I have something of a reputation in science fiction fandom for my special respect for two writers. They are Richard Matheson and Nigel Kneale. Matheson has gotten at least a moderate amount of attention, though I think he is still underrated. Nigel Kneale (who died October 29, 2006) has never gotten much attention in the United States. In fact, when I was reading this biography of Kneale I mentioned it to a film critic, science fiction fan, and friend that I was reading it, and he had to look up the name Nigel Kneale to find out who he was. Such is not the case in Britain where Kneale has been and perhaps still is a household name. If I were asked what is my single favorite film of all time, I would say and have said without hesitation QUATERMASS AND THE PIT written by Nigel Kneale, based upon a television play by Nigel Kneale. This was a science fiction film that was so good and so unknown in the United States, even under the horrible American title FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH that for years I made it almost a crusade to tell people to look for this film. The crusade ended when I attended a science fiction convention panel on obscure science fiction films. When I mentioned QUATERMASS AND THE PIT the audience applauded. Okay, so the film is coming to be known here.
Bernard Quatermass is probably Kneale's best-known creation. The beleaguered British rocket scientist was the hero of four television plays that became a broadcast phenomenon in Britain. He influenced British science fiction ever after, as documented by Andy Murray in his biography of Kneale. Quatermass himself is something of a British archetype. He just keeps soldiering on getting no recognition or thanks from his superiors because he knows the science is important. It makes what the viewer knows are marvelous achievements for Britain and in each story it saves the Earth from some devious attack by aliens. (Admittedly one of those attacks he inadvertently triggered himself.) If anything he is unrealistically unsung as a hero in Kneale's fictional Britain.
Kneale was a Manxman who wrote for British television and film. He wrote in multiple genres but most notably in science fiction, horror, and fantasy. And Kneale was at his best when what he was writing was a mixture of all three, as indeed was QUATERMASS AND THE PIT. It is hard to overstate Kneale's importance to British science fiction, though biographer Andy Murray actually comes close.
Murray's biography seems to show evidence of extensive interviews with Kneale. This is a very detailed account of Kneale's career, very complete on every small project. Liking Kneale, I am very interested when I see his name in credits of a film or on a title page of a book, so I know this book is complete--even to a minor BBC radio program that was a retrospective of the Quatermass stories.
Murray also covers Kneale's influence on other science fiction. An obvious example is "Doctor Who", a program that Kneale detested and refused to write for because he thought it was too frightening for its intended child audience. Nevertheless his vision of scientist as hero from the Quatermass stories was the inspiration Doctor Who. In later years virtually every idea from the Quatermass stories was plundered for "Doctor Who" scripts. Kneale claimed he could even hear his dialog copied for the Dr Who programs. The central idea of QUATERMASS AND THE PIT was "borrowed" by Stephen King for TOMMYKNOCKERS. Those attributions are obvious. Attributions Murray claims for the film ALIEN are more questionable in my mind.
Murray's adulation sometimes goes overboard, but he also accepts Kneale's faults. Kneale was all his life the straight-laced Manxman with little tolerance for the youth culture that was growing in Britain contemporary with his career. It showed up early in his career in a story called THE BIG, BIG GIGGLE and later in his fourth Quatermass story in which alien forces use it to manipulate an entire generation. Kneale was at the World Science Fiction Convention in Brighton (the one time I myself met him and talked to him). In INTO THE UNKNOWN and elsewhere are reports of how revolted Kneale was with the science fiction fan culture and even fans of his work.
Kneale did not suffer fools quietly in general and particularly not ones who did not treat his writing well. He absolutely detested Brian Donlevy, who played Quatermass in two films and not all that badly. Yet when Kneale adapted Bernard Cornwell's SHARPE'S GOLD for television he himself admits that he adapted the first ten pages then invented the rest, much to Cornwell's irritation. Much of what he wrote had strong horror overtones, but he detested the horror-writer appellation and had no respect for the writers of horror.
Murray includes a long catalog of famous people who claim they were fans of or influenced strongly by Kneale's writing.
INTO THE UNKNOWN is a small press publication from a company called Headpress. (It is also published in the United States by Critical Vision.) The proofreading could be better. Charles Schneer is referred to by name but later is repeatedly called "Scheer." This is a somewhat amateurish biography, but I cannot imagine Kneale ever getting one more complete or more scholarly.
I was amused somewhat while reading the book to realize that the cover art design was a tribute to the design of the covers of the classic Penguin Books publication of the Kneale Quatermass scripts.
For those who know Kneale this is certainly a good read and a tribute that was long overdue. I hope that Kneale had a chance to read the book before his death.
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2007 Mark R. Leeper