Matthew Kresal checks out the recent updated version of The Stone Tape.
In 1972, Nigel Kneale created one of the seminal works of British 'telefantasy'. The Stone Tape was an intriguing mix of ghost story and science fiction with a group of 1970s researchers throwing technology at an apparent ghost. Yet this quintessential British ghost story has recently found a new lease on life via another great medium: radio. Last year's BBC Radio 4 remake (which has recently been rebroadcast on Radio 4 Extra) is a prime example of radio taking something from a visual medium and making it all its own.
This production plays to the strengths of the medium, especially the binaural edit in 3D sound. The sound design of James Cargill and Andrew Lilles makes for unsettling listening, with a combination of music and effects that brings to mind the pioneering work of the BBC's own Radiophonic Workshop (who, as might be expected, helped bring the original TV version to life). Indeed it's the effect, in conjunction with the script and performances, that give this particular production its bite. The lack of visuals doesn't hurt at all, quite the opposite in fact, as it makes the more horror-centric elements of the script that much more effective. If nothing else, it's worth listening to on the basis of its sound design alone.
There are more reasons to listen to The Stone Tape of course, not least of which is the script from writers Matthew Graham and Peter Strickland, who present an interesting condensed remake of Kneale's original script. Moving it to the other end of the 1970s, bringing the ninety minute original down to an hour and giving it some slight updating along the way. While the original saw the researchers trying to find a new recording medium, this version sees them trying to come up with a more practical application of sonic technology, but the results are still the same: they find a "ghost" in the cellar of the Victorian house that's become their base of operations. There are some name changes along the way but those familiar with Kneale's classic will recognize the plot and characters for what they are as well as what they experience. There's even a neat inversion of Kneale's original ending which gives a whole new meaning to it. Perhaps what Graham and Strickland have done with their script is give The Stone Tape some tweaking for time and medium but the atory remains effective all the same.
Last but not least is the human element: those bringing this production to life. The cast is solid, lead by the familiar voice of Julian Rhind-Tutt as Leo, the obsessive and self-centered team leader whose attempts at getting rich lead him down the story's path. Playing the only major female character in the production is Romola Garai as Jill in a role that could perhaps have been thankless given everything going on with the character in an otherwise male dominated tale. Instead, Garai gives perhaps the standout performance by climbing over all the hurdles with an apparent ease. The supporting cast is solid as well, including Julian Barratt, Dean Andrews, and Tom Bennett as members of the research team. The icing on the cake might well be a nice cameo from a cast member of the 1972 original in a scene that is more effective in hindsight as it becomes a Cassandra-esque prediction of the story's climax.
In the end, this new version of The Stone Tape is an effective piece of audio drama. Fans of the original will recognize its plot and characters (even if they have different names) while also getting to see the changes made by Graham and Strickland to bring the story to this medium. Those coming to The Stone Tape fresh though shouldn't fret. In fact, they have my envy. They get to experience one of the classics of British 'telefantasy' in a fresh, new way that shows just what audio drama is capable of in the hands of the right people.
You can hear The Stone Tape, both in its original and binaural edits, on Radio 4 Extra through the end of November.
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't
have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the
Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.