By Oliver Wake
Writer: Nigel Kneale; Director: Rudolph Cartier
This piece was substantially revised and updated in 2014.
The creative partnership of television dramatist Nigel Kneale and producer/director Rudolph Cartier is best known for originating the three Quatermass serials of the 1950s and 1954’s adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four, but it achieved much more besides.1 One of their lesser-known productions, despite it also being in the science fiction genre, was The Creature from early 1955.2 The primary reason for the play’s neglect is that no recording exists so, unlike Nineteen Eighty-Four and most of the episodes of the Quatermass serials, it is no longer available to view. This article aims to challenge The Creature’s obscurity, using surviving scripts, production anecdotes and contemporaneous audience research data to present an account of the play, its innovations and the reactions it elicited from viewers and critics.
Even as the national controversy caused by Nineteen Eighty-Four played out in the British press at the end of 1954, Kneale and Cartier were well underway with the pre-production of The Creature. Rather than another adaptation, it was a wholly original script which Kneale had been inspired to write by the recent resurgence of interest in the mystery of the Himalayan ‘yeti’. Introducing his play for the Radio Times, Kneale wrote:
A year ago a London newspaper sent a fully-equipped expedition specifically to search for it. Again tracks were found, but not what made them. Is there, after all, some prosaic explanation for the footprints? Or does the yeti exist? If so, what can it be? The Creature, in purely fictional terms, is a guess at the answers.3
Kneale’s intelligent exploration of the Abominable Snowman legend featured Peter Cushing, who had just played Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four, as Dr John Rollason, a botanist from the Professor Quatermass school of likeable humanitarian scientists. While working with plant specimens in a Tibetan monastery he meets up with a team lead by the American Tom Friend (Stanley Baker). Together they mount an expedition to find the yeti, eventually succeeding. Rollason reasons that the creatures represent a branch of evolution parallel to humanity, with mankind, the great ape species and the yeti all developing from the same starting point in the Indian subcontinent around a million years earlier. He theorises that the yeti therefore has some form of affinity with humans. He wonders whether the creatures are on the point of extinction, or perhaps hiding away waiting for the warlike mankind to wipe itself out before reclaiming the world.
It is revealed that Friend’s intentions are more commercial than scientific; he plans to make his fortune by trapping and exhibiting an Abominable Snowman. After they kill one yeti, the creatures repel the expedition with their telepathic powers. All ultimately die – through fear or accidents caused by their panic – except Rollason, who has not threatened the yeti. On his return to the monastery he informs the Lama (Arnold Marlé), who appears to have some form of spiritual connection with the creatures, that the yeti does not exist. “It isn’t what’s out there that’s dangerous, so much as – what’s in us”, states Rollason towards the end, a theory Kneale returned to for 1958/9’s Quatermass and the Pit.4
The other members of the cast were Eric Pohlmann as the trapper Pierre Brosset, Simon Lack as Andrew McPhee and Wolfe Morris as Nima Kusang, with extras as monks, musicians and ‘Devil Dancers’. The play was designed by Barry Learoyd, who had also recently worked on Nineteen Eighty-Four. Strangely, the names of three of the characters changed, for reasons unknown, at a late stage in production. The rehearsal script had Ang Thomay instead of Kusang, the trapper was Ed Shelley and McPhee was known as Arthur McNee.
