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Noise And Then A Scream! The Stone Tape (New & Old) Reviewed
The Quietus , October 31st, 2015 12:35

Stone Tape neophyte John Doran reviews the brand new Peter Strickland BBC Radio 4 radio drama adaptation (at a play back in the freezing cold, pitch black crypt of a London church), while old hand Richard Augood heaps praise on the original blood-curdling TV play. *CONTAINS SPOILERS*

It starts as a tremulous whine, before building to a terrified cry which culminates in a blood-curdling scream, ringing around the venue and rending the very soul of anyone in earshot: “HOW MUCH? £3.20?! FOR JUST ONE HALF PINT OF LEMONADE?!” This is exactly why one should never go into a pub in Zone One…

After finishing our pre-show drinks, my companion Mr Richard Augood and I head straight for the crypt of St Andrew Holborn where we are hoping the evening’s untrammelled horror will continue apace.

For radio producer & enthusiast group In The Dark have taken over the dank, freezing cold and pitch black cellar of this venerable church for a special playback, which is hopefully going to terrify us even more than the local drink prices.

Tonight is the first airing of Peter Strickland’s radio adaptation of the Nigel Kneale play The Stone Tape and the director has assembled something of a dream team to realise his vision including members of the occult, psychedelic, hauntological underground Andrew Liles (Nurse With Wound, Current 93) and James Cargill (Broadcast) taking care of the sound design and music respectively.

Also onboard is Life On Mars creator Matthew Graham on script writing duties and actors including Romola Garai as Jill, Julian Barratt as her overbearing and monomaniacal boss and Jane Asher, who played Jill in the original, as her mother.

The new version is set in 1979 and concerns a team of scientists setting up a laboratory in an abandoned Victorian mansion in order to try out their new “sonic mining” techniques. The action begins with something of a meta-joke as the team are trying to record an advert for their new business over cosmic sounding analog synthesizer arpeggios, with one of the scientists complaining about how “production line” the music is, asking why they can’t have something classy instead like Holst. How times have changed.

It is when the scientists' gear is being tested that the audio of the show really comes into its own. At one point, unable to cope any more, Jill screams: "It's horrible!" But it isn't, it's beautiful and no disrespect to the various actors from The Mighty Boosh, The Bill and Green Wing but the real stars tonight are the synths and tape recorders etc.

"We have to be able to shoot this ray without driving the miners insane or turning them into jelly!" adds another scientist dramatically over a satisfying bass pulse and ring modulated synth blast. After the show I tell my companion that I own more records than I can count that sound like this play and he tells me that this is the problem - "No one in their right mind would listen to Tony Millier and Desmond Briscoe's sound design on the original... it's just too upsetting!"

For me, probably the unsung heroes of tonight are the Ampex tape operators and analog special effects people Steve Haywood and Raoul Brand, not to mention Eloise Whitmore who was responsible for the sound mix. Because this play is all about how it sounds and every other consideration seems to be secondary.

The show has been recorded using pioneering sound development from the Beeb’s very own audio R&D department in order to create a rich, 3D binaural immersive listen. And if that makes you think of the old Radiophonic Workshop, then no doubt it’s meant to, given that they were responsible for the terrifying audio on the original show.

There are clear nods, not only to the Workshop but also to the kosmische synthesizer players of the 1970s and the tape loop/musique concrete pioneers Pierre Schaefer and Steve Reich and the way the idea of audio loops and loops in time are combined in the script is very smart.

And if all of this makes it sound like I really enjoyed the experience, that’s good because I did but it has to be said that it wasn’t even vaguely frightening. At one point in the stygian cellar, a chill went through my soul when I saw a looming demonic shadow in front of me, but it was merely the outline of distinguished film critic Kim Newman, shifting in his seat.

I’d go as far as saying I’m not even sure how it’s possible to sit in the pitch black crypt of an old church surrounded by strangers and not be terrified but The Stone Tape didn’t even raise a quiver and that might, unfortunately have been something to do with slightly flat acting and an even flatter script.

It’s really reassuring that today’s partially hamstrung BBC can still get amazing projects like this off the ground - this is exactly the sort of thing I pay my license fee, hoping to experience - and The Stone Tape comes highly recommended as it sounds utterly amazing. But if it’s chills you’re after tonight, maybe save this for an iPlayer session later in the week and watch The Babadook instead.
John Doran

When the producers of the BBC documentary series, Omnibus commissioned a short film in 1968 called Whistle And I’ll Come To You they had no idea what they were stumbling into. The short, low-budget Jonathan Miller adaptation of an MR James story struck a major chord with the viewing public (and there’s no mystery as to why - it remains to this day, a stunning piece of film-making). The knock on effect was that at Christmas, every year between 1971 and 1978, the BBC broadcast an unsettling ghost story to the nation. Buoyed by the extraordinary success of Whistle…, the first clutch of films in the series were also MR James adaptations. (The Stalls Of Barchester 1971; A Warning To The Curious 1972; Lost Hearts 1973; The Treasure Of Abbot Thomas 1974 and The Ash Tree 1975 were all directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark. The director really hit his peak however with the Charles Dickens adaptation and Denholm Elliott vehicle, The Signal Man in 1976 and if you haven’t already seen this film, you should remedy that fact at the soonest possible juncture.) All of these Christmas plays are charming and unsettling in equal measure and, roughly speaking, run along the same familiar Victorian ghost story lines: inquisitive scholar stumbles upon ancient manuscript, questions faith, makes it home in time for tea and buns.

