Saturday 4 January 2014

The Stone Tape

Genre: Horror
Channel: BBC2
Transmission: 25/12/1972

Curious British Telly has only ever had one ghostly experience. Lying on our bed contemplating teenage life, our eyes detected movement. Our bedroom door was opening, but everyone was in the kitchen! One of our childhood friends had recently died! HIS GHOST WAS SURELY COMING TO GET US!

Why he would want to exact revenge on us wasn't particularly clear, but we suddenly became unable to scream out for help. It was like something off the telly. And then, our mother walked in. Apparently she hadn't been in the kitchen, but lurking upstairs in the dark.

We were rather relieved, but definitely felt as though, if you will, a ghoul had been putting the willies up us. We're just glad we weren't part of The Stone Tape.

An Issue with Stone

Ryan Electrics are a company with problems as the innovative Japanese are surging ahead in terms of technology. The old Empire spirit isn't about to lose face, so a crack team of research wizards are assembled, led by Peter Brock (Michael Bryant). Locating to a derelict Victorian mansion - Taskerlands - they plan to dream up a new recording medium.

An early issue arises when Roy Collinson (Iain Cuthbertson) reveals that no work has been completed on the data storage room. Workmen have refused to get their hands dirty in there on account of it being haunted. The room is investigated and, indeed, certain members of the team hear a haunted scream. One member in particular, Jill Greeley (Jane Asher), seems strongly attuned to the haunting. She sights a ghostly vision of a petrified maid running up some stairs to her death.

Brock soon dismisses the phenomenom as a standard haunting. Thinking ahead, he hypothesises that they are witnessing a residual haunting. One where the stones in the wall have 'recorded' brainwaves and emotions to be played out again and again. Could this be exactly what Ryan Electrics need to sink the Japanese?

Setting the Tape

The Stone Tape was dreamt up by the masterful writer Nigel Kneale who had previously concocted the groundbreaking Quatermass and the Pit. The story was originally intended to be part of the Dead of Night anthology which aired during Autumn 1972. Produced by the Dead of Night team, The Stone Tape, instead, found itself broadcast on Christmas Day 1972 as a standalone Christmas ghost story.

Peter Sasdy - fresh from directing several Hammer horror films - was entrusted with bringing the nightmarish horror of Kneale's script to the screen. Desmond Briscoe and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop provided their signature soundtrack of electronic beeps and squelches. Exterior shots of the vast 'Taskerlands' were filmed at Horsley Towers, East Horsley.

A DVD of The Stone Tape was released by the BFI in 2001, but is rather difficult to track down. Thankfully, 2013 saw a 101 Films DVD release of the story and is readily available.

Playing The Stone Tape

Nigel Kneale raises many interesting themes throughout The Stone Tape. The clash between science and nature is very much at the forefront and this leads on to the choice of opportunity over safety. Kneale also managed to turn the haunted house cliché on its head by condensing the supernatural activity down to just one spooky room.

Although this limited haunting may indicate that safety is only a few feet away, the room's strong influence over those in the research team renders any nearby safety as resolutely mute. In fact, every time those heavy wooden doors are opened, you find yourself shifting in your seat wondering what will be revealed. The concept of residual hauntings on display is, in fact, so innovative that it has led to the 'Stone Tape Theory' which delights paranormalists to this day.

Peter Brock is a well constructed character who is central to the many plot strands running through The Stone Tape. No doubt a successful man, he's also portrayed as manipulative. An apparent family man, he hints briefly about a past dalliance with Jill and he is later discovered with a young lady in his bedroom. Although not unusual for the time, he's also a dedicated sexist, addressing females as "Love" and "Sweetie" repeatedly and demanding they make coffee.

The arrival of Crawshaw (Reginald Marsh), a wonderfully eccentric Einstein lookalike, as Brock's rival highlights his egotistical tendencies. This ego, in fact, is used to drive the opportunity over safety theme and results in tragic consequences.

The rest of the cast aren't given such deep characterisation. Jill Greeley is a curious individual determined to get answers, but sadly she's painted as fairly hysterical from the very first scene. A more gradual descent into madness would have allowed for a more interesting characters. Roy Collinson provides a dose of conflict for Brock to deal with and he also mediates Jill's grave concerns. The rest of the cast do not particularly have strong roles and tend to stick to the periphery of the main action.

The acting itself is of a very high standard for a BBC show of the time. There's very few dud performances, the only one that comes to mind is the rather simple minded Alan (Michael Graham Cox). The majority of the research crew all give good performances, even the fringe members who are afforded only a handful of lines.

Jane Asher isn't necessarily given too much to work with, but we still feel there was room for improvement in her performance. She dated a Beatle, though, so we doubt our opinion will bother her too much. Iain Cuthbertson is on fine form with a typically forceful and determined display. Star performance is, of course, from Michael Bryant who is given a fantastically complex character to tackle.

Final Thoughts

We were suitably impressed by The Stone Tape and feel its reputation is justified. Nigel Kneale has fashioned a strong plot which, in other hands, could have dithered and dragged, but instead retains an air of mystery and suspense. The acting on show complements the characters, so the viewer is kept nicely engrossed.

We don't, however, subscribe the view that it's the scariest TV show ever. Certainly, there's some creepy moments and Jill's final scene is particularly disturbing and trippy, but we found Stigma to be much more horrific.

Nonetheless, The Stone Tape is a good example of why the Christmas ghost story needs to be resurrected. Sure, Eastenders conjures up some bleak visions at Christmas, but lets trying really scaring people. In the mean time, we'll be keeping a careful eye on our bedroom door.


  1. Of course, this was a notable influence on the 'Doctor Who' episode "Hide".

  2. That's an excellent spot, Silent Hunter! One of my favourite episodes from the Matt Smith era.

    Another nice Doctor Who connection is that Tom Chadbon aka Duggan from City of Death appears in The Stone Tape. Oh and Iain Cuthbertson was Garron in The Ribos Operation.

  3. Nice article. However I feel I have to point out that the 2013 DVD is on 101 Films, not BBC.