The pleasant summer afternoon of Saturday 9th August 2014 brought writer Matthew Kneale to the Edinburgh International Book Festival, speaking both of his own most recent work, An Atheist’s History of Belief, and sharing the stage in a separate talk with his mother, children’s writer Judith Kerr, where they spoke of the legacy of her late husband, Matthew’s father Nigel Kneale, the famed television writer. Matthew was kind enough to take time to speak to Geek Chocolate of both his work and his memories of his celebrated father.
Geek Chocolate – You are known as a novelist, and An Atheist’s History of Belief is your first work of non-fiction. Why the change, for an award winning novelist, and where did the inspiration come from?
Matthew Kneale – I think it was because I’ve always been interested in religion, always been curious about asking questions, where it all came from. As I’ve never been a believer, why people believed in these things. I’ve studied history, I read nothing else, so it’s always been fascinating to me. I think I wanted to read the book and it didn’t exist, so I thought I’d write it.
GC – Your approach to the book is very different from the confrontational style of, for example, The God Delusion, in that while it maintains that belief is a human construct, it considers why we believe in the irrational. In a world of entrenched and sometimes militant faith and secularism opposing each other, is this a door which must be opened for both to move forward?
MK – I’m not sure. I hope so! I think the difference between me and more militant atheists, as they’re called, is not really in terms of our beliefs, I think we all fairly much have the same idea, we don’t believe in gods, the only difference is that I’m interested in religion and I think it’s worth looking at. I think a more scientific approach just dismisses the whole thing as a waste of time, whereas I see it as vital if you’re going to understand our world.
GC – Another departure is the presumption of disbelief in any god. Without first setting out your stall, you simply introduce the book and move onto your chosen thesis without bothering to have the pointless arguement. Does this reflect your customary position in life, or did you feel it would have sidetracked the work into an area which would ultimately distract from what you were trying to say and which has already been covered elsewhere?
MK – Yes, I think that was it. Lots of people have written on that and I thought the title was quite clear! I was interested in the details of the belief and why people believed in particular things at particular times, I wasn’t interested in the question of why people have beliefs at all. That’s another question.
GC – One of the arguments that you make early in the book is that contemporary religion mirrors the fears of that time, extrapolating from ancient artefacts found in dark caves right through to modern times with Scientology. What is L Ron Hubbard afraid of that the Thetans will protect him from?
MK – I think he was afraid of, or his followers were, of not having enough money, if I dare say such a thing. I think his followers were afraid of nuclear war, they were afraid of a new world, they had science fiction fears of creatures out beyond which they didn’t know what they might be. But certainly it’s telling that the precursor to Scientology which began slightly earlier, was developed within months of the Russians exploding their atomic bomb.
GC – One of the things I did feel when reading it was a refreshing presumption of intellect on the part of the reader. While some publishers might have requested you make it more accessible, I presume Vintage were happy to run with you?
MK – They never worried, they never complained about that, no, but I wanted to make it as readable as possible and I certainly made a point of having no theological terms at all. I described everything in the simplest terms, but I suppose it’s about a lot of different periods of history so that’s going to take people in to things that they may or may not know about. But that’s fun, I think.
GC – Something which had never occurred to me before, I’m aware historically there were many polytheistic religions which over time have graduated to predominantly monotheistic religions, but it wasn’t until you said it in the talk this morning, the thought of Catholicism which is ostensibly monotheistic yet it has the Saints who provide the function of the minor deities with their specialities whom you can pray to.
MK – Religions are a bit like ice cores, they just grow and grow, so even when you have what is supposedly a brand new religion it’s actually got vast depths of ancient earlier beliefs within it. So definitely I think there’s polytheism in every religion, for instance in Greece I think there’s a practice whereby you find tiny churches dotting the countryside, many of which are only open once a year. Now in pre-Christian Greece, they had tiny temples dotting the countryside which were only open once a year. I’d say some religions are more monotheistic than others, but there’s a often a wish for a particular specialist who’s going to know the particular answer to whatever is concerning you.
GC – Early on in the book, you observe that historically religion has inspired and religious organisations have sponsored the great works of art we have inherited, and I include the wider art world in that. Now it is corporations who fund, through sponsorship or buying commercial time, or public subscription for the BBC or HBO. Has this freed the shackles or has it reduced the ambition and scope of modern artistic endeavor?
MK – That’s a big question! I honestly don’t know. Time will tell! I think a big corporation can be just as limiting as a religion in different ways. Let’s hope that the human desire to create something new and interesting is limitless, and sometimes limitations can be inspirations as well. I think religion wasn’t necessarily a narrowing of creative endeavour, it would just force people to create in different ways.
GC – The rational approach to the inexplicable is a concept which occurred many times in your father’s work, most obviously in Quatermass and the Pit and The Stone Tape. Was that approach something which was consciously encouraged when you were growing up or was it more a process of osmosis?
MK – Well he wasn’t a believer, his father lost his religion early on when he was a child in the Isle of Man, I think, so my father was definitely always for the rational, but he had a delight in the irrational as well. He definitely encouraged all of that but he was also interested in the irrational in his plays and I also think it makes some good drama
GC – Considering there are only four stories there have been eight Quatermass productions, the three original BBC serials and their Hammer film restagings, the Conclusion in 1979 and the live BBC broadcast of The Quatermass Experiment in 2005, yet onscreen the character has been played by seven actors. Ironically, the only person to play him twice on film was Brian Donlevy, who is not the most favourably remembered.