The MR James adaptation A Warning To The Curious, which went out on Christmas Eve 1972 was no different. Strange things were found in a rural church, spines were chilled and then cocoa was drunk. But the play had an unusual companion piece. The following day, straight after the Morecambe & Wise Christmas Special had finished on BBC1, BBC2 broadcast the single scariest play the corporation ever made.

The Stone Tape was commissioned from writer Nigel Kneale who already had a nightmare-generating reputation thanks to his famous Quatermass serials which had terrified viewers in the late 50s through to the early 60s. A disbeliever in the supernatural, Kneale always claimed it wasn’t his intention to frighten viewers; that he just wanted to make them think. At synopsis level, The Stone Tape could be said to have similar aims, but the finished article is so relentless in its piling up of terror upon terror that his claim starts to look a little disingenuous. Also, the BBC’s choice of Hammer veteran Pete Sasdy as director won’t have been calculated to make the production child-friendly.

Always forward-looking, Kneale rejected the standard mist-and-gaslamps Victoriana approach and went for a far more contemporary piece; the play’s characters confronting the unknown with scientific proto-Thatcherite aggression. And despite being made for seasonal broadcast, it refuses to cater to typical expectations or deal in standard tropes. It's cold-looking all right. The harsh appearance the production gains from being shot on videotape takes care of that. But it's not wintry cold. It's the cold of autumn, the season of rot and decay, highlighted by the muted colour palette in use throughout. The only concession to the festivities is a plaintive letter found early on in a chilly cellar nobody dares go near. It is a supplication from an Edwardian child to some undefined horror, pleading, “What I want for Christmas is please go away.” Ho ho ho, everybody.

The basis of the story is that an electronics company has taken possession of a derelict country house (by happy chance the externals were shot at the old home of Ada Lovelace – the daughter of Byron and colleague of Charles Babbage – who is generally considered to be the world’s first computer programmer), and is in the process of turning it into new headquarters for its research and development department. They’re looking into new methods of data storage to replace whirling reels of 2-inch magnetic tape. It doesn’t sound like the most immediately engaging idea for a thrilling exploration of the supernatural, but this isn’t just randomly chosen window dressing, rather the essence of the play itself.

It turns out that all is in order at the house, except in that cellar, earmarked for use as the research team’s data storage centre. While investigating the problems that have prevented the construction workers from doing the necessary renovation work in the room, computer programmer Jill Greeley (Jane Asher) hears and then sees an apparition of a Victorian housemaid. She already has a reputation among her boorish, bantersaurus colleagues as borderline hysterical and is disbelieved, but humoured, by her boss (and lover) Peter Brock, played by Michael Bryant in a performance that invents the “Dammit, John” archetype that Fry & Laurie would eventually parody once it had slipped into cliché.

Brock initially sees Jill’s experience as a means to increase her dependence on him. But then when he is visited by the ghostly housemaid himself he, ever the hustler, sees a greater opportunity and sets about bringing all his R&D team’s equipment and expertise to bear on finding an explanation. Eventually Brock realises that what they’ve found in the data storage room is precisely what they’ve been looking for – a new mechanism for data storage. What they’ve seen is no lost soul seeking rest but some sort of recording of events, stored in the fabric of the room itself. But in trying to unlock the secret of the recording, Brock damages and reconfigures it, leading to a climax even more frightening and disturbing that what’s gone before.

The scares, which come at regular intervals are simple and repetitive, but lose nothing for it. A few footsteps and a woman’s scream, distorted beyond all tolerance by the Radiophonic Workshop, are all it takes to scare the viewer witless. Sound is a key feature of the play. Conversations, especially exposition, compete with one another for attention, drawing the viewer in and demanding total concentration, while Brock’s increasingly demented attempts to trigger and then master the phenomenon were famously effective. It was a gamble to create a mood piece that relied so much on sound for its power in a time when televisions had such puny sound capabilities. But it worked then, like nothing had ever worked before. These are the harshest, cruelest sounds the Radiophonic Workshop ever created. And when blasted out of modern TV equipment the viewer is left as desperate for respite as the frazzled and bewildered research team.

The viewpoint character in The Stone Tape is meant to be Jill. But driving the whole thing along is Brock. Obsessive and acquisitive he is, along with the Ferrises of Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? and the cast of Abigail’s Party, one of the definitive depictions of the Thatcherite middle classes in their 1970s gestation period. A manipulative borderline psychopath he is every bit as monstrous as anything lurking in the data storage room. But for all that, it’s not he that lingers in the thoughts after watching. It’s the sound that will cycle through your head as you’re trying to get to sleep. A patter of footsteps and the most frightening scream you’ll ever hear. Fixed into the stonework of your memory forever.
Richard Augood

The Stone Tape is broadcast on Radio 4 tonight at 10pm. Listen here