Director: Peter Sasdy
Screenweriter: Nigel Kneale
By Roderick Heath
Nigel Kneale virtually invented the traditions of television science fiction and helped define the basics of serial drama itself with his The Quatermass Experiment, broadcast on the BBC over six weeks in 1953. That work suddenly expanded the potential scope of television programming and science fiction in the public eye with its eerie, utterly minimalist telling of the sorry fate of the first astronaut sent into space and returning to Earth infected by an alien virus. The subsequent two Quatermass serials, in 1955 and 1957, and the films made of them by Hammer Studios, became permanent models for future genre creators. Prickly, dismissive, and often badly utilised throughout his career, Kneale nonetheless still stands as one of television’s most inventive and intelligent figures, one who has perhaps had a deeper impact on popular culture than many realise, considering his influence on filmmakers like Steven Spielberg (whose script for Poltergeist was reputedly influenced by Kneale’s work) and especially John Carpenter. Sadly, Carpenter’s admiration led to a painful interlude, when Kneale wrote a script for him that became the disappointingly realised Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1983). As if by way of compensation—unappreciated by Kneale—Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987) paid overt tribute to The Stone Tape and credited its screenplay to one “Martin Quatermass”.
Nonetheless, where works by other reputable names of early television, such as Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling, now often seem a bit hoary, Kneale’s work remains nuanced and intriguing. Like most professional writers, Kneale tackled a many disparate projects, including many adaptations, but his personal work was usually marked by recurring fascinations with mystery and the intangible, with the distance between the most elevated and most elemental characteristics in human beings, and the blurred ground between science and supernatural, all of which fueled Quatermass and the Pit (1957), still one of the greatest pieces of television created. Another of Kneale’s insistent qualities was a delight in topicality, and his scripts tended to be infused with inevitably dated and yet still interesting, thought-provoking, and often lucidly prognosticative reflections on contemporary concerns. His work was often laced with bitingly cynical takes on corporatism, capitalism, the media, militarism, and politicians somewhat before it was fashionable to do so, and indeed contributed considerably to the intellectual climate of the ’60s. Later, his The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968) predicted the rise of reality television with precision, and he was still successfully scaring the hell out of many people with his excellent adaptation of Susan Hill’s beloved spook story The Woman in Black, made in 1989, before his death in 2006.
The Stone Tape, made by the BBC in 1972 by Hungarian-born director Peter Sasdy, who made several fascinating, if uneven, films for Hammer around this time, reflects again Kneale’s curious angle on the science versus superstition schism, and commented with acuity on matters then much on the mind. The result is one of those little miracles of the medium which always seems fueled as much by the necessary constraints on it as anything: The Stone Tapes manages to be both thoroughly logical and concrete and yet also tantalisingly near-abstract in its story suggestions and final meaning. Kneale’s familiar topicality is also immediately manifest, in this instance, the paranoid, competitive reaction of western business to growing Japanese domination of home appliance technology, the globalisation of such technology, and the decline of British influence in it; more subtly but, finally, powerfully, the narrative infusion of an equally fashionable, feminist-hued parable.
The story commences with Jill Greeley (Jane Asher) arriving at a colossal Victorian country house that has just been converted into a research facility by Ryan Electrics, a successful, ambitious company that wants to take on the Japanese domination in recording technology. Jill, brittle and upset for reasons that take a while to emerge, panics when her Mini is nearly squashed between two trucks. The conversion of the house has been overseen by Roy “Collie” Collinson (Iain Cuthbertson), and taking charge of the new facility is Peter Brock (Michael Bryant), the high-powered, high-pressure boss of the company’s research team, and, as it happens, Jill’s lover. Still shaken and upset, she watches the raucous, jarring celebration of her fellow workers—all male—as they move into their new facility. Peter is, however, soon disquieted to learn that a basement room earmarked for computer storage has been left untouched by the renovators, who were dissuaded by strange phenomena.
Jill, who seems especially psychically sensitive, is horrified to glimpse a brief spectral vision of a screaming young serving maid, Louisa, who died in the room, but no one believes her. She and Peter dig into the house’s history and find it’s infamous for similar manifestations: a local publican, Alan (Michael Graham Cox), recalls hearing strange noises in the house as a child when he and his mates used to venture there, and one of his friends, Jackie, was driven insane when locked in there one night. Peter and Collie soon see and hear the apparition, but Peter, quickly regaining his composure, suggests to his team that they investigate the phenomena; rather than calling it a ghost, he considers it “a mass of data waiting to be interpreted.” Installing sound and video recording and computer equipment in the room, the researchers begin probing the mystery, but find their gear can’t register the phenomena in any way, and that it affects people to differing degrees: Jill is the most attuned, while one of the team registers nothing at all. Through her canny computations, Jilll eventually discerns that the material the room is made from is acting like a kind of recording medium, and that rather than manifesting as detectable phenomena, the medium attunes to brainwave patterns that produces the phenomena only inside their heads.
