Wednesday, 6 October 2010

The Stone Tape: Writing for television

Television technology has shot ahead over the past sixty years.  Today, television producers can do things that their colleagues only ten years ago could only dream of.  Editing, which was once almost impossible on the small screen, has become a matter of drag and drop.  Video cameras have gone from static monsters to portable high-definition machines that are inexorably forcing film cameras off the market.  And, of course, digital technology means that a producer on a tight budget can do things that once required giant studios with deep pockets. However, despite all of this, television remains a very different animal from cinema.  No matter how big the television screens get, how high the definition, and how sophisticated the home theatre systems, it isn't possible for cinema and television to merge into one.  At least, not without the offspring being less than the sum of the parts.

Looking at television today, it's clear that many producers believe exactly the opposite.  Switch on the talking fish tank any night and you can find programme after programme filled with long zooms, fast cuts, helicopter shots, wobbly cams, shots where people are barely in the frame, and actors adopting that maddening habit of modern films of whispering their lines instead of speaking in a normal volume–much less projecting.  If you don't keep your eyes glued to the screen every second you miss half of what's going on and if you do, you still miss the other half.  Why is this?  As in any profession, incompetence explains most of it.  The rest comes from a combination of ambition and inferiority complex on the part of producers, directors, and actors who see television as merely a springboard to the "real" world of cinema.  Unfortunately, they're missing the whole point.

For all the modern conceits, television is not a junior version of cinema.  Cinema is a communal experience where a person sits in the dark with many other people all sharing the same experience to the exclusion of everything else–with the exception of one's date and a large tub of buttered popcorn.   Television is a more individual or family experience that must compete with many outside distractions  Though it uses images as well as sound, television is much more a medium of the ear and of the mind than cinema.  This is partly due to television's roots in radio, but also due to the fact that television is a much more intimate medium than film.  This was true when television sets were the electronic hearths around which families gathered in the late 20th century and it is even more true today with television available on desktop screens, tiny media players, and even over cellular phones.

To understand this, let's look at a very good piece of television writing:  The Stone Tape, produced by the BBC and aired in 1972.  Only repeated once the following year and not seen again until its recent release on DVD, The Stone Tape has the reputation of being one of the most frightening, and certainly one of the best written, stories ever made for television.

Written by the legendary Nigel Kneale (the man behind the Quatermass series) The Stone Tape (script here) is set in a Victorian Gothic folly of a country house that's been taken over and converted into a research centre by an electronics firm.  Peter Brock and his young, over-enthusiastic crew of engineers arrive like an unruly group of schoolboys gearing themselves up for their task of developing a new recording medium ("Wagner's Ring Cycle on a ball bearing") to replace magnetic tape and steal a march on the Japanese.

The only snag in Brock's plans is that the computer storage room isn't finished after five months because the workmen refused to go back in and walked off the job.   It turns out that the reason why is that the room in question is haunted.  Or, at least, the image of a running, screaming woman appears at intervals.  What is peculiar is that people see the apparition to varying degrees.  Some see and hear it faintly, some not at all, and some, such as the team computer programmer Jill Greeley experience it so strongly that they can't stay in the room at all.

Brock is intrigued and treats the "ghost" like a scientific phenomenon.  Like an unwinding detective story, we are carried along as Brock and Jill uncover the history of the room, which is part of an ancient structure upon which the house was built; the apparition, which is that of a serving maid who died in a fall off a blind flight of stairs in the room in the 1890s; and of the appearances.  Eventually, Brock realises that the room is the key to the new recording medium that he's been searching for.  Somehow, the stones have recorded the last moments of the girl's life.

This doesn't come a moment too soon because Brock has a rival at the company in the form of pompous, impractical "practical" man who is forever going about with dye-stained hands in his quest to build a computerised washing machine.  If Brock can't deliver on The Big One, than his cutting-edge scientific research will give way to an overpriced joke of a home appliance.  Unfortunately, he doesn't know how the stone recordings work or how to make it play back on command.

It goes beyond unfortunate to tragic that Brock and his team are so obsessed with the physical aspect of the phenomenon that they can't see what Jill senses from the very start; that something terrifying is behind it all and the more that's learned the more frightening it becomes.  More and more questions arise, yet only Jill cares.  How did the girl die?  Why was she running?  Why did she scream like that?  What was she doing at the top of stairs that went nowhere?  Why did one person go mad after being in the room and another run like a scared rabbit?  How did the recording manage to cause the computer to type out "save" and "pray"?  Is the recording just of sound and image?  Could a personality be there?  Is the dead girl still trapped and suffering in the stonework?  Question upon question heaps up. Brock ignores their implications as he tries to force the recording to play back at his command, but he goes one step too far and rather than mastering it, he erases it (and the girl) from the stones.

Having blundered his main chance and, worse, lost to a washing machine, Brock ignores Jill as she uses the computer to continue analysing the data collected.  He even refuses to listen as, alarmed, she tries to tell him that there was another recording under the 19th century one; a much, much older one going back at least 7000 years.  A recording of something that is still aware and malevolent.

If you haven't seen it yet, I'll leave the synopsis at that.

What's interesting for us here is that The Stone Tape uses the nature of television rather, as is too often the case today, seeing it as a limitation to fight against.  There's very little in the way of special effects and what there is wouldn't impress a jaded 21st century viewer.  There are, however, impressive sound effects that push the story along and raise the hairs on the back of the neck at appropriate moments.  Clever editing, frequent cuts and incessant background music aren't the thing here.  What carries the load is powerful dialogue and actors who can deliver their lines without emoting and with projection.  Words provide the exposition, they reveal character, they are the medium of conflict.  Neat little throwaways like "Just an amateur opinion.  Qualified amateur" give real insights into the characters and their relationships.

For over half the scenes, you could turn your back to the screen and still be totally involved because of the dialogue.  From simple conversations we learn that Peter Brock is brilliant, but he's also manipulative, ambitious, and willing betray his wife and kids in order to inflict his overcharged libido on female members of staff.  Even without ghosts we know that Jill is an extremely intelligent woman with emotions as sensitive as the raw nerves of a burn victim; one who can't fit into the tight, schoolboy team that Brock surrounds himself with.  We don't need set pieces or blazing arguments to get this across.  In Kneale's script, it comes across in conversations about Father Christmas. 

Kneale, however, had been working in television for over twenty years and he understood the medium.  It may have been a household item that people used as electronic wallpaper and where writers had fallen back on restating plot points two or three times in a programme to cover people who went to make a sandwich or put the cat out, but Kneale understood that the television in the living room or on the bedroom dresser made it an intimate medium and a clever author could exploit that intimacy.  The Stone Tape is a teleplay that you can half watch while doing the jigsaw and you'll come away with a passable bit of drama, but if you start to pay attention, if you let it draw you in like a trusted friend telling you a ghost story over the embers of a dying fire on Christmas Eve, then it really gets its hooks into you.  You start picking up on those questions that Jill notices and no one else does.  You start seeing their implications.  What Kneale says to get you to suspend disbelief and put you in the right state of mind that sets you up for what he does not say, so your imagination fills in the gaps–or worse, darkens the shadows.  It doesn't matter what your mind comes up with; it will be a thousand times more effective than anything that CGI could ever deliver.  When the climax comes, it turns "Oh, that's a bit scary" into "Oh, sweet Jesus!  I'm sleeping with the lights and the radio on!"

The moral to take from this is:  When writing for television or any other medium, don't fight against it; learn the nature of the medium, it's strengths and weaknesses, and use them to your advantage.

And for heaven's sake, put it in the script notes that the actors should PROJECT!

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