Outer space and popular culture in post-war Britain

The post-war period was a time in which the concept of spaceflight became a tangible reality, while acting as a further spur to the imaginative representation of outer space. As scientists, military leaders and governments began to realise in the late 1940s that the technology of the rocket held the potential both for ‘transcendence and mass destruction’, a multitude of imaginative possibilities were also being expressed in diverse cultures of outer space, influenced by wartime developments in science and technology, earlier speculative fiction, as well as a range of cultural traditions and experiences.1 Whereas such expressions had in common a blending of imaginative, popular and scientific cultures, this chapter argues that postwar understandings of outer space in Britain had a distinctive spatiality to them, both in terms of the grounded geographies of national, regional and local identity, as well as the more specific spatial contingencies of their production and reception. Focussing on similar themes in the context of the United States, the literary scholar De Witt Douglas Kilgore has identified a cultural movement of ‘Astrofuturism’, that took a liberal outlook on the possibilities of outer space technology, was couched distinctively in a Euro-American worldview, and transported a benevolent historiography of Western imperialism into the Space Age.2 Kilgore charts the development of this discourse across the twentieth century, but explains how it came of age in the post-war period, when the influence of science-fictional imaginations on the emerging technocracy of the Apollo era was seen clearly through the likes of Robert Heinlein, Arthur C Clarke and Wernher von Braun. By contrast, this chapter, with its focus on the UK. argues that outer space can be understood not just as a space into which ideas of Western liberalism can be projected, but as a space that interfaces with a more particular set of social and cultural circumstances, including the distinctive British experiences of the Second World War, the impacts of decolonisation, the growth of domestic and popular cultures of scientific entertainment, and the ongoing influence of evolutionism and the sublime in science, culture and politics.

Contrary to suggestions that the post-war years in Britain were characterised mainly by austerity and cultural stagnation, this chapter identifies a multitude of engagements with outer space that take place from a range of ideological and geographical perspectives, from active interplanetarism to mythological readings of the cosmos. These include the expansionary, exploratory and sometimes utopian visions of outer space, represented in this chapter by the early space novels of Arthur C Clarke and the popularisation of astronomy by Patrick Moore; as well as more ambivalent cultures of outer space, including dystopian fictions and mystical encounters with the alien other, exemplified here by the Quatermass BBC television series, and the popular phenomenon of the Unidentified Flying Object. While these examples were chosen to demonstrate a broad thematic range of cultural engagements, other icons of outer-space culture in post-war Britain, such as Dan Dare and Doctor Who, which have been well-researched by scholars in cultural history and other areas, will form part of the context for interpreting the case studies that this chapter primarily focusses on. Over and above a more general appreciation of national, regional and local identity, these examples take us through a series of distinct spatial registers, emphasising geography’s significance in the understanding of outer space. These include the earthly spaces of storytelling in the Quatermass television series, the aerial spaces of observation in the post-war UFO phenomenon, the domestic spaces of popular astronomy promoted by Patrick Moore, and the anticipatory spaces of interplanetary exploration in Arthur C Clarke’s early spaceflight novels. Through these examples, understandings of outer space emerged in widespread and varied popular cultures for the first time in the UK. in ways that were distinctive and uniquely related to British science and society.

Outer space, myth and modernity in Quatermass

From 1953 to 1958, a popular new science-fiction serial, Quatermass, was broadcast on BBC television, an inventive and ground-breaking programme that established television’s capacity to produce innovative outer-space imaginaries. Following the investigations of the eponymous professor, three of the classic tropes of science-fiction provided the narrative basis of the original Quatermass series: The exploration of space in The Quatermass Experiment (1953), an alien invasion in Quatermass II (1955), and the implication of extraterrestrials in human evolution, in Quatermass and the Pit (1958). Interpreting the production context of Quatermass, alongside its reception by viewers and critics, helps to explain the ways in which narratives of myth and superstition, as well as icons of modernity, were implicated in outer-space imaginaries, while also enabling specific insights into the social and material environs of post-war Britain.

