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Monday, 29 April 2013

The Stone Tape

Despite being a single studio drama first broadcast on Christmas Day 1972 and reshown only once a few months later, Nigel Kneale's seminal TV ghost story still seems to have managed to mark, scar or otherwise influence just about everyone who saw it back then. Amongst my generation of horror writers, most either acknowledge a debt or at least are aware of its effect on the field.

The Stone Tape was first made available on DVD about a decade ago. It was one of a series of BFI releases of classic television drama.  To say that it had been possibly the most wished-for and anticipated release of its kind would be no exaggeration. There had been rare festival showings of the British Film Institute's archive copy, but otherwise The Stone Tape had been inaccessible for almost 30 years. More than a memory, almost a legend. Murky tenth-generation bootlegs circulated on VHS and versions of the script could be found out there on the internet, but these only sharpened the sense of absence. They did little to mitigate it.

Now the drama has been re-released in handsome form by niche distributor 101 Films, in a version that includes the illuminating commentary/conversation track with Kneale and Kim Newman.

To a restored country mansion called Taskerlands comes a team of research technologists led by the controlling and bombastic Peter Brock (Michael Bryant). The team includes nervy and damaged computer programmer Jill (Jane Asher), and they're here to brainstorm their way to a new form of information storage and transmission that anticipates the digital revolution - flash memory, in particular - in uncanny detail.

Brock believes that he may have glimpsed his personal and professional grail in the form of Taskerlands' resident ghost, a recurrent haunting that has driven the builders away with their work uncompleted. No believer in the supernatural, Brock seeks a scientific explanation. Matter, he suggests, may be able to absorb an emotional charge that can be triggered to replay the moment of its imprinting directly into the medium of the human mind; that, in essence, is the reality behind the ghost and the nature of the 'stone tape'.

This is pure Kneale, the application of the rational to the irrational, not to demystify it but to take it to an entirely new level. In turning their equipment onto the phenomenon, the scientists not only fail to tame it... they reveal it to have depths and dimensions that are way beyond their hope of control.

The big, serious, one-off TV studio drama is now a lost form, seen only in occasional 'event' pieces like George Clooney's Fail Safe or the BBC's live Quatermass Experiment makeover. Such dramas resemble the film form in a superficial way - scenes, shots, cuts - but are essentially theatrical. The acting dictated the rhythm of a scene. The shot-to-shot cuts were planned by the director but actually made by a vision mixer in the gallery, following the performances in real time. Postproduction editing was kept to a minimum and mainly involved the stringing-together of completed scenes into a continuity. More complex edits were often required for outdoor sequences where multiple-camera technique had been unfeasible, and these tended to be less successful.

(There were various reasons for this - when I first started out in TV, union practices and the technically cumbersome nature of two-inch tape ensured that it was top-grade video engineers who did the actual cutting. The amount of expensive machinery that had to be tied up meant that all video editing was done against the clock, and in a hurry. What you can now do on your phone once involved analogue copying back and forth between three massive playback-and-record machines, each one the size of a small car).

As far as The Stone Tape is concerned this means that Peter Sasdy's fluent, ambitious direction pushes the medium right to its limits and often exposes them. This unsteady crane shot, that patently fake stumble... and everybody shouts a lot, the way they do in the theatre. And the visual effects are... well, the effects are purely token in a disco-light kind of way.

But nonetheless, The Stone Tape justifies its reputation as a landmark achievement in TV drama, in the genre, and in Kneale's career.

Trust me. Your life is incomplete if you haven't seen it yet.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Bedlam News

I just heard that the US edition of The Bedlam Detective is going into its second printing. Glad news for any author, and thanks to all who've picked it up. Even greater thanks to those who didn't put it down again, and went on to pay for it.

The UK trade paperback edition will be launched by Ebury Press on May 23rd, with fireworks over the Thames and an all-night star-studded gala in the grounds of the former Bethlehem Hospital. Though I may be lying about that last part.

In the meantime, there's this.

Two short stories in one eBook volume. Out of Bedlam is a Sebastian Becker story that was specially written for a Random House Dead Good Books promotion. The Plot is a Victorian mystery originally published in Subterranean Magazine and reprinted in my collection Plots and Misadventures, not yet available in eBook form.

This link should take you to your region's Kindle store. Amazon Prime members can access it free.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Peter Diamond

This month, mega-niche distributor Network releases the complete first (and only) season of Virgin of the Secret Service, a 1968 Empire-spoofing obscurity remembered with fondness by at least one viewer. I was thirteen at the time, and in my autograph-collecting phase; I wrote to leading man Clinton Greyn and in return got a typed slip of paper that read, "I'm sorry but ATV say they can't afford to print fan photographs." But he'd signed it, so it went into the album anyway.

On Network's website they're marking the launch with an appreciation by Frazer Diamond of his father Peter, the series fight arranger.

Peter Diamond, who died in 2004, was a British stunt performer, arranger, and swordmaster with a staggering list of credits ranging from just about every piece of classic British TV through the Bonds, Star Wars and Highlander movies and every other big-budget blockbuster of the late 20th century.  He was responsible for the swordplay in The Princess Bride and The Mask of Zorro. He acted, too; any time you saw a bald guy being punched, shot, or thrown down the stairs, there's a fair chance it was him.

Back in 1997, when I was shooting the Oktober miniseries for ITV, I specifically asked for Peter to supervise the action. I was in awe of his reputation and saw it as a chance to work with a true legend. He was terrific, supportive to a novice director, and without any discernible ego; he’d listen to my ideas, quietly mould them into something better, and then present the results as if they were my own.

On more than one occasion, when a crew member challenged my judgement in the light of my inexperience, he’d catch my eye and quietly shake his head; he’d seen it all, and if Peter reckoned it would be OK, it would be OK.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Stick to your Conkers, Mister Bond

I was reprimanded at the age of 10 for taking Thunderball into school as my book for the 'own choice' reading period... I can date it exactly because I still have the headmaster's remarks on my school report.

Oh, well.

Years later I was amused to see several of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, Thunderball included, being issued in 'abridged and simplified' editions (with the abridgements credited to Gordon Walsh) in an attempt to encourage teenaged boys to read.