While driving round the Kilcreggan Peninsula on Saturday afternoon I caught The Road on BBC Radio 4. This was an adaptation for radio of a drama for television by Nigel Kneale (pen name Nigel Neale). It was first broadcast in September 1963, but there is no recording extant. Prior to The Road, the BBC had shown the six part serial for which Kneale is perhaps best known, Quatarmass and the Pit. I was 7 years old when the Beeb put on Quatarmass. I was simultaneously enthralled, and frightened out of my wits. A couple of years ago I tracked down Quatarmass somewhere on the net, and watched it again. It hadn’t lost any of its power. I was still frightened out of my wits. Of course the technical production would now be regarded as clumsy, even amateur. But, as in the theatre, you voluntarily suspend your disbelief, when you know you are witnessing the creation of a powerful imagination.
I was gripped by The Road. It seemed to share some common features with Quatarmass. The Road is set in an English village in the early eighteenth century. The peasantry know the local woodland is haunted, and the village squire, of enquiring nature and scientific bent, decides to investigate. He is visited by an urbane, rational and sceptical gentleman (I take it from London) and his man Jethro who I gathered (it’s hard to tell on the radio) is black. They interview a local wench who describes terrifying “manifestations” in the woodland. She has witnessed a road, a mass of people in flight, the trundle of chariots, and a massacre. There is a superstition among the people that echoes may still be heard, of a conflict between the invading Romans, and Queen Boadicea. Yet there was never a road in this woodland. The visiting toff puts it all down to the hysterical ravings of an impressionable young girl, but the squire is not so sure. Following a protracted conversation in which the visitor extols the virtues of scientific progress and its potential to solve human problems, they go to investigate, and enter the woodland.
In case you want to catch it on the i-player, I insert a spoiler alert here. If you don’t wish to know the score…
We discover quite suddenly – it is the pivotal moment of the drama – that our preoccupation with the past should have been directed towards the future. They witness a nuclear attack. As in Quatarmass, the culmination of The Road is apocalyptic.
I think I must be of a nervous disposition. I had a disturbed night. I am still the same 7 year old child, watching Quatarmass from behind the sofa. The distinctive quality of Nigel Kneale’s work is its memorability. If it refuses to leave us, it is because it seems to tap into our deepest, primeval fears. There is a sense that the supernatural elements are metaphorical representations of those aspects of human nature that we do not understand, and are beyond our control. Perhaps his main theme is that civilisation is a veneer, and we are on the brink of complete anarchy. Something comes along, something happens, and with all our scientific rationality we are still incapable of avoiding Armageddon. That chilling notion seems to me to be particularly relevant to the world in its current state.
It is hardly surprising that Kneale adapted Wuthering Heights, and 1984, for television. 1984 was so disturbing that questions were asked in the House about its suitability for the general populace. In The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968), Kneale describes a near-future dystopia in which the populace are fed a diet of reality TV pornography. In The Live TV Show, a family are cast away on an isolated island and observed 24/7, struggling to survive. He saw it all coming.
It’s ironic that I should have picked up The Road on the car radio in Kilcreggan. I went round the peninsula, clockwise. It was a very beautiful autumn day, and this is a singularly beautiful part of the world, blighted by the endless barbed wire surrounding Faslane and, the spookiest place in the United Kingdom, Coulport. After Coulport the road turns abruptly south-east, then north-east back towards Garelochhead. A not very welcoming road sign announces, “You are entering MOD territory.” You find yourself on a fast road, very well maintained. In fact, you find yourself on The Road. This is where the convoys without a name, in the inimical dark green livery, commence the journey to Aldermaston.
Last week, Mr Trump pulled out of the Gorbachev-Reagan 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. But nobody seemed to pay much attention. There has been another mass-shooting in the USA, when Jewish people were specifically targeted in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. Mr Trump’s solution is to arm the synagogues. It could have come straight out of a television drama by Nigel Kneale.