The Stone Tape has enjoyed a reputation of brilliance since it was first broadcast on Christmas Day of 1972, so this DVD release, complete with commentary by writer Nigel Kneale and film critic Kim Newman, is a very welcome chance to see why the critics continue to rate it as one of the all-time scariest television experiences.
Jane Asher plays Jill Greeley, a computer programmer who is working on a new way of storing data for Ryan Electronics. She’s also having an affair with her power-hungry boss, Peter Brock (played bombastically by Michael Bryant). When Ryan Electronics moves into new premises, it turns out that the room marked as a storage facility has not been touched by the builders. It’s much older than the rest of the mansion and Jill is particularly susceptible to the eerie feelings the room creates in anyone who steps inside. Within minutes of her arrival, she sees an apparition.
Brock decides to use his cutting-edge recording equipment to capture and explain the phenomenon, and here’s where the story gets really interesting. The use of science to attempt to overcome the supernatural is done with precision and believability. Even though the modern viewer is looking at gadgets and computers that are over 40 years old, the cast excel at making you buy into their procedures. When they postulate that the stone itself is storing the energy that produces the effects, it makes sense. And that’s the strength of the drama. It doesn’t stretch credibility – in fact, the idea of residual haunting being caused by physical features holding a memory has been known as ‘stone tape theory’.
The outstanding use of sound takes this scary theory to a new level. At first the haunting takes the form of a woman screaming, and the noise of her terror affects the scientists as much as it does the viewer – it’s difficult to bear. On top of that, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop made a disconcerting soundtrack that jangles the nerves, so that when the battle to understand the ghost intensifies, you find yourself wincing and mentally preparing for an assault on your ears.
It’s true the performances are theatrical rather than suited to television, but as Kim Newman points out in the gentle and informative commentary, in 1972 most people were watching on tiny fuzzy black and white screens; the actors had to go large to get the emotions across. Having said that, I’m not sure that the weird comic relief of the character of Crawshaw (played with gusto by Reginald Marsh) gives much to the action, but it does make for a few amusing moments as he turns up to show off his new prototype for a washing machine and dye his hands various colours in the name of science.
So does The Stone Tape live up to its reputation? It is a genuinely scary and affecting piece of work, and applying rational thought to the ghost makes it more terrifying, not less. The Stone Tape continues to work because it does such a good job of raising questions to which we still don’t know the answers, even if our recording and computing equipment has changed beyond recognition. The fear of the inexplicable remains, and Jane Asher finds something malevolent recorded in the stone that defies our understanding. The feeling at the end of watching is that the surface of the stone has only just been scratched. Who knows what memories are locked up in the walls that surround us?
The Stone Tape is out on the 18th September.
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