Sunday 25 August 2013

The Stone Tape

The Stone Ranger

The Stone Tape
Airdate: 25th December 1972 UK
Directed by Peter Sasdy
BBC DVD Region 2

Okay, so I’m really not that happy about having to write this review. It’s not going to be what people want to hear from me on this particular TV drama and I can’t tell you how dissapointed I feel about this.

The Stone Tape is a very highly thought of phenomena in terms of classic British horror TV and, honestly, I can see why. It’s got a good script and the acting is mostly not too bad... definitely of its time (“Alright, luv?”). Why does 70s TV acting seem to date more than any other decade, I wonder? I am more shocked and surprised that I didn’t personally think a little more of the show given its pedigree and the fact that I absolutely love things like this normally.

This aired when I was four years old and I don’t believe I saw it at the time. But I wish I had done because, when I was four, it would have frightened me silly and given me nightmares (just like other shows and movies by this writer did) and I would probably have very fond memories of this indeed. It comes from the pen of one of my all time favourite genre writers, Nigel Kneale, responsible for terrifying me with the Quatermass films and serials (without which, frankly, there would be no shows like Doctor Who on the air today... at least not in the way we are familiar with) and also such landmarks as the Peter Cushing TV adaptation of Orwell’s 1984 and various other, quirkier things, like a comedy show called Kinvig I used to watch (goodness knows what that looks like these days).

Also, it’s very much kin to two TV shows which used to terrify us kids in the late 70s and which were always the ‘talk of the playground’ the next day at school - The Omega Factor and Sapphire and Steel.

So it really surprises me that The Stone Tape felt just a little less than my expectations of it had allowed for, but I can’t really put a finger on just why it didn’t quite jell for me.

I thought some of the acting was good but Jane Asher, although she was definitely locked into a specific and fairly intense performance, was a bit misplaced with her acting choices, I thought. She seemed to be a touch too over the top in the portrayal of the sensitive nature of her empathic condition and while this might have been the best way to go with the character, I felt the style of the performance didn’t really fit in with a lot of the other actors around her. And its strange because she’s doing brilliant and not very easy things in the role and congratulations to her in some ways (because I think the problem lays a bit more in the editing and pacing, rather than her talent) but it feels like it should have maybe been toned down a little in relation to the claustrophobic, in your face feel of the “haunted room” atmosphere which so fascinates the many characters crammed into their new research facility.

The Stone Tape tells of a group of researchers trying to discover the next big recording technology device and, when they relocate to larger premises, the stumble across a ‘haunted’ room. After experienceing a few audio and visual hallucinations which can’t be picked up on their equipment, they try to find out what makes this phenomena tick so they can harvest the results in their race to find the next best recording medium. This is after they realise the stones in the room have obviously recorded the death of a maid from another century in the very material of their walls... The Stone Tape of the title.

Now, I’ve had a bit of a think about this and I have concluded that maybe the writing on this is a little bit ambitious for the hour and a half running time. Certain sections and jumps seemed a little too rushed for my liking.  I’m very much a fan of slow creeping dread as opposed to other kinds of horror but I do like a less speedy appointment with tales dealing with a “haunting menace” and The Stone Tape just felt a little too pacy for me. Although, some of the scenes were quite eeire I just felt... well, let me put it this way. I’m fairly squeemish and quite easy to scare when it comes to ghost stories and I watched The Stone Tape on my own in the dark one evening, and I didn’t feel scared or chilled once. Didn’t look around in the dark to see if anything “against nature” was creeping around the house with me as a direct result of my viewing experience. It just didn’t make much impact on me.

Which I do feel is really strange. The 1963 version of The Haunting, for example, never fails to chill me no matter how many times I see it... and nothing much actually happens in that.

My other problem is that The Stone Tape not only has a very predictable fate for its main female protagonist, but even the final little ‘twist” is so obvious that you are kind of waiting for it to happen from very early on in the programme. Which is a shame because I’m used to Nigel Kneale being a lot more mind blowing than that, to be honest. This ending was just so expected, even used as a way of haunting a character, brilliantly played by Michael Bryant, who has progressed into more of a villain by the end of the play (indeed, the subtle ruthlessness of the character’s driven obsession reminded me of the way Brian Donlevy used to mis-play Quatermass in the first two Hammer adaptations from Kneale’s original serials... but in The Stone Tape that’s the right tone to go with for that character, I think).

All in all I’m glad I saw the play finally. It’s not without its charm and its certainly a time piece which will remind older viewers of the British attitude towards life back in the 70s and, possibly, provide comical amusement for less older viewers. I will even be watching it with the commentary included on the DVD at some point so I can try to decode why it’s held in such high regard. Alas, on this viewing, my body temperature only dropped to lukewarm and was, it has to be said, far from chilly.

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