Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Echoes… The Stone Tape (1972)

The Stone Tape is a made for TV play broadcast as a Christmas ghost story in 1972. It was written by Nigel Kneale who specialised in macabre tales mixing the supernatural with the scientific most famously in Quatermass and a host of other plays.

Filmed largely in studio it still packs an uncanny punch to this day as it shows men pitting technology against ancient “evil”… attempting to control and to commercialise that which they barely comprehend. Directed with superb timing and economy by Peter Sasdy, it featured some of the leading British actors of the time all of whom act their collective socks off in service to Kneale’s excellent script… you really wouldn’t expect a studio play to be so affecting but it’s unsettling in spite and because of the location.

Jill, Brock and the boys...
Ace computer analyst, Jill Greeley (Jane Asher) arrives at Ryan Electronics' new research facility “Taskerlands”. It’s an old Victorian property about to be transformed into a research hot-house to help the electronics firm keep pace with the Japanese competition. As she pulls up two Ryan lorries apparently start reversing into Jill’s car… she reverses away in panic into a pile of sand: it’s a foretaste of the ordeal to come.

Peter Brock (Michael Bryant) is the head of a research team and he is a natural leader, decisive, aggressive and always with an eye for the main chance. He’s married with children (and a horse) but has been having an affair with his computer prodigy.
Iain Cuthbertson and Michael Bryant
There’s something very strange about their new base and foreman Roy Collinson (Iain Cuthbertson), reveals that the builders have refused to work on one room saying that it’s haunted. Naturally Brock dismisses this but Jill is shaken to the core as she sees an apparition of a woman in Victorian dress, screaming in terror…

The sightings continue until even Brock is convinced there’s something awry… boldly he decides that this is something worth investigating: “… a mass of data... waiting for a correct interpretation.” He marshals his team and they move their kit and computers into the room to analyse and nail the phenomenon.

They’re a mix of sceptics covering the full gamut of 70’s TV scientists from rough and ready (Peter Angelis) to bearded and contemplative (Michael Bates).  But, not only do they not believe some, literally, cannot see of hear the apparition… there are sensitives like Jill who perceive the sound and vision and others who cannot.

Jill sees the image of a terrified Victorian servant girl who is running away from what she describes as the “others”… she trips and falls to her death. Jill and Brock investigate and find that this reflects and actual event form the 1890s… There were even several attempts to exorcise the ground although the local vicar is too disorganised to find the records.

But some of the locals have also had experience of the house and one reveals a deeply scaring event in which his friend was left alone locked in the room… he lost his mind surrounded by what seem to be darker apparitions than the girl…

After failing to record the images and sounds of the “ghost” they attempt to record temperature changes as there is always a perceived drop when the manifestations occur… this fails again but the scientists plough on in an attempt to rationalise. This is intelligent scripting form Kneale, a story that could so easily drift into melodrama is kept taught and suspenseful as scientific method is applied.

All are driven on by Brock and his authoritarian leadership… a peculiarly British type of anti-hero in the post-war years when our scientific ingenuity generated world-leading engineering. Science was clearly the way forward but the costs were only beginning to be counted.

Brock decides that the event has been imprinted in the ancient stone of the room… the stone “tape”.  The group celebrates thinking it has found a potentially ground-breaking storage device that would generate 3D sound and vision – “the big one” …their fortunes secured.

In typical fashion Brock aims to exert control and to trigger the manifestation through sound. He drives his team to the brink of exhaustion in his increasingly desperate attempts and only succeeds in erasing the “tape” – blasting the residual energies creating the apparition from the stone.

This failure is swiftly followed by head office running out of patience and curtailing his funding and control in favour of a washing machine project run by Brock’s rival Crawshaw (Reginald Marsh). The game is up and in spite of Jill’s gnawing feeling that there’s more as she tries to unravel the computer analysis, Brock has to move on and dismantle the project.

