Thursday, 7 April 2016

The Stone Tape: First Impressions

Still in the seventies, and still dominated by the twin contemporary questions of Science and the Supernatural, I come to one of the highest-rated ghost stories ever. I’m actually rather surprised that I have never seen The Stone Tape before, in fact I am writing this on my first viewing.
This is the Christmas ghost story which famously gave its name to one of the major theories of modern quackery, which I’m glad to see was actually first published in 1961 by C.T. Lethbridge, always a good source for pseudo-science and quackery:
' The Stone Tape theory is the speculation thathttps://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghosts">ghosts
 and https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haunting">hauntings are analogous to https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tape_recorder">tape recordings, and that electrical mental impressions released during emotional or traumatic events can somehow be "stored" in moist rocks and other items and "replayed" under certain conditions. The idea was first proposed by British https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archaeology">archaeologist turnedhttps://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parapsychology">parapsychologist https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Charles_Lethbridge">Thomas Charles Lethbridgein 1961. Lethbridge believed that ghosts were not https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spirit">spirits of the deceased, but were simply non-interactive recordings similar to a https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Film">movie. The idea was popularized in 1972 in a Christmas ghost story called https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Stone_Tape">The Stone Tape, produced by the https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/BBC">BBC.
' In their book How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age, authorshttps://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodore_Schick">Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn dismissed the idea as an irrational claim, stating, "The problem is that we know of no mechanism that could record such information in a stone or play it back. Chunks of stone just do not have the same properties as reels of tape."https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stone_Tape#cite_note-SchickVaughn2013-2">[2]
'https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Wiseman">Richard Wiseman has also written there is no scientific evidence for the stone tape theory of ghosts. According to Wiseman the idea is "completely implausible – as far as we know, there is no way that information about events can be stored in the fabric of a building."https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stone_Tape#cite_note-3">[3] ( https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stone_Tape)
Once again the ambivalent attitude of the times towards the shibboleth of Science is demonstrated to the full in this show. Hard empirical science means proof, experimentation, repetition, control. Of course the stone tape theory is pseudo-science, and on one level this show is about what happens when hard science loses its way and messes about in the uncontrollable world of human emotions and history. It is almost as if the dangerous emotional world which the censors in the Doomwatch episode Sex and Violence sought to control, is here let loose in the world of science as a result of not sticking to the controlled, measured empirical world.
Yet the stone tape theory is not solely what is going on in this story, and the quality of the writing is shown by the fact that it can be understood on several different levels. Nigel Kneale’s writing is, in my humble opinion, dominated by what it pleases me to call the theme of the one sane person in a world full of lunatics/imbeciles/etc. This is of course a major theme in all literature throughout the ages, and makes for white knuckle viewing or a level of irritation unknown elsewhere, depending on your orientation. Personally, I love the only sane person in a mad world mythos, despite its one drawback that it is incredibly predictable. And I’m afraid my one big criticism of this show is that it how it is going to end is incredibly predictable right from the start. Science and the supernatural, futurity and tradition, are pitted against each other right from the word go, and it is obvious what is going to happen. It is a completely personal reaction, but I find Jane Asher unconvincing as the ‘only sane person’ figure in this story. This is purely based on my association of her with cooking, and in fact here she plays a somewhat delicate, traditionally feminine, character, contrasted with multiple intelligent male scientists. That said, I have revised my perspective of Asher herself in reading around for this post, because I had no idea she had publicly dumped Paul McCartney after he made unacceptable demands of her and two-timed her, on the BBC in the 1960s. Atta girl.
Visually I wasn’t impressed with this show to start off with. The sets are again in that sludgy 1970s colour scheme dominated by browns, peaches, and greys, which makes it look tremendously old-fashioned initially. However the quality of the writing is not dominated by the paucity of the sets, and in fact there is a very clear visual language used to delineate modernity vs traditionalism in this show, restored building vs unrestored building, scientists in white coats vs villagers in tweed, you get the idea.
I am delighted to discover that an inspiration for the house itself was actually a real house which belonged to the BBC:
' Kingswood Warren in Surrey, south west of London, is a Gothic mansion completed in 1837, which until early 2010 housed the BBC's technical research department.
'The history of Kingswood Warren can be traced back to the Domesday Book. The grounds were acquired by Thomas St Leger Alcock in 1835 and over the years the mansion was also the home of Henry Orme Bonsor MP and Joseph Rank, who had founded the milling empire bearing his name.
'It later served as a finishing school and insurance company offices before being acquired by the BBC in 1948 to house its research and development activities. The broadcasting industry and its audiences owe a debt to the many research engineers who have worked there over the years. The staff at Kingswood Warren led the world in pioneering broadcasting and their innovative work was rewarded with three Queen's Awards for Industry. ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/historyofthebbc/buildings/kingswood-warren)
And so once again, I find that my appreciation of a TV show is improved by reading around the subject, in addition to my existing interest in anything weird. This is another of those shows which keep one foot in reality (although in this case it is the real world of the parapsychology of the time) and thus manages to convince the viewer that the events depicted could actually happen. It is an excellent, very classic, ghost story. Its only drawbacks are the poor sets and what I perceive as some over-acting at points, such as the team’s excitement at taking over their new building, and the angst when they all hear or see things for the first time.

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