WARNING: This article will discuss spoilers – if you don’t want to know what happens in this almost perfect slice of 1970s TV go and watch it now!
The Stone Tape hit British TV screens on Christmas Day 1972, an era often thought of as a Golden age for TV drama, particularly speculative fiction. It was the year that Doomwatch finished, the tenth anniversary of Dr Who was celebrated with The Three Doctors, and the BBCs A Ghost Story for Christmas adaptations were in full swing.
The basic story is very simple: a group of people live and work in a haunted house, but writer Nigel Kneale (who was also behind Quatermass in the 50s and 60s) takes it in such an interesting direction that it changed the tropes of the genre.
The drama starts with a group of electrical engineers moving into Taskerlands House, an old, abandoned stately home. Taskerlands has been bought by Ryan Electronics to be the research centre for a project to develop a new recording medium. On the day they move in project director Peter Brock (Michael Bryant) discovers that no work has been done on their data storage room (it is amusing in retrospect to see a cutting edge computer system need an entire room to house it). Estate manager Roy (Iain Cuthbertson) reveals that they haven’t been able to get as much done as hoped, as none of the builders will work in the room. Strange things happen in there.
Jill (Jane Asher), who we had previously seen have a traumatic and foreshadowing car accident with a removal truck, and is the projects computer programmer and data analyser, has a strange experience in the room. She sees a woman, a Victorian maid, run up some steps and fall to her death.
It is here the The Stone Tape first departs from the formula. To reveal the ghost so early in the story removes the suspense of whether there is a ghost or not. Peter hears a scream in the room soon after and so the plot swiftly (and thankfully) discards the “is it real or a hysterical woman?” trope and concentrates on the ghost’s existence. As far as the characters are concerned there is a ghost in the room, there is no doubt. But they are scientists so what concerns them is what a ghost is?
Peter and Jill develop a theory that the ghost is a recording, that something in old stone records traumatic events and plays it back at certain times. The room acts as a kind of stone tape, sucking in energy and playing it back at intervals. If the team can somehow replicate the phenomenon they will have a recording medium to rival anything coming out of Japan. Kneale’s writing here is fantastic, examining this theory from all sides and driving the story forward. Why is it that Jill can see the ghost, others only hear it and others still feel nothing? Is a haunting a frequency? Is it like music where some can hear lower or higher frequencies that most remain deaf to? Does that mean there are hauntings going on all the time but with no one sensitive enough to see them there to experience them?
As Jill delves deeper and deeper into the layers of the room, what starts out as an intriguing scientific game becomes darker and more twisted. Peter, who is married but having an affair with Jill, becomes crueler in his obsession with finding out what the secret of the room is and drives the team to breaking point. Some of the scariest scenes in the drama are the experiments in the room, where the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop does fantastic work with sound frequencies to underscore the sense of unease and discomfort.
Eventually Ryan Electronics become impatient with the failure of the project and shut it down, moving a team working on an experimental washing machine into Taskerlands. On the last evening, after their relationship has broken down, Peter leaves Jill in the house and she visits the room one last time. Instead of the maid she sees something older, the thing that the maid was running from and she herself dies while trying the escape. Later after an inquest into Jill’s death (at which the thoroughly awful Peter calls her mad) Peter returns to the room only discover that there is a new recording there – that of Jill’s death and her screaming his name in fear.
The Stone Tape altered the way the traditional ghost story was approached. Gone was the creepy old house and amateur victims. Instead we have scientific investigation, competent intelligent people thinking logically. And although ultimately the unknowable forces of the dark destroy our protagonists, there isn’t a sense of them “winning,” purely because they are so old and ancient they barely acknowledge us. We are irrelevant to what has gone before and what will continue at Taskerlands House.
The influence of this confrontation between the unknown and science can be seen most prominently in The Prince of Darkness (which uses a similar conceit of a scientific investigation of evil) and in every kind of story where science is brought to bear on a haunting (Poltergeist, the X-Files, Insidious, etc). Even the parapsychological theory of residual haunting became known as the Stone Tape Theory after the play.
The Stone Tape is not unproblematic for modern audiences. There are some unnecessary racial insults towards the team’s Japanese rivals and Jill is the only female character with anything like any agency (the only other women in the play are “gossipy barmaid,” “Peter’s silent other mistress” and the voice of Peter’s wife on the phone). Her “sensitivity” does mesh a little too nicely with her gender (woman=caring=sensitive=spiritual=stereotype) but she isn’t quite the doormat she could have been. She is the intellectual equal (superior even) to her male colleagues and it is her experience that drives the narrative. The problems are of their time, a mealy-mouthed excuse but one that means we can enjoy what is good about The Stone Tape whilst acknowledging there are unacceptable issues with it.
The images, effects and direction have dated in the best way. They look like early 1970s computer graphics but that only enhances the effect. A modern overly detailed CGI rendering of the creatures at the heart of the room would not have been half as effective as the disembodied coloured blobs that emerge from the dark. I have already mentioned the sound effects of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop which add a threatening, pulsing beat to the drama.
To fans of the genre The Stone Tape is a classic, a corner stone of a particular take on the ghost story. It is a nexus for a certain kind of geek, a place where Dr Who, Quatermass, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and classic British drama meets.
GS Blogger: Bobby Diabolus