The Stone Tape Review
The Stone Tape was commissioned as a ghost story for Christmas in 1972, not part of the BBC series of the same name, which were typically adapted from the short stories of MR James and Charles Dickens, but as a single 90 minute original script. Nigel Kneale, the writer of the Quatermass films and The Year Of The Sex Olympics, was chosen to develop a script and he chose to return, once again, to one of his favourite themes - the conflict between science and the supernatural.
The Stone Tape features a traditionally creaky and derelict old house purchased and renovated by an electronics company in which they are planning on housing their new research division for the development of a new recording media. When the project team arrives at the new facility, they find the building is complete but for one room, which the workmen refused to enter. The project team leader and his computer programmer, Peter (Michael Bryant) and Jill (Jane Asher) investigate the room and find a few tins of spam, left as an offering by soldiers stationed at the house during the second world war and a Christmas letter written to Santa written by a young girl who lived there years previously ("What I want for Christmas is please go away!"). Brock knocks down a wood panel wall revealing a stone staircase and Jill sees the ghost of a terrified 19th-century servant girl.
Using this ghost as a testbed for his new technology, Bryant orders his team to treat the haunting as no more than a new set of data and begins analysing the haunting, trying to find a way to connect the storage of this ghost in the room to his team's research. What Bryant's orders fail to recognise are the warnings from the local community of an older and more frightening horror concealed within the cold stone walls of the haunted room...
By 1972, Nigel Kneale was a very well regarded scriptwriter, most famous for his Quatermass television series, later adapted by Hammer Studios into The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), Quatermass II: Enemy From Space (1957) and Quatermass And The Pit (1967), with which most readers should be familiar. Whilst the two earlier films were excellent yet typical science-fiction films that dealt with alien invasion, Quatermass And The Pit was a stunning study of alien invasion, history, science and magic. With this final Quatermass film, at least prior to the writing of The Stone Tape, Kneale developed a story that predated the similar 2001: A Space Odyssey by a year - Kneale had his aliens developing the intelligence of humans in order to make them better slaves. Even when these aliens retreated inside their spacecraft and died many thousands of years before the events of the film, they continued to hold a supernatural power over mankind, one which is terrifyingly unleashed before the end of the film. One lasting image from the film is the appearance of a devil in the sky above London, offering a scientific reason for the themes present in religious beliefs, being that this imagery of the devil had been with us from the time of the Martin invasion.
When writing The Stone Tape, Kneale mixed tradition - the creaky house, the presence of a ghost and one sensitive woman in a crowd of boorish men - with his own personal take on hauntings. Specifically, this meant a consideration of whether a ghost is simply no more than a replaying of a moment in time, recorded by the stone walls surrounding the original event or if it is an intelligent, often malevolent being, capable of thinking and responding to its existence and those humans around it. In essence, if no one is there to see the haunting, does the ghost still haunt? This aspect of the film alone, even taken apart from the writing and characterisation, ensures that The Stone Tape is, without a doubt, the most intelligent and effective ghost story since Robert Wise's The Haunting (1963) and possibly since, with only Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now as competition. To say that The Stone Tape, a BBC television production directed by Peter Sasdy, a veteran of Hammer studios, more than holds its own against Robert Wise's and Nicolas Roeg's wonderful horrors is a complement not only to Kneale's exemplary writing but also to the combined talents of those who worked on the film.
By the way, it is worth noting that the real indication of Kneale's mastery of plotting and storytelling was in the way he actually answered his own question on ghosts, ensuring that he not only maintains the sense of unease throughout the film but that in the final ten minutes, he has written one of the most unsettling pieces of film or television yet filmed.
Of course, were this idea the only one present in The Stone Tape, it would be no more than a one-trick pony, albeit a good one, but the film is full to bursting with information on the world in which these people work, their lives and the traditions of the village, most of them entirely incidental. For example, at the beginning of the film, Peter Brock, although married, is involved in a relationship with Jill but as she becomes ever more haunted by the ghost of the young servant girl, this relationship ends. When, much later in the film, Jill visits Brock in his apartment, there are a few seconds in which a young woman, clearly not his wife and wearing no more than a nightgown, appears in a doorway behind him. Elsewhere, there is no doubt that this would have been dealt with by lengthy exposition but, in The Stone Tape, it's almost thrown away - those few seconds say all we need to know about Brock and his team's betrayal and abandonment of Jill.
Then again, Kneale also knows that it's worth throwing in some genre cliches such as the English vicar who comes running into the grounds of the facility at the end with some vital snippet of information. When these events occur, and the appearance of Crawshaw's unit is another case in point, it's like being given a short break from the main events, something British horror is quite exceptional at doing, unlike its rather more dour American cousin.
