October 18, 2003



The Kneale Tapes , BBC Four

(Thanx to Michael for the heads up).

The most haunting moments in BBC Four's retromentary on Nigel Kneale were reconstructions of his lost television play The Road.

Like many of Kneale's fictions, The Road was a new twist on the ghost story. All ghost stories are about time travel. In the standard version, of course, they are about the past invading the present; or about the present being captured by the past. The Road cunningly reversed this. Set in 1771, it was about spectres of/ from the future, reverberations from an event yet to occur. The sirens and panicked screams and car noises that disturb the villagers of the eighteenth century were the sounds of people fleeing that which can never be escaped: their own destiny, planetary ground zero, year zero, total nuclear annihilation.

The Road , like much of the BBC's output in those days, was not preserved. There's something awfully poignant about the thought of a ghost story about the future being lost to that very future, like one of the burned films in Auster's Book of Illusions. TV then, everything performed live, flared with the intensity of the modernist moment , attended to in rapt fixation by an audience not yet multi-channel splintered, hanging onto every syllable of a this self-erasing text, because not yet lulled into indifference by the prospect of endless reruns (dramas were not repeated, then, they were restaged, like theatre). No now in Postmodern time; the videocassette, that which is preserved in advance, that which can be watched at any time (and so is never watched) doesn't record television, it transforms it.

Fatality, the lure of total quiescence, the human appetite for (auto)destruction; even before Ballard, Kneale brought Freud to bear on SF. No, not the superego-ego-id (Spock-Kirk-Bones) triad of Star Trek's cuddly psychodrama ; Kneale's Freud was the dark magus of Beyond the Pleasure Principle , the pitiless explorer of the death drive's intensive hydraulics. It's in Beyond the Pleasure Principle that Freud reminds us that, in trauma, time breaks down. No time at all in the unconscious, with its terrible compulsions to repeat, its circuitous journey back to where - and when - it had never left.

What we most want is not to be, never to have been.

What we most are is alien.

Perhaps the most arresting pages in Marcus' Lipstick Traces are devoted to Hammer's version of Kneale's Quatermass and the Pit. As you read Marcus retelling Kneale's masterpiece, you wonder what all this has to do with what Lipstick Traces is supposed to be talking about, whilst knowing, really, that nothing could be more relevant to punk than Kneale's pyschogeologic horror story. Kneale's revelation - that human beings are the by-product of an alien breeding experiment, that deep within us is a Martian, burning with the desire to indiscriminately destroy - others, yes but ultimately, itself - is the uncomfortable punk gnosis.

Kneale's presentiments can be sold as moral warnings, flag-waving for Eros against Thanatos - witness Bernard Quatermass' grim vision of earth becoming 'the Martians' second dead planet', if we do not learn to rein in the Martian within us. Yet Kneale has already deconstructed the opposition between Eros and Thanatos, human and Martian: unravel the human, unravel Eros, and you discover that both are only folds within the body of anorganic Thanatos.

Kneale's SF, like Ballard's disaster novels of the early 60s, is compelled to endlessly rehearse apocalypse, to re-imagine civilization in meltdown. Don't be fooled: the moral messages are what libido (=Thanatos) needs in order to simultaneously mask and show itself. If you are continually repeating something, it's because you want it. Like the rest of us, Kneale can't help desiring London's devastation.

The Quatermass serials of the Fifties and Sixties were too early for me; I've only seen the Hammer film versions. The 1979 return (on ITV) with John Mills was my Quatermass, its images of England in anomie, civil society disintegrating, New Age travellers following leylines leading to their own annihilation (Bomb Culture, oh yes) are now mixed in my mind with those on the covers of the darkheart postpunk LPs. Quatermass brought the implied world of Killing Joke, Cabaret Voltaire and Tubeway Army - apocalypse-graffiti walls, bombed-out buildings, barricaded streets - to unlife.

Unfortunately, I fell asleep during what looked like the excellent Stone Tapes .

I don't suppose it's being repeated is it, Michael?

Posted by mark at October 18, 2003 01:25 AM | TrackBack

Yep, the BBC Four Sunday schedule is as follows:

Alchemists Of Sound

'Alchemists of Sound traces the rise and fall of the Radiophonic Workshop, an in-house department established in 1958 to provide extraordinary sounds and music for the BBC's TV and radio services.

