Posts Tagged ‘The Stone Tape’

So, we’ve been romping through the collected works of Nigel Kneale over the last week, more or less in chronological order. This came about more by chance than design, with the fortuitous near-conjunction of TV showings of The Quatermass Xperiment and First Men in the Moon and my discovery of a few other bits and pieces on a popular video-sharing website. This partly goes to explain the absence of any of the TV versions of Quatermass from this current run, partly because I hadn’t uncovered them when I began and also because I haven’t had ten hours to watch them in their entirety. This will be amended at some future point, not least because I want to see how the TV version of Quatermass and the Pit matches up to the big-screen adaptation (surely Kneale’s most memorable film script, in the horror arena at least).

Quatermass and the Pit has a reputation as the receptacle of the classic Kneale themes: his bleak view of the human race, his interest in rationalising supernatural horror in a way that – somehow – does nothing to reduce its power to disturb. The latter of these was something that Kneale returned to and developed even further in 1972, in another of the landmarks in his career – the play The Stone Tape, an extraordinary fusion of gothic ghost story and contemporary SF drama.


Jane Asher plays Jill, a brilliant computer programmer who is part of the R&D team for an electronics company. The team is just moving into a new research facility in a refurbished old house, their mission to come up with a new recording medium. Jill’s boss and lover Brock (Michael Bryant) – an ambitious, driven man – is furious to find that the building work has not been completed. The reason given by the estate manager (Iain Cuthbertson) is that one room in the house is haunted.

Brock is initially scornful, but Jill sees the apparition – a young woman screaming and falling to her death – and research uncovers a long history of disturbances on the site. A traditional exorcism in the 1890s apparently having failed, Brock opts to take a radically different approach and bring the full range of modern instrumentation to bear against the spectre. Initially it seems as though this scientific approach is bearing fruit, with a working model to explain the haunting not proving too difficult. But Brock sees the ‘recording’ of the ghost as a clue to a process he can potentially exploit, and under pressure to deliver, he chooses to tamper with a phenomenon he does not yet fully understand…

The Stone Tape is a multi-camera production shot entirely on videotape, meaning that it has the kind of visual quality and atmosphere nowadays found only on soap operas and sitcoms. Having said that, one can only imagine the kind of impact it would have had if it were shot on film, as even on VT it retains a tremendous power to grip and chill.

This is mainly due to the masterful precision of Kneale’s script, which painstakingly sets up the history of the haunting (leaving the seeds of a terrifying twist ending lying in plain sight, for the most part) in the style of a ‘classic’ ghost story, even if we do see the spook itself quite early on in proceedings. Then the play takes an abrupt left turn into what’s basically relatively hard SF, exploring Tom Lethbridge’s theory of hauntings as residual sense-impressions somehow associated with certain locations and replaying in the perceptual centres of witnesses.

It’s an intriguing theory, and one which makes a certain amount of sense to me (I feel obliged to mention that my tutor in Conceptual Parapsychology at university was wont to dismiss it as ‘a wild metaphysical flight of fancy’). The danger with explaining a mystery like a ghost, of course, is that by making it comprehensible and knowable, you rob it of the very qualities which make it frightening. But Kneale manages to avoid this, hinting throughout that Brock is not seeing the bigger picture, and constantly drawing on that classic SF trope: that of scientists interfering with forces best left alone.

Brock is a compelling character, and the driving force of the plot, but not necessarily a sympathetic one. That role is given to Jill – as the only woman in the centre, the boy’s club-ish atmosphere of which is convincingly evoked, she is in her own way every bit as isolated as the ghost of the woman. It’s only Jill who wonders if the recording of the ghost retains any remnants of consciousness, and Jill who first comes to understand the true nature of the ‘stone tape’ itself…

This is another example of a play punching well above its apparent weight in terms of legacy and cultural impact. If you’re going to do a ghost story in the British media, certainly on TV, then it’s very hard to escape the long shadow of The Stone Tape. Troubled, psychically-sensitive young women abound, as do overconfident investigators who fatally misjudge the nature of the forces they are dealing with. They’re there in Ghostwatch (one of The Stone Tape‘s very few serious rivals in this genre), and also in The Woman in Black (a story with its own associations with Nigel Kneale). Even the Doctor Who episode Hide (a series, by the way, which Kneale openly derided, it pains me to say) openly references The Stone Tape in its opening if not its resolution.

