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on 4 November 2012
Simply, this is an indispensable collection.

I won't bother with reviewing the individual titles - you are much better served elsewhere and you are probably already aware of the sheer brilliance of these vintage spooky delights. The box set itself is split into two collections - the M.R. James adaptations and the lesser cousins (notwithstanding Charles Dickens' glorious The Signalman) The Ice House and Stigma which just don't resonate in the same way and suffer from comparatively modern settings. There are two superb booklets absolutely stuffed with fascinating details and most of the stories are blessed with a new director's introduction.

None of the original presentations have had any unnecessary digital clean ups but the sound is superb (in comparison to my DVDr rips...). All the warm, fuzzy, crackly picture tones are present and correct giving a nostalgic glow.
With regards to the modern takes on 'The Number 13' and 'A View From The Hill', I think these are triumphant readings of what is often fairly dry source material.
The recent adaptation of 'Whistle and I'll Come To You', when stripped of all its inevitable baggage, is actually a marvellous production; a meditation on loss, loneliness, guilt and not without some genuinely unsettling moments.

All in all, this is a must have collection at a steal of a price and a timely reminder of how great television was and could (perhaps) be again...
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on 16 October 2012
Have been waiting for years for these. Can't wait to see them again as they are all marvellous. They truly capture the elusive terror of M.R.James. Glass of port, blue Stilton and M.R. James, roll on Christmas 2012.

Have weakened and watched a few. Live up to all my expectations. Superb acting and directing. Wonderful eerie atmosphere of the Fens, menacing and disturbing. Perfect for winter viewing.
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on 9 June 2013
This is going to sound stupid but it's okay, I'm used to it. I bought this 5 disc box set for the extras. Okay, that didn't sound stupid. It sounded geeky. I've got experience there as well.
Maybe I'm going round this the wrong way. A long time ago, one Christmas, I found a Christopher Lee programme on TV. It had some blurry images and some strained background acting, but it was mainly one of the greatest voices in the history of our country telling ghost stories. It terrified me. It really and truly did. I'd never heard ghost stories like these before. I was hooked. I hunted out a copy of M R James stories and I read them. A lot. Then I found the BBC were making more of the great man's stories into one off specials. A view from the hill made me worry about the lenses in my glasses. Room 13 made my wife refuse to walk around the house unless we turned all the lights on and then Whistle and I'll come to you did strange things with a classic story. But it was Neil Cross, so it was okay. Also it was creepy as hell. When I found out the BFI had put all of these things in a box set along with the older, classic adaptations from the seventies I just had to have it.
Sure, some of the FX and acting is a little ropey in places and the black and white Whistle with Sir Michael Horden is a strange exercise in telling a ghost story, but it was all worth watching. And Denholm Elliot's performance in The Signal Man is something else. So, yes, there is an air of the dated here but there is also an air of history. The history of the classic ghost story.
I will tell you this, I won't just be watching this at Christmas.
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It may be misleadingly billed as `The Definitive Collection,' but sadly the BFI's five disc set of Ghost Stories for Christmas is another case of just falling short on the ideal presentation. All of the original Lawrence Gordon Clark 70s ghost stories and the brief 2005-6 revival are included, along with the Jonathan Miller adaptation of Whistle and I'll Come to You and its 2010 remake, but for some reason known only to themselves only three of the four Ghost stories for Christmas with Christopher Lee from 2000 have been included. It's a curious and annoying omission in an otherwise impressive set.

The majority of the stories are adaptations of varying degrees of faithfulness M.R. James classic ghost stories. That there are so many is quite a compliment to the producers, since the short stories are far from screen-friendly, civilised tales with academic undercurrents where atmosphere and touch are more important than action and resolutions are usually only half-seen or half-suspected.

The series began almost accidentally in the wake of Jonathan Miller's 1968 version of Whistle and I'll Come to You, easily the most divisive of all M.R. James adaptations, with people either hailing it as a masterpiece or dismissing it as a travesty. Unfortunately I fall into the latter camp. It certainly has a formidable reputation, but quite why it has such a reputation is something of a mystery - it really is extremely bad. Stretched out to 43 minutes when it could easily have been told in little more than half the time, it fails to evoke the spirit of James tale and fails even more dismally to work on its own terms. As for frights, it's too busy with turning its protagonist into a figure of ridicule to take the time to chill.

