DVD Review: The Stone Tape

The Stone Tape, written by Nigel Kneale, aired on the BBC on Christmas day 1972 and again the following Halloween, then disappeared into the BBC archives for decades. But it wasn’t forgotten. For many British people around my own age, it’s the equivalent of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark or the little Zuni fetish doll chasing Karen Black around in Trilogy of Terror–the spooky made-for-TV movie you saw once as a child that scared the hell out of you.

Jill and some blobby things

Nigel Kneale is rare among television writers in that he’s famous enough to have his name at the top of the credits. The only other writer of similar standing I can think of would be Richard Matheson.

Kneale is probably best known for his Quatermass series (I really must settle down and write something about Quatermass and the Pit one of these days; I’ve been meaning to since last fall.) What made me buy this DVD from Britain, aside from curiosity regarding a hi-tech ghost story I’d heard so much about but never seen, was the additional attraction that Kneale does commentary on the disk.

This story begins as Jill Greeley (Jane Asher) arrives to begin her first day’s work at an enormous neo-Gothic Victorian house that’s in the process of being converted into offices and lab facilities for a team of researchers.

The most interesting thing I learned from the DVD commentary is that, while the interiors are all studio sets, the house used for the exterior shots once belonged to Ada, Lady Lovelace. She was Lord Byron’s daughter but also famous in her own right for her work on Charles Babbage’s theoretical Analytic Engine; she’s credited as the first person to write a computer program and the programming language Ada is named after her. Kneale says he only learned about the house’s history during filming and it’s a coincidence that Jill is a brilliant computer programmer–a remarkable job for a woman in the early 1970s.

As Jill’s tiny car enters the house’s courtyard, it’s nearly crushed between two large lorries backing up in opposite directions. What’s striking about this scene is that even though Jill is leaning on her car’s horn, neither of the lorry drivers nor any of the dozen or so workmen unpacking crates of equipment from other trucks nearby pay the slightest attention. This will become a theme.

Jill moves her car out the way just in time, but she’s badly shaken up by the incident while the other members of the research team arrive.

The others are all men, some hippyish looking and others nerdy, all somewhat obnoxious. They needn’t concern us as individuals, except for two:

  1. Mr. Collinson, aka “Colly,” played by Iain Cuthbertson, who is the building administrator, secretly sweet on Jill, and the nicest guy of the bunch.
  2. The team’s leader, Peter Brock (Michael Bryant, recently seen as the antiquarian Reverend Somerton, whose greed got the better of him in The Treasure of Abbot Thomas although that was filmed 2 years later.) Peter is not a nice man. In fact, he’s a bullying jackass and shouty besides. Most of the actors here give rather shouty performances, but in his case I think it’s meant to be a character trait.

Peter is a married man, but he and Jill are having an affair. I’ve no idea what she sees in him, but it’s soon clear that Peter is only interested in her mind. At least, the analytic part of it. Peter also calls it a “feminine mind”–which means that he disregards everything Jill says that isn’t hard data and attributes it to some ulterior motive to get at him. He dismisses her near-accident as a manipulative attempt for his sympathy. But no other member of his team has her skills and so he’s using her love to secure her loyalty and keep her working on his project when she might otherwise have transferred to another job.

So what is the project? The company that these people work for wants them to come up with a new recording medium to out-compete Japan. Remember, this is 1972; CDs and what we know today as digital media are about a decade in the future.

Jill is meant to have a room specially set up for her computers for data storage. In those days, children, a computer was about the size of a vending machine and had blinky lights and tape reels on the front. There are a couple of these already in the team’s main work area, but she’s going to need a bunch more for her work. However, the designated computer room isn’t ready yet, Colly reports ruefully.

Jill and her computers These huge computers and the accompanying equipment are the kind of thing people call “dated” when they see them in old films and TV shows, but I find them a fascinating look into what things were like in a time that wasn’t so long ago–but it feels like a different world. Similar to my delight at the big-box camera Lord Dattering uses in The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, but that was a recreation of a Victorian technology, and this was really the state of the art at the time The Stone Tape was made.

