Saturday, 14 April 2012
The Stone Tape – A TV play by Nigel Kneale and Peter Sasdy
A team of scientists working in an abandoned mansion to develop a new recording medium discovers that one of the rooms, considered for decades to be haunted, may be made of a type of stone that can store sounds and images.
Nigel Kneale has returned to the ghost story on several occasions in his career, but The Stone Tape stands as perhaps his finest single work in the genre, and his most typical. Asked to come up with a Christmas play, rather than providing a traditional ghost story (which he successfully did later on with The Woman in Black (ITV, tx. 24/12/1989)), he produced something far more original and challenging.
The play focuses on the relationship between three scientists: Jill, a talented computer programmer attuned to psychic phenomena; her arrogant, egotistical and ruthless, if frequently charming, boss (and lover) Peter; and Collinson, the foreman on the project and confidante to both of them. Their differing personal experiences of the mansion's haunted room provide the framework for the drama and are drawn along traditional gender lines. Kneale's script explores male and female perspectives, contrasting rational problem solving and the application of the scientific method with intuitive and emotional responses and solutions aligned with a compassionate feeling for people and their circumstances. Peter and Jill stand at the opposite poles of this dialectic, and as their inability to communicate their differences increases, so their personal relationship disintegrates. Collinson comes somewhere between the two, as the main identification figure for the audience. Iain Cuthbertson gives a powerful yet restrained performance in the role, which was expanded considerably during filming as his character replaced the one played by Michael Bates, who became unavailable when the shooting of some scenes had to be rescheduled.
The special effects in the climax, in which Jill is pursued by ancient shapeless creatures and taken back thousands of years to a high sacrificial altar before falling to her death, are often startling, despite their crudeness. The use of sound by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, however, is highly sophisticated, with atonal electronic sounds used to merge music with the noises made by the scientific machinery.
Although reminiscent of Kneale's own earlier Quatermass and the Pit (BBC, 1957-58) in the way that science unleashes supernatural forces from the past, The Stone Tape can also be seen as a dark meditation on Charles Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol', with Peter as a Scrooge figure, basically uncaring of those around him, who eventually learns the error of his ways through supernatural intervention, but only when it's too late.