The story certainly has the potential to work, with one of James' arrogant academics uncovering a relic from the past - in this case an ancient whistle with a cryptic inscription - and inadvertently summoning something from the past that may bring about his doom. The major problem is Miller's poor and overindulgent direction: not only does he allow Michael Hordern to both overact and underact at the same time, but he seems to be under the impression he's making Last Year at Marienbad in a rooming house on the English coast. While the crisp black and white photography and composition are good, the tone is at once childish parody - most of the 'dialogue' is absurdly exaggerated rhubarbing (even the one key dialogue scene is played while Hordern wolfs down food) - and smug superiority: he seems as self-satisfied at his own ingenuity in treating the whole thing as a trite joke as the main character is in his belief that "there are more things in philosophy than are dreamt of in heaven and earth." The finale seems almost as ridiculous as the scene in The Naked Gun where Leslie Nielson is 'attacked' by a pillow - but here it is genuinely meant to be a terrifying apparition. But at least it led to some much, much better BBC M.R. James adaptations...

The BBC revisited the tale in 2010 with a bigger budget to a fairly unanimous thumbs down, yet although it departs from the story quite a bit - not least in the nature of the final manifestation - in some ways it's a much more decent attempt to do something interesting with the material. This time round John Hurt is the elderly husband who is reluctantly spending some time by himself after his near catatonic but much loved wife Gemma Jones is put into a home. Choosing the seaside hotel they visited after they first married, he finds not a whistle but an ancient ring on the beach and makes the mistake of taking it with him and reading the inscription. Cue more sleepless nights, scratching from the woodwork and nightmares of shrouded figures on the beach, but at least this time there's a genuine attempt to build up an atmosphere of creeping unease that's absent from the Jonathan Miller version. Nor is Hurt an arrogant clownish figure of mockery here, more an adrift but not quite lost soul with his own reason for not believing in ghosts: how can he believe in the survival of the human personality after the body has died when he's lived for years with tangible evidence that the body can survive long after the human personality has died? The ending doesn't really convince and the photography, curiously shot in a 2.35:1 widescreen ratio, is so shoddily graded that it looks like digital and can't cope with darkness or shadows, flattening the depth and lurking unease out of everything so completely that it's like being in a manky fog waiting for a bus, but it deserves some points for effort and for Hurt's fine performance.

The Ghost Story for Christmas series proper began, almost accidentally, with 1971's The Stalls of Barchester when documentary filmmaker Lawrence Gordon Clark approached the BBC with the idea of moving into drama with the M.R. James ghost stories he had grown up with. Sadly his inexperience shows with a story that never really lives up to the promise of its material despite having all the necessary elements for a good chiller. There's no faulting the cast, headed by Clive Swift as the visiting librarian who uncovers the papers of former archdeacon Robert Hardy that hint at his part in the accidental death of his elderly and determinedly long-lived predecessor and outline his growing unease at what Swift initially suspects is a guilty conscience, Hardy's determined rationalist believes is the onset of incipient madness and the viewer knows is a more supernatural explanation linked to the grotesque carvings in the cathedral that were hewn from an old oak once used for pagan rites. The scene-setting is amusing enough, with a good comic montage of Hardy's increasing frustration with the Methuselah-like constitution of the old archdeacon, but the notion of a pagan evil lurking in the heart of the cathedral is reduced to a typical the Devil claiming his own treatment. Worse, he botches the big moments terribly, never giving a proper glimpse of the two crucial carvings or managing to come up with a good visual equivalent of James' typically tactile moments of revulsion when the living accidentally touch but do not see something decayed yet seemingly alive. The less said about the claw or the apparition the better. Without the benefit of a chilled spine the tale feels drawn out at 45 minutes, but there's enough that holds the interest to understand why the BBC decided to continue with the strand as an annual Christmas treat, commissioning and shooting the second the following Spring.

