Monday 28 November 2016

We Don't Go Back #17: The Stone Tape (1972)

As far as We Don't Go Back is concerned, Nigel Kneale already shares with Ben Wheatley the distinction of being covered more than once, and that's actually fairly obvious, since he wrote a lot of horror and he was writing much of his work in the period when this sort of thing was most in vogue.

Kneale, best known for Quatermass, had as his signature nightmarish tales of rationality and scientific knowledge powerless against the alien and the inexplicable. in Baby, the vets are at a complete loss to explain the thing in the jar, and simply don't understand the protagonist's revulsion towards it. in Murrain, the man from the council defends the scientific method and in frustration cries out, "We don't go back!" And it avails him nothing. Even in The Woman in Black, which as an adaptation of a straight ghost story might otherwise have been an outlier, Kneale adds a scientific element absent from the source material.

And in The Stone Tape, a television play first broadcast by the BBC in 1972, Kneale pits science against the inexplicable, a haunting. Science loses.


It's 1972. A British firm, Ryan Electronics, sets up an installation in a deserted country house. There's an urgency to their work. Britain needs to compete against Japan in the business of manufacture and design of electronic appliances. This department is looking for new domestic recording media.1

Managed by Peter Brock (Michael Bryant), a bombastic, demonstrative sort of a boss, the mostly male department display an easy camaraderie. They're like a bunch of lads at the pub. They lark around. And morale is high.
The one female member of the department, computer programmer Jill Greeley (British TV legend Jane Asher) has a terrible premonition before going in, and is the first to realise that something is wrong.

They face one big setback. The room designated for computer storage hasn't been renovated. The workmen won't, it turns out. The workmen downed tools.
The room, its most distinctive feature a set of steps that go nowhere, is haunted. Footsteps. An apparition of a terrified young woman. Bloodcurdling screams. And most of the engineers working there experience it. 
Some are more sensitive than others. Jill, Collinson (Iain Cuthbertson, in a rare sympathetic role), Hargrave (Tom Chadbon) most of all. Collinson, having once been in a car accident with his (now ex-) wife, is especially distressed by the sound of a woman's screams.

Jill is already the one woman in a room full of men (and in 1972, computer programming was a rare branch of science that had a large number of women involved – the more it's entered the mainstream, the smaller the proportion of women involved). Having just come out of an extramarital affair with Brock, she's doubly fragile. No one really takes her seriously. The sexism of the men, both casual and active, swamps her. She's patronised, ignored. At one point, while they're celebrating their apparent breakthrough, Brock goes around the room tweaking noses and ears. He tweaks Jill's nipples. And she laughs and joins in, but then you have to, to survive. She navigates her way around the dynamics of the department by looking for allies (Collinson, especially), but they let her down. She is the centre of the haunting. Soon she's its target.
Jill and Peter.
But the emotional effects of the haunting are, to the most of them, only data. They're all scientists. They investigate. They feed data into their computer. They do everything they can to avoid thinking of the phenomenon they're experiencing as supernatural.
Brock: You see that? Concentrated patches of haunting?
Maudsley: Can we scrap that word?
Brock: What, haunting?
Maudsley: Yes.
Holmes: It blows in his mind!
Maudsley: Gets in the way. Like all the jokey talk.
And specifically, they're all experts in audiovisual engineering, so they think in those terms. They develop the theory that maybe the fabric of the building has acted as a recording medium, and has recorded the death of a nineteenth-century maid. That there's just an impression of her. 

This is actually a thing outside of the drama; "Stone Tape" theory has been knocking around since the early 1960s, but Kneale's genius is to take that one bit of pseudoscience and wrap it up in all the other scientific details, the details about the British electronics industry, the paranoia about Japan, the oscilloscopes and everything, completely true to life.
Scientific enquiry.
The nagging suspicion remains that there's more to it than that. The circumstances of the girl's death are never really explained. And Jill has a horrible gnawing feeling that there's more than just an echo.
Brock: It's really getting to you. Jill...
Jill: To be afraid like that.
Brock: You afraid? Of all this?
Jill: No, I don't think so.
Brock: What, then?
Jill: It's just the thought of it. Of there being nothing left of you but just enough to repeat the worst moment of your life, over and over again.
Brock: That doesn't happen.
Jill: But if it did! If she knew!
Brock: We talked about this. We all agreed –
Jill: Could there be anything that knows?
Brock: Not in my book.
Jill: Just a dead mechanism?
Brock: That's all there is left.
Jill: It's horrible. But it's better than knowing.
But they keep experimenting. After one particularly harrowing experiment, it seems they have accidentally "wiped the tape," and the haunting is gone. Except that Jill realises that something is underneath, and this something is ancient, and malevolent, and perhaps even violent, and Jill's fears might be all too real.

The atmosphere of the research department is already hostile to a woman, and the thing impressed on the stones is perhaps only an expression of that.
Ancient and malevolent.
Horror is based, in my opinion, on the perverse. To write a thing that is truly scary, you write against what you know. Nigel Kneale was a materialist. He had a lot of faith in science. But again and again, his horror depends on science butting up against things that it fails to understand or defeat. Kneale wasn't perfect. He often doesn't write women well (Jill is one of his better female characters, but only inasmuch as he gives her ample reason to be more fragile emotionally than the men) and often forgets to write sympathetic, likeable people (and again, he does better in The Stone Tape than he usually does, although Brock, the main male protagonist, is an absolute asshole). Be he knew how to write against what he knew. He knew the importance of perversity. And that perversity expresses itself in ways that play to the tropes of folk horror: its determinism, the tension of rural and urban, scientific and magical, and the way the land holds an evil that consumes us, whether we go back or not.

1That's not actually at all far fetched. the 1970s was the period when European company Philips continually innovated with technology, only to be beaten by Japanese competitors. When Peter Brock makes a point about the unreliability and fragility of tape, it's topical in the year that Philips marketed the first domestic VCR tape format, which was clunky, expensive, unreliable and prone to breakage. A few years later, the VHS-Betamax format wars would begin in earnest, but Philips' VCR format would already be dead in the water, not even third place in a race it never got to run.

(Funny thing: Philips called their system VCR, Video Cassette Recorder. It was never sold in the US because the way it recorded didn't work so well with NTSC signals. Notwithstanding that, in the US, "VCR" has been used as a generic term for video machines. Here in the UK we just called it a video. Was that a coincidence? I don't actually know.)

Later on in the play, Brock makes a crack about his colleague Crawshaw's all singing, all dancing washer-dryer design costing "nine hundred nicker" a unit to manufacture, and that's a reference to the insane cost of British-made electrical appliances back then (and one of the main reasons the British industry would soom lose to its Japanese counterpart in the field of mass-market electronics). For example, the 1972 Philips domestic VCR cost £600, which in 1972 money was enough to buy a small car.  (back)