The Stone Tape is a BBC TV play written by Nigel 'Quatermass' Kneale which was broadcast in 1972, repeated once in 1973 and subsequently vanished from the face of the earth - until now. Now it's been reissued on a shiny sliver disc, and ironically not (as Kim Newman points out in the commentary) ever on tape.
Why 'ironically'? Well, the story deals with the arrival of a group of scientists and technicians at an old country house recently purchased and restored by Ryan Electrics. The team are there as a think-tank to come up with a new data storage medium which will (I quote at third-hand the irascible owner of Ryan) 'put the boot in old Nippon'.
Problems arise when it turns out that the room needed for the groups' computer storage has yet to be finished because the workmen refuse to go in there. The room is haunted. However, this being a modern ghost story, our hardheaded corporate boffins decide to co-opt the ghost in the search for anti-Japanese footwear, and discover how the ghost's 'presence' is stored in its environment. The rest of the story follows their efforts to understand and tame this ghostly medium: the stone tape.
The Stone Tape has, of course, dated somewhat since it was recorded - but not nearly so much as you might think. The idea behind the story still works very well, and Kneale's script gives an edgy sense of mounting dread throughout as the initial hubris of Science (and, perhaps even more so, of big business) is confronted with something else. Some of the acting seems over the top: Jane Asher as a psychically 'sensitive' computer programmer (perhaps a surprising role for a woman given the time) is a little weak, but some of the over-acting only serves to improve things, e.g. Michael Bryant's bluff, over-achieving and overbearing head of operations - a horrible character, but great fun to watch as he paces about, bellowing and bullying, and then attempts to do the same with the ghost.
I'm not usually terribly patient with old drama; for instance, I find a lot of 'classic' Dr Who episodes hopelessly tired and out of date (although I still love and respect Quatermass, which almost certainly explains why I so enjoyed The Stone Tape); this is in quite a different class to much 'classic' sf/horror, and well worth checking out. Don't expect something on par with, say, Alien (this is a BBC TV play from 1972, for goodness sake!), but it doesn't fall so very far short of more modern blockbusters; which only begs the question of why the BBC no longer make programmes of this quality, instead buying in endless episodes of certain series from the US.
The sound and picture quality are both surprisingly good throughout, and Kim Newman's commentary with Nigel Kneale supplies some quite interesting background trivia.
£19.99 might be slightly much to pay for your own copy of The Stone Tape, but if you see it in your local library or video shop then it's very well worth a look. I only wish Nigel Kneale would come up with something new…