1972's A Warning for the Curious is the first of the series that can lay genuine claim to greatness thanks to superb direction, a wonderfully cinematic use of locations, strong visuals courtesy of cameraman John McGlashan and some effective changes to James' story that compliment it rather than demean it. Rather than one of his typical academic antiquarians undone by arrogance it now focuses on an amateur, Peter Vaughn's clerk who has come in search of the last of three Anglo Saxon crowns buried centuries ago and which guard the coat still - and is, in its turn, guarded itself. In his introduction to the DVD Clark talks about the influence of Hitchcock on the film, less in terms of visual style or pastiche setpieces but theory, keeping the dialogue largely evasive and telling the story and revealing what the characters are trying to hide with the camera. Thus we learn that Vaughn is in dire straits from the soles of his shoes and a newspaper headline about soaring unemployment in the Great Depression just as we discover more from what the locals don't say than what they do. It's a beautifully underplayed performance too, a man who suddenly finds himself without prospects and eager to prove that he doesn't need a load of letters after his name to make a great find, only to be haunted by what finds him and will not leave him alone. The supporting performances are equally impressive, not least Clive Swift's fellow guest, setting the right tone without losing sight of credible characterisation. The chills are certainly here this time, Clark using light and shadow and even wide open spaces to create a sense of unease and pursuit from beyond the grave and adding a neat little epilogue to add one final shiver of unease. The additional budget and generous 18 day shooting schedule for the 50-minute film pay off in the most visually impressive of the series, too, though it's a shame that the decent DVD transfer is taken from an occasionally scratched source. But even that can't detract from a rather perfect fireside tale.

The following year saw the strand moving to the BBC Drama department and Clark not only replaced as writer but having to compensate for the increased number of `non-combatants' among his crew eating up the budget with a much shorter shoot. The results are all too clear in the much more mundane treatment James' Lost Hearts gets. A rare gothic and more than usually gory tale for the writer, it relies less on the unseen or half-seen, and that's a big part of the problem: we see far too much for far too long of the two ghostly children that seem to be haunting a young boy taken in by his amiably eccentric relative, and it shows both the limitations of the juvenile performers and completely dilutes any unease or shock value that their earlier brief apparitions hinted at. Nor does it help that the old man's sinister agenda is hidden behind a rather tongue-in-cheek bumbling eccentricity that makes him a very unconvincing menace. Add to that a rather scrappy script that puts almost everything on the surface and it's definitely a lesser effort.

Thankfully 1974 saw not only a return to form but also one of the very best of the series with The Treasure of Abbot Thomas. John Bowen's adaptation is far from slavish but again it's a case of complimenting rather than undermining James' original. It doesn't hurt that it's one of James' best stories either, with Michael Bryant's eminently rational cleric drawn into a treasure hunt for the treasure of medieval alchemist Abbot Thomas - "Not the good Abbot Thomas. That was never suggested, not even by himself" - following cryptic clues ("He looks down from on high to see what is hidden") while possible apparitions dog him and his companion. But Abbot Thomas has set a guardian over the treasure, an unholy thing of slime and darkness...

It's a splendid yarn, with Bryant excellent as the sceptic whose closed mind will inevitably be torn off his hinges and ably supported by Paul Lavers as his slightly bemused former student who clearly thinks he protests too much about his true academic motives for finding the treasure while keeping his peace out of fondness for the old boy. Despite Clark's reservations, the final manifestation is one of the more successful attempts to convey the horribly tactile moments of physical contact with something clearly not alive but nonetheless all too animated in James' stories, and there's an especially memorable final shot. Once again the production is blessed by Clark's excellent and highly cinematic eye for his locations and fine photography from John McGlashan, with Geoffrey Burgon providing the series' first original score, a mixture of plainsong and unnerving avant-garde that's highly effective.

As Clark admits in his introduction, his last M.R. James adaptation for the BBC, The Ash Tree, is not one of his most successful, but it's certainly an interesting failure. Edward Petherbridge is the 18th Century squire who finds himself inheriting a country estate from an uncle where he plans to raise a family with his wife-to-be (Lalla Ward), but finds it a blighted place where the livestock die and his predecessors die without heirs. He starts finding himself inside the head of his 17th Century ancestor who incurred the wrath of a local witch he bore witness against, unwittingly repeating his words during unrelated conversations, but worse is to come when he moves to the room the man died a mysterious death in, a room overlooking an ash tree...