When we visit the prospective computer room with Colly, Peter, and Jill, we see that barely any work’s been done on it at all. The floor is filthy, a handkerchief-sized cobweb hangs from the single, bare ceiling lightbulb, and the small panes on the window high up on one stone wall are mostly broken. Rotted wooden paneling partially covers another stone wall; when Peter gives this a few good whacks, enough of it comes down to reveal a set of steps behind it, set into the wall and going halfway-up to nowhere.

Colly says that the workmen refuse to go into the room anymore but won’t tell him why. The workmen also discovered the stairs before they stopped working, along with a number of U.S. Army-issued tins of Spam from when American troops were housed in the building during World War II and used this as storeroom, and a child’s letter presumably written to Father Christmas. Or is it?

“What I want for Christmas,” Jill reads the letter, “is for you to go away.” You’re not going to get many presents with that.

Colly has some more information to provide about the stone-walled room. It’s much older than the Victorian house; the foundations are said to be Saxon and the stones have been reused and rearranged multiple times over the years, most recently as a sort of folly and then incorporated into the current house.

After the two men go, Jill hears the echoing sounds of footsteps running through the room and up the stairs. The ghostly figure of a young woman dressed in a Victorian maid’s uniform appears standing near the top step, screaming in terror.

The ghost on  the stairs

When Jill tells Peter she’s seen a ghost, of course he doesn’t believe her.

After work, the two drop by the nearest pub. The woman who owns the bar used to a party girl when the GIs were stationed at the house, and she tells them that the soldiers had some weird stories about things they’d seen at the place. It’s implied that her son, who works with her, was fathered by one of the soldiers; he’ll have his own story to tell later on.

The local vicar informs Peter that the ghost who haunts the house was a maid named Louisa; she was found at the foot of the steps with a broken neck in the 1890s. An exorcism was performed a few years later, but it didn’t take.

This information makes Peter reconsider Jill’s story. After he sees her off home, he returns to the now dark and empty house and stands outside the closed door of the stone-walled room. He hears the running footsteps and the scream for himself.

The next morning, Peter sets his team onto a series of experiments. He doesn’t believe in ghosts as such–that is, spirits of the dead–and he wants to understand the phenomena that he, Jill, and other people have experienced on scientific terms. The team already has plenty of audio and video equipment at hand (actual BBC stuff; they taught the actors how to twiddle the knobs in the right way to look like they know what they’re doing). They set it up in the room.

The next time Louisa manifests, some hear her footsteps and scream as faint sounds while for others they’re deafeningly loud. One man in addition to Jill sees the ghost. Another doesn’t see or hear a thing. This same man doesn’t feel the drop in temperature that everyone else does. None of the microphones or cameras pick up a trace of the ghost.

Further experiments follow. Can the coldness of the room be measured? How many recorded sightings of Louisa have there been over the years? Does she appear when there’s no one in the house? What if the man who senses nothing is the only person in the room? The group briefly wonders what a maid was doing up on the incomplete steps in the first place, and how such a relatively short fall killed her. Aside from a joke from Peter, nobody at this point speculates over what she’s screaming about.

The history of the little boy who wrote the letter is tracked down. He lived in the house as a child and spend the rest of his life as a recluse.

The barkeeper’s son is brought in for an interview about what he and his friends saw when they were boys back in the 1950s and broke into the empty house to goof around and break the windows, as kids do. It turns out that he was never in that room before; he becomes hysterical once he is in it and senses the ghost’s presence. A friend of his named Jackie did go into the room once on a dare, he tells Jill, and claimed that the ghost was about to talk, and then “the others came.” Jackie was in a mental hospital for awhile after that and may never be quite right again.

When Jill analyzes the data she’s compiled, one correlation emerges: the walls of the room. Louisa’s last minutes of trauma and terror have impressed themselves into the stones, which act as a recording device–a “stone tape,” hence the story’s title. The “ghost” then plays itself back into each person’s mind directly, depending on their degree of sensitivity.

The idea upsets Jill. How do they know that this is simply a mindless recording of an event? Is it possible that some part of the dead girl’s personality has survived and is called to act out her last horrible moments over and over again–perhaps 8,000 times according to Jill’s calculations? Peter doesn’t believe so. He, on the other hand, is thrilled. This may be the new media they’ve been looking for!