On the other hand, this is a brilliantly written, performed, and directed play with virtually no flaws to speak of, beyond the basic technical limitations of its medium. It is one of those things that, once seen, stays with you. Given the theme of the story, it seems entirely appropriate that The Stone Tape has infiltrated the fabric of the modern ghost story, lingering on, occasionally manifesting itself. However, unlike the monstrous apparitions in the story’s climax, it shows no sign of losing its own clarity or focus.

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Maybe there comes a time in a man’s life when he must admit that, regarding the current crop of Doctor Who, he is more often than not left unimpressed and disappointed. If so, then I am certainly reaching this point – and no-one is more honestly surprised by this than I am, given the obvious credentials and abilities of the key people involved in the making of the current series. Does it just boil down to the fact that – and this is such a shocking comparison I have to take a deep breath before making it – like Eric Saward, Steven Moffat is a better scriptwriter than story editor? I don’t know. Certainly the cheerful braininess of Moffat’s first season in charge feels like it’s evaporated, leaving in its wake a penchant for long-running, fiddly arc plots, and sentimentality which is at least as cheesy as that of the last days of Rusty Davies.

Which is a funny way of opening a review of a story which, in the end, I really liked, but there you go. I say all of the above, but only because enjoying Hide so much made me realise just how indifferent my response to other recent episodes has been. Not enjoying new Doctor Who makes me grumpy, and it shouldn’t happen.

Which is not to say that Hide was by any means perfect – if anything, it reminded me, in general terms, of a couple of older stories, namely The Android Invasion and The Stones of Blood: Android Invasion, because it showed how a really, really strong opening can do a lot to make up for a dubious climax, and Stones of Blood in the way it shifted somewhat jerkily from something approaching proper horror to a more scientifictional approach.

I enjoyed the full-on ghost story elements of the first part of Hide tremendously: this is surely the most full-on attempt at a scary episode in ages, and it’s just a shame that it ended up being broadcast on the first decent Spring day all year rather than on a rain-lashed winter’s night. Quite apart from the fact that the episode got the methodology of a ghost story so right, it convincingly evoked the atmosphere and some of the plot of The Stone Tape, Nigel Kneale’s legendary piece of SF-horror (the early-1970s setting seemed an obvious tip of the hat to Kneale’s play).

‘Please stop going on about how Hugh Jackman nicked your career.’

Of course, the problem with raising the spirit of The Stone Tape in Doctor Who is that in the original play, science takes on the supernatural and is found severely wanting – and you can’t have that happening in a show at least partly predicated on the primacy of rationalism and the general infallibility of the Doctor’s approach to problems. Which may be why the episode, with almost disappointing speed, turned into something rather more SF-inflected.

Here I thought I detected an echo of James Tiptree’s The Man Who Walked Home, though the correspondence may well have been coincidental. To be honest, I thought proceedings started to unravel somewhat at this point, with people visiting pocket universes on the end of ropes and so on, and a general lurch back in the direction of soft-centred wooliness that has afflicted so many recent episodes.

The stuff with Clara and the TARDIS not getting on is interesting, even if the bit with the TARDIS actually having a conversation with someone surely contradicts Neil Gaiman’s last script? We know that the TARDIS didn’t like Jack Harkness after his resurrection, as he was an unnatural space-time event, so it seems logical to assume the same applies to the new girl. Will this stuff be explained at the end of the season or in the 50th show? Of the two, I’m betting on the former, although…

Well, look, here’s some wild speculation – Oswald isn’t the most common surname, and we know that Moffat names his major characters with a degree of care (plus some repetition). The 50th anniversary show, in which Ms Oswald will be a major participant, will be going out around the time of the anniversary of another famous event in which the Oswald family were involved, an event with which TV Doctor Who has never properly involved itself. Could this be the time that they do?

Let’s face it: probably not. Anyway, to reiterate, I enjoyed the beginning of this episode so much that it lifted me over all the business with everyone turning out to be in love with and/or rel ated to each other – even the drokking monsters are now falling in love with each other, for crying out loud. Okay, so maybe I am a high-functioning psychopath with zero empathy and no ability to establish normal human relationships, but this just strikes me as absurd and unnecessary. Nevertheless, Neil Cross can consider Rings of Akhaten atoned for. Onward and inward…

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