There's an interesting attempt to at once contrast and highlight the similarities between the `modern' man in the Age of Reason and his devoutly repressed ancestor who both fall prey to the same fears, but neither David Rudkin's script or Clark's ambitious dual and overlapping timeframe structure quick licking the story. The departed's desire for the witch is underplayed too much to offer much ambiguity to his motives for giving testimony against her, but more damaging is the decision to play the witch as a victim, giving her curse more of a poetic justice feel than the more malicious last act James intended. Nor does it manage to conjure up much sense of menace or unease despite having all the raw materials required: it's not until the surprisingly good creature effects at the end when something nasty crawls out of the woodwork that it starts to fulfil its potential. Still, it's a valiant effort and infinitely superior to Clark's surprisingly dire modern-day adaptation of James' superb Casting the Runes [1979] [DVD] he subsequently made for ITV.

With a planned adaptation of M.R. James' Count Magnus proving too expensive for the BBC's modest means at the time, the Ghost Story for Christmas series cast its net wider in 1977 with an adaptation of one of Charles Dickens' short stories, with exceptional results. The Signalman is one of the highlights of the series thanks to excellent performances by Denholm Elliott and Bernard Lloyd, a great use of his striking location by director Lawrence Gordon Clark and a splendid adaptation by Andrew Davies that retains much of Dickens' very distinctive dialogue. The latter gives an air of what could be described as formal unease to its fireside tale of a traveller and a signalman who meet in a tunnel in a strange valley. The traveller thinks he has found a contented man, but it's all too obvious that he has instead found a very troubled one, and one not just troubled by the pressure of responsibility with so little to do but so much depending on it and the long periods of inactivity while the telegraph wires sing ominously as the wind turns them into a wild harp. Elliott is especially good as the rational man haunted by a harbinger of doom who has predicted two disasters on his stretch of rail and he believes is predicting another in a beautifully atmospheric production that's driven as much by helplessness and confusion as it is by dread and unavoidable fate.

It's just a shame that the BBC didn't go back to the original 16mm negatives for a higher resolution scan than they provided the BFI with here - for most of the time it's a very solid transfer that's certainly as good as the TV broadcasts, but the spectre's appearance in the shadows of the tunnel are too dark until its countenance is revealed. Thankfully it's not enough to mar what is, despite its simplicity, one of the finest adaptations the BBC has ever produced. The DVD also includes a lengthy and particularly good introduction by Clark, dealing both with the practicalities of the shoot - the signal box and gorge were near a rough area and schoolchildren would throw rocks at the crew! - as well as the background to the story, from Dickens' inspiration coming from a real fatal train crash he survived in 1865 and the way the Industrial Revolution had become a monster that left many powerless victims. Unfortunately, unlike their earlier standalone DVD edition, John Nettleton's reading of the original story has not been carried over. The DVD does, however, include the two remaining stories from the 70s incarnation of the series.

With Stigma the series took a different turn, moving away from the more expensive period adaptations to cheaper modern day originals, albeit with similar elements in the case of this tale by Clive Exton of the perils of landscape gardening if you live near pagan standing stones and burial mounds. Kate Binchy's housewife is on the receiving end this time, finding herself mysteriously bleeding to death despite having no wounds after attempts are made to remove a giant stone that ruins the lawn, something you know isn't going to end well. Lawrence Gordon Clark made his exit from the series with this one, less comfortable with the modern setting and, as he admits in his introduction on the DVD, rather uncertain just what the nature of the malignant force was. That the characters are unaware of it themselves is one of the more effective aspects of a decent but not great entry. This also rings in the changes with the addition of a lot of gratuitous nudity that's, naturally, essential to the plot in that way that only ever seems to apply when female nudity is involved. Funny, that.

John Bowen's The Ice House is an intriguing little number set in an isolated spa where the guests go from relaxed to increasingly unnerved as they get `a touch of the cools' which may or may not be related to the old ice house in the grounds and the twin vines whose flowers give off a seductive scent. Although set in the 70s the language is very formal and archaic, guest John Stride's delivery gradually becoming as artificially precise and mannered as the somewhat otherworldly brother and sister who run the place and only want what is best for their guests, creating an unnerving atmosphere even though little actually happens. Largely played out in sunlight rather than shadows, it's a surprisingly effective little story best appreciated as an ambiguous mood piece rather than a ghost story.

