t let me hold it back. Ah well. I’ve never been what you’d call commercially savvy. Buy the book anyway!).
I’ve told all this from my point of view but I’m just one – very minor – cog in the wheel (and Charles Norton has been the driver all the way – this release wouldn’t have happened nor would it have been as ambitious without his tenacity and chutzpah). In terms of the episodes themselves, Peter Crocker has done an amazing job on the restoration. Click on this link below for a before and after comparison which you might enjoy (I tried embedding it but I have no idea, I’m sorry – I find old actors, other people do clever things when pressing buttons!):
Yes, good things come to those who wait.
But do you know what? I do get a credit on the photo gallery for this, something I’ve been waiting for for many years, and looking at it, I don’t think anyone will really notice or care. And does it make me any happier deep down? Not really. A salutary lesson it not sweating the small stuff.
I’m proud of this Blu-ray. It’s the sort of thing I’ve dreamed of but thought impossible. We have managed to store in it special memories that will now be preserved forever. It’s a sort of time capsule – maybe it it can be unleashed on the humans of the future in, say, … five million years? it’s such a powerful piece, I’m sure its effects will be undiminished.
The first volume of my Quatermass book will be out soon, from Miwk Publishing. It’d be out sooner if I didn’t spend a morning doing this sort of thing.
Thanks to Charles Norton for the pics and before and after comparison. All the photos copyright © Toby Hadoke.