With Nineteen Eighty-Four having brought more press scrutiny to bear than ever before on the BBC’s television drama department, it is perhaps unsurprising – particularly given both its outlandish subject and the involvement of Kneale and Cartier – that The Creature was referred to in newsprint well ahead of transmission. It was scheduled for a Sunday evening broadcast with a second performance the following Thursday, as was the usual pattern then for each week’s major drama production. One of the main criticisms of Nineteen Eighty-Four, which had been broadcast in this pattern, was that its was shown on a Sunday, with such strong content considered by many inappropriate on a day then associated with families and religious observance. The People newspaper claimed that The Creature would be deferred from its proposed Sunday broadcast because of its “horrific” scenes, following a BBC review of its drama policy.5
In the wake of the Nineteen Eighty-Four protests, Michael Barry, the BBC’s head of television drama, had spoken on television about his department’s scheduling of plays.6 He reported that there had been instances of plays found unsuitable for a Sunday being transmitted on an alternative day, with this move then attracting criticism from those wanting the play on a Sunday.7 In view of this, it’s unsurprising that The Creature’s proposed Sunday broadcast slot was left unchanged, though it’s impossible to know whether any parts of the script were toned down following the Nineteen Eighty-Four protests. The Daily Mail previewed The Creature, quoting Barry, who, perhaps in an effort to discourage negative publicity about its potentially disturbing scenes, emphasised the play’s character-based drama and, slightly inaccurately, reported that its expedition would not find the Abominable Snowman.8
The production was allowed a substantial amount of filming to supplement the modest studio facilities available for the otherwise live transmission. Location filming was essential to establish the mountainous environment of the play, though Barry was uneasy with Cushing’s involvement in this filming, fearing for the star’s safety, and suggested a double be used instead. Cushing disliked the use of doubles and the loss of continuity of performance that this entailed, and wrote to Barry to personally assure him of his preference to take part in the location expedition.9 The first week of 1955 saw Cartier and his film crew – plus Cushing – visit the Swiss Alps, which doubled as the Himalayas, to shoot exterior sequences. Further inserts were recorded at the BBC’s Lime Grove studios upon the team’s return from Switzerland.10
It is perhaps ironic that for this production Cartier could take his cameras no nearer the Himalayas than the Alps, given that he had significant prior experience of filming in the Himalayas. In 1934, Cartier had joined Professor Dr Günther Dyhrenfurth’s second International Himalayan Expedition in the capacity of “scenario-writer”, presumably in relation to the films to be shot during the expedition.11
Although not necessarily an entirely accurate guide to what eventually appeared on screen, the rehearsal script suggests the use of 14 film sequences in all, not including a looped piece of blizzard footage which was superimposed over live action at various points. Whilst some of these were the brief location sequences establishing the Himalayas setting, others were lengthier, involving action and stunts or the use of filmic tricks to progress the narrative. For example, an early sequence of 16 shots involves a near-fall into a crevasse, while a later run of 14 shots uses montage to establish the passage of time as the expedition treks the mountains. A late sequence of 16 shots, including a subjective point-of-view shot, depicts the wounded and mad McNee/McPhee trying to climb a perilous rock face and falling to his death.
More simplistic filmed sequences allowed the number of sets required in the studio for the live performance to be kept to a minimum. Others involved lighting effects and pyrotechnics to achieve night scenes illuminated by flares, or snowfall and the discharge of firearms, which could not have been executed in the electronic studio for practical and technical reasons. Similarly, the shot of a live ape caught in a yeti trap could only practically have been accomplished on film. The number of film sequences, which was much higher than for most television productions of the period, and their use to progress the story rather than simply bridge live sequences, is indicative of the ambitious use of the medium that Kneale and Cartier both favoured.
Cartier wasn’t just inventive in his use of pre-filmed sequences, but also in his staging of the live action in the television studio on the evenings of transmission. For example, a trick of perspective was employed to exaggerate the height of the yeti on screen. For the scene of Rollason coming face-to-face with the creature, Cartier had a diminutive actor dress in a duplicate of Cushing’s costume. Shot from behind the actor, it seemed that the yeti – really about six feet tall – towered several feet over Rollason. Dialogue in the script suggested the creatures were ten feet tall and described the head of a dead yeti, seen in close-up, as: “long, very narrow. The forehead is high, the face not unlike that of a “horse-faced” human, but covered with fine, grey hair. The mouth thrusts forward, but the lips are thin. There is little ape-like about it.”12 One example of the careful planning required for live production is the recommendation made in the script directions that the off-screen sound effects representing a mechanical trap being set might as well be provided by the actual sound of the props being set up in the studio, because there was no other opportunity to put those props in place.
