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A high point for the series
on 29 June 2012
The BBC's "Ghost Story for Christmas" arguably peaked in perfection here, with "Lost Hearts" and "The Treasure of Abbott Thomas" being spine-tinglingly good adaptations, with "The Ash Tree" not quite so successful, before giving up on M.R. James altogether in subsequent years, instead doing Dickens and then original stories.
"Lost Hearts" is wonderfully atmospheric. The cinematic production (like all these stories it was made on film on location, not videotape in the studio), the country house location and atmospheric folky music suit the story wonderfully. It's sometimes criticised for getting too gruesome too quickly (the titular "Lost Hearts" are quite literal), which goes against James's slow drip terror. The quality of the production does more than compensate for this however.
"The Treasure of Abbott Thomas" is possibly my favourite of all the productions. Michael Bryant is superb as the protagonist. Shopping channel presenter Paul Lavers appears as his young sidekick, together they make an effective on-screen team. The story is padded out slightly with non-Jamesian subplots, but on the whole this captures the spirit of M.R. James perfectly and is cracking television. Indeed, moving the action to a cathedral city in England from Germany and altering the ending makes it even more Jamesian than the story, if that's possible!
For me "The Ash Tree" was slightly disappointing. It is another superb production with a great cast (Edward Petherbridge and a young pre-Doctor Who Lalla Ward), but the adaptation didn't quite match the original story. The "present day" and past events are depicted alternately, with some of the same cast (Petherbridge for example plays two parts, the present day Sir Richard and his ancester Sir Matthew) and this adds up to a slightly confusing narrative, chopping and changing. The unpleasant aspects and the climax, a great piece of writing by James are also a little lacking in the story. That's a lot of criticism, and only because it comes after two outstandingly good episodes. On its own it's still a very good piece of television.
The only real disappointment with this release is that Christopher Lee's 2000 reading of "The Ash Tree" from the "Ghost Stories For Christmas" series has not been included as a bonus feature - all the other releases in this series have had their respective Christopher Lee film where one was produced (Number 13, The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral, A Warning to the Curious) - why miss this one out?
In summary, this is the series at its peak, with some superbly atmospheric television based on works by our greatest supernatural writer.