Peter Strickland’s Stone Tape

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My annual Halloween post breaks with its usual music mix/playlist format this year for a recording of The Stone Tape, Peter Strickland’s hour-long radio drama made for Halloween in 2015. This was an adaptation, co-written with Matthew Graham, of Nigel Kneale’s celebrated TV play of the same name, first broadcast in 1972 for the BBC’s Christmas ghost-story slot then unavailable for many years. The combination of Kneale’s name and the impossibility of easily seeing the play gave The Stone Tape a reputation somewhat greater than it might otherwise have warranted. The drama has a number of shortcomings by contemporary standards: the whole thing is shot on video, so it compares unfavourably to the ghost films the BBC were making throughout the 1970s, and the acting is also quite histrionic in places. On the plus side there’s a woman scientist as the central character (an excellent performance by Jane Asher), and another of Kneale’s examinations of a horror staple—the haunted house, in this case—which adeptly twists your expectations while combining science and the supernatural in equal measure.

Strickland’s adaptation uses the same scenario—struggling electronics company moves into a house with a haunted reputation—but with the events moved slightly forward to 1979. The director’s fondness for electronic music shifts the emphasis of the story to the capabilities of electronic sound, both its destructive potential and its use as a diagnostic tool. James Cargill, formerly of Broadcast, now in Children Of Alice, was the soundtrack composer on Strickland’s second feature film, Berberian Sound Studio, and here creates the music and electronic sounds. The radio play is closer to Berberian Sound Studio than anything else Strickland has done to date, and could even be regarded as a companion piece with its recording equipment and repeated screams. (Eugenia Caruso provides screams for both.) As with the film, two thirds into the drama the narrative becomes much more diffuse and fragmented; the recording medium itself is foregrounded for a lengthy sequence that works like an audio equivalent of found-footage horror films. The hazard of this is that the layered nature of Kneale’s horrors may not be so apparent if you’ve not seen the TV version (I can’t say) but the sound design is excellent throughout, and benefits from the use of headphones to appreciate its subtleties. There’s also some sly reference to Alvin Lucier if you’re familiar with his compositions. Jane Asher makes a cameo appearance as the mother of the character she portrayed in the TV version.

The Stone Tape may be listened to or downloaded here.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Nigel Kneale’s Woman in Black
Stone Tapes and Quatermasses
Nigel Kneale’s Nineteen Eighty-Four
The Stone Tape

The Stone Tape

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The Stone Tape has accrued a considerable cult reputation since it was first broadcast as a BBC ghost story during Christmas, 1972. I was too young to see the original transmission—I used to hear awed reports from those who remembered it—and didn’t get to see it until the BFI brought out on DVD a few years ago. That disc is now deleted, and the play is another unfortunate omission from the BFI’s Ghost Stories box set, so this seems a good opportunity to point the curious to the full-length copy that’s currently on YouTube.

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In the past I’ve compared Nigel Kneale, the writer of The Stone Tape, to HP Lovecraft. This isn’t a comparison the often curmudgeonly Kneale might have agreed with but you can find similarities in the way both Kneale and Lovecraft (in his later fiction) created scenarios featuring scientists or technical people which grade from science fiction to outright horror. The horror can be something ancient and earthbound or, as in the case of Kneale’s Quatermass cycle, it can be extraterrestrial. Kneale’s narratives may return continually to scientific investigation but he was smart enough to avoid explaining away his mysteries. The Stone Tape is an uncanny masterpiece that often seems so bare-bones you can hardly believe the effect it’s creating compared to lavishly-budgeted yet inferior feature films. Something about Kneale’s drama works it way insidiously under the skin then lodges there. It leaves with its mysteries intact.

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One reason Kneale’s Christmas play may have been left out of the BFI box is that it doesn’t fit the MR James model of accumulation-of-clues leading to revelation-of-spook. In Kneale’s story an industrial research and development team move into an old mansion building which turns out to be haunted. The manifestation of the ghost—usually the end point of most supernatural stories—quickly becomes an almost commonplace occurrence when the team decide to start probing its presence with their machines. Like most TV plays of the period this is done in the electronic studio but any absence of film atmosphere is compensated for by excellent writing and performances. Jane Asher plays a computer programmer and the only female professional in a group of loud and blustering men. She’s not only the person most sensitive to the spectral happenings but also proves to be the only one with the brains and tenacity to fathom the true nature of the haunting.

The conviction in the performances, Asher’s especially, and the quality and detail of Kneale’s characterisation, is what makes this production work so well. Among the other actors Michael Bryant is the stubborn team leader while Iain Cuthbertson plays the mediating foreman. Cuthbertson later had a major role in the cult TV serial Children of the Stones, and in 1979 was a memorable Karswell in an adaptation of MR James’ Casting the Runes. Also among the cast is Michael Bates who most people will know as the bellowing prison guard in A Clockwork Orange. The sound effects are by the Radiophonic Workshop’s Desmond Briscoe who also created electronic effects for The Haunting, Phase IV and The Man Who Fell to Earth. Director Peter Sasdy worked on a couple of the lesser Dracula films for Hammer but this is his finest hour-and-a-half. And if that isn’t enough priming for you I don’t know what else would suffice. I urge anyone who hasn’t seen this drama to turn off the lights and start the tape. It’s perfect Halloween viewing that grips to the very end.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Haunted: The Ferryman
Schalcken the Painter