Jane Asher
Spoilers ahead: As Crawshaw’s team arrives, the local vicar arrives confirming the story of exorcism, but it’s much earlier than the death of the maid… Now convinced that the maid was merely the latest in a long line of incidents, Jill enters the new data onto her computer model and discovers that the energies creating the phenomenon date back thousands of years and not just hundreds…

She returns to the room and is overcome by the full force of the others as the room seemingly connects with the ancient world…following in the footsteps of the maid she ascends the stairs and is overwhelmed. After her funeral Brock goes back to the room and to his horror now hears Jill’s voice screaming in terror, calling out to him for help…she has become imprinted in the stone.

The Stone Tape stands up very well and is rightly regarded as a classic of the era. Maybe that’s partly down to the imprints left on our televisual memory of the style and substance of dramas of the time… Kneale’s other ghost stories, Quatermass, Doctor Who. But even as retro-science-horror it works and yet the writing is sophisticated and the direction from Peter Sasdy is superb with the enclosed sets adding to the claustrophobic feeling: they knew how to use such limitations as a source of strength!

And the actors carry the story well with Bryant being superbly convincing as the careerist wiling to sacrifice almost all before his ambitions… he lets enough through to show he has a caring side and this sets us up for the shocking ending when, finally he becomes the haunted man.

Brock learns the truth...
Jane Asher is also superb, carrying the mystery with her for long portions of the film and being the sensitive human anchor amongst all the testosterone and scientific posturing… The men want to control but she wants to genuinely understand. Brock’s casual in-bred – “bloody women!” – rebounds emphatically on him in the end.

A genuinely moving and affecting story that stays with you for days afterwards, this has to be one of the strangest plays ever shown on mainstream British television. After even being reported lost at one stage, The Stone Tape has recently been re-released by the BFI complete with extras and commentary.

Dusty box rating: Ditch the VHS and buy the DVD

Monday, 1 October 2012

An ideal for love… Wonderwall (1968)

Jane Birkin is Penny Lane...
All these years later it would just be so easy to mock the pretentions of the psychedelic era but that would be too lazy and it would be to underestimate what some achieved. You have to try and view these things in the context of the time, respect their references and be sympathetic to their aims. After all, history makes fools of us all as we look back in hindsight and across subsequent cultural-references.

So it is that what I first heard of as an experimental soundtrack from George Harrison that inspired, in name only, a song (Noel Gallagher hadn’t even seen it… he just liked the title…), turned out to be a genuinely interesting movie…

Wonderwall is good – not great – and most of the substance comes from an excellent performance from Jack MacGowran along with the striking contemporary mis-en-scene from set designers The Fool  and cinematography of Harry Waxman, ably marshalled by first time director Joe Massot.

Jack MacGowran and Irene Handl
It also has Jane Birkin and a cameo from Irene Handl… two quintessential women of their time.

The story is a slight one and truly this is more of a mood piece than great drama.

MacGowran does his best Einstein impersonation (shades of The Fearless Vampire Killers…) as a professorial type so absorbed in his work that he needs to read notes to work out the steps from shutting up his lab to soaking his feet at home… He’s absent minded and he’s a professor…

Beginning to see the light...
His flat is decorated in pre-Raphaelite and gothic tones with images of kings and queens and fairy tale poems on the walls… most of this is hidden behind piles and piles of his papers. In a momentary anger he throws a book at his living room wall and it knocks his butterfly collection to the floor and, at the same time, opens a small hole in the wall…

As he sits back in his chair, a light is projected through onto the far wall and this reveals the silhouette of a dancing girl… he follows the light to its source and peers through to spy a lithe female figure posing in the room beyond. Transfixed, he stares at this beautiful vision and is shaken from his dull routine, instantly in love with what he sees.

Jane Birkin ...well red
The girl is gradually revealed to be a model, Penny Lane (see what they did there…), played by Jane Birkin. The Professor begins to switch his attention form his work to the new reality of the world beyond his wall… he picks out new holes and tries to follow as much as he can… This is an oddly platonic voyeurism… suggesting that spiritual enlightenment is more to the point than plain old lust.

And Birkin is perfectly suited to being that object of desire. Incredibly pretty, she has an obtuse alertness that is a match for the naive longings from the room next door.

