Saturday, 17 December 2011

The Stone Tape

“A ghost is a mass of data waiting for a correct interpretation.”

I usually do films on Saturdays, but I suppose a one-off television play will just about do. It’s appropriate for the time of year, too; this was originally commissioned in 1972 as a Christmas ghost story. It’s the first drama by Nigel Kneale that I’ve reviewed on this blog, but it certainly won’t be the last. It’s also the first thing I’ve watched without subtitles for this blog (I’m a little hard of hearing) since those episodes of Doctor Who which had yet to get a DVD release. I don’t need them, exactly, but I’ve become used to being spoiled and not having to miss any lines of dialogue, so it’s become very annoying to have to suffer that here, at times. For a DVD release to neglect the subtitles is unforgiveable.

There’s something about the culture shock inherent in watching older dramas that makes them particularly interesting to write about. Here we have a bunch of characters who smoke all the time, drink whisky while they’re working, and wear… interesting clothes. The entire concept of a recording medium to replace magnetic tape is, of course, ancient. Peter’s attitude towards Jill is frequently quite eye-poppingly sexist. The vicar has an old-fashioned and incomprehensible Rowley Birkin-style way of speaking. We even get a full-on racist impression of a Japanese person which made my jaw hit the floor. The past is indeed a foreign country.

Aside from the fact that it’s dated, though, it hasn’t dated. The performances are great, with an extraordinarily intense Jane Asher putting in a superlative performance, and Michael Bryant convincingly playing a gradual descent into obsession. Peter is one of those men who seem to belong in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s; forthright, intelligent without being posh, meritocratic, a little bit bohemian, and dressed very much of the era- a bit of a cross between Alfie and Roger from The Great Escape. The direction is great, too; this doesn’t look at all like the static, multi-camera ‘70s stuff you’d expect.

But the main star here is Kneale’s script, which lets the characters breathe and gives us moments of humour while gradually building up the tension towards the incredible climax. The central concept is great; ghosts are in fact recordings, in stone, of emotionally intense moments. But there’s a twist, of course, and the revelation that there is in fact something ancient and malevolent behind this phenomenon is brilliantly shown just by the use of red lights. The final twist- that Jill takes the place of the erased ghost- is amazing.

As I’ve mentioned before, I haven’t any belief in the supernatural whatsoever, and some amount of such a belief is pretty much a precondition for being scared by this sort of thing. So it’s no criticism to say that I wasn’t scared, exactly. But I was riveted by the tension and the inexorable sense that things were heading towards an inevitable and horrible conclusion. Kneale may be a little dry as a writer (I found it very hard indeed to come up with an opening quote), but he’s an absolute master of storytelling.

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