THE STONE TAPE
Script: Nigel Kneale
Jane Asher, Michael Bryant, Ian Cuthbertson
BBC Television 1972
British Film Institute - Archive Television Series - VHS/DVD 2001
In the 1950s Nigel Kneale's BBC science-fiction serials The Quatermass Experiment, Quatermass II, Quatermass and the Pit) created the flickering monochrome nightmares of a generation of British viewers. Although their subsequent development as feature films created some iconic cinema narratives (notably the outstanding Hammer version of Quatermass and the Pit) perhaps Kneale's key achievement as a TV dramatist was to understand the intimate domestic nature of the small-screen viewing experience - and then to subvert its cosiness through oblique defamiliarisation rather than formulaic spectacle, almost making a virtue of the medium's limitations. It's typical of Kneale's macabre sensibility that The Stone Tape -- the bleakest of all his works -- was written in response to a commission for a Christmas Night ghost story.
The play was shot on video in colour, but the tones are muted, bleached browns and greys predominating. The mise-en-scene is naturalistic and its TV production values are modest by the standards of contemporary horror cinema. The opening titles glow green on black, over oscillator wave-forms, like an early computer interface, flashing over a sparse electronic sound track. Sound of course is at the core of the plot concept and the sound design by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop explores the potential of acoustic deep space, despite the limitations of the average 1970s TV receiver. Special effects are for the most part deployed only in the climactic scenes, and even then they rely more on suggestion than explicit imagery. The strength of the The Stone Tape lies in its narrative form.
In the opening sequence Jill Greely (Jane Asher), a computer programmer, arrives at Taskerlands House, an ugly Victorian mansion that has been bought by the Ryan Electrics Corporation and refurbished as a research centre. There's an ominous foreshadowing incident when Jill's small car is nearly crushed by huge Ryan Electrics trucks, which blur before her eyes like looming sacrificial stones.
The mood of unease is reinforced by the appearance of the research team, whose macho camaraderie seems suffused with a barely-suppressed violence. They enact a bizarre rite of arrival, "sacrificing the Martian" in which a colleague in grotesque alien-insect fancy dress is ceremonially roughed up - surely a conscious intertextual allusion to Quatermass and the Pit and certainly another foreshadowing of the sacrificial theme.
Peter Brock (Michael Bryant) , the abrasive young Director of Research , who is already sexually embroiled with Jill, exhorts the team to focus on their mission - to devise a new recording medium, superior to analogue tape, that will allow Ryan Electrics to counter the threat of the Japanese electronics industry. Jill's computer skills will play a major part in this venture; but Collinson, the site manager, (Ian Cuthbertson) is forced to admit that a key room, earmarked for storing the bulky main-frame data tapes, isn't ready. The builders seem reluctant to tackle it.
Brock, furious, storms around the huge empty room. . He tears at decaying panels, exposing the fungal stonework and a worn flight of steps that leads nowhere. His impatience intensifies when he learns that the room is much older than the rest of the building, Saxon or maybe earlier. Interfering conservationists could impede his grand project.
As he leaves, ordering Collinson to get the space stripped and cleaned out, Jill lingers - and hears the patter of footsteps inside the room. She turns and briefly glimpses the figure of a woman staggering at the top of the steps. Then, to quote Kneale's screenplay, "...there is a shrill rasp in the air. A human scream that has lost its humanity, denatured and dead..."
These opening scenes cover familiar genre territory, but Kneale and Sasdy maintain pace and credibility by the economy of the subsequent exposition , which is developed via tense exchanges between Brock and Jill or the raucous banter of the team. They learn that the room has its relics, like an Edwardian child's chilling letter to Santa Claus, asking for someone or something to "go away", while a trip to the local pub unearths a barman who reluctantly relives his fears as a youthful trespasser in Taskerlands. The house also has a history of suicides like the servant girl Louisa Hanks, as well as failed exorcisms, recounted by a doddering Anglican vicar, surely a relative of Gilpin, the clergyman who tries to offer sanctuary to the possessed Sladden in Quatermass and the Pit.
When Brock himself hears the room scream, he is determined to confront the phenomenon with all the tools of technological empiricism. The team is tasked to keep all-night vigil in the room with directional microphones, open-reel tape decks, thermometers, cameras and video monitors.
