The Stone Tape

The British writer Nigel Kneale is responsible for some of the best and most thought-provoking science fiction scripts that have ever been written for television. Though he's probably best-known today for the movie adaptations that were made from his television series, including The Abominable Snowman and the Quatermass series, his work for British television created an enormous sensation when the programs were first run. Many of those who were fortunate enough to see the original broadcasts of such Kneale creations as Quatermass and the Pit in 1958, or The Stone Tape in 1972, remembered them as being among the most terrifying things they'd ever experienced on the small screen.

Kneale himself expressed contempt for such reactions to his scripts. He claimed he had no affinity whatsoever for science fiction as a genre, and still less for horror. In fact, when he was invited to a sci-fi convention to meet his legions of fans, he was so appalled by the crowds of men and women dressed as wizards and Klingons that he went out and wrote a television satire about them, excoriating them for the simpletons he thought them to be. According to Kneale, his use of the fantastic -- which, by the way, is almost always grounded in real science -- was intended only to give him the imaginative license to create challenging and unexpected stories. With the limitations of conventional realism loosed a little, Kneale could create narratives that surprised the attentive viewer, without requiring him or her to surrender to credulity. Certainly, he has said, he never intended his stories to be merely frightening, and if any poor saps found them so it's their own fault for being so wooly-minded.

Statements like this make Kneale seem loftily unconcerned with his audience's reaction. But when you actually sit down to watch The Stone Tape, you come away with the feeling that Kneale is -- and I mean this with all due respect -- a Big, Fat Liar. He certainly seems to have known exactly what he was doing, and what sort of effect it would have!

Perhaps to the casual viewer, The Stone Tape comes across as nothing more than a mild ghost story... but to the attentive viewer, the kind of viewer Kneale says he was hoping to attract, it's harrowing, pants-wetting stuff. As we know from his superb 1989 adaptation of Susan Hill's The Woman in Black, Kneale knows the mechanics of horror very well; and in spite of his protests that scaring people is dead easy, he has proven he can terrify an audience using an economy of gesture that few genre specialists could hope to match. The true horror of The Stone Tape comes from the implications of the story, not from anything we see explicitly; and there's absolutely no way a craftsman of Kneale's abilities would create such a staggering effect by accident.

The Stone Tape is set almost entirely in what seems like an ideal location for a Kneale ghost story: a sprawling Victorian pseudo-gothic mansion that's been converted into a research facility. The building itself might make a suitable metaphor for the traditional English ghost story Kneale professes to loathe: it looks all creaky and ominous, but in fact it's a recent fabrication -- all looks and no depth. The building was last used as a barracks for American GIs during the Second World War. Now, it has been taken over by Ryan Electronics, an Anglo-Irish firm looking to re-establish Great Britain's reputation as a center of technology.

The first project to move into the renovated building is an attempt to find a new recording medium to replace magnetic tape. The Japanese seem poised to make this discovery themselves; the Ryan group is desperately anxious to get there first and restore British supremacy in audio engineering (in fact, it was the Dutch, in partnership with the Japanese, who developed the Compact Disc about seven years later; Kneale's speculation about Wagner's "Ring" cycle being recorded on a ball-bearing wasn't too far off).

In charge of the project is Peter Brock, a brash young scientist. It becomes obvious as we get to know him that Brock's passion is for pure science, as opposed to applied science. This project is providing him with a rare opportunity to get his theoretical research funded, since the theory will be put to profitable commercial use once it's been properly validated. Brock is initially thrilled to be back at work on a purely intellectual challenge, and at first he seems to enjoy an easy cameraderie with the other lads in the group.

But Brock is not the first to arrive at the work site. Aside from the building supervisor, Roy Collinson, the first of the team to arrive is Jill Greeley, the project's computer specialist and the lone woman in the group.

Jill is at a tremendous disadvantage in this overwhelmingly male environment (in 1970's England, no less). She has to suffer the consequence of being both an intelligent woman who is very attractive, and of being an attractive woman who is fiercely intelligent: the combination is undoubtedly threatening to the men who surround her in her personal and professional life. Nevertheless, Jill has risen to a very high position among the researchers... and it's made her a nervous wreck. It's not bad enough that she's always an outsider among the rowdy, male-bonded engineers; it also becomes clear that she's had to make some unfortunate compromises to advance to the level that matches her capabilities. One of these compromises has been an on-again/off-again affair with her supervisor, the married Brock.

(An aside -- it's a tribute to Kneale's abilities that we can read a great deal into the characters and personal histories of both Jill and Brock without any of it being made explicit in the exposition.)

