Mum’s the word

Fiona and I are in this picture… somewhere.

The Edinburgh Secret Society is… wait, no, I can’t tell you about that.

However, at their most recent monthly gathering, the ESS showed Nigel Kneale’s TV play/ghost story THE STONE TAPE, directed by Peter Sasdy, and Fiona and I attended. The Society meets at different, specially selected venues each time, and for this filmshow Edinburgh Filmhouse was chosen — a cinema which happens to be haunted (just ask Diane Ladd!).

At terrible personal risk, I can exclusively reveal that this was no ordinary screening, but a highly scientific investigation into the nature of fear itself. This deeply psychological and technically unexplainable inquiry was — but I’ve said too much.

What I can talk about is the film itself. I’d seen it before (for all host Professor Richard Wiseman’s protestations as to the film’s obscurity and rarity — it was judged so terrifying in 1972 that it was never shown again — it was released on DVD and is on YouTube), and had found it a little slow and not very scary. What always impressed was the idea — Kneale postulated an explanation for hauntings that has been taken up by the parapsychologists and used as a genuine theory. Briefly, Kneale suggested that buildings can, in certain undefined circumstances, act as recording devices, preserving a record of moments of high emotional trauma. Something like this theory informs Scatman Crothers’ explanation of the Overlook Hotel’s phantom populace in THE SHINING… an explanation which proves, at the very least, incomplete.

The other impressive thing in the show is Michael Bryant, as a pig-headed, macho businessman who latches on to a haunting in his new lab as the possible key to a new recording medium — “Tape is dead!” — “Something to beat Nippon!” The dated racism and casual sexism of the character provoked a certain amount of embarrassed laughter from the sophisticates in the audience, but it struck me as an astute and probably accurate skewering of the awfulness of the unreformed 1970s British male. The true theme of the story emerges through heroine Jane Asher, who’s more “sensitive” to ghosts than those around her, and so sensitive to the obnoxiousness of Bryant and the other swinging dicks of big business as to eventually find life almost unsupportable.

Jane Asher appeared in the first QUATERMASS film as little girl, so it’s especially nice to find her here.

The Stone Tape [DVD] [1972]

13 Responses to “Mum’s the word”

  1. Happy Bursula, Ursula!

  2. Sadly my father still refers to her in quite a crude manner, as Arsula Undress.

    The Stone Tape was very hard to get hold of until the BFI DVD was released in 2000, so presumably that is what the lecturer was referring to – the programme must have had some effectiveness for those who saw it back in 1972 or on its one television repeat a year later to continue to remember it for decades to follow – although horror nerds are second only to Doctor Who nerds in their remembrance of old programmes! (I first heard about the programme in 1996 when the horror magazine Shivers ran a loving five page article on the programme, full of enticing details about what it contained!)

    I guess it is very lucky (though it would have been ironic I suppose!) that the BBC hadn’t wiped the tapes of The Stone Tape thinking that it was worthless, as they did to many of their old shows.

    The BFI also released at the same time in their ‘Archive Television’ subheading the BBC’s Ghostwatch from 1992, which was quite surprising as that was a programme that the BBC had almost wanted to pretend had never existed for many years due to all of the complaints received from people who thought that the faux-ghost investigation show was real (this was sort of the UK’s equivalent to the Orson Welles War of the Worlds radio broadcast). It is quite an effective piece of work in its own right, playing beautifully off of the personas of a host of well known early 90s British television personalities. It also has some value for cinephiles as well as it was written by Stephen Volk, who also wrote Ken Russell’s Gothic and the amazingly ludicrous Peter Friedkin killer tree film The Guardian.

  3. Sadly both of these BFI discs have been out of print for a few years now (which is why I’m glad to hear they have apparently found a stopgap home on YouTube), but at least they had a window of opportunity for recognition and re-evaluation.

  4. We saw STONE TAPE last year and thought it poor. Sasdy’s HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR episodes were far more cinematic – have you seen “Rude Awakening” with Denholm Elliott?

  5. Sadly I’ve not yet seen the Hammer House of Horror shows yet – I have them to look forward to!

    The Stone Tape is quite broadly acted, though I quite like that dated feel. And Asher might be portrayed as a ‘ditzy, over sensitive woman’, but she is clearly the most sympathetic character in the entire production.

    I’m watching a lot of the BBC’s complete cycle of Shakespeare plays that were produced between 79 and 85 or so and a lot of these contain similar dated moments, but which are also quite charming as well. I’m also reminded of the comment that Stuart Kaminsky made in the supplements to the Criterion DVD of The Killers – in talking about the 60s Don Siegel TV movie he mentions that the images were made as bright and clear as possible because the makers new that they were going to be primarily shown on small television screens and had to compete with distractions of the home environment.