The giant megaphone-thing

The next experiment is set up to analyze the mineral content of the stones, which are a common type used all over England. The team tries lasers, strobe lights, and a machine like an enormous megaphone to see if they can get the ghost to “play” on command. After all, as Peter observes, what good is a recording that only plays back when it feels like it? Louisa does pop up a few times while they’re working–some of the team are initially disturbed, but after enough repetitions, they cease to pay attention to the footsteps and screams. She never, however, appears in response to whatever prompts they use and this becomes an obsession with Peter. More lights! More lasers!

In the midst of all this commotion, Jill’s printer (dot matrix!) starts spitting out words that look like they might be requests for prayer to save a soul. “It’s in the computah!” one of the guys shrieks. This is a moment that I think must have impressed itself into the memories of many children watching this in the ’70s; it’s the kind of thing that would have stuck with me long after I’d forgotten the plot.

Peter finally turns up the volume on that megaphone thing so loud that it drives everyone else out of the room, except for Jill who sits with her hands over her ears. What he succeeds in doing is erasing the “tape.” Louisa’s ghost is gone.

Jill, however, soon realizes that Louisa was only the most recent, surface impression on the stone. There are other, deeper impressions underneath. How far back do they go? One fact about stone is that, in human terms, it’s very, very old.

The vicar calls at the house with information about an earlier exorcism performed at the site, in the 1600s long before the current house existed. The history of this as a disturbed place goes back years before Louisa’s ghost.

Jill senses something deeper when the team returns to clean up the room the next day–presumably now that Louisa is gone, the workmen can fix things up for Jill’s computers as originally planned. The BBC’s sound department has been put to great use in this show, and the sounds Jill hears here are extremely effective. They’re muted, mumbled, and distorted like an old battery-powered cassette recorder when the batteries have just about died and the tape moves so slooowly that you can’t make the words out anymore. But you know it’s saying something. This older, deeper “ghost” sound grows louder, until it overwhelms her. Jill has a sort of fit and no one notices until she’s on the floor (see what I meant about this being a theme?)

Peter wants her to leave, take some time off, but Jill stays on that evening just long enough to learn to her own misfortune just what terrified Louisa, what the maid was doing up on the steps that go nowhere, and how she fell… and the stone tape now has a fresh surface recording to play back.

Jill climbs up the stone temple

It’s a great story and I enjoyed it thoroughly even if Jill was sometimes too hysterical before she had a good reason to be and Peter was such a completely unlikeable jerk that I spent much of my first viewing hoping that he was going to be the one who ended up at the foot of the stairs with a broken neck. Kneale’s reputation as a writer is well deserved, but I’ve often thought while watching the Quatermass stories that his imagination exceeds the BBC’s special effects budget. That is a problem here too.

As I noted above, the sound of the ghosts is great. The images of them, not so much. On the occasions when she is seen, Louisa’s ghost is just the sort of double exposure that never really looks like it’s in the surroundings and never works for me. And Jill’s final vision consists of some psychedelic red lights and green, amorphic blobby figures that chase her up the steps. There’s a glimpse of a stone temple, however, that looks pretty cool.

Peter screams Fortunately, the ghosts as seen aren’t the disturbing part of the story. What does stay with me afterwards isn’t anything I’ve seen or heard, but the implications for Jill and the nature of ghosts as discussed earlier on. Is it only a recording of a moment in time, like an actor in a film, or is it like a performance on stage where the actor plays out the same horrific scene countless times?

It’s the second possibility, which he rejected earlier, that will torture Peter as he listens to Jill’s “recorded” pleas for help.

About Kathryn L Ramage

Kathryn L. Ramage has a B.A. and M.A. in English lit and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She lives in Maryland with three calico cats. As well as being the author of numerous short stories, novellas, and essays, she is the author of "Maiden in Light," "The Wizard's Son," and "Sonnedragon," novels set on an alternate Earth whose history has diverged from ours somewhere during the medieval period. All three are part of an intended series of fantasy novels that mostly take place in a dukedom called the Northlands, a part of the Norman Empire that roughly covers the north-eastern U.S.
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