No sooner has Jill driven up to the front of the building when she's almost involved in a nasty accident: she's caught between two lorries, whose drivers seem oblivious to her tiny little car. The near-accident gives us a metaphorical look at Jill's situation: she's always being bulldozed by the men around her. Jill manages to avoid being crushed by the trucks, but the experience leaves her badly shaken and almost unable to function. As she sits trembling in her car, the other team members arrive -- and pay her no notice at all. Thus, although she was the first to arrive, she seems to be late. How like a woman, eh?

(Though it's understandable why Kneale would want to portray Jill as being in such a fragile state of mind in many ways, I think from today's perspective it might have been preferable to make her a little less vulnerable at the outset.)

Jill may be a little hysterical, but she is strong, and extremely intelligent. She and Brock are the true visionaries of this capable little group, though we come to realize that Jill is far more competent than Brock, whom we'll find is at heart a very weak man.

Once everyone's arrived, the team begins to put its equipment in order. Here once again Jill's the Odd Woman Out: the one room which has not been prepared is the computer room. Not only is the room unfinished, it hasn't even begun to be renovated. The walls are still oozing; the few, high, inefficient windows are covered with dust and cobwebs; one wall has been boarded up, though most of the boards have rotted through... it's a disaster. According to Collinson, the workmen refused to stay in the room, for reasons they wouldn't explain.

Brock, irritated, rips down the rotting boards himself. Behind the partition, the team finds a half-finished stone staircase. There are also several antique cans of SPAM -- apparently left by the GIs like a votive offering -- and what appears to be a turn-of-the-century child's letter to Father Christmas. "What I want for Christmas..." it begins; though below the fold it continues, "... is for you to go away."

The boarded-up staircase is not really part of the house, but a remnant of a much older structure -- from Saxon times, if not older -- which had stood on the site long, long before the Victorian folly was built over it. Brock is extremely upset at this revelation: it seems clear that when anyone finds out about the built-over ruin, the area will be designated a historic site. His much-needed computer room could be placed off limits.

Jill's upset as well... though not by the loss of her room. Rather, she's unnerved by the shrieking ghost which suddenly runs past her and up the unfinished stairway.

Naturally, everybody dismisses Jill's experience as an aural hallucination, probably brought about by her near-accident. And, of course, she's "just a girl", right? But it isn't long before others, including Brock, hear the sounds for themselves -- though there is a single technician who remains unable to experience anything at all -- and Jill begins to see the phantom as well as hear it.

Though this may seem like a perfectly straightforward setup for a ghost story, let's remember that these are scientists. At first, it's true, they're shaken by this contact with the paranormal, but after the shock has worn off a bit they start to speculate on the nature of what they've experienced. Surely it can be broken down into raw data and explained! When initial experiments determine that the physical manifestations of the "ghost" can't be measured by even the most sensitive equipment, the team comes to the conclusion that what they're experiencing is a psychological recording, stored in the stone walls around them. Somehow, the impression of a significant event -- a young woman falling to her death down a flight of stairs -- is being played back directly into their minds. Some people -- Jill, for example -- receive the transmission better than others, while some experience nothing at all.

Suddenly, the "haunting" ceases to be terribly frightening (disconcerting, perhaps, but not frightening), as the scientists realize they may have accidentally found what they've been looking for: a new recording medium! A way to send sights and sounds directly to the human brain! And it has something to do with common English stone, perhaps explaining why England has so many reported hauntings.

So Brock orders a full-scale investigation of the apparition. A look at the history of the house shows that an undermaid did fall to her death on those stairs in the last century, and that the house (and that room in particular) subsequently acquired a bad reputation. But as the experimental work begins, the spirit of cooperation in the group begins to wear down. Part of it is the growing personal conflict between Brock and Jill, made worse by their personal history. Part of it is Brock's abrasive personality and its effect on his underlings. Part of it is the disturbing nature of the work they're performing: every few hours, they're bombarded by ghostly screams and (to some) the images of a girl falling to her death. Jill is especially troubled by the investigation, because she worries that this spectre may be more than just a psychic impression. What if there's more than just a recording, she wonders -- what if some vestige of the girl's personality remains, forced to relive the last & worst moment of her life over and over again, untold thousands of times, for who knows how many decades... centuries... millennia to come?

Brock and the others are unconcerned with such speculations. They have other questions to answer, like: what property of the stone enables these impressions to be recorded, and what makes them play back? What about the inability of some people to experience the haunting: would the ghost appear (that is, would the recording play) to someone who was unable to experience it, and if not, how would it know? Is there some way to trigger the manifestation, perhaps using high-frequency sound?