Although the BBC did occasionally venture back into the supernatural at Christmas - 1994's The Blue Boy with Emma Thompson, not included here, was even trailed as a ghost story for Christmas - and in 2000 offered Christopher Lee recreating M.R. James annual Christmas Eve gatherings of students and friends to unveil his latest tales in four rather splendid episodes, but it would be two-and-a-half decades before they would attempt to seriously revive the strand with two very respectable M.R. James dramatic adaptations that failed to attract much attention.

2005's A View from a Hill sees Marl Letheren's diffident archaeologist visiting Pip Torrens' on his uppers local squire, who is down to his last unpaid servant, to evaluate a collection only to get sidetracked by the local landscape when he borrows an old pair of binoculars that have the ability to look back in time, and to a cathedral destroyed in the Dissolution four centuries earlier. As he gradually becomes more intoxicated by what they show him from Gallows Hill, he also becomes increasingly aware that he is also being watched...

It's a simple tale simply told and particularly well acted by its small cast (David Burke's wary butler is the only other speaking role), with the antiquarian and his host already in two different worlds that are only linked by the thinnest of threads before our awkward hero finds himself transported into the past. It's cosily effective rather than especially chilling, though it does conjure up some atmospheric moments en route to its revelations about the previous owner of the binoculars and its not entirely surprising ending.

2006's Number 13 is better still, with Greg Wise another of James' academics brought in to authenticate ancient papers which contain teasing information about a best forgotten past that begins to reach out into the present - in this case an unpopular bishop, a witch trial and the noises from the adjacent room at the hotel he is staying in that trouble his sleep each night. The deeper he digs, the more uncomfortable it makes his employers ("Go back to your dreaming spires, professor. Leave the Church to deal with its own nightmares") and himself before an appropriately nightmarish ending. Director Pier Wilkie has a good eye for his locations, but the most visual aspects of James' story - the shadow of the dancing occupant of number 13 cast on the street below or the curiously shifting dimensions of the hotel room - are sadly absent, but it's a satisfying enough effort to makes it a pity no more were commissioned even if once again there are more hints of a frisson than genuine frights.

In many ways it was the BBC Scotland's series with Christopher Lee that was the most aesthetically successful attempt to bring James back to the small screen. Broadcast over four nights between Christmas 2000 and New Year's Eve, despite the slightly over-dramatic opening sequence they're marvellously effective in their old fashioned simplicity. Christopher Lee was still in good enough health and his rich, melodious but foreboding voice still strong enough to carry the tales single-handed, with only a silent audience of favoured students and a few cutaways to hallways or objects to add some variety to the visuals. Lee had actually met James while a student, though he doesn't attempt an impersonation: rather this is classic fireside tale spinning (quite literally). The first, The Stalls of Barchester, is particularly well directed by Eleanor Yule and is the highlight of the three episodes included here as extra features (A Warning to the Curious and Number 13 are the others). Yet the DVD falls down by failing to include the second episode, The Ash Tree, even though the Lawrence Gordon Clark dramatisation is included. It's a crying shame for a series that deserves a lot more respect.

The remainder of the extras package is taken up with introductions by Lawrence Gordon Clark to his stories and Ramsey Campbell making a very unconvincing case for the 1968 Whistle in an appreciative introduction, though these are all spoiler-heavy, so it would have been better to offer them as afterthoughts, though they can all be skipped. There's also a booklet covering the stories. The packaging gives the game away about how many various issues the BFI have managed to get out of these five discs: the M.R. James stories are available in a four-disc set which is available separately as The M.R. James Collection (all four discs available separately) with the remaining stories on a separate disc that's also available as Ghost Stories from the BBC: The Signalman / Stigma / The Ice House (DVD), the two put together in a cardboard slipcase.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 31 October 2012
This is the box set that seemed like it would never come. A sought-after release for so long, finally we have all the 1970s "Ghost Story for Christmas" films directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, along with the mid-2000s M.R. James films, and more.

The set is nicely presented in a slip case and contains two DVD cases, one containing all the M.R. James stories, the other containing Dickens' "The Signalman" and the two contemporary original screenplays - this is identical to the DVD available separately. There are also two rather fine booklets with essays and production notes.

The 70s M.R. James films have taken on legendary status, being largely faithful to their source material in approach and atmosphere if not in exact detail, whilst still being well paced and chilling drama. It's the 1968 and 2010 adaptations of "Whistle and I'll Come To You" that are different, Jonathan Miller's former taking a slightly more irreverent approach, whilst the latter being widely disliked for its reworking of the story. This one is probably the least good film in this set, retaining only a few elements from the original story. As an M.R. James story then it's not so good, but as an original ghost story in its own right it's not bad at all. It does stick out like the proverbial sore thumb on here however.

