A ghost story for Christmas was something of a tradition on the BBC in the 1970s, with the works of M.R. James often adapted for the small screen.
The Stone Tape was something different, based on an original script from Nigel Kneale, the creator of The Quatermass Experiment, a science fiction serial that had captivated and terrorised TV audiences in the 1950s.
Ace computer analyst Jill Greeley (Jane Asher) arrives to join her scientist colleagues from Ryan Electronics, who have just moved into a new research facility in a renovated country house called Taskerlands.
Foreman Roy Collinson (Iain Cuthbertson) reveals that the builders have refused to work on one room saying that it’s haunted.
The head of the research team, Peter Brock (Michael Bryant), dismisses this but Jill is shaken to the core by a series of sounds and apparitions of a servant girl in Victorian dress, screaming in terror about “the others” as she falls to her death.
Soon her sceptical colleagues discover that their equipment is registering something strange.
The team conduct experiments but, after failing to record the images and sounds of the ghost, Brock decides the event has been imprinted in the ancient stone of the room – the stone “tape”.
He drives his team to the brink of exhaustion in his desperate attempts but only succeeds in erasing the “tape”: blasting the residual energies creating the apparition from the stone.
Meanwhile, Ryan Electronics’ head office run out of patience and curtail Brock’s funding in favour of a washing machine project run by his rival, Crawshaw (Reginald Marsh).
As Crawshaw’s team arrives, so does the local vicar who reveals an exorcism once took place at Taskerlands – but much earlier than the death of the maid.
Jill enters the new data into her computer and discovers that the energies creating the phenomenon date back thousands of years rather than just hundreds.
She returns to the room and is overcome by the full force of the others as the room seemingly connects with the ancient world. Following in the footsteps of the maid, Jill ascends the stairs and is overwhelmed.
After her funeral, Brock goes back to the room and to his horror now hears Jill’s voice screaming in terror, calling out to him for help. She has now also become imprinted in the stone.
The Stone Tape was successful because it combines the horrific with the everyday. Sensibly avoiding pyrotechnics and special effects, the thrills and scares came from the sound effects and the fact that the cast played it absolutely straight.
Music from the avant-garde BBC Radiophonic Workshop, masters at making the everyday unworldly, greatly added to the spooky atmosphere.
The drama popularised T.C. Lethbridge’s stone tape theory: that ghosts are merely recordings of the past left in the fabric of buildings.
Michael Graham Cox