Listening to BBC Radio 4’s The Stone Tape in the dark

Here's what happened when we listened to BBC Radio 4's chilling adaptation of The Stone Tape in an atmospheric London crypt...

I’m sitting in a crypt. Specifically, I’m sitting in the 17th century crypt beneath the church of St Andrew in Holborn. Above me, busy Londoners are making their way home from work; at semi-regular intervals, I can hear the distant rumbling of Underground trains. It’s still just about daylight outside, but down here in the crypt, it’s dark. If it weren’t for the green lights on the radio headphones of the people around me, it’d be pitch black. I’m here to listen to Radio 4’s new adaptation of The Stone Tape, and it’s hard to think of a spookier or more appropriate way to do it.

This is the first of several listening events being hosted by In The Dark Radio this weekend; technically, it’s a trial run, with members of the press serving as guinea pigs before the event opens to the public. It’s cold in the crypt, and there’s a nervousness in the air as we wait for the drama to begin. At first, as the play starts, I’m staring at the dim silhouettes of the strangers sitting opposite me, but after a few minutes, I decide it’s pointless and close my eyes. Then, all there is to do is listen…

Directed by Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio, The Duke Of Burgundy, Katalin Varga) and co-written with Matthew Graham (Life On Mars, Ashes To Ashes), this adaptation is a stripped down version of the 1972 TV play of the same title. But though the basic story might be similar, this version really amps up the audio side of things. That seems like an obvious thing to say, since it’s a radio drama – there’s no visual component, so audio is all there is – but this is a story that’s explicitly about audio, so the sound effects are vitally important. Every noise matters, from a distorted bit of speech to a set of running footsteps that seem to loop right around your chair to an ominous mechanical hum; without an image to peg each sound to, you can let your imagination run riot.

Saying too much about the plot would spoil the fun, but just to give you the basics, it’s about a group of scientific researchers who stumble on what might be a ghost – or maybe a new kind of recording technology. The facility they’ve set up camp in is a centuries-old house that’s purported to be haunted, and there’s definitely something weird going on in the basement. If you’ve seen the BBC Two version, you’ll know roughly how it unfolds, but Strickland’s update makes quite a few changes along the way. There are fewer characters, the action is far more contained, and some of the relationships have been altered (or at least made more explicit). Even some of the names have been changed, though there is one returning cast member – Jane Asher, who played Jill in the original, pops up for a cameo as the new Jill’s mother.

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There are some other differences, too, that mean this adaptation might play better if you aren’t familiar with the original Nigel Kneale production. Strickland has never been a director to give his audience all the answers in his films, and The Stone Tape is no different – rather than spelling out what’s going on, he suggests, and hints, but ultimately leaves you to draw your own conclusions. If you know the original story, it’s tempting to fill in the gaps with what you already know; if not, there are several different ways to interpret what happens, which makes it all the creepier. It’s the kind of thing you’ll immediately want to talk to someone about, to compare notes and thrash out what, exactly, you think you just heard. Your own feelings about science and the supernatural will probably affect your interpretation, but either way, you won’t be wrong.

If you like your horror to come with more answers than questions The Stone Tape will probably leave you frustrated; there’s more discussion of the best kind of microphone to use in a crumbling old basement than there is analysis of the ‘ghost’. But audiophiles will find much to be delighted by, both in the script (there really is a lot of discussion of audio technology) and in the production, which uses 3D binaural technology to create a properly immersive experience.

As the play comes to an end, someone flips a switch and the crypt lights up with more neon green lights – ones that don’t quite reach to the furthest and shadowiest corners. Taking off the headphones should mean slipping out of the story world and into reality, but in reality, well, I’m still in a crypt, surrounded by stones that’ve stood in the same place for hundreds of years. Blinking, I hand in my headset and head back out to the street, where it’s now much, much darker than it was before.

The Stone Tape will air on BBC Radio 4 at 10pm on Saturday 31 October, followed by a new adaptation of Ring, at 11pm. Both will be available on BBC iPlayer after broadcast.

(The In The Dark listening events are now sold out.)

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