Film 2020: The Stone Tape

For a second time I’m turning to the BBC to prolong this Sunday morning series, but whereas Penda’s Fen was a Play for Today shot entirely on film that had the look of a film, Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape, commissioned and shot for broadcast on Xmas Day 1972 as the forerunner of the Corporation’s popular A Ghost Story for Christmas series, is shot entirely on videotape. Between the look of the thing and several other elements of the story, this one is incontrovertibly a play rather than a film.

As I said, it was originally broadcast on Xmas Day, 1972 and, despite the acclaim it received, was repeated only once, the following year. I suspect I saw only the repeat, but I was massively impressed with it, as was my mate Alan. A few years ago, I found the DVD in Vinyl Exchange in Manchester, and seized it gleefully.

The Stone Tape is a ghost story, but at the same time it presents a scientific approach to ghost-hunting that successfully balances the opposing demands of the two forms. Writer Nigel Kneale, as you shouldn’t need reminding was the creator of the tremendously successful Quatermass serials and films in the Fifties, not to metion the BBC’s ground-breaking adaptation of 1984. The cobination of horror and modern science was a running theme in Kneale’s work and his story proved to be not only successful but highly influential, leanding its name to a theory as to the nature of ghosts and other supernatural manifestations that’s grown in strength since.

The play stars Michael Bryant as Peter Brock and Jane Asher as Jill Greeley, with Iaian Cuthbertson as Collinson and Michael Bates (in the same year he had played Cyril Blamire in the Comedy Playhouse pilot that became Last of the Summer Wine) as Eddie Moore. Peter is a dynamic head of a research division of Ryan Electrics, charged with and eager to beat the Japanese by discovering a new recording medium. His team has just moved into Taskerlands, an old, deserted, decaying house but for an inexplicable reason, the computer storage room is empty and hasn’t even been started upon. This is because it is haunted.

The ghost is that of a nineteenth century underhousemaid, Louisa, who fell to her death from a short flight of stairs, since concealed by now-rotted panelling. Jill, the chief computer programmer, and a woman with some psychic sensitivity, sees the ghost climb the stairs and fall to her death,screaming, but others on site, including the hard-headed estate manager, Colly, have heard her steps and scream multiple times.

Peter is fascinated by this. At first, it’s the effects on his plans, which are all that matters, but his interest intensifies when, in the course of folding his entire team around the problem of recording, scanning, interpreting and defining what this ‘ghost’ is, he becomes convinced that the girl is a recording, and the room a natural recording medium, the breakthrough they’re looking for.

Peter’s intensity drives everyone exhaustingly but none of their tests and measures record anything. Jill’s concerns over what they are doing grow: she is the only one in the project with the empathy to regard Louisa as a person, a 19 year old girl of whom all that remains is the moment of her greatest terror.

The effort fails. Worse still, it erases Louisa. Embittered at his failure, Peter wants it shut down completely, silenced, erased like Louisa. Jill however has developed her theory further, that the room is a recording but that Louisa was onlyy the most recent, the sharpest and clearest, covering deeper and more terrifying incidents. The angry, self-centred Peter, tells her she’s cracking up, sends her away on two months leave. But Jill stays at her post.

Her discoveries through computer analysis send her back to the room one last time. Trying to leave, she is assailed by deeper memories, lights, shapes, colours, swooping around her, forcing her back. To try to escape them, she climbs the stairs, higher than they physically exist, until she falls to her death, calling for Peter. He and Colly find her.

Everything has crumbled around Peter’s ears. He slanders Jill to the inquest, claiming she was mentally ill, destroys her research unread, provoking Colly to smash him in the throat. His in-company rival is taking over Taskerlands. Peter visits the room again. It has had preservation orders slapped on it, he is being summonsed for concealing it. But he hears footsteps and screams again, only this time they are Jill, crying to him for help. She is the new recording…

There are lots of things about The Stone Tape that have not weathered the years well. I’m not talking about the special effects, which are kept to a minimum and executed efficiently. And as its intensity increases, the film becomes genuinely creepy, its air of impending disaster palpable but not ladled on crudely. In 1973 I was shuddering at the end and in 2020 it’s still disturbing.

Where the film is flawed is very much in its writing. There’s an unpleasant undertone of racism that’s far more noticeable now: the early stages are full of protestations about being there to beat the Nips, boot the Japs, complete with the off background ‘ah-so’, whilst the absent heard of Ryan Electrics, Patrick Ryan, who’s built his business up from nothing to an American headquarters, is referred to as ‘the auld man’ in cod-Irish accents. It’s a reflection of the times and it strikes such a wrong note now, as unnecessary shittiness about foreigners: I mean, we all know the Oirish are thick Micks, eh?

I was also struck by the team in general. Kneale was inspired to make them nice guys, and boyish, after seeing a BBC recording team in similarly old surroundings, but they came over to me as not boyish but juvenile, full of japes and forced jollity, as if serious was contagious. Everybody shouted when they didn’t need to, which emphasised the theatricality of things rather than the filmic aspect.

All of this served to emphasise the separateness of Jill. Jill was the only female role of substance in the film and it showed. Jane Asher was still very much a beautiful woman, and the script makes it clear that she’s Peter’s mistress (he’s married with two children he loves dearly), but hers is not a role in which sex is more than implied. Instead, Jill’s contrasting femininity is of the weak and feble woman kind: she’s psychic, intuitive, fluttery, the most unscientific about their scientific project.

Jill’s role as the woman is established up front in an awkward sequence. People are arriving at Taskerlands. She parks her car but finds herself caught between two bloody massive removal trucks, each backing up past each her with Jill’s car as the meat in the sandwich. Her frantic horn-blowing makes no impression on eaither and she has to hastily back out herself, into a pile of sand, that then becomes a shake-her-up accident about which she’s mystifyingly vague and semi-hysterical.

Yes, the hysterical woman, who can’t take the stress unlike all the shouty men. It doesn’t helpthat as written, and convincingly played by Michael Bryant, Peter Brock islittle more that a self-centred, dictatorial twat. Peter’s always right. He knows everything. He knows what Jill thinks and what she’s doing. She’s out to destroy him because he won’t leave his wife and children for her. Peter is summed up during the intense session trying to detect the ghost when, in frustration, he screams at her to “Come when I tell you!”

Failure doesn’t exist in Peter’s world, not to him. It’s somebody else and we don’t talk about it, it never happened, and we’ll slander the memory of the woman he was sleeping with by claiming she was mentally ill, it was all her fault.

All of this got under my skin, in a way that wasn’t possible in 1973, when I was 17 and a naive 17 at that. You couldn’t write the story like that now, and rightly so.

But these aspects make The Stone Tape a mixed bag, a curate’s egg. They are peripherals, however intrusive, and the bones of the story are strong and solid. The idea that ghosts are memories trapped in stone has become a considered theory in the past half-century, and it’s known as the Stone Tape Effect, which says more for the story than casual racism and sexism.

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