Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape

Stone1Join Geek Chocolate as we look back on a piece of historic television, a science fiction/horror crossover that shocked viewers on first broadcast, that raises the question – are some things better left forgotten?

Stone2Perspective is not fixed; it changes with time. Hair and fashion that were the hottest thing for the high school disco, a cherished moment to treasure, now seem hopelessly tied to twenty years past. A novel once considered obscene, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, is now acceptable Sunday evening entertainment on national television, and the work of Ginsberg seems tame next to the exaggerated and posturing of Lady Gaga.

But while some boundaries are pushed back, others have tightened; forty years ago, The Black and White Minstrel Show was acceptable light entertainment provided by the British Broadcasting Corporation, bastion of good taste and decorum, who now seem hideously naïve in their proud display of poor taste. The threshold of youth has changed, so George Pal’s adaptation of The War of the Worlds, bearer of an X certificate upon release in 1953, is now acceptable as daytime programming, broadcast without warning to impressionable minds.

Stone3Of all the writers of televised science fiction in the fifties and sixties, none were as bold as Nigel Kneale, from the horror of his Quatermass trilogy, to the outrage of his adaptation of 1984 and his original play The Year of the Sex Olympics, in many ways a template for today’s saturation “reality” television, where producers of a show following a family stranded on an island introduce a psychopath to boost ratings. Over Christmas 1972 he shocked viewers once again, this time with The Stone Tape, telling the story of a group of researchers based in a Victorian mansion, who come to believe that there are messages from the past stored within the ancient stones of the building.

Organised by the Edinburgh Filmhouse in conjunction with the British Science Association, on Monday 7th March a special screening was hosted by Professor Richard Wiseman, who told us the BBC was inundated with complaints after the original television broadcast, which resulted in the play never being repeated. He wanted us to participate in an experiment to test our response to fear and the unknown, and with an audience relatively unfamiliar with the film other than by reputation, this was an ideal, if elusive, choice.

Stone4The oddness of the film is marked out by the main title design, random patterns on an oscilloscope screen, tantalising hints of shapes just on the edge of recognition, the brain seeking patterns in confusion. It was a fitting opening for a story that concerns the creation of a new recording medium and the possibility that some people are more open to supernatural experiences than others, but the abstract credit sequence was soon let down by the disappointing directness of what followed.

The lead character, computer programmer and analyst Jill Greeley, is borderline hysterical from the opening scene, when she is caught in what can only be described as “mild traffic,” yet somehow contrives to suffer a panic attack. In defence of Jane Asher, the script may have described a more dramatic incident that translated very poorly to screen, but it is hinted that this may be an example of the attention seeking she has used to manipulate the chief researcher to keep him from ending their affair. This makes her shrill character unconvincing both as a scientist and as witness to the events that unfold. Most of the cast spend their time shouting as though concerned the microphones weren’t sufficiently sensitive, though in this respect special mention goes to Michael Bryant as the charisma free head of the team.

Stone5While the setup is lifted from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, with an isolated old house the site of a scientific investigation, and characters including the driven researcher, the nervous woman susceptible to the influence of others who pines for a married man, the party guy who takes nothing seriously and so is immune to the haunting, and the fearful locals who avoid the house, anyone hoping this would approach the achievement of that novel or the film adaptation, Robert Wise’s The Haunting, was to be disappointed. The terror felt on the original broadcast of The Stone Tape was absent during this screening, where more laughter than screams filled the air, fuelled by clumsy dialogue, graceless performances, rampant misogyny, and the unflattering costumes sported by Jane Asher.

That a haunting is tied to a historical location echoes Kneale’s earlier work, Quatermass and the Pit, and The Stone Tape is not without interesting ideas – that an old house can become “haunted” more easily because old stone can capture psychic impressions more readily than modern building material; that these impressions can be stimulated or wiped by utilising the right frequencies; that some people are more susceptible to these impressions, while others remain immune; that the cold chill associated with haunting events is the heat energy being drawn out and transformed into the light and sound of the manifestation – and in that respect it has much more to offer than many modern horrors, but this might be one of the occasions where the past is better left buried in half forgotten memory.