The Quatermass Experiment experiment

As I write, BBC 4 is showing a repeat of The Quatermass Experiment (or The Quartermass Experiment, as a couple of announcers referred to it). Not the 1950s one, but the one they performed live last Saturday night. It was the first live drama on the BBC since an “afternoon play” about twenty years ago.

The 1950s version was six episodes of thirty minutes, in a two- or three-camera studio; this was a single two-hour show, with eighteen cameras spread over the inside and outside of an old warehouse, by the look of it. From a technical point of view it’s a lot harder to produce convincing and compelling live drama now than it was then – plus of course very few of today’s broadcasting bods know the tricks of live drama (Corrie and The Bill had special live episodes a few years ago, but that’s about it). Much of the equipment they used apparently had “Property of Match of the Day” stamped on it.

The plot creaked, but not too much. They didn’t attempt a massive rewrite, only some tinkering, so consequently the science was wonky. It’s safe to say there’s very little likelihood of a British spacecraft crash-landing in Surrey, but they kept all that in. It was interesting that they kept a fifties feel, while also using modern technology: one of the actors sported a fifties Cliff Richard-style hairdo, and there were lots of long coats and people smoking.

There were, to modern audiences, lengthy pauses between scenes: cutaways to shots of London at night, presumably to allow cast and crew to reposition. Some scenes screamed “filler”: a couple of characters having an earnest conversation but not advancing the plot much, just keeping the show going while other things happened off-camera.

Very few things went obviously wrong. Picky-picky Avaragado spotted a boom-mike shadow and a cameraman’s arm (I’m assuming the wide shots near the end with cameras in vision were at least semi-deliberate); there were a few dubious crashes and bangs that might have been intentional.

Cliff-alike forgot his lines at one point: he got someone’s name wrong, which threw him off for the next couple of sentences. He stuttered his way through with the help of the chap he was talking to. That’ll teach him for leaving Teachers.

The best performance was from David “next Doctor Who” Tennant, IMHO. Jason “Quatermass” Flemyng was pretty good but a little quiet, I thought. Mark “League of Gentlemen and writer of next week’s hopefully dark and creepy Doctor Who episode” Gatiss was also in it.

I doubt it will spark a revival in live drama, let alone live science fiction drama. But I’m still getting over the fact that the BBC showed new Doctor Who and new/old Quatermass on the same night, and a Saturday night at that.

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