The Professor is disturbed by his cleaner, Irene Handl, his mother and his work mates but he is onto something here and he knows he won’t find the answer in his books or anything he has known.

Iain Quarrier arrives in style...
A young man (Iain Quarrier) arrives in a green car… he’s hip, vaguely scouse-sounding and has a cardboard cut out of himself… he turns out to be Penny’s boyfriend. He’s accompanied by a photographer pal in what seems a reference to Blow Up (on the surface a similar period piece but a far superior film which also features Jane B.).

The professor watches Penny and her man cavorting and makes more and more holes in his wall, ripping down the tapestry and setting up a ledge from which to watch events more clearly.

Penny models the orange shades and blue lipstick look
He is entranced by Penny’s modelling as she poses in a variety of fab skirts, coloured make up and scuba gear. Penny’s flat (also created by The Fool), is a riot of colour and decked out in more modern iconography… Garbo, Harlow and Mae West are there along with the shots of Penny and the trappings of 1968 fab gear…

Penny begins to invade his dreams and he sees himself duelling with her beau with pen versus sword, lipstick versus cigarettes… it’s amusingly well-crafted if superficially deep. British psychedelia was always more prone to whimsy than its US counter-part but none-the-less creative. That said, you could find Haight-Ashbury in Notting Hill and Camden even if not so much in Carnaby Street and Kings Road.

There’s a party and the Professor gets a visit from Penny’s guy who wants to borrow some ice… the two talk and the young man starts to reveal his dissatisfaction with being tied down… The party is wild and quite shocking for the professor who sees Penny’s growing sadness and her man’s incipient cruelty.

"Heigh ho! Who is there? ...Please come say, how do?"
The dreams intensify and there’s a lovely sequence as Penny, dressed in a diaphanous, neo pagan dress walks up the green steps smiling beatifically over her shoulder: she looks beautiful and the human response of the viewer is to want to follow. We want that look from her as much as the Professor does. But it’s a look of serene compassionate love and not anchored in physical desire… (although, having said that… she is quite lovely).

Jane Birkin
In a series of cartoonish inter-titles the core plot directions are revealed: Penny is pregnant, her boyfriend is sleeping around (a lot) and … he’s about to leave her. Things are coming to a head and sensing this, the Professor climbs through his roof and finally into Penny’s apartment. She returns and he quickly hides away… he emerges to find that she has tried to gas herself and taken an overdose of sleeping pills… He turns of the gas, returns to his flat and calls for help:  he has saved her!

The closing scene sees him return to work basking in the glow of his heroism, a new man infused with confidence. Newspaper headlines reveal that Penny, having been given a second chance, Is intent on starting afresh – it’s a re-birth for both.

Penny Lane saved by Scientist... Mrs Harrison meets Dr Doolittle...
But as the professor peers into his microscope he spots Penny floating amongst the microbes and urging him onwards to more new discoveries… Is she a force of nature, his muse, his obsession or a mythical creature – mermaid.

Clearly any interpretation will do. Wonderwall is more about the potential and possibility of life change than a prescriptive description of cause and affect… It’s a wake up call to…simply wake up and do what you should be doing for the best.

Mermaid in Notting Hill
It’s deliberately vague but then anything more specific might indeed be unbearably pretentious…

Throughout George Harrison’s music underpins the action in suitably psychedelic style and features a good deal of Indian noodling as well as electronic sounds. The “love theme” for Penny is one of the more fully realised songs and works well. Not as good as Macca’s efforts on The Family Way perhaps but still interesting and, for this type of film at this particular time, you could do far worse than get a soundtrack from a Beatle!

Jack MacGowran
Jack MacGowran gives a suitably nuanced performance of humour and mad-cap earnestness.  You can understand why Polanski rates him so well. And, Jane B, getting more screen time than in most other films I seen her in, does exceptionally well not just as an actress but also as an ideal for love. That’s a tough ask even for the best actress.

Wonderwall is available on DVD from a variety of sources. The German edition from 2011 promises the best quality and for such a richly visual film it’s worth getting the best you can.