(Among the questions are a crucial few which are brought up, and then unfortunately overlooked... for example: what would have made a girl run up an unfinished stairway, in a disused room? Why did she fall? And how could she have been dashed to pieces falling such a short distance?)

As the stress of the experiments begins to take its toll on the researchers, things get worse: it turns out that the team must fight for space and funding with another Ryan project: an intelligent washing machine. This rival project is headed by a comically inept functionary named Crawshaw. The purist Brock considers Crawshaw to be the worst sort of applied scientist: a man who actually "gets his hands dirty" (literally, in this case, as his hands are always stained with clothing dye) working to solve a practical problem for commercial use. The fact that his product is really impractical and inordinately expensive doesn't seem to matter to Crawshaw or to Ryan: it's a flashy product that some poor suckers can be convinced to invest in.

Hoping to secure his position over Crawshaw's, Brock starts making Ryan wildly optimistic promises about the results of his research. Naturally, he refuses to go into detail about the source of his theories (Ryan, the boss, is never seen, but like the ghosts he continues to make his presence felt as the teleplay continues... credit goes to Michael Bryant for portraying a man as haunted by his career as Jane Asher's superbly-realized Jill is haunted by the ghosts and what their existence may mean). As the pressure to achieve results grows greater and greater, and the source of the manifestation proves ever-more elusive, Brock begins to lose control of himself.

So what's so scary about this? Since the haunting has been reduced to a subject for scientific inquiry, and character-driven human drama seems to have taken over, you might wonder where the scares are going to occur in the latter half of the teleplay. After all, what's left to be frightening? Ask all you want: I'm not telling. What I will tell you is that it's particularly harrowing, especially in light of the questions that arise as the experiments continue. That's the heart of the horror right there: Kneale's screenplay asks more questions than it answers. It provides us with just enough information so that we are profoundly unsettled by the turns the story takes.

Feel free not to believe me. After all, I gave a rave review to Jaume Balagueró's Darkness, and when that film was finally released in the US it got worse reviews from every critic in the country than Fat Albert, which opened the same day. I'm still not telling any more, even to help rescue my reputation.

But then again... I guess I could probably get away with telling you one more thing, though I'm sure Kneale himself would be offended by the allusion: toward the end, the story begins to move off into Lovecraft territory. No, there are no tentacle-headed elder gods and robed loonies chanting "Iä! Iä!" Nor is there any of the backwards-looking Romanticism that makes Lovecraft's purplest passages so difficult to bear. I'm thinking instead of the Lovecraft stories that suggest that what we experience as unimagineable occult horrors are really the results of scientific principles we don't and can't understand. Something... happens -- or perhaps I should say something is made to happen; and once it begins, it sets in motion a sequence of horrors that doesn't stop building until the final credits start.

Many of Kneale's stories involve the idea of telepathy -- of a distant, outside force, whether human or not, whether intelligent or not, whether from the future or the distant past -- and its controlling impact on intelligent people. You don't need to believe in the literal truth of the sort of communication Kneale writes about to understand why the idea seems so resonant: what else is the force of history and tradition, or the burden of posterity, or our genetic heritage, than a similarly disturbing outside influence -- one which we might reject if we were only conscious of it? The Stone Tape suggests that we're largely powerless to escape the psychological residue of the past, and that when we attempt to do so -- remember that this telefilm was made at the beginning of the Seventies -- we only make the problem worse.

The Stone Tape was broadcast around Christmas, 1972, and again around Halloween the following year. After that, there were no further public broadcasts. The film became something of a legendary ghost itself, a terrifying thing rarely seen, but never forgotten. Fortunately, unlike a number of other classic BBC television programs including Kneale's own earlier science fiction ghost-story The Road, The Stone Tape was not erased from the BBC archives to make room for newer programs. The film has now been restored and released on DVD by the British Film Institute. Although the BFI have done a very good job with the film, the production shows its age to a certain extent, particularly in its use of special effects. The simple methods used to show the ghostly goings-on are rather obvious by today's standards. Still, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop's use of sound more than makes up for any shortcomings in the visuals. And in spite of the rather drab ghost effects, there is a moment of stillness just as the climax is about to get under way when everything comes together magnificently -- a perfect concentration of dread.

But as I've already mentioned, it's not what you see or hear that makes the film quite so scary and disturbing. It's the combination of a good cast and an excellent, challenging script, brought to the screen by a capable and sympathetic director (thinking of whom: on the strength of The Stone Tape, I'm perfectly willing to forgive Peter Sasdy for The Lonely Lady. And it that's not a hearty recommendation...).

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