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


  1. Thank you for this post!
    You may want to check our Jane Asher blog on blogspot as well :)

    1. Thank you for reading and your blog is now being followed! An exceptional actress - I especially like Deep End. Best wishes,Paul

  2. I don't think much of Peter Sasdy's direction. He nails the terrified close ups and the perspective shots but doesn't make much out of the exteriors or the location. And the coverage is uninspired. That said, Nigel Kneale's script and story carry the film, along with some fine acting from Iain Cuthbertson, Jane Asher and Michael Bryant.