The 90 minute play was broadcast from Lime Grove studios on Sunday 30 January, with a short ‘interval’ approximately half-way through, which was the normal practice for feature-length television plays at the time. The whole production was recreated in the studio for the customary live repeat the following Thursday evening. As was the danger with attempting such an ambitious drama live, The Creature suffered a minor on-air blunder. In 1959 Kneale wryly recalled how an over-zealous stage-hand appeared behind the ice cave set, sweeping up the snow. Although warned off, he apparently appeared again during the live repeat.13 Kneale’s recollection of the stage-hand’s unwelcome intrusion, in the first performance at least, was corroborated by the BBC’s Audience Research Report on the play. Several of the sample group of viewers reported that “movement at the back of the cave (as of stage-hands strolling about in the rear of the set) had spoilt the awe-inspiring effect of this scene.14 Despite this, Kneale later stated that he felt the play “held up extremely well”.15
As no recording of the play’s broadcast was retained, if indeed one was ever made, it is impossible for us to assess the quality of the production. In view of this, the Audience Research Report is all the more useful. Although a small number of the viewers sample found the play’s subject “unsuitable for Sunday viewing” or “too fantastic to be even remotely credible”, the reaction was largely favourable. Most found it exciting and an example of the “spine-chilling” thriller genre. Kneale’s script was considered “admirably written, vivid, imaginative and well thought-out”. One viewer stated that the action “compelled attention from beginning to end”. In view of Kneale and Cartier’s approach to expanding the range of television drama, the comment from one of the sample group must have been particularly welcome. A Master Builder found it “refreshing to get away from the plays with a stuffy drawing-room atmosphere, and to feel revivified by the sight and sound of mountains, snow and wind”. There was little negative reaction to the story itself, although a few suggested the play should have held back on answering the mysteries of the yeti. A Civil Servant commented: “The guess at the answers to the questions surrounding the existence of this creature was ingenious and interesting, but I think the attempt to bring the unguessable to life, detracted from this rousing adventure play”.
The viewers sampled praised the cast’s acting. They described Cushing’s performance as “outstanding” and indeed felt that every role had been “played with great conviction”. Cartier’s production was much admired, with “the technical presentation exceptionally convincing, and, in the outdoor scenes, most successful in creating the illusion that the action was taking place in the snows of the Himalayas.” The use of filmed inserts for this purpose was thought to have made the play the equal of any cinema film. The report quoted a Housewife, who commented that “everything was as could be imagined in the circumstances, no studio atmosphere at all”. On a technical level, the report concluded that the sample viewers had found the picture quality to have been “a little variable” in the cave and monastery scenes and “one or two said that the flare-lit night scenes on the mountain-side made a bad picture.”
The report calculated that 22% of the UK’s adult population, which it equated to 71% of the “adult TV public” (presumably those living in a household with a television), viewed the first performance. The former figure suggests an audience of a little over eight and a quarter million viewers.16 This was slightly lower than the average adult TV public audience of 75% for recent Sunday night plays.17 Although speculation only, it could be that the reduced audience was a result of the play’s genre and/or the association of Kneale, Cartier and the genre with objectionable ‘horror’ content, following the previous month’s Nineteen Eighty-Four controversy. However, if the audience was smaller it was also more appreciative, with the play’s Reaction Index of 73 being significantly higher than the average of 65 for the previous year’s television plays.18 The repeat performance was watched by 8% of the UK population (about three million) and gained a fractionally lower Reaction Index of 72.19 The size of the repeat’s audience was roughly in line with the usual ratio of viewers for Sunday night plays and their Thursday repeats.20
The Audience Research Report made comparison with Kneale and Cartier’s The Quatermass Experiment from the previous year, which had received scores between 64 and 72 across its six episodes.21 Both The Creature’s audience and its Reaction Index far exceeded those of the aforementioned Nineteen Eighty-Four.22 The Creature’s high Reaction Index fits my line of speculation that those who thought the play would not be to their taste (and would therefore be more likely to score it harshly had they watched) chose not to watch, leading to the sample being weighted towards viewers naturally more well disposed to this type of play. On the other hand, it may simply represent the play’s high quality, as the previous science fiction television play, The Voices, broadcast just two weeks earlier, had an even smaller audience and an extraordinarily low Reaction Index.23
Contemporary press reviews also give some indication of The Creature’s effectiveness, although newspaper critics were generally less impressed than the BBC’s audience sample. A review in The Times suggests that Cartier’s trademark epic style of staging was in evidence, with “vast snowscapes, fiercely howling wind, foreboding music, night flares shining in the mountain, [and] a whole monastery full of masked monks”.24 The reviewer was, however, otherwise unimpressed. Blaming the subject matter, they claimed that “nothing could raise it from the banal level of its dialogue and narrative”, and even the usually reliable Cushing was apparently “dull”.
