01/08/2010. Contributed by Mark R. Leeper
Nigel Kneale combines science fiction and the supernatural again in his 1972 story of cutting-edge electronics research laboratory haunted by a ghost. At one time Kneale was a font of new ideas, but this play is mostly a reworking of some of the ideas from the much superior Quatermass And The Pit. Still the narrative is tense and at times unnerving. Spoiler: The review will be followed by a spoiler discussing Nigel Kneale's idea.
Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
One of the most respected names in British movie and TV science fiction is Nigel Kneale. Kneale wrote some of the best BBC science fiction of the 1950s to 1970s. His calling card was his adaptation of George Orwell's 1984, a broadcast that caused nation-wide controversy in Britain. But Kneale was best known for four stories involving rocket scientist Bernard Quatermass. He wrote three Quatermass television plays for the BBC in the 1950s. A fourth TV play was produced in 1978. Kneale wrote a handful of other plays for the BBC in the 1970s, including THE STONE TAPE.
Ryan, an electronics research corporation, has renovated an old building into an advanced electronics facility. Taskerland, as the estate is called, is a renovated Victorian building on a foundation going back to Saxon times. The Ryan group hopes to leapfrog the Japanese competition by developing a new recording medium with greater capacity than anything previously available. On the team is just one woman, Jill Greeley (played by Jane Asher).
She seems very unnerved from the very beginning when she and her car is almost crushed between two large lorries. But she remains distraught for reasons not immediately explained. She seems sensitive to something ominous in the building. She is drawn to a chamber that predates the 20th century and there she finds a screaming ghost. She has trouble convincing the other developers but soon they too are experiencing the screaming ghost. When the scientific team can no longer doubt the existence of the ghost they decide to investigate it as a scientific phenomenon. And a scientific phenomenon is indeed what the ghosts turn out to be.
The style of the Quatermass plays is somewhat slow and talky by today's standards. They are stories with ideas, and ideas need to be discussed. THE STONE TAPE has the same style, though perhaps because I saw it several years after the Quatermass stories, the slow pacing is more apparent. The BBC had small special effects budgets so rather than showing a lot of what is going on, it is discussed by the characters. The same tight budgets make the cutting edge research laboratory seem a little sparse.
The casting of Jane Asher as Jill is an interesting trivia point: in the Hammer Films version of The Quatermass Experiment (called THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT [sic] in Britain and THE CREEPING UNKNOWN in the United States), Jane Asher played a little girl whose tea party for her dolls is interrupted by the presence of something alien. More recently she was in the comedy DEATH AT A FUNERAL. Her discomfort with everything that is happening is intriguing at first, but becomes tiresome as the play proceeds. As with Quatermass And The Pit, a woman seems the most sensitive person to the ambient supernatural influences. In both cases the woman seems mysteriously possessed. Her acting could have been taken down a notch or two without damaging the production. But in fact, as in Quatermass And The Pit the forces strike out and affect the minds of everyone in reach. Directing is Peter Sasdy, who directed a lot of horror at about the same time including a few films for Hammer Films in their late heyday.
After many years of trying to find videos of this play, seeing the real thing is something of a letdown. It is good and without having seen Quatermass And The Pit it would be better. But the earlier play glories in more and richer ideas. This play is now quite as high in quality. I rate The Stone Tape a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. The DVD was apparently at one time available from Sinister Cinema Amazon.
As I said this play's idea does not work as well as the idea in Quatermass And The Pit. It is not quite clear what causes an event to be recorded. There are decades worth of material that could be recorded, but why is it so dramatic a moment. For that matter, why is it even a human moment that is recorded? Kneale's idea is somewhat overly anthropocentric.
There is no reason why a human would be more likely to be recorded than, say, a horse. One also feels that the number and location of ghost sightings does not support Kneale's hypothesis.
Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 2010 Mark R. Leeper
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