'Best known for its theme tunes to Blake's Seven, Blue Peter, Open University and The Body In Question and, of course, Dr Who, this documentary reveals the complex techniques deployed by the Workshop long before synthesizers were invented.

'The programme is narrated by Oliver Postgate, the voice behind the children's TV hits Ivor The Engine, The Clangers and Bagpuss.'

Art Safari

' ... This programme contains scenes that some viewers may find disturbing.'

(Includes interview with Bjork.)

The Kneale Tapes: Time Shift

'Time Shift celebrates the career of pioneering TV writer Nigel Kneale, whose Quatermass serials terrified audiences in the 1950s, and whose later works include the legendary TV plays The Stone Tape and The Year Of The Sex Olympics.

'In an in-depth interview, Kneale talks about the challenges of bringing his vision to the screen, and how his dramas both reflect the issues of their time and frequently anticipate the future. Time Shift also meets Kneale's family, colleagues, and admirers like The League Of Gentlemen, who talk about his lasting influence.'

The Stone Tape: Time Shift

'The Stone Tape was first broadcast on Christmas Day 1972, and despite being one of the most praised dramas in the history of British television, has only been repeated once before, in 1973.

'Nigel Kneale's astounding modern day ghost story takes the "old dark house" genre and turns it on its head, as a team of scientists trying to devise a new recording medium buy up an old house to conduct their confidential research, only to find it seems to be haunted. Rather than find the manifestation alarming, they decide to throw all their energy and equipment into investigating the phenomenon.

'Kneale's story explores groundbreaking theories of parapsychology, while building suspense to unbearable levels as the malevolent atmosphere begins to take its toll on the characters, leading to a shocking climax.

'The Stone Tape stars the late Michael Bryant, one of the finest TV actors of his day, in a superbly brutal performance, with strong support from Jane Asher, Iain Cutherbertson and James Cosmo.'

Alchemists Of Sound is repeated on Tuesday at 8:30, and at 11:00 on Wednesday.

Posted by: michael at October 18, 2003 10:34 AM

Thanks, Michael.

Anyone who didn't see it and can, should.

Posted by: mark k-punk at October 18, 2003 11:32 AM

TV then, everything performed live,

Not by 1963 (when The Road was produced) everything wasn't. Videotape had been invented c.1956-57 and even British TV had discovered it by the 1960s. That said, there may well have still been some examples of live-to-air drama I'm not aware of and The Road may have been one of them, I don't know (though by the sound of it I'd have my doubts). And, of course, the fact that the BBC may have recorded a given program prior to or on its transmission is no guarantee they still have the recording...

As for The Stone Tape, only the scream-inducing cost prevents me from buying the British Film Institute DVD of it. BFI also have Kneale's Year Of The Sex Olympics.

Posted by: James Russell at October 18, 2003 12:28 PM

Fair play, James. But wasn't a great deal of TV drama still performed live in 1963? Weren't the early Doctor Who done like that for instance? As you can see, I'm no TV historian. At any rate, and although I might have confused some details (the earlier 1984 certainly was performed live), there's no question that The Road didn't survive. The documentary made a point of stressing that the tapes were often wiped for re-use.

Posted by: mark k-punk at October 18, 2003 01:54 PM

> tapes were often wiped for re-use

As a pretext for junking that's historically debatable.

VT simply wasn't a "re-usable resource" in the way that's suggested today. Up until 1968, editing VT was literally a matter of cutting and splicing; re-recording over spliced tape held the potential danger of drop-out.

And contrary to received opinion, as compared with total production costs, the cost of a reel of 2" Ampex Quad tape would have been small.

The reasons for "junking" were quite different.

i) As regards the older practice of telerecording (preserving material by training a movie camera at a monitor), what got saved was very much at the whim of the Head of Telerecording (hence the patchy archive status of The Quatermass Experiment: "I've got standards, y'know!"). The 1953 Cartier/Kneale production of Nineteen Eighty-Four was telerecorded as much out of concern for the political furore it was creating as for subsequent re-showings.

ii) The BBC didn't have the resources to store archive material. There simply wasn't room at Alexandra Palace.

iii) There was an assumption, with the establishment of colour on the main channels, that people wouldn't want to watch repeats of popular shows recorded in black and white.

iv) Actors typically signed contracts with clauses particular to them, making renegotiating contracts for the purposes of facilitating repeats prohibitively complex and expensive.

v) There was no proven market for archive television until the early-to-mid 80's.