The settings are suitably Jamesian; ranging from the coast of East Anglia ("A Warning to the Curious"), English cathedral cities ("The Stalls of Barchester", "The Treasure of Abbott Thomas", "Number 13") and country houses ("The Ash Tree", "A View from a Hill"). These add greatly to the stories and are superbly filmed in a rather cinematic style.

The other stories are equally good - Charles Dickens' "The Signalman" is a classic too though quite different from the what went before. The contemporary screenplays ("Stigma" and "The Ice House") were more radical departures though still are chilling ghost stories, perfect for a dark Christmas Eve (that said, "The Ice House" is so subtle it can be baffling).

It's a shame we only have 3 of the 4 Christopher Lee films as bonus features, and the Robert Powell readings aren't here at all, nor are Michael Hordern's superb audio readings from the earlier DVD release of "Whistle" and "Warning". But there's so much here that's simply superb - highly recommended.
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on 10 August 2012
Good to see these superb adaptations being released at last. I recently contacted the BBC about releasing these stories when I saw a set was available in Australia/New Zealand. They replied that there were no plans to release them and then they appear on Amazon a few weeks later! Why the secrecy?
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on 28 October 2012
These ghost stories are a superb collection of chilling tales,i recall charles dickens 'signalman' broadcast by the bbc on christmas night many years ago,i watched it with my father and it did not fail to scare us both,excellent viewing for this christmas to come
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on 15 February 2013
If, like me, you were allowed to stay up late over the Christmas Holidays during the 1970's; You will remember being delighted and frightened with this dark Christmas treat.

This collection is superb, and lets you relive those nights over and over again. The transfers are the best yet!
My favorites are; A Warning to the Curious, Lost Hearts (Gave me nightmares for years this one!), The Signalman and A View from a Hill.

I really liked the John Hurt, Whistle and I'll Come to You. Even if it deviates wildly from the original concept. It is still a superb chiller.

The thing that struck me whilst watching these stories again...Was the long protracted silences, which told the story, without the need to bombard you with MTV style cutting and a constant soundtrack! (A perfect example of the proverb, 'Less is more').

If you care for brilliant writing, careful storytelling and excellent vintage production values, all wrapped up in your own memories of Christmas past; Then this collection is for you!
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on 23 December 2014
I really love the Ghost Stories of M.R.James. For us who were born in the early 60s the BBC's 70's run of A Ghost Story for Christmas holds I'm sure some very special memories, not to mention the memory of holding the bed sheets very tightly over our heads after watching one of M.R.James ghost stories, and yet the next tale could not come quick enough. This Definitive set is absolutley magnificient and contains three other stories not penned by James. The Signalman. Stigma and The Ice House that the BBC included in their anual homage to the Christmas Ghost Story, and I love everyone. I prefer the cover on this set in comparison to the expanded set simply because the cover depicts a picture of one of M.R.James stories The Stalls of Barchester. I have separately purchased the Classic Ghost Stories by M.R.James read by Robert Powell that makes up the only difference between this set and the 6 disc expanded set which depicts a picture from and including the wonderful Charels Dickens story The Signalman. There are no subtiles and for legal reasons Christopher Lee's excellent readings of M.R.James does not contain The Ash Tree. I watch these stories on the D.O.B. and D.O.D. of M.R.James and during the winter months but especially in December and on Christmas Eve. Wonderful memories are priceless.
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on 16 January 2013
Another Christmas gift I am currently working my way through! This is such an interesting collection of ghost stories that I find it hard to know where to start. But then, perhaps that is the main beauty of this 'definitive collection' that the viewer can dip into the stories as many or as few times as he/she desires. I particularly commend the spoiler alerts allowing the viewer to choose to watch the programme before having the whole thing explained.

I hesitated over giving the collection the full five stars. My experience in creative writing and publishing has taught me to tread carefully when handing out five star reviews. After careful deliberation, I decided that at the very least I would give this 4.5 stars. The rallying point is whether or not I would want to come back again and again to this collection.

I think my decision is final.
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