Country: UNITED KINGDOM
Original Transmission Date: 25/12/1972
The 1970’s represented a high watermark of creativity in the small screen landscape of British television. Fans of science-fiction thrilled to the ongoing adventures of Doctor Who (1963 - present), Doomwatch (1970-72), The Tomorrow People (1973-79), and Blake’s 7 (1978-81). Meanwhile fans of the supernatural were catered for by the BBC’s annual Ghost Story for Christmas (1971-78) and such adult anthology programmes as Dead of Night (1972), Beasts (1976), and The Mind Beyond (1976). Many of the creepiest and most disturbing of genre programmes were reserved for children, with serials such as Escape into Night (1972), Shadows (1975-78) and Children of the Stones (1977) providing sleepless nights for youthful imaginations. One man who had a consistent gift for unsettling material was the writer Nigel Kneale. In the 1950’s enraptured audiences excitedly followed the three serials he wrote featuring the gifted scientist Professor Bernard Quatermass. In the 1960’s Kneale spent a lot of time writing film screenplays, but still found time to return to the small screen with the prescient science-fiction allegory The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968). The 1970’s saw Kneale working exclusively in television, and in 1972 he wrote his penultimate script for the BBC…the chilling feature length festive fright The Stone Tape.
After the turkey and tinsel of Christmas Day in 1972, those unwitting audience members who flicked over to BBC 2 in the evening for some relaxing entertainment, instead got the jolt of their lives. The scheduling of The Stone Tape was a brilliantly mischievous move and so was the decision to shoot on video tape. This latter choice was a budgetary enforcement, but the flat drabness of the video image gives the proceedings a naturalistic air that only serves to increase the palpable atmosphere. This is a case of the filmmakers utilising their budgetary restrictions as a formal strategy. Another side effect of such restriction was the centrality of intelligent writing; an emphasis on dialogue and a coherent logical plot supporting a suitably intriguing story was essential. This is very important in all aspects of filmic storytelling, but more so when the budget does not allow for elaborate special effects, lavish production design, and expensive location shooting. The suitably haunted looking ‘Taskerlands’ mansion was discovered in Surrey and becomes a constricting and claustrophobic space in the best tradition of gothic horror. The house itself is a character in its own right, an important player in the events that transpire, and a key signifier of age and decay in the face of technological modernity.
© Shaun Anderson 2011