MK – No.
GC – My personal favourite would be André Morell, but who do you feel best embodies Professor Bernard Quatermass?
MK – I thought André Morell was very good.
GC – You spoke of how fears were now experienced not in person but through television, and one of the things which made Quatermass so effective is that it is very consciously not genre in the way that we now see it with a step back and mannered performance, it was played as an utterly straight drama into which are brought elements of the fantastic and the horrific, made more terrifying by the realism of the presentation. Do you know how much of that was your father’s intention and how much was brought in by producer/director Rudolph Cartier?
MK – I think it was my father’s intention but he got on very well with Rudolph Cartier, so I’m sure they were in there plotting together. I think that was something he loved doing, taking the normal, the very ordinary everyday and then turning it around.
GC – While rewatching Quatermass II recently, I was particularly struck that the alien invasion was not just affecting the upper and middle classes; the first episode has a farmer and his wife affected by the meteorites, later episodes strongly feature the workers in Winnerden Flats with many scenes in the working man’s club where they gather; it was a very consciously inclusive production. Do you feel this is another aspect which connected the show to a vast audience who would not normally have been associated with the fantastic?
MK – Yes, I’m sure that’s true. Also it was the first really scary thing that had been on television, so I’m sure that helped, but my dad came from the Isle of Man which is just a little place and it’s very inclusive. There’s no room for a lot of snobbery or anything there so he would just have seen the world like that.
GC – I think that very real and immediate connection with the audience is one of the reasons why the shows were regarded as so shocking, Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Stone Tape in particular, even though there was nothing sensationalist within them, certainly nothing calculated to gain publicity through notoriety; it was simply that the public had engaged with the work so completely, something lesser writers struggle to achieve which is why they have to rely on other tactics.
MK – No, he had a great dislike for blood and guts type films, in fact he was involved with one and took his name off it, one of the Hallowe’en films, because they changed his script. What he was interested in was creating fear in the imagination with what you don’t see. He thought the idea of having arms cut off or whatever onscreen was tasteless and clumsy, and I think he was right, because what you don’t see is really much more frightening. In Alien, a famously frightening film, the most frightening moment is when you don’t see anything, you just see two dots on a screen
GC – And you know it’s out there!
MK – Yes!
GC – One part of your father’s vision which has regrettably come to be a part of modern media is the ubiquity of reality television, individuals who pursue celebrity as a goal in itself despite an absence of what were once prerequisites, some discernible talent or intellect, with propriety sacrificed for ratings. It’s almost like they didn’t realise The Year of the Sex Olympics was intended to be a satire if not outright condemnation. Your father was with us long enough to witness that; was he disappointed or sanguine that this might be his legacy?
MK – I think he was probably quite amused that it had actually happened. Fortunately it didn’t actually go quite as far as his vision, not yet anyway, the addition of a murder on the castaway island.
GC – It’s only a matter of time. It’s common knowledge that many vintage programmes do not exist in the archive, either wiped or broadcast live and never recorded at all. There have been highly publicised and fruitful campaigns to try to recover lost episodes of Doctor Who, yet to reduce it to something as vulgar as a percentage, the proportion of your father’s work in the archives is tragically small. Of all his missing teleplays, which do you feel are the greatest losses?
MK – You probably know better than I do which ones aren’t there! I know some of his good things – The Stone Tape still exists, although it wasn’t a great production. It was a great idea.
GC – I reviewed it when it was actually shown on the big screen at the Edinburgh Filmhouse a couple of years ago, and one of the comments I made was something I very rarely say, that it is crying out for a remake. A reserved remake, nothing shocking, but done with modern production values. It’s a cracking good story, it just didn’t quite work.
MK – Yes, I feel the same thing. And unlike the Quatermass stories which are very much of their time and would be harder to remake in many ways, that one would be easy because it’s not about a particular time, it’s much more flexible. It would be great if they remade that one.
GC – It would work brilliantly on stage, you know.
MK – Yes, that’s true, it would, because it’s all indoors.
GC – One specific production which did survive was the ambitious and daring 1954 adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four with Peter Cushing and André Morell, which is finally being released on DVD this November by the BFI, bless them. It’s been available on import for a few years but never released in Britain before – why not?
MK – I have no idea. Strange, strange, because that’s a great production.
GC – As approved by Buckingham Palace.
MK – Yes! Saved the second showing!
GC – In that case I suspect you won’t know the answer to this either. The Quatermass Conclusion was released on video many years ago but has never made the digital transition in Britain, though again an extremely overpriced import can be sourced. Is it a rights issue that has prevented the release?
MK – It could be, I don’t know. I know there have been problems with the rights.
GC – I think you have probably gathered throughout our talk how highly I regard the work of your father. His contribution to British science fiction and British television, while perhaps not quite on the same level as Sir Arthur C Clarke, is certainly on a par with John Wyndham. It has been a genuine honour to share your memories of him and your insight into him and to discuss your own work. Matthew Kneale, thank you so much.
MK – Oh, very much. Thank you! Thank you!
Huge thanks to the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Louise Court of Random House and of course Matthew Kneale for his time.
Regrettably, the planned BFI release of Nineteen Eighty-Four was postponed indefinitely, but the final volume of Quatermass, also known as The Quatermass Conclusion, is now available on Blu-ray from Network and will be reviewed soon