I should also imagine that at least for a time, Equity placed limits either on the period a recording could be preserved for or the number of possible repeats.

Posted by: michael at October 18, 2003 03:49 PM

OK, thanks Michael. But they did say that on the documentary, didn't they?

Posted by: mark k-punk at October 18, 2003 04:52 PM

The age of live broadcast drama certainly extended into the early sixties -- cf. Z Cars, Dixon of Dock Green. Broadcast as part of a stream entitled First Night, I bet you a crisp oncer that The Road was performed live.

Like early Dr Who it would have been committed to videotape, but as Kneale's biographer Andy Murray states, it was subsequently wiped.

Posted by: michael at October 18, 2003 05:57 PM

Kneale bemoans the introduction of 625 lines, here: http://www.geocities.com/TelevisionCity/8504/kneal.htm

Posted by: michael at October 18, 2003 10:06 PM

Weren't the early Doctor Who done like that for instance?

Not quite. They were never actually broadcast live, but the early episodes were recorded almost live, i.e. in sequence and in one take with as few breaks as possible. I have the Doctor Who—The Aztecs DVD, according to the production notes of which the last episode of that story was recorded in forty-five minutes—i.e. with only 20 minutes for scenery shifting and all of that. Even the pre-filmed fight scene was recorded live onto the tape during the studio recording rather than edited in later. This procedure is the reason why the early Doctor Who stories are full of fluffed lines (usually from William Hartnell; cf. the first episode of The Web Planet where he forgets for what must be nearly thirty seconds what he should be saying next), because unless the error was absolutely catastrophic there simply weren't any retakes. The Aztecs DVD has a nice interview with one of the supporting players, who says about the only way to get a retake for fluffing a line was by swearing very loudly and thus rendering the take unusable.

As for reusing tapes: I don't know the precise extent to which wiping and reusing old tapes really went on but I don't think the BBC were that afraid of tape drop-outs. The surviving film prints of the b/w Doctor Who episodes seem to bear that out; there's loads of instances of mastertape drop-out, lock-off and tracking errors, etc, recorded in those prints.

Posted by: James Russell at October 19, 2003 07:40 AM

Compare and contrast: US 50s SF movies are routinely linked to the cold war (invasions either by brute force or stealth, betrayal, body possession or replacement by hostiles). Kneale's material overlaps with this - most notably in Quatermass II. The thing with QII is that the whole political establishment has been compromised. Its got lots in common with 70s paranoia flicks like Parallax.

Quatermass and the Pit is something else entirely. Definitely has big doses of Freud - esp. the anthropological aspects of Freud's work. The alien invasion is what constitutes humanity.

The scenes of devasted London at the end of QATP would have reminded many viewers of the Bitz or the wreckage of post-war Europe. More carnage created by humans.

Posted by: Daniel at October 19, 2003 10:02 AM

James, you've explained it all! It was because of all the mistakes that I had assumed - based partly on hazy memories of documentaries - that the early episodes were filmed live.

Daniel: yes, 'Moses and Monotheism' is especially important. QATP couldn't be less Cold War paranoiac, could it? No point fearing an imminent alien takeover if you are alien and always have been...

Posted by: mark k-punk at October 19, 2003 10:49 AM

As for reusing tapes: I don't know the precise extent to which wiping and reusing old tapes really went on but I don't think the BBC were that afraid of tape drop-outs. The surviving film prints of the b/w Doctor Who episodes seem to bear that out; there's loads of instances of mastertape drop-out, lock-off and tracking errors, etc, recorded in those prints.

Drop-out was intrinsic to the media of the day; Quad tape as used in the 60's would have been lucky to survive a hundred head-passes, oxide shedding an inevitable consequence of the 1000psi pressure exerted by the heads.

And synch errors would have inevitably arisen from the physical editing of VT since it wouldn't have been especially easy to distinguish between fields.

Posted by: michael at October 19, 2003 12:09 PM

If you missed 'The Stone Tape', it is available on DVD from the BFI. They also do 'The Year of the Sex Olympics'. Both are excellent.
Regards, Steve

Posted by: Steve Andrews at November 24, 2003 08:42 PM