The City of London is always quiet on a Sunday. Pick the right time and you can drift through it without the sounds of traffic, without the sounds of people. This afternoon, the only noise seems to come from brutal gusts of wind chasing gangs of litter and papers full of dead headlines across streets seemingly disconnected from any form of human activity.
Without much further set dressing by my imagination, the Square Mile easily becomes the backdrop for the zombie apocalypse. In simpler times of the Cold War, when the fear charts were always dominated by MAD, streets emptied of life whilst the buildings stood intact would have immediately brought to mind a neutron bombing. In a world where money never sleeps, seeing the City like this is disconcerting. I know the paranoia has crawled too far up my spine when seeing light spilling from an open Starbucks is taken as a positive sign of the continuation of civilisation.
Given that Surreal Girl and I are walking across the City to get to a screening of the 1967 version of Quatermass And The Pit, the unsettling backdrop seems apposite. This oppressive lack of life could easily be the day after destruction. Nigel Kneale always did do a rather splendid English apocalypse. As we head for the sanctuary of the Museum of London, I half expect our way to be blocked by an army patrol he has scripted into the adventure.
Making the relative normalcy of a crowed lecture theatre, we hear the film introduced such in tepid manner it almost washes out any excitement out of the prospect of seeing it. Not only is there is no historical context given, there is no London context given either. Kneale wrote the original Quatermass In The Pit in 1958 partly in reaction to events happening here such as the Notting Hill race riots, the CND march from Trafalgar Square to Aldermaston. He wrote it at a time when finding a massive German missile buried under city's mud was still relatively commonplace. Not that you would know any of that from the torpid two-minute patter given by the curator.
However, the film retains some eloquence on these matters. The London it captures is clearly still recovering from the beating it took in the war. Buildings wear skin pock-marked by shrapnel, streets give the incomplete smile that comes from having houses obliterated by bombs and not yet replaced. This is the city away from the gaudy parade and shop front to the world of places like Carnaby Street, here are infirm properties tottering towards collapse or brutal redevelopment.
In translation from the TV original, Quatermass and the Pit loses much of the detail reflecting the psychic turbulence of England at the end of the 1950s. Yet it still manages to evoke the recent past. The explosive impact of sudden violence and its ability to overturn even the secure world of the London pub saloon remains. The fever contagion of riot running through the brick and tarmac channels of the city is still there. The horrors that Hammer manage brings to life in this film are those of the devastation of war, of how recoil from that which is different and violence can make monsters of us all.
In the recall chamber of my mind, Hammer Film Productions are always pulsing with red. However, Quatermass and the Pit offers up strangely muted palette of colours. It is the suffocating formality of British army khaki, clogging grey of London clay and bile green of putrefying Martians. It might be a world away from Dracula scarlet, but it is incredibly effective at evoking an atmosphere of suppressed secrets and something sinister lurking in the surface of the city.
As the film ends, we join the surge for stairs out and up out of the dark. Passing through the museum’s strata – a reverse layering of history going from the 1960s to the Last Glacial Maximum – we hit the unforgiving glare of the lobby lights. Beyond the glass lies more darkness and the raw, uncurated city. London excels at inspiring nightmare scenarios. Given that the world’s endgame might just be lurking below our feet, we decide to stave off the apocalypse with a pot of Earl Grey and some cake. After all, like Quartermass’s decency, it is part of the English way of dealing with such things.