While not the first example of science-fiction in British television’s precommercial era (earlier programmes included the children’s serial Stranger from Space that ran from 1951 to 1953), Quatermass was the first to be aimed at a mainstream adult audience, and with its Saturday evening broadcast slot, in this and many other ways it was a forerunner to the 1960s’ Doctor Who

Nigel Kneale on the set of Quatermass II, 1955

Figure 4.1 Nigel Kneale on the set of Quatermass II, 1955

Source Credit: BBC Photo Library

and a long tradition of British science-fiction television.' Written by Nigel Kneale (1922-2006), who went on to become one of British television’s most acclaimed writers (Fig.4.1), and directed by Rudolph Cartier, Quatermass is said to have ‘revolutionised British television’, and helped to elevate science fiction to a serious and substantial entertainment genre.4 Watched by audiences that rose from an initial three million to eleven million by the end of the final series, these programmes were phenomenally popular, inspiring film adaptations by Hammer studios in the 1960s, as well as further television and radio re-makes, and they are now regarded as cult classics. Over and above this popularity and critical success, the Quatermass series is significant because it exemplifies the ways in which imaginative geographies of the sublime that were introduced in earlier Active representations of outer space (see Chapter 2) continued to hold a strong influence in the post-war period, at times helping to subvert popular utopian imaginations of outer-space futures. In exploring these themes, Quatermass also demonstrates how the geographies of outer space can become wrapped up in the grounded social and (geo)political issues of the time, including post-war reconstruction, immigration, and the changing role of science in society.

Characteristic of Nigel Kneale’s writing throughout his career was the interplay between the promise of modernity and the mysteries of the deep past, as he mixed elements of science-fiction with aspects of folk horror. This hybridity is evident throughout the narrative of The Quatermass Experiment, which opens with scenes evoking the spectacle of spaceflight and ends with the horror of the monstrous alien other. The first episode sees the ‘British Experimental Rocket Group’, led by Professor Quatermass, launch a manned rocket into space. Mimicking the ambitions of the British Interplanetary Society, the launch takes place from ‘Tarooma Base’ in Australia, a pastiche of the actual rocket testing range that was at this time active in Woomera, South Australia (see Chapter 5). The opening scenes feature stock footage of a V-2 rocket launch, seen from both ground-level and an on-board camera, showing the receding Earth and the emerging blackness of space. By the early 1950s, American developments in rocketry, based on augmented versions of the V-2, had resulted in the release of such imagery to media organisations, fuelling speculation that the advent of spaceflight was imminent and cementing the space-rocket as an icon of twentieth-century modernity.5 However, Kneale upended this expectation by having his rocket crash-land in a London suburb, echoing the real devastation caused by the V-2 less than a decade earlier. It transpires that the three astronauts on-board have been exposed to an alien life-form in space and have had their consciousness merged into one figure, superficially the astronaut Victor Carroon. After emerging from the wreck, Carroon transforms physically, becoming a hybrid plant-human-fungoid creature that terrorises the streets of London, and finally comes to rest in the high alcoves of Westminster Abbey to complete its metamorphosis.

Part of Kneale’s inspiration for the more subversive and darker aspects of his writing can be traced to his connection to the Isle of Man and associated folk cultures of storytelling. Although he was born in the town of Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria, Kneale’s parents were originally from the Isle of Man, and they returned there when he was six years old, with Nigel’s father taking up the editorship of the island’s main newspaper. Kneale’s biographer Andy Murray notes how he ‘grew up steeped in ancient Manx superstition’, the Irish Sea island being culturally and politically separated from the United Kingdom, while also being home to various Celtic and Norse traditions.6 Here, fearful stories of creatures such as the shape-shifting Buggane and the nocturnal Phynodderee are still recited as part of Manx folklore.7 Such legends found their way into Kneale’s consciousness:

