The play concerns a team of scientists (headed up by research boss Peter played by Michael Bryant and programmer Jill played by Jane Asher) working on a new recording medium in an abandoned mansion who discover a ghost is haunting one of the rooms. Deciding to explore the phenomena scientifically, they discover that the room itself may be made of a type of stone that can store sounds and images and therefore is exactly what they are looking for.
Nigel Kneale was no stranger to the traditions and tropes of the ghost story, but The Stone Tape - his Christmas Day play for the BBC in 1972 - he produced perhaps his finest piece in the genre. It's concept may be original and challenging but it is also brilliantly simple - are spectral, psychic presences self aware, ie do ghosts know they are haunting people, or are they simply recordings of a disturbing tragedy somehow captured in the building itself?
Kneale's astute script explores traditional male and female perspectives from how his characters are effected by the phenomena. Bryant's ruthless and somewhat swaggering boss considers the issue rationally and coldly, whilst Asher's troubled programmer reacts on a more emotional and compassionate level. Her investigations are as much to do with healing the suffering the spectre may feasibly be experiencing as they are to do with the job at hand. Using these differing approaches Kneale engages the audience perfectly and then adds another layer, in that their opposite points of view mean a deterioration in their relationship, both professionally and personally - as it is revealed early on that Peter and Jill are having an affair. The events at the house come between them, producing an inability to communicate and eventually a complete breakdown of goodwill and understanding between the pair.
Between them stands the site foreman Colly, played by Iain Cuthbertson, whose impressive performance marks him out as far more than the middle-ground cipher his character could so easily have become in a lesser performer's hands. Equally so, the commitment levels displayed by all the principal cast is terrifically commendable even though the kind of brusque businesslike characterisations that Bryant and latterly Reginald Marsh employ are unfortunately a touch reminiscent for modern day viewers of Fry and Laurie's whisky swilling John and Peter. The stand out performance belongs of course to Jane Asher who is utterly convincing as Jill, the victim of the phenomena. It's very easy to create something melodramatic and acutely embarrassing when faced with the challenge of having to act against nothing, but Asher never once succumbs to this mistake. It's really quite commendable.
Granted you could argue know in these days of CGI that the special effects on display in the climax, which sees Jill pursued by ancient and unidentifiable shapeless creatures of centuries old evil, are rather crude but I would challenge that they are still gripping and effective if taken in the context of the whole piece. Accusations of being dated cannot be levelled at the startling use of sound in the production by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and I'll be keen to hear how this distinctly sonic piece works on the medium of radio tomorrow night.
The Stone Tape is perfect Halloween viewing and is available on DVD.
To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classic plays, please sign the petition I started here