However, none of this would be worth a moment of your time if both Kneale and Sasdy failed to understand that it not only horror that makes an effective ghost story but also the reaction of the actors to the terror they are experiencing and a ghost story is often made by the quality of the actors used - something that was also understood by Wise and Roeg. Jane Asher is very good here, not quite at her best (that was as the innocent Francesca in Roger Corman's The Masque Of The Red Death) but capable of showing a member of the Ryan Electronics who is sensitive to the history of the mansion in which they are stationed even though she is surrounded by men unable to really see what is happening around them and insensitive to the connection between the house and the technical developments they are undertaking. It's a minor note but Jill (as played by Asher) reinforces this aspect by having it suggested that she is the only one of the team who is outstanding at their job as opposed to merely competent. Otherwise, Michael Bryant is the outstanding actor of the film as Peter Brock, a monster of a team leader who is obsessed with completing his research with no heed paid to Jill's ever-decreasing mental health. It is also Bryant that provides the fleeting glimpses of Ryan, the other of Ryan Electronics, through his brief impersonations of orders from his superior. Finally, a little comic relief is provided between the failure of Bryant's digital storage research and the film's final scenes by Crawshaw (Reginald Marsh, Sir Dennis Hodge in Terry And June), an inventor driven by the need to provide a better washing machine and who appears in Bryant's office in a multi-coloured lab coat as evidence to his lack of success.
It is really quite difficult to understate how wonderful The Stone Tape is. This was written and produced for television at a time when original material from a small number of talented and outstanding writers (Nigel Kneale, Troy Kennedy Martin and Dennis Potter, to mention only a few) was something celebrated in the national press. Without sounding curmudgeonly, it's simply not possible to get the same thrill from hearing of a soap star's defection from one channel to another. As a result, The Stone Tape dates from a time when British television truly was the best in the world and afforded Kneale the chance to bridge an intelligent horror with genuine scares, humour and science and to have it broadcast on Christmas night 1972 - simply outstanding.
The Stone Tape was originally filmed on videotape, mentioned by Nigel Kneale and while the picture is perhaps softer than we might be used to, it's not at all bad. There is a slight softness to the image with some shimmering around brightly lit objects but it looks fine. The film is presented in English mono only and sounds perfectly acceptable. Whilst a 5.1 surround track might have added a little to the mix, the impact would have been very slight. Otherwise, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop have written and produced a fantastic soundtrack, not only with the subtle incidental music but in the opening theme and the audio effects during the final minutes of the film. To call it music is, however, slightly misleading as there are few conventional musical ideas outside of the musical bleeps and flutters from Brian Eno/David Byrne collaborations or the Forbidden Planet soundtrack but that it works is never open to question - it is superb.
Audio Commentary: The principal extra, and one that significantly adds to this package, is the audio commentary by Nigel Kneale and the critic Kim Newman. Newman has often mentioned The Stone Tape in his work - see his excellent book Nightmare Movies for further information - and it is his knowledge on the film that serves to bring out the best in Kneale, fuelling his enthusiasm for commenting on this script as well as tying together themes that are present here and elsewhere in Kneale's work. Whilst this is not the most entertaining commentary ever presented, it is one of the most informative as Newman's effective interviewing of Kneale provides the interested viewer with almost all they will need to know as regards The Stone Tape.
Scripts: Two scripts are available, one from The Stone Tape and the other for Nigel Kneale's The Road, both of which are available in Adobe Acrobat (.pdf) format for viewing and printing from a computer equipped with a DVD drive. This content is not duplicated for viewing on television.
Biographies: Viewable on a television, the DVD contain short biographies on the following:
- Biography of Nigel Kneale (3x Still Screens, Photograph)
- Biography of Peter Sasdy (2x Still Screens, Photograph)
- Cast Biographies (2x Still Screens)
In addition, Kim Newman has also provided sleeve notes, reproduced here at the BFI website although be warned that they do contain spoilers.
The Stone Tape has been reissued as part of the BFI Archive Television and is, once again, a perfect example of the BFI's attempts to issue the best of British television on video and DVD. In this case, it is particularly valid as, aside from its original showing, The Stone Tape has been repeated only once in 1973. For the last twenty years, therefore, The Stone Tape has never been broadcast or released and praise is due to the BFI for releasing this long overdue classic. For a large percentage of the readership of this site, this release will be the first time many will have seen The Stone Tape and, believe me, after years of reading Kim Newman's enthusiastic writing on it, this does not disappoint.
The Stone Tape is Nigel Kneale's best work, remaining consistent with his favourite themes but presenting them in a more natural environment compared to the military/scientific world of Quatermass as well as introducing the horrors more intensely, twisting them ever tighter. If you have any interest in horror, British television or the work of one of Britain's greatest writers for the medium, Nigel Kneale, this is so very highly recommended.