By Oliver Wake
Writer: Nigel Kneale; Director: Rudolph Cartier
As the controversy surrounding Nigel Kneale and Rudolph Cartier’s December 1954 production of Nineteen Eighty-Four faded, the pair were already in the advanced stages of their next collaboration.1 In a return to fantasy, The Creature was an original teleplay inspired by the previous year’s 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.2
Kneale’s intelligent exploration of the Abominable Snowman legend featured Peter Cushing 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.3
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.
The production was allowed a substantial amount of location filming to supplement the modest studio facilities available for the otherwise live transmission. The first week of 1955 saw Cartier taking Cushing into the Swiss Alps, which doubled as the Himalayas, to shoot exterior sequences. The BBC’s head of television drama, Michael Barry, was uneasy with this arrangement, fearing for the safety of Cushing, and suggested a double be used instead. Cushing was not to be dissuaded, disliking the use of doubles, and the filming went ahead. Further inserts were recorded at Lime Grove studios upon the team’s return from Switzerland.4
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.5
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. Including a subjective point-of-view shot, a late sequence of 16 shots depicts the wounded and mad McNee/McPhee trying to climb a perilous rock face and falling to his death.
Other 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 than Kneale and Cartier both favoured.
Cartier was also required to be creative in the television studio for some of the live sequences. 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 describes 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.”6 A stage direction in the script indicates the careful planning required for live production, noting that the off-screen sound effects for a trap being set may as well be the actual sound of the props being set as there would be no other time in which to put them in place.
The 90 minute play was broadcast from Lime Grove studios on Sunday 30 January, with a short ‘interval’ approximately half-way through, as 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 stagehand appeared behind the ice cave set, sweeping up the snow. Although warned off, he apparently appeared again during the live repeat.7 Despite this, Kneale later stated that he felt the play “held up extremely well”.8
As no recording of the production was retained, if indeed one was ever made, it is impossible to know how noticeable the intrusion was. However, contemporary reviews give some indication of the play’s effectiveness. 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”.9 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.”10 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, 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”.11 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.”12 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 Cartier’s staging tricks were effectively done. 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.”13 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.”14 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.”15 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.16 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.
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.17 The film was titled The Abominable Snowman for the British market, with of the Himalayas appended for American distribution.18 Cushing, Wolfe Morris and Arnold Marlé all reprised their roles.
This article © Oliver Wake, 2012
Thanks to Alan Hayes
Originally posted: 25 November 2010.
31 March 2012: Replaced the 2010 post with a new, revised version.