Wonders of YouTube
The Stone Tape (1972)
It must be because I’m reaching thirty this year. I’ve felt a real urge to revisit the films and TV shows which I watched when I was a kid. Now of course, there’s a service called YouTube which allows me to fully indulge. You may have heard of it.
It’s been eye opening. Some are still worth watching their entirety, although I soon found that even more are not. Some i might even buy now but the greatest thing about YouTube’s existence is getting to see shows and films that are now mostly deleted or impossible to purchase. Some can now only be found for truly extortionate prices. The unsettling 1972 classic, ‘Stone Tape’ is one of these. I’d heard about it over the years, and I recently tried to find it at the usual places online, but the amount it costs to get hold of it is ridiculous, almost £60 for a second hand DVD copy. So, I confess, I YouTubed, and watched all eleven sections of The Stone Tape in one sitting. I’ve concluded that it definitely would not have been worth spending £60 on, but I would more than happily have paid around £15 for the whole thing (not least because it’s far easier to get screen grabs from a DVD!)
So here’s my reaction to the Stone Tape experience:
Even the name ‘Stone Tape’ conjures an uneasy conflict between the cold, heavy, solid and ancient stone and a device we consider exclusively modern. Essentially, this is exactly what happens. Ancient menace and modern arrogance, albeit from 1972, end up clashing in a disturbingly delivered way.
Ryan Electronics have recently set up offices and labs in a Victorian stately home called ‘Taskerlands’. Most of its interior has been converted into offices, but one room has been left looking very spooky with bare stone walls and an exposed stone staircase that would have ‘elf & safety’ up in arms. It’s immediately apparent that something odd is lurking in the room, and the builders won’t go in there either. If sci-fi and horror has taught us anything, it’s that all builders and locals have a sixth sense for these kinds of things. Ignore at your peril!
Right away we meet Jill Greely (Jane Asher). She’s a programmer, new to the Ryan team and very sensitive to the strange phenomena that begin almost immediately. In the first few moments of the programme, after the superbly eerie opening sequence, she’s nearly crushed between two huge Ryan Electronics lorries and she only escapes following what may have been a premonition.
Once Jill is inside the room for the first time she hears running footsteps and then the awful sound of a woman screaming in terror. It’s a truly awful noise, upsetting even today by its absolute fear. Then she sees the ghostly figure of a maid screaming at the top of the exposed staircase, and then falling to her death. Jill is very upset but determined to understand the mystery. It soon becomes clear that the stone of the walls themselves have captured this awful event and will replay it forever to those sensitive enough to see and hear it, making a sort of prehistoric recording experience. However, her boss, Peter Brock (Michael Bryant) sees an even greater opportunity – he’s keen to exploit this unconventionally taped image in order to beat the inevitable Japanese domination of world electronics. As you do. He sets about capturing the experience electronically with passionate conviction, and I loved the intricate dialogue as the team worked together and alternated between taking the piss and being scared out of their wits.
As the research team work frantically to get results, it gradually dawns on Brock that the recording come from inside your head and only affects certain people – one team member isn’t affected at all and I can only assume he watched everyone else’s reaction to it with real bafflement. After a harrowing night spent desperately trying to achieve this, listening to the woman’s endlessly repeated screaming, Brock is horrified to learn that the team has actually managed to wipe the ‘recording’ altogether. This completely screws up his dreams of corporate success and gets the research team replaced by his rival’s far more banal washing machine project. There’s an element of the ridiculous as baskets of dirty washing are taken from the sleek Ryan Electronics lorries and up into the grand house, past the now defunct stone tape researchers. But Jill remains obsessed by the stone tape and works hard on her own research, programming day and night until she comes up with a much more terrifying discovery.
There was something far older lurking just underneath the first recording.
She goes back to the room and the monstrous force that attacked the poor maid comes after her, too, portrayed as two eerie red lights that could be eyes, and a dreadful roaring noise that drives her up the same stairs. The maid’s fate is now hers, and her voice is also locked onto the stone tape as the evil comes full circle. Brock makes this horrifying realisation and appears to go mad himself, howling in despair as Jill’s echo screams for help using his name over and over.
This is a brilliantly creepy story, conducted with a great deal of style and decent production values. The great quality of the banter between the characters didn’t hurt either and it seems that cynicism is truly timeless (see also Casablanca and the original Thing movie!) and although the story arc relies on a certain amount of clichéd ‘female intuition’ and curiosity it certainly never reaches Dark Place levels of patronisation. Jill’s driven hunt to uncover the truth actually makes her very interesting, and her empathy for the maid is a sharp and much-needed contrast to the singe-minded, commercial exploitation that the rest of the scientists have in mind. At one point Jill truly hopes that the maid isn’t actually ‘there’, that she’s free despite the recording (meaning her soul and consciousness), and in the end we can only pray that Jill is also released, and not condemned to exist in those last moments of terror for evermore. Given how malevolent the force that killed her was, it’s hard to be very optimistic.
I certainly hope that The Stone Tape gets broadcast again at some point, hopefully at Christmas, like the first time it appeared! It was written by the late Nigel Kneale, who was also responsible for the Quatermass stories and appears to have refused to write for a whole host of important programmes and films (according to Wikipedia), to the extent that it’s hard to see what he actually did, apart from ITV’s Sharpe, following the Stone Tape. By all accounts he perfectly nailed the ‘supernatural meets sci fi’ setup, and the concept has had a lasting effect on everyone from John Carpenter to League of Gentleman’s Mark Gatiss. By all accounts, he was also very hard to impress. He had every right to be difficult to please considering the high quality on display here. What he’d make of the current Doctor Who, not to mention most of the SyFy channel’s product, doesn’t bear thinking about!
If you have even a little concentration span left, the Stone Tape is a true gem and worth seeking out. Just to help you, here is part one (of eleven) below: