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The Stone Tape (1972)
Director: Peter Sasdy
review by Peter Schilling
Perhaps the most sought after item of genre TV from the pre-home video era, this DVD release is a top title from the British Film Institute's new range of archive TV productions. The Stone Tape was actually written by Nigel (Quatermass) Kneale for a Christmas ghost story commission, but it has long since past into SF media legend as one of the most thought-provoking screen dramas about scientific investigation into the supernatural.
It starts, unassumingly enough, as a research team from Ryan Electrics, led by the manipulative Brock (Michael Bryant), set up their workshops in Taskerlands, an old country house with a sinister history. When Brock learns that renovation of one particular end room intended for data storage has halted because of recalcitrant workmen, he becomes determined to analyse the reported cause of this dissent. The dark place seems to be haunted, and several members of the technical staff hear, feel and see things they cannot explain. Computer specialist Jill (Jane Asher) is highly sensitive to the room's weird phenomena. Others hear uncanny screams and shiver at sudden chills, but only Jill is convinced that she has seen the ghost of a Victorian servant girl.
In a brainstorming session, Jill suggests the room itself is a recording medium, so Brock urges his scientists into action, hoping to prove the theory and exploit this discovery as a shortcut to the revolutionary 'digital crystal' recording system that he imagines will soon replace videotape. Is such a thing as 'stone tape' possible? Is the ghost in the room simply a mass of data to be studied, offering access to vivid holographic history? Or is the room a gateway to the spirit world?
Kneale explored the intersections of science and superstition in his earlier drama, Quatermass And The Pit. Here, similarly imaginative ideas are sharply focused on something less apocalyptic but more personal. And yet, the ancient protean force is still lurking there in ambush.
Asher is excellent as Jill, the psychic who is rather more concerned about the ghost - preferably not - being self-aware than anyone else: "I couldn't bear it if she knew!" The script uses SF jargon with care, and tends to foreground the relationship between Jill and Brock. This skilfully avoids all the ghost-busters clichés that might have sunk this drama in tragicomedy, presenting us instead with a play about solidly real people confronting the inexplicable.
Peter Sasdy directs The Stone Tape with commendable sincerity, sustaining a controlled energy throughout, and drawing outstanding performances from the whole cast - relatively large for a one-off TV show - bringing all the scabbed-over conflicts between insightful characters to life. And, in the process, demonstrating with a pace and panache rarely matched in genre TV of the 1970s that, despite its perceived wonders, human science does not have all the answers, yet.
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tZ Quatermass: Tuning Into the Future - article by Andrew Darlington (published in The ZONE #8)
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