It was about showing due respect for things that were not entirely to be understood, namely this score of wild superstition [.v/c] creatures who had grown out of the island’s soil, practically, up in the mountains.8

Traits of the organic and the monstrous can be seen in the alien hybrid creature that gradually emerges throughout The Quatermass Experiment, in what Kneale later called ‘the ultimate and unclassifiable monstrosity’.9 Kneale knowingly set the final episode in Westminster Abbey, which just

Outer space and popular culture in post-war Britain 65 weeks before its broadcast had been the setting of Queen Elizabeth H’s coronation, the first mass-participation event in the history of British television. While not allowed to film in the Abbey itself, Kneale shot scenes against blown-up publicity photos of its interior, through which he ingeniously inserted a home-made monster made out of a pair of old leather gloves and some foliage, an effect that he later affirmed as ‘extremely sinister’.10 With such limited support in special effects production. Kneale had to rely on his audience’s capacity to imagine, and he maintained that the public memory of the coronation ‘lingered’ in viewers’ minds, helping to create the illusion of an alien life-form in Westminster Abbey.11 Here, it was the benign modernity associated with the ‘TV coronation' that Kneale was able to subvert through his audacious insertion of the unknowable alien monstrosity in a place that was so recently re-affirmed at the heart of British public life. Concluding the narrative of The Quatermass Experiment, Professor Quatermass is able to commune with the human vestiges of the creature, persuading it to destroy itself rather than allow its spores to spread across London. This anti-heroic ending echoes H G Wells, whose Martians finally succumb to bacteria and wither away in The War of the Worlds, but is perhaps more ambiguous in its final resolution. Indeed, for critics Rolinson and Cooper, the narrative owes much to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the archetypal Gothic horror story portraying the dark repercussions of modern science.12

In such ways. Kneale’s teleplay presents space exploration in ways that might not have been expected by audiences. Whereas much science-fiction of the early-post-war period involved the heroic conquest of space, The Quatermass Experiment starts with a catastrophic failure, incorporates themes of body-horror, and ends in desperate self-destruction. Part of the reasoning behind this was to provide a counterpoint to American sciencefiction narratives, which are parodied by Kneale with a scene inside a cinema showing the apocryphal title ‘Planet of the Dragons’. More fundamentally though, Kneale sought to exploit ideas that contained contradictions, with The Quatermass Experiment pivoting around the notion that ‘we go into space, making progress, but bring something back which takes us backwards’.1’ This theme is continued in Quatermass II, in which a malevolent alien life-form infiltrates the minds of government officials who are investigating falling meteors in the British countryside. Certainly, the idea that outer space could be threatening, unknowable and horrific ran counter to much of the optimism found in post-war narratives of space exploration (see, for example, the Clarke case study in this chapter) and brings a different dimension to understandings of outer space in this period.

While this melancholic tone was likely influenced by the folk tales of Kneale’s Manx heritage, as well as broader Gothic and Romantic traditions, critics have suggested that Quatermass also reflected the traumatic public experience of the Second World War, with much of Britain still bearing its physical and psychological scars.14 Kneale volunteered for militaryservice during the war, but was granted a medical exemption due to a form of photophobia, his skin reacting badly to sunlight exposure.15 This was a factor that led Kneale towards writing rather than directing or acting in the post-war television industry and perhaps also contributed to themes of bodily metamorphosis in the Quatermass narratives. While Kneale had no direct experience of the war on the continent, he visited London in 1943 to sign a writing contract and returned permanently in 1946. There he witnessed some of the carnage caused by ‘The Blitz’ of 1944 1945, including thousands of destroyed buildings and the ongoing danger of unexploded bombs, finding ‘a city trapped in the post-war stasis’.16 Aspects of this postwar landscape can be identified at key points in the Quatermass series, from the suburban crash-site at the beginning of The Quatermass Experiment, to the crater at the epicentre of Quatermass and the Pit. The former has been described in terms of its ‘wartime symbolism, with locals rallying around an old woman who stoically accepts the demolition of her house’, recalling aspects of the mythologised ‘Blitz spirit’.17 Kneale latched onto the more general concept that ‘people were frightened of what might drop from the skies’, in dealing with feelings of malaise in post-war society, whether associated with the social memory of The Blitz or the anticipation of nuclear bombardment that came with the onset of the Cold War.18

