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Arrow, London, 1979
price: 95p; 272 pages

dedication: To Judy

The blurb on the backs:

In space the Russians and Americans squander billions on pointless projects.
On Earth there is anarchy. Civilization is breaking down.
Gangs of killers roam the rubbish-strewn streets. Fuel and food shortages have made the population desperate. Through the countryside bands of mystics calling themselves the Planet People chant their crazed beliefs.
Professor Bernard Quatermas, once a space pioneer himself, is an old man now. Disgusted and appalled by the state of the world, he has one final mission - to find and save his young granddaughter. She may have joined the Planet People. He follows as thousands of them converge on the ancient stone circle of Ringstone Round.
It is there that he witnesses an event that defies all sanity. For Quatermass it is the beginning of a long horror - a terrifying paranormal power has begun to afflict the Earth.

opening lines:
'That was a body!' Quatermass shouted. He leaned forward to rap on the armour-glass and put his mouth as close as he dared to the crude speaking tube. 'We ought to go back.'
The driver pretended not to hear.

Still celebrated as a ground-breaking British screen institution, Quatermass was a TV drama created and written by Nigel Kneale, which concerned a space scientist Prof Bernard Quatermass and which happily mixed up science fiction, horror, religion and social comment to pretty good effect. Just to fill in the background, the story started back in 1953 with the TV series The Quatermass Experiment, which was followed by two further series that decade: Quatermass II (1955) and Quatermass and the Pit (1958). The role of Prof Quatermass was played by Reginald Tate, John Robinson and André Morell respectively. All three TV series were remade by Hammer as cinema films, which were re-titled for the US market: The Creeping Unknown (1955), Enemy From Space (1957) and Five Million Years To Earth (1967) - the first two starred Brian Donlevy, the third had Andrew Keir.

So that's where we were, with seemingly as much mileage having been extracted from the vehicle as we were likely to get. But Nigel Kneale had other ideas, and in 1979 the old Prof was taken down off the shelf, dusted off and set loose on one last adventure.

Here's JohnnyThis time John Mills took the title role, playing an elderly and long-retired scientist who travels to London to try to find his lost grand-daughter. The city he finds is in the grip of nigh-on civil war, torn between the violent thugs of the Badder-Mindoff gangs (an Anglicized variation on the Red Army Fraction) and the Blue Brigades, comprised of even more violent vigilantes. Meanwhile the Pay Cops - the privatised police force recruited predominantly from the South African security forces - stands to one side, unless you slip them some money to keep the nightmare from your door. The other relevant sect in this splintered society are the Planet People, who looked at the time like remnants of the hippies, but in retrospect seem more like a prediction of the New Age Travellers; turning their back on the modern world, they've given up the struggle for progress: 'Stop trying to know things,' one of them says to Quatermass. Because even in the midst of the chaos there are still a handful of scientists trying to keep the old ideals of rationality alive.

It is, in short, a cracking set-up, and for the first 60 pages or so, you're swept along with it. But then it gets bogged down with a story that rambles a bit, loses focus a bit and finally doesn't really make much sense. And while the TV version at least had the joy of Toyah making the odd appearance to keep your interest up, here it feels like a missed opportunity. Because, shorn of the budgetary restrictions of British TV, it could have been a powerful novel. And it isn't.

Even so, the depiction of a miserable future society (just as Thatcherism came to save us from ourselves) is worth having, and it's always nice to welcome an old friend back.

The Old Man
Nigel Kneale


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