A science fiction ghost story? It sounds like one genre too many, but – as in Nigel Kneale’s best work in the Quatermass series – TheStone Tape satisfies precisely because it blends ideas that, in clumsier hands, would collide jarringly. Come to think of it, they often have…
The plot is simple: a research team from Ryan Electrics (not, you’ll note, ‘Electronics’) moves into a long-derelict country house. Unfortunately, the room earmarked for vital records turns out to be haunted by the screaming apparition of a Victorian chambermaid who died there, supposedly from a fall. Initial scepticism gives way to experiment as team leader Brock (Michael Bryant, going great guns as a ruthless bastard) fires up his boffins to solve the problem.
Kneale’s central concept is the ‘stone tape’ theory of hauntings – some places can be imprinted with intense emotions and replay them directly into a sensitive person’s nervous system. This idea was adopted by real-life ghost hunters, but Kneale didn’t leave it at that. As the play develops, computer whiz Jill (Jane Asher, beautifully overwrought) speculates about the real nature of the recording, and the medium. Is it merely inert information? Brock doesn’t care – he’s wiped the pattern that was causing the trouble (or so he thinks) and wants to get on with an intra-company feud. Needless to say, things do not end with hugs and puppies; rarely has the concept of life after death seemed less appealing.
Seeing the play for the first time I was struck by Kneale’s knack for nodding to Hammer horror convention while simultaneously kicking it in the rear. The standard ingredients of the familiar ‘house of horror’ plot are all here, but rearranged and revitalised. The same can be said for the characters. Jill, who addresses the problem with true scientific rigour, is dismissed as an hysterical woman by Brock, an immature egotist who botches things at every turn. Caught between these two is the superb Iain Cuthbertson as the loyal but troubled admin chief, leading an excellent supporting cast. There’s even a mildly comic vicar, eager to probe the parish records for accounts of dark doings.
The Stone Tape has dated, but not too badly. While younger viewers may wonder at oscilloscopes and clacking computers, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop soundtrack remains eerily effective, and if there are a (very) few fluffs in this ‘live recording’ the narrative pace never lets up. The DVD also includes a chatty commentary from Kneale and Kim Newman, plus downloads of the script and another Kneale drama, The Road. But never mind the extras, the play’s the thing, and this one’s solid as a block of Kentish rag.