    Therefore really this provides evidence for the opposite of the old ‘you should only watch things on the big screen, where they belong’ argument – perhaps being projected at the cinema or shown on a HD television set, or even a relatively large CRT television, is exposing it far more than the maker’s had intended and therefore, as in the case of wires or makeup being more clearly visible on spruced up versions of classic films, there has to be some leeway given on certain aspects of the production that don’t measure up to modern eyes.

    But beyond all that, The Stone Tape is very valuable as an excellent example of Kneale’s non-Quatermass work, and for the ways in which it fits in with some of the ideas expressed in Quatermass of the male scientific protagonist who is often a bit bull-headed and pursues a ‘strictly business’ line of investigation, while those more sensitive people around him become more aware of the moral and physical dangers (often ancient evil in a Lovecraftian sense) that are being unearthed and who often get sacrificed, or have to sacrifice themselves, to set the world to rights again.

    One of the best parts of The Stone Tape is that spine-chilling coda in which Asher becomes just the most recent ghost trapped in the stones of the building, replaying her final moments over and over to the horrified Peter. It plays both as a ghostly shock moment, as a moment with horrific implications for Asher’s trapped soul, and particularly effectively as a kind of tormenting of Peter for having driven Jill to her fate – screams that he will never be free of.

  6. Absolutely.

    I like The Stone Tape better than Kneale’s Beasts series, which sounded so promising. But I only really liked it on second viewing. The datedness has both charm and horror (such repulsive people were quite real! They still exist, but modified to suit the times) and I think the TV play stuff is better than the attempts at being cinematic or using video technique. The exterior location looks like a medieval castle and is completely inappropriate, the car accident at the start is horribly edited. Just shooting the script is what was required.

    My favourite late Kneale is his last TV Quatermass, a despairing masterpiece.

    Have seen lots of HHoH, but somehow missed the Denholm. I’m a big fan, so I’ll check him out.

  7. I actually found “The Stone Tape” terrifying! The opening sequence, for some reason, really bothered me– I loved it! It was an unsettling this-could-happen-to-me feeling one doesn’t get with monster movies.

  8. Well that’s certainly a benefit of Kneale’s seriousness as an author — he can’t be bothered writing anything he doesn’t believe in, so he takes the most earnest look he can and tries to make things both real and significant.

    As I say, got more out of it the second time, and would expect it to continue to yield results on reviewings.

  9. I was also struck that this could be the Social Network of its day – instead of dealing with the businessmen it is dealing with the callousness of tech nerds in the pursuit of the next exploitable app.

    Peter’s mimickry of his Irish bosses casual pursuit of money over power (where the “something to beat Nippon” line comes from, spoken in a mockingly broad Irish broque, managing to quite spectacularly combine two racisms into one!) is meant to endear this middle-manager to the workers but his lack of interest in the repetitive haunting as anything more than an opportunity to corner the market in a new recording device shows up his callous disregard for anything approaching human values, particularly in the way that he gets his team to ‘wipe’ the most recent historical layer of the haunting (thereby in a way ‘killing’ the Victorian-era maid again), which is the thing that helps to unleash the even deeper horrors.

  10. I always see him as more middle-manager than tech guy, though, whatever his training may be. Kneale seems broadly sympathetic to his scientists, whether in Quatermass or First Men in the Moon. Here, the businessman replaces the political and military hate-figures of the earlier works, while the computer scientist, Asher, is the most human character of all.

  11. That’s where the comparison to Zuckerberg comes in though – he’s the middle manager exploiting Saverin’s tech-nerd while trying to pretend (or even considering himself different) to the Winklevosses.

    And in the end whether your exploiter or exploitee/enabler, your fundamental goal involves the creation of something that has a very ambiguous purpose for the good of mankind (the irony of a sociopath creating an intrusive, acquisative socialising website contrasted with a new media for recording and storing data exploited by someone who doesn’t appreciate the value of why certain moments would be worth storing and reviewing)

  12. Oh. The fragrant Jane Asher. She is marvellous here in The Stone Tape, supremely sympathetic which makes the ending all the more disturbing. It’s such a pity that she didn’t really receive the opportunities she deserved, she’s obviously beautiful (the mouth of Ms Asher is worthy of poetry in itself. Ahem) but she has a pretty impressive range able to go from scornful goddess to embittered and downtrodden to charming and witty and beyond so it’s more of a pity that she was in relatively few roles that suited her talent and level of appeal. The Masque of the Red Death, Deep End, and Stone Tape all give some hint of what she could do, oh and elsewhere she showed she could do comedy too (the fairly recent – and not very good – Clive Swift/Roger Lloyd Pack sitcom didn’t really make best use of her)! Quite apart from anything else she never dyed her glorious red hair blonde as many famously redheaded actresses seem to nowadays to pacify bigots and fools (thankfully bounteous Christina Hendricks went the other way and is a huge sex symbol which says something I think!).

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