The notion that supernatural events might in fact have explanations rooted in subtle natural reproductions of sophisticated technology is an irresistible MacGuffin. Kneale had often toyed with the idea that ghost hauntings and magical apparitions might be manifestations of preternatural and pseudo-scientific phenomena, and enjoyed the notion that rather than always making the world easier to comprehend and tame, such technology might reveal terrifying truths. Here, the room’s uncanny properties have retained, locked in an apparent loop like a CD on repeat, a record of Laura’s death—she fell from a staircase in the room that appears to ascend to nowhere. The Stone Tape is less explicit, however, than much of Kneale’s other work, for even as the researchers think they’ve gained a grasp on something that can both explain away centuries of superstition and revolutionize the future of technology, that grasp slowly slips away as its implications are explored. Peter and his team immediately realise they might have the holy grail of information technology encoded in the masonry of the room, and yet, as Jill senses, there’s still some unexplained malevolence at hand, as Alan, after freaking out by witnessing the phenomenon again, recalls his crazed friend Jackie mentioning “the others” that had appeared to him.
In its on-screen technology, stylisation, and preoccupations, The Stone Tape is very 1972, but that’s part of its charm, especially since the script’s sharp satire on corporate culture of the era still has some resonance. Kneale jumps keenly on the anxious desire of the researchers to win back some cred for British technology at a time when the Japanese grip on the electronics market was becoming unassailable. It’s especially interesting that Peter’s mission statement for the team is to create a recording medium that anticipates modern MP3 technology. Peter pushes his team like a combination cheerleader and motivational speaker, anxious to make a quick breakthrough. He wants to keep his new kingdom safe from invasion by the far less glamorous nuts-and-bolts work of Crawshaw (Reginald Marsh), a classic eccentric inventor type who’s working on a new type of washing machine—far from the kind of world-conquering inventions he has in mind.
Bryant’s performance as Peter is a great part of the film’s effectiveness. His grating, half-bellowed voice establishes his swinging-dick authority in spite of his rather unimpressive physical presence, confirming he’s someone who’s staked all of his sense of self and his clout in the world on success in business. He’s also married with children and stringing Jill along. As they journey deeper into the enigma of the haunted room, which records show seems to predate the rest of the house, and are at least Saxon-period, the intricate relationship between the way Peter and Jill react to it and to each other is teased apart. Peter sees a problem to be conquered and subjugated according to his credo, whereas Jill is disturbed by the resonances of the phenomenon. She sees, first and foremost, a record of a woman in dire straits and worries that this might not be merely a facsimile of the girl’s death but may indeed be her spirit locked in an eternal reexperiencing of her own death—a grim resonance that accords with Jill fear of inevitable emotional abandonment by Peter.
Jill, priestess of the new cult of computer science, is crucial to the success of his new enterprise, and yet Jill embarrassedly excuses herself from Peter’s office when he takes a call from his wife; it seems that their relationship is based as much in Peter’s salesman gab and natural gravitational pull as the head honcho as anything else. The mordant take on the sexual politics of their relationship sharpens to a cruel point as Jill’s inability to let the mystery go causes Peter to explode in a misogynist rave, and, in a devastating near-throwaway touch, Collie spies Peter’s new secretary hovering in undress in his bedroom. Hysteria cranks up as Peter, driven by his determination to gain control over the phenomenon, drives his team to the point of fraying as they bombard the space with high-frequency sound and light waves to try to trigger a manifestation. His fellows buckle in pain and exhaustion as Peter frantically pursues his object, only to leave the room suddenly void of any trace of Louisa and her repetitious demise—he has, as someone puts it, erased the tape.
Jill continues, conjecturing that only the most recent “recordings” have been erased and that the oldest layers to the building could contain images from perhaps 7,000 years ago. Whilst a defeated and embarrassed Peter deals with the final incursion and triumph of the ridiculous Crawshaw and angrily spurns Jill, she is finally cornered by gleaming apparitions, suggestive of something grotesque and undefined that drive her to death in the same fashion as Louisa, plunging down the steps in the ancient room.
I’ve always had a great fondness for the almost Elizabethan stagelike modesty of classic TV production, and The Stone Tape exemplifies why I prefer it to the ever-slicker modern style that bores me senseless: the emphasis is on strong acting and unshowy simplicity in its effects. Delivering a tremendous boost to its low-key kind of eerie are the layered, unsettling sound effects provided by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, whose pioneering techniques in sound effects lent Doctor Who a lot of its early distinction, and whose work contributed quietly to the future boom in electronic music. Sasdy didn’t have to do much to sell the tightly constructed story except keep the typically cheap Beeb sets from toppling over, but he maintains a firm grip on a story that burrows deeper and deeper, like its heroine, who can’t give up her theorising about the nature of the room.
Asher, best known to cinephiles from her fawnish, but winning teenage performance in Roger Corman’s Masque of the Red Death (1964) and her object-of-desire role in Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End (1970)—but otherwise most famous for getting dumped by Paul McCartney—is a revelation here in one of her first (and few) truly adult roles. Her layered, convincing performance captures both Jill’s strength of character and frustration in subordinating it to the likes of Peter, and her fraying psyche’s reaction to the proximity of a mystery only she can truly approach, aware that to approach it means the most hideous of fates. With her urgent refusal to give up her efforts to understand the mystery, she becomes both increasingly obsessive, working through the night, hidden in shadow, her unreasonable fixation linked cleverly to her disintegrating, resented attachment to Peter, Jill finally suffers exactly the fate she most dreaded, and yet one that seems almost preordained.
After Peter paints her as unbalanced and suicidal at an inquest, Collie finally punches him and walks out. Left alone, Peter wanders into the ancient room, where he begins to hear Jill’s anguished cries for his help, before something lights up the room and draws a hideous soul-cracking scream from Peter…
…which would serve him just about right. Snappy, gripping, and confidently rendered, The Stone Tape is a gem of the medium.