The Listener’s critic, Philip Hope-Wallace, was equally underwhelmed. Given its subject, he felt that The Creature “should have been a national sensation … It was no such thing.”25 He found the play of “a Boy’s Fiction standard with a conversational cut and thrust to the dialogue which sounded as dry and powdery as the snows of the film inserts”. He felt that “The first Creature we saw, dead, merely looked drunk. The second and third looked not unkindly”.
A mixed review came from The Stage newspaper, which noted that “The tightly written plot was supported by every conceivable visual and sound effect – impressive snowscapes, shrieking wind, masked monks, a frightening lama, and those voices that recently came to us from somewhere beyond Mars”.26 The review continues:
Rudolph Cartier tried valiantly to make it all convincing but could not combat the banal dialogue … Taken as a schoolboyish adventure, in fact, it was enjoyable enough in its own way, and the cast acquitted themselves with credit. Peter Cushing, his style a model of television acting, headed an excellent team …
More positive was Peter Black, who wrote in the Daily Mail that Kneale, Cartier and Learoyd “pulled off with great success that most difficult of jobs for TV drama – the rousing, outdoor adventure story.”27 He regarded the play as a “landmark” which “showed how a writer, producer, and designer who understand what they are about can extend the horizons of TV drama to a point where they meet those of the cinema.” Black found Kneale’s story “an imaginative yarn, tightly and vividly written” and “Very plausibly argued too – for on Mr Kneale’s evidence the snowman was 10ft. high”, which suggests that Cartier’s height deception had been successfully achieved. Black concluded his review recommending the play to viewers for the Thursday repeat and, prophetically, to any film company looking for a “sensible out-of-the-ruck adventure”.
Also enthusiastic was Clifford Davis of the Daily Mirror, who wrote: “Last night’s offering was gripping stuff and, for this viewer, packed with terror.” Davis found the realisation of the creature effective, describing it as “10ft, 5½ in. high, and its footprints are 16in. long! It has shaggy, matted hair and a face that looks like every witch doctor’s mask you’ve ever seen, all rolled into one.”28 He also felt that Cushing “never did anything better.” He concluded: “If TV carries on like this the BBC will soon have to issue “X” and “H” certificates for the productions of Mr. Kneale and Mr Cartier.”
Joanne Runswick’s review for Plays and Players was also very positive. She commended the production as “first rate”, noting that the mixing of live scenes and film was “perhaps the most satisfying yet shown.”29 She observed a “religious quality to the play which gave it an added air of mystery: black magic touched with Buddhism, all a trifle phoney, but none the less gripping for that.” She also praised the performances of all the main cast.
A few months later The Creature was recalled in The Times as a “notable example of how cinematic television drama must become if it is to be true to its own resources.”30 The play also made an impression on the makers of The Goon Show, who parodied it in the episode Yehti some weeks after transmission, having parodied Nineteen Eighty-Four in a previous episode.31 In absence of a recording, all that is known to remain of The Creature is a series of off-screen stills taken by photographer John Cura as part of his ‘Tele-snaps’ service, which are believed to be held privately.
Although the contemporary reviews suggest that The Creature may not have been a complete success, its expansive staging indicated Rudolph Cartier’s technical skill at achieving the near-impossible, and the scope for adventurous drama that it allowed. It is also indicative of the rapidly increasing confidence of the BBC’s television drama department, under Michael Barry’s leadership, to attempt such ambitious and original material at a time when resources and conventional wisdom cautioned very much against it.
As they had done with The Quatermass Experiment, Hammer Films purchased Kneale’s script from the BBC. Filming began at the beginning of 1957 with a slightly streamlined script and expanded cast (Rollason gained a wife and assistant for example). For the film, Brosset’s name reverted back to Ed Shelley, as in the play’s rehearsal script, and McPhee reverted to McNee but retained Andrew as his first name. Val Guest directed as well as adapting the original script, which he admired but thought “too verbose” for the cinema.32 The film was titled The Abominable Snowman for the British market, with of the Himalayas appended for American distribution.33 Cushing, Wolfe Morris and Arnold Marlé all reprised their roles.
© Oliver Wake, 2013
Thanks to Alan Hayes, Dr Tobias Hochscherf and the BBC Written Archives Centre for access to research materials.
Originally posted: 25 November 2010.
31 March 2012: Replaced the 2010 post with a new, revised version.
22 January 2014: Replaced the 2012 post with a new, revised version with new material including BBC archive research.