It's perhaps worth noting that the practice of taping the voices of the dead had achieved a certain notoriety in the early 1970s through the work of the Latvian psychologist Konstatin Raudive, documented in his book Breakthrough. Raudive and his British disciple R.G Sheargold claimed to have recorded cryptic fragments from, among others, Hitler and Winston Churchill. Although experiments by technicians at CBC, Radio Telefis Eirann and Pye Records failed to demonstrate conclusive proof of these claims , the concept of techno-necromancy was current around the time Kneale was writing.
As the temperature drops, Brock's electronic seances are charged with increasing hysteria and desperation. The noises in the room won't record on his Ferrograph, yet the mediumistic Jill, clearly the most sensitive member of team, still glimpses the woman. And the local publican, forced to confront the scene by an obsessed Brock, breaks down, admitting the existence of "others" in this fungoid time-trap, a derelict anti-chapel of the undead. The claustrophobic chamber is like Sartre's Huis Clos, an eroding interface against which the fragile relationship between Brock and Jill starts to crumble like a worn strip of ferrous oxide, while the bonding of the team degrades into bickering and paranoia.
Yet thanks to Jill's ability to analyze data collected from the room, Brock makes his conceptual breakthrough. The sounds and apparitions are not ghosts in the sense that Christianity understands the term, offering evidence of post-death survival and the serene continuation of some immortal soul.They are more like tape-loops of cathartic moments, death-agony instants of dread and terror that have been sampled by the structure of the space and are set to repeat ad infinitum. The pre-mediaeval stonework of the room itself is an organic recording medium, which plays back directly to biochemical receptors in the brain. Brock seems to have discovered the material basis of a new recording technology, the killer application to save the future of Ryan Electrics - and the team members celebrate hysterically.
The idea of the physical environment acting as a recording medium for primal emotions was, of course, postulated by the distinguished Cambridge archaeologist T.C. Lethbridge, who explored its possibilities in Ghost and Ghoul, among other books. Lethbridge not only speculated about the phenomenon, he claimed to have experienced it first-hand. Lethbridge's theory was circulating during the early seventies - indeed, he died the year before The Stone Tape was written - and it's tempting to assume that Kneale assimilated it.
However, Kneale steers the concept (sinister enough in itself) to an even darker conclusion. Brock becomes the Frankenstein-figure, the meddling Faustian fool doomed to self-destruction. He is now under pressure to get a repeatable experimental result, the elusive grail of all parapsychologists. In a scene of Bosch-like grotesquerie he forces the team to bombard the room with blasts from giant speaker horns, which feed back as a menacing rumble. Until the walls fall mute - as if his signals (and the collective mania) had overloaded the medium and erased the "tape." Despite repeated efforts there is only silence.
The audio research project is now mothballed, and Brock is due to be replaced ( in a touch typical of Kneale's bizarre black humour) by an eccentric alcoholic determined to build the ultimate Ryan Electrics washing machine. But Jill continues to analyze her computer print-outs . She claims to decode words from the numerical data- 'pray' 'save' and 'soul' - mediaeval pleas for redemption and salvation. Yet other figures imply that the phenomenon may be much older - perhaps seven thousand years, a figure which Brock rejects out of hand. He also breaks off his relationship with her, accusing her of disrupting the project.
As the team prepare to leave Taskerlands, Jill walks down the corridor past the room for the last time. And it's in the dark passage that she encounters the manifestation that drives her screaming into the room, up the broken steps, to fall to her death as the space dissolves into a megalith...
Perhaps the haunting and the falling are always there, but a different person falls. Perhaps Jill, Louisa Hanks the servant girl, and all their predecessors are at some meta-temporal level the same person, the victim whose cries the Stone processes across the centuries. There's also a reading in which Jill is Brock's victim, sacrificed to his ambition and lust for knowledge in this closed corporate world of scarcely-repressed male aggression and competitive intrigue. But the underlying sub-text is the insinuation that a dark force still pulses like an ancient sub-sonic rhythm in the mix of our every day lives. The mineral voices repeat their hoarse mantra of terror.
© Paul A. Green 11/01
*Brother Paul would like to thank the historian Michael Williams for his insights into Nigel Kneale's work and The Stone Tape in particular.
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