Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Nigel Kneale is a grand old talent of British television, although barely known in the United
States. The Stone Tape is one of his legendary BBC telefilms, one often referred to in
Science Fiction literature, but that nobody seems able to see. Now the British Film Institute is
out a series of BFI Archive Television DVDs. This disc is PAL, but region 0. This means
found out the hard way) that it won't play on a tabletop NTSC DVD machine. But it spins up just fine on a DVD-ROM
drive in a computer. Luckily, I had access to one.
Kneale writes intelligent science fiction of the type that Savant dotes on, hence the enthusiastic articles
in these pages on Quatermass 2, The Abominable Snowman,
Quatermass and the Pit, and Quatermass in general in the very early Savant
piece Quatermass Who? The Stone Tape shows Kneale to be both
consistently prescient - most of the concepts in this telefilm had to wait ten years to be exploited
in more 'popular' movies.
Brash project director Peter Brock (Michael Bryant) installs his research crew in
a refurbished English country house, and drives them to forge into pure research to find a new
kind of recording medium to take away the Japanese lead in consumer technology. But one unfinished
room in the ancient building definitely seems to be be haunted with strange sounds, and sometimes
sights, for sensitive team member Jill Greeley (Jane Asher). After unsuccessfully trying to record
or measure the phenomena, Brock gets an inspiration: the stone of the room itself has somehow
'recorded' the death of a woman in the castle 200 years ago, and 'plays it back' when disturbed by
intruders ... directly into their brains.
A brisk and challenging show, The Stone Tape is well written in the verbose teleplay style, and
for a videotaped item from 1972, is extremely well-produced. Kneale's group of bickering researchers
are rowdy and stimulating people, at a time when most shows still depicted any kind of a scientist
as a sober cipher. Michael Bryant (The Ruling Class, Lenin in Nicholas & Alexandra)
badgers and expounds and generally ramrods his project like a swimming-team coach, but with a better
vocabulary. He's basically the Quatermass character, but oddly, more like the pushy and obnoxious
American version of Quatermass, the interpretation Kneale claimed to detest. Jane Asher played a little girl in the
very first film adaptation of a Quatermass original,
The Quatermass Xperiment, and here takes the key role of an scientist especially
sensitive to psychic phenomena. Or in this case, more susceptible to the brainwaves coming from the Stones.
It's fun to see what is basically a haunted house film done from the viewpoint of real scientists
who have no intention of being spooked by superstition. Some of them do anyway, of course, but as
in all Kneale stories, the rational outlook prevails. The screams and phantoms are pegged as, 'just a
mass of data waiting for correct interpretation', and words like 'heuristic' are bandied about. This
is not the kind of show where people shout things like, 'The ions are positively charged, professor!'
Kim Newman's liner notes cite The Haunting of Hill House as a forerunner with the scientific
investigation idea, but what The Stone Tape will remind us of is Poltergeist, made ten years
later. The Spielberg movie's investigation turns a haunted house into a 3 Ring Circus; The Stone Tape
stays very basic, with surprisingly effective low-tech special effects.
Peter Sasdy is best known for a few reasonable Hammer films; his career broke on the reef of
The Lonely Lady, a movie so bad even camp aficionados haven't embraced it. This earlier
production is directed in exemplary style. Savant was expecting a soap-opera look but the low-key
visuals are great (nicely lit for video) and the camera is used very expressively. Sasdy's
handling of the actors is also good; the tension level of the show rises gradually until there is
a feeling of general hysteria. The only criticism here is that Bryant's character is given a bit too
much shrill yelling to do in the latter part of the show.
Kneale presents themes both familiar and new. The main concept is his old standby, telepathy.
Even though it is explained that Jill and then the others are responding to some kind of communication
aimed at their nervous systems, this is essentially the same kind of remote control theme seen before in
Quatermass and the Pit (Martian ghosts mentally possessing humans) and
The Abominable Snowman (Snowmen and a Tibetan lama mentally
possessing humans). Of course, it was swiped by Jimmy Sangster for his Quatermass ripoff The Trollenberg
Terror. Sangster solved the old problem of what to do with female characters in these science fiction
movies by making young heroine Janet Munro the psychic medium for the aliens. Although Jill follows in this
sci fi trend, viewers are going to identify her as being more like the 'sensitive' psychic
character in The Haunting.
Besides presenting a brash Quatermass substitute to admire and finally criticize, Kneale takes a swipe at
consumer research, introducing the William Crawshaw character (a funny Reginald Marsh) as a clown inspired
millions to be made from a hi-tech washing machine, showing up in scenes with his hands dyed red, etc.,
by various mishaps. The pure research of Brock's team is presented as much more worthy.
Kneale also acknowledges international competition in the electronics industry, which Japan was winning
hands-down even as early as 1972. Brock's rallying cry to create a world-changing recording medium to
replace audio tape seems very ahead of its time for the early 70s, as scientists even now are researching
miraculous-sounding digital storage technologies. Kneale adds some pro-British jingoism by pretending
that the UK could forge ahead and seize the future if Brock's group got their act together. This is
accompanied by several unwelcome racial swipes at 'the japs' (sic). Savant supposes the Japanese seized
and held the electronics world for so long because the Americans were
more interested in bigger and uglier cars, and the British were still thinking about ghost stories.
Because Savant watched The Stone Tape on a DVD-Rom, it was a very different disc experience. There
probably a lot of you who see your DVDs almost exclusively this way, but it's fairly new in this
house: if my son hadn't been home from college with his computer, I wouldn't have seen it at all. The
25fps PAL picture
is bright and clear and looks better than American archival NTSC video tapes from the same era -
very sharp, with almost a 3D effect when a bright figure is set off against a dark background. There were
some strange phenomena observed here and there ... intermittent red and green dots that would appear
during motion on screen, which may or may not be familiar to PAL viewers, or DVD-Rom users.
The sound is excellent. The menus say that the full teleplay scripts of The Stone Tape and another
Kneale rarity, The Road, may be downloaded from the disc. There's also a provision to play
back an audio commentary, which Savant tried but had no success doing, most likely my fault and not the
I'm informed that The Stone Tape and other BFI products are not available in American stores. Information can
be had about them from this website:
And they can be ordered through several UK online outlets, such as
Remember that although this is Region 0, it is PAL, and will not play on normal American DVD player units,
only DVD-Rom drives in computers. Those owners of region-free machines can figure the feasibility out
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Stone Tape rates:
Supplements: Scripts for Two shows, audio commentary
Packaging: Clear plastic keep case
Reviewed: August 25, 2001
1. For hard-bitten Kneale-Quatermass fans: don't forget
The Quatermass Home Page
which has become a little outdated but is still a great source of information.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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