DVD Review: THE STONE TAPE (1972)

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Review: The Stone Tape / Cert: PG / Director: Peter Sadsy / Screenplay: Nigel Kneale / Starring: Jane Asher, Michael Bryant, Iain Cuthbertson / Release Date: Out Now

Nigel Kneale is of course revered for his Quatermass serials, but aficionados consider his 1972 TV play The Stone Tape to be right up there in the same league. Trouble is, that kind of rep brings expectations of a kind that are tough for a 40-year-old programme to live up to. This new DVD release therefore gives us the opportunity to pose the question: is The Stone Tape really the stone-cold classic it's made out to be?

It concerns a group of scientists in the employ of an electronics company who set up shop in a crumbling stately mansion abandoned since the war. Their task, to dream up a “completely new recording medium” that will throw the Japanese for a loop. However, they immediately hit a snag when it transpires that the mouldering old store room that has been set aside for a computer hub is in fact haunted – not by a subtle ghost either, but one given to ear-splitting shrieks. Team leader Peter Brock (Bryant, in a pair of cripplingly tight bell-bottoms) decides to investigate. “Analyse a spook?” one of the boffins queries. “Let's say it's a mass of data waiting for a correct interpretation.”

Applying cold science to the supernatural has become a standard trope of horror in the days since The Stone Tape was filmed, but where Kneale scores over his legions of imitators is in his clear and plausible presentation of scientific methodology. At the centre of this is Jill (Asher). The lone woman of the group, she's by far its biggest brain. She's the one who begins to put their supernatural encounters into some kind of theoretical context by asking questions about heat exchange and the significance of the fact that not everyone experiences the spectre in the same way.

She's also an interestingly divided character – part quivering wreck, highly sensitive to the store room's vibes, part human computer who takes shelter behind the notion that the ghost is a “dead mechanism”, with nothing of the living person left within it. Her journey is placed within a thoughtful commentary on gender relations. Peter – more of a manager than a real scientist and a bit of a shit beneath his bonhomie – exploits her brilliance but is apt to denigrate her as an hysterical female. Her other work colleagues, however, are much less patronizing and altogether more appreciative.

It's a brilliant, once in a lifetime script, full of fiendish yet logical twists and turns. Such a shame it ended up on the desk of Hammer hack Peter Sadsy. His direction is disappointingly crude and unimaginative in the big set-pieces, and he draws the cast into shouty performances that haven't worn at all well. (The one honourable exception is Iain Cuthbertson, who purrs Kneale's lines beautifully.) Even Sadsy, though, can't entirely ruin what is one of the great TV ghost stories.

Extras: Audio commentary with Nigel Kneale and Kim Newman.

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