The Stone Tape


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.


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.


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

9 thoughts on “The Stone Tape”

  1. Spookily, the BFI are re-releasing the DVD. It’s due out on Nov 26th, according to Amazon. It’s in their “Ghost Stories from the BBC” series, but, as you say, odd they didn’t put it in the “Definitive” box set.

  2. Ah, that’s good to hear, thanks. I thought it surprising that the BFI had reissued all the others they’d done originally but not this one.

  3. There’s a company here in the states named SINISTER CINEMA that sells DVD-Rs of obscure films that has an edition of “The Stone Tape”. They have the available original Quatermass serials as well.

    John I take your point about a similarity in the approaches between HPL and Kneale. I have always recommended the 1967 movie version of “Quatermass & the Pit” (over here “Five Million Years to Earth” apparently because we weren’t expected to know who Quatermasss was, probably correctly) as the best example of a “Lovecrafty” movie. “Lovecrafty” being defined as a work that best encapsulated HPL’s ideas without being an actual adaptation of his work.

    I have to confess I prefer the 1967 version because of its tautness and the performances of the principles, Andrew Keir, James Donald and Barbara Shelley. The best scene is in the church when the welder “possessed” by the force from the spaceship describes his visions of life on ancient Mars.

    “What color is the sky? Blue?”


    And I liked the fact that Quatermass is susceptible to the force but Roney is not. You’re quite right. A seamless combination of science fiction and horror, in the best spirit of HPL.

  4. I see further similarity in the way their stories often involve the uncovering of successive layers of myth and memory. That’s very prevalent in Quatermass and the Pit where you have Hobbs End being the surface layer of deeper revelations. Lovecraft does a similar thing in The Call of Cthulhu and elsewhere. Lesser writers tend to give you the one thing and little else.

    This reminds me that I’ve still not seen the TV version of Quatermass and the Pit. I’ve been told many times that it was superior to the film although I suppose that’s a matter of taste.

  5. I haven’t seen The Stone Tape since it was originally broadcast, but I do recall the ice-chill of hairs raising along my spine, a reaction I have so rarely felt when watching supernatural fare. Many thanks for the Youtube tip.

    I can’t even speak about the execrable re-make of Oh whistle and I’ll come to you my lad. I wanted to kick in the television screen!

  6. If it’s years since you’ve seen it then it might not hold up so well. That happened to me with the BBC’s Lost Hearts: frightened me to death on first viewing (not least because I was about the same age as the boy who’s the main character) then seemed disappointingly silly when I saw it again years later.

  7. Thanks so much for this post. I’ll definitely check out The Stone Tape. Also, thanks for pointing me in the direction of Children of the Stones! I remember coming across a few episodes of it on TV in the 80’s (in Texas!) and I was entranced. I could never remember the name of the series and never saw more than those few episodes. I’m excited to watch the whole series now on youtube.

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