||Nigel Kneale (1922-2006) was a British author of novels and screenplays, but his lasting contribution to his country's culture was in the realm of science fiction, as important a figure in the particularly British form of the genre as H.G. Wells or John Wyndham. He was the inventor of Professor Quatermass, whose adventures in repelling alien invaders from space terrified television audiences in the nineteen-fifties and paved the way for Doctor Who, and he penned a version of George Orwell's Nineteen-Eighty-Four for the small screen that same decade which was so controversial questions were asked about it in Parliament. If that was all he had created, he would have been a legend in the medium, but he wrote many series and plays for television over the course of nearly fifty years.
Three of his one-off plays have been collected by Network Releasing on DVD, including one from 1964 that was believed lost for some time. No, it was not The Road, his well-thought of science fiction chiller about a haunted road with a disturbing explanation for its ghosts, it was The Crunch, a play he crafted for ATV's Studio 64 series of small screen dramas, though there were fantastical elements involved in this as well. His premise was a simple one, looking forward to the Iranian Embassy Siege of a couple of decades in the future as we are plunged straight into the story where the Embassy of Makang, a made-up country that represented the United Kingdom's Colonial shame in the story, has been taken by insurgents. Or at least that is what we believe when the Prime Minister (Harry Andrews) is brought to the scene.
Kneale, wishing to emphasise the confusion of a crisis in progress, forced us to discern what the situation was by catching snatches of dialogue, the plot starting for us when a milkman is pressed into service to plant a microphone in one of his bottles and deliver it to the embassy building, though abruptly he is thrown from the place and his bottles smashed on the pavement. You can surmise that didn't work out, and you would be right, as we settle with the P.M. Goddard who is trying to ascertain whether the siege takers have a nuclear weapon, and how eager they are to set it off. Yes, we were in the heart of the atomic age, and the terror of what the bomb could do in the wrong hands (or the right hands, for that matter) was very much in the air, drama like this capitalising on that unease.
Interestingly, we did not stay with Goddard, we ventured into the embassy to be privy to what they were saying in there, a battle of wills as it transpired as the ambassador Mr Ken (Maxwell Shaw with "ethnic" makeup) weighed up his options with the potentially disastrous thirst for revenge of his own Prime Minister, Jimson (Harry Wolfe). They are in agreement that a ransom of millions of pounds should be sought, but Jimson believes the bomb should be set off whether it is paid or not, and events build to a suspenseful climax which takes a turn from political thriller with musings over how, or indeed if, Britain should be punished for its past Empire's misdeeds, to an unexpectedly bizarre conclusion that raises more questions than it answers. Which you could observe about the global matters The Crunch brought up as well.
Unnatural Causes was a series of 1986 one-off dramas on a murder theme from ATV's successor, Central TV, and Kneale was available to write what was probably the best of them, and one of the best scripts of his latter era: Ladies' Night. It took place in a gentlemen's club where the titular Ladies' Night was held, a Monday evening in the week where the rest of the days were exclusively for men. The trouble was, this is such an archaic establishment that it's dwindling, its funds frittered away and its traditions looking increasingly pointless in the modern world: we are introduced to one such example when the stuffed aardvark is found to be pointing in the wrong direction on its place at the entrance. This also introduces us to the resident tyrant, not merely a stickler for those rules, but their obsessive enforcer.
He is Colonel Waley (Alfred Burke in a powerhouse performance) and he is dead against the inclusion of the opposite sex in "his" club. His masculinity is what we would now term toxic, he lords over the other members who are all cowed by his bullish belligerence and what he says goes, even when it sounds absurd. The main regulation being connected to women and their presence (or as he would prefer, non-presence), he feels it is about time for the club to end the trial period for allowing the gentlemen's wives or partners to show up on the Monday, never mind that he has been seeing to it that they feel as unwelcome as possible, and it does not matter that a more open policy would guarantee the survival of the place. Events come to a head when one of the members, Tripp (Ronald Pickup), brings his wife Jane (Fiona Walker) for the first time.
She sees the whole shebang for what it is, a dinosaur's paradise of Neanderthal male attitudes that serve as an enabling echo chamber for the Colonel's brand of rampant sexism. She is also not about to suffer a fool like him gladly, especially a fool who believes he is smart, and before long has made it plain that he, like his opinions, is ridiculous, this after, for presumably the umpteenth time, he proudly tells his anecdote about saving Goering while out hunting before the Second World War and she pulls him up on it. The rest plays out with sinister relish, Kneale skewering the reactionary men but recognising they can be dangerous if given their space to act, the lack of a female perspective poisoning the masculine atmosphere... In addition, it ended on a punchline that was all too fitting, and evidence there was black comedy at work behind the viciousness.
A year later in 1987, Kneale devised a one-off drama for Central under the title Gentry. The subject of the richer members of society moving into poorer areas and buying up the property cheap, then either living there themselves or selling it at a hefty profit was very much in the news, those darn yuppies the centre of the ire from those who felt traditional working-class areas of some respectability were being irrevocably altered into upper middle-class domains. This left the needier members of society stuck in ghettos, or estates as they called them, where they were left to fend for themselves as the locals sunk into crime. In this play, the crime has not been wholly eradicated, as a young, aspiring couple discover when they go to view a town house the husband has recently purchased as a fixer-upper.
The couple were pregnant Susannah (Phoebe Nicholls from Brideshead Revisited) and Gerald (Duncan Preston, then most associated with Victoria Wood's excellent comedy ensemble), but they were not the real celebrities in the cast, for headlining was rock band The Who's lead singer Roger Daltrey at the point acting was his focus more than music. He takes his time making his entrance, as for the first twenty minutes or so you think Kneale has served up a social drama making a comment on the sort of person responsible for gentrification, with the pair confronted with two charity representatives they definitely want no part of, though the first, a supposed student, is given a rougher ride than the second (Ben Thomas), who is excused in a patronising way because he is West Indian and Gerald does not want to look racist.
There were a few subtle examples of that class and social comment in this, but really what wanted to be was a thriller, and that became apparent when Daltrey and his two larger cohorts appear at the door. Just before this, the couple have discovered the dodgy geezer Gerald bought the house from lying dead in the bathtub, an early twist that informs the following tension, and the rest plays out as he tries to get his cheque back from Daltrey's gangster Colin, the rock star spending his first couple of minutes on screen covered up in a disguise for reasons which become apparent. As the threat becomes clearer, with the possibility of rape as well as assault, there was a palpable sense of menace about the piece which carried its commentary with skill. This too ended on a kind of punchline, or at least a twist, that indicated taking nothing for granted was wise.
The Crunch... and Other Stories is available on DVD from Network, collecting the three programmes in restored form and with inserts from the title drama and a gallery as extras. They represent lesser known Nigel Kneale works, but his talent was obvious in each.