Keywords: Biography, video, cult, Quatermass

Title: Into the Unknown: The Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale

Author: Andy Murray

Publisher: Headpress

Media: Book

Reviewer: James Marriott

Given the number of Kneale-related DVD releases over the last few years (the BBC Quatermass serials, the Hammer Quatermass films, The Stone Tape and The Year of the Sex Olympics, with Beasts out soon) and the contemporary popularity of work by Kneale aficionados Russell T Davies (Dr Who) and Mark Gatiss (The League of Gentlemen) the most surprising thing about this book is that it's the first of its kind. 'Nigel Kneale invented popular television,' claims Gatiss on the back cover, and while the accolade could be taken the wrong way - who'd want to be responsible for today's programming? - it's true that The Quatermass Experiment, Kneale's first major original work for the BBC, revolutionised television viewing in the UK. More importantly, it displayed the first full flowering of an imagination that cross-fertilised the Wells-Ballard strand of British SF - extraordinary, unique ideas rooted in recognisably mundane environments, with alarmingly prescient results - with an obsessive worrying of the border between science and superstition. But perhaps Kneale's most enduring quality is an ability to dig deeper than his peers: Quatermass II has parallels with Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Jack Finney's serial and Kneale's script were written at around the same time, although they don't seem to have influenced each other), but while Finney envisages the start of an alien invasion in small-town America, for Kneale the aliens have already infiltrated the highest echelons of government; and in The Stone Tape the discovery of a haunting, far from providing the story's conclusion, simply prompts the researchers to probe further.

Murray's book works best when recounting the production histories of Kneale's television output - especially welcome are details of the many lost works, which make Kneale's preoccupation with recording techniques particularly ironic; Kneale's ongoing wrangles with the BBC; and the writer's position in the history of television, particularly his dissatisfaction with standard ideas of intimate, small-scale drama. While the book doesn't really engage critically with Kneale's ideas, Murray does have a host of luminaries on board to provide 'watching through my fingers' anecdotes, from Kim Newman, Ramsey Campbell and Grant Morrison as well as the aforementioned fans, and as the book hinges on interviews with Kneale himself, a fascinating picture of the writer and his milieu gradually emerges.

While all credit is due to Headpress for publishing a book about Kneale (any book was long overdue), the illustrations tend to lean too heavily towards screengrabs, where more ad mats, posters and behind-the-scenes stills would have been welcome; and the whole suffers from slapdash copy-editing that sees half of the quotation marks the wrong way round, along with some nasty typos. Still, for anyone interested in Kneale this is a well-researched and indispensable item.


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