After destruction comes re-building, and in Quatermass and the Pit, the majority of the action takes place at an excavation site in London’s Knightsbridge, in scenes that reflected ongoing activity in the capital’s post-war urban landscape. Here, Professor Quatermass discovers a host of preserved insectoid Martian creatures within a buried space vessel in ‘the pit’, which is initially declared as the location of an unexploded bomb. London becomes again the focus of a narrative pivot between lived reality and the altered state of the science-fictional imagination, and whereas for H G Wells half a century earlier, London's scientific urban landscape inspired a dystopian take on the evolutionary future of life on Earth, for Kneale, the wartime destruction of the capital city provided a portal into a disturbing evolutionary past. In this way, some of the tangible dangers of life in postwar Britain were re-conceptualised as fear of the alien unknown, and the even more disturbing realisation that Martian creatures had intervened in humanity’s deep past and psychic evolution. Such themes were picked up on by one reviewer at the time, who noted the ‘unearthly echoes of horrors to come’ in the first episode of the series, while concepts of the evolutionary depths of humanity bring to mind the sublime realisation of deep time that was acknowledged in the earlier narratives of Olaf Stapledon.19

Kneale later explained the storyline to Quatermass and the Pit as a metaphor for racism in society, shocked as he was by the 1958 race riots in parts of London and Nottingham that followed the Windrush-era immigration of workers to Britain from its former colonies.20 For Kneale, exposing the grand narratives of human evolution, and suggesting its possible alien origins, brought into focus the futility of racism in contemporary society,

Outer space and popular culture in post-war Britain 67 a framework that stands in contrast to the racial politics of American Astrofuturism.21 One report of public reaction to this theme in Quatermass and the Pit came from Birmingham, where leading members of ’the West Indian community’ criticised the programme for its portrayal of a fictional news bulletin that stated 'race riots are continuing in Birmingham’, which was said to have created a false impression of racial unrest in the city.22 Whereas the BBC rejected the complaint on the grounds that it was a completely imaginary news bulletin, its reception as a relevant indicator of societal issues emphasises the grounded reality of Kneale’s fantasy narratives. This serves as an example of how, although the teleplays of Quatermass incorporated social realism, their fantasy elements helped to conceptualise the ways in which human trauma was being processed at a deeper level, not only the ordeal of war, but also the scourge of violence and hatred in society more generally. Writer Mark Chadbourn interprets this via Jacques Derrida’s concept of‘Hauntology’, suggesting that Kneale 'mapped Britain’s unconscious at a time in our history when all sorts of lines were blurring’, including divisions between the colonial and postcolonial, the deep past and an ambivalent technological future.23

Here, and throughout the Quatermass series, it is demonstrated that themes of modernity in science-fiction narratives were not incompatible with more complex expositions of myth, legend and superstition, with earth and organic matter given prominence as much as shiny metal spaceships. The impact of Quatermass in British post-war popular culture is evidenced by the mass viewership it achieved, as well as its continuous re-appraisal in television, film, radio and cultural criticism.24 Part of the popular appeal of Quatermass also undoubtedly was connected to Kneale’s humanistic approach to writing, focussing on the behaviour of ordinary people in extraordinary situations, and, again echoing Wells, following the mantra that ‘the strangest things ought to happen in the most ordinary of places’.25 This ethos helped to produce an iconic example of outer-space fiction that dealt uniquely with the tangible and psychological ambiguities of outer space, echoing earlier conceptions of the sublime in outer-space imaginaries. With its narrative themes ultimately aligned more to the mythological than the modern, Quatermass subverts not only the predominant Astrofuturist cultures of the time, but also some of the foundations of British society itself.

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