The Stone Tape

Nigel Kneale is perhaps not as recognised a name as he should be. He was one of the UK’s major screenwriters for 50 years writing popular fare including in particular the Quatermass series. He adapted George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, in perhaps the definitive 1954 Rudolph Cartier screen adaptation (still unreleased on DVD despite at least two major attempts to do so). In 1968 he wrote The Year of the Sex Olympics, a play that is now widely thought presage the rise of reality television like Survivor and Big Brother.

And in 1972 he wrote The Stone Tape, which was made into BBC2’s Christmas ghost story that year. The cast includes Michael Bryant and a young Jane Asher as a group of scientists who are working on a new recording medium in an old building. Strange things begin to occur in this sometimes claustrophobic play that deals with the paranormal and science.

It’s this play that Peter Strickland (Director of The Duke of Burgundy and Berberian Sound Studio) has chosen to adapt for his part of Radio 4’s upcoming Fright Night on Halloween.

And indeed it lends itself well. The play deals with sound itself, and as with Berberian Sound Studio which was like The Stone Tape set in a 70s setting, the world of analogue sound recording suits the radio medium. Here Strickland is working with Life on Mars’ Matthew Graham.

And then there’s the binaural sound.

This play, and its Fright Night sister, an adaption of Ring, have both been recorded using binaural recording techniques. So if you listen back via a pair of headphones, you will hear an immersive 360 degree surround sound version of the play. To be clear, you don’t need special headphones. Good ones ideally, but any will do.

If you’ve never heard binaural audio before, then head over to YouTube and plug some headphones in for a few demos. I’ve recorded one or two things in binaural myself in the past.

In The Dark held a series of binaural previews of the two Fright Night plays last week, and I went along to one in a church crypt in Holborn. We took our seats wearing wireless headphones (think “silent disco” without the dancing), and then the lights were turned off and we listened to a spooky play.

The play makes excellent use of the space and the sound capabilities. A recurring audio motif of someone running and then screaming works really well (the screamer gets her own credit!). As I mentioned, the play maintains its 70s setting, and that means lots of analogue recording gear, all dutifully name-checked. If you’re an audiophile, you’ll love those details.

Sitting in a darkened room, with just the glowing green LEDs of other attendees illuminating things, worked really well. Radio is traditionally a secondary medium – you’re doing something else while you listen. It’s nice to be able to sit back without distractions and just listen. That, of course, is the raison d’etre of In The Dark.

The cast is strong with Julian Rhind-Tutt playing Dr Cripps and Romola Garai as Jill Creely. In the original TV production, her character was played by Jane Asher. In a nice touch, Asher has a cameo as Creely’s mother on the end of an authentic sounding analogue telephone line.

As I say, the production sounds amazing so congratulations to all concerned with the music, effects and sound mix.

Listen out for it on Saturday evening, along with its sister production. And ideally listen with headphones, in a darkened room with no distractions…

[Update: The Guardian published a good piece on making The Stone Tape, and BBC R&D has explained in some detail how the productions were made. Although they used a dummy head to record some of the atmosphere, because the production uses lots of audio sounds effects that aren’t actually there in the room (this isn’t a documentary after all), they used some clever bespoke audio techniques to create an apparent binaural audio image. This included using the mid capsule in a mid-side microphone – a stereo microphone that ordinarily allows more control over the stereo spread of sound, even after the recording has been made. The work that BBC R&D has been doing into binaural is clearly a critical part of this. Thanks to Eloise Whitmore who produced the sound mix, Chris Price from BBC R&D and Tony Churnside who helped record The Stone Tape for the extra information.]