The Stone Tape (1972)
The Stone Tape is a television play directed by Peter Sasdy and starring Michael Bryant, Jane Asher, Michael Bates and Iain Cuthbertson. It was first broadcast on BBC Two at Christmas 1972. Combining aspects of science fiction and horror, the story concerns a team of research scientists who move into their new facility, a renovated Victorian mansion that is allegedly haunted. Upon investigation, they learn that the haunting is a recording of a past event held within the very fabric of the structure. Believing that this may be the key to the development of a new recording medium, they throw all their expertise technology into learning how the stones preserves its recording. However, their investigations lead to more sinister and tragic events.
The Stone Tape was written by Nigel Kneale, best known as the writer of the Quatermass series. Its juxtaposition of science and superstition is a common theme in much of Kneale's work; in particular, his 1952 radio play "You Must Listen", about a haunted telephone line. The Stone Tape was also influenced by a visit Kneale paid to the BBC's research and development department, which was based in an old Victorian house in Kingswood, Surrey. Critically acclaimed at time, The Stone Tape remains well regarded to this day as one of Kneale's best and most disturbing works. Since its broadcast, the hypothesis that residual hauntings are recordings of past events made by the natural environment, has come to be known as the “Stone Tape Theory”.
Nearly half a century on, certain aspects of The Stone Tape have dated. It's production design and soundtrack reflect seventies pop culture. The imperialist attitudes displayed along with the lead male characters inherent misogyny seem very archaic now. Yet the plot themes and underlying scientific premise are very contemporary. The lack of visual effects enhances the atmosphere as well as the growing tension and unease. It should also be noted that this was a drama made for television in the editorial style of the time. By today’s standards this is a slow burn but frankly all the better for it. The play was obviously an influence on such films as John carpenter’s Prince of Darkness and Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist and is a prime example of Nigel Kneale's best work. In an age when spectacle and aesthetics tend to drown out narrative in genre productions, The Stone Tape remains a true milestone, demonstrating that it is ideas and character that sustain a quality drama.