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More cosy than chilling, and more a DVD extras disc than a main feature itself
on 20 January 2015
A rather half-hearted addition to the BFI's collection of BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas (though not part of that annual strand, Classic Ghost Stories of M.R. James has the feeling of an afterthought and an opportunity for double-dipping repackaging with the original 5-disc set, though it is at least also available separately. Whether it justifies the initial rather hefty price is a matter of debate: although there are dramatised inserts, these aren't full cast dramas but readings of several of M. R. James' stories. It's a format which, when done well, can be surprisingly engrossing as Christopher Lee's four part series from 2000, Ghost Stories for Christmas, which saw him stepping into James' shoes and Oxford study showed. And it's the biggest disappointment of this disc that the BFI haven't taken the opportunity to include the fourth of the Christopher Lee episodes which was inexplicably missing from their earlier M.R James Collections which included three of them as extras.
Here we get two slightly different and less atmospheric approaches, one set of five 14-minute readings by Robert Powell produced for late night TV slots, the other three episodes of the Jackanory spinoff aimed at older children, Spinechillers, read by Michael Bryant. Both are narrated in character but rather than adopting the mantle of the elderly antiquarian scholar, Powell is more the middle aged but still sprightly lecturer and delivers the stories conversationally and informally from his study with a few modestly budgeted illustrative reconstructions of key moments in the stories (The Mezzotint, The Ash-Tree, Wailing Well, Oh, Whistle and I'll Come To You, My Lad and The Rose Garden). They're decent enough, but the chill is missing, leaving them with the feel of slightly cosy epilogue programming that isn't going to trouble your sleep.
Michael Bryant seems like the perfect choice for James, though rather than taking the role of James he's an elegant gentleman telling an after dinner story in his drawing room. Due to the shorter timeslot - just ten minutes compared to Powell's 14 or so - he has to rush through the stories even with some editing to the text, and with ghost stories it's always the pauses and the slower passages where the chills are to be found. He also delivers a version of The Mezzotint (along with A School Story and The Diary of Mr Poynter) that allows you to compare his approach to Powell's, though once again there's nothing to trouble your dreams.
It's thin but not unpleasantly cosy stuff that's probably best picked up in the BFI's expanded six-disc Ghost Stories for Christmas Collection (if you haven't already bought the five-disc set) rather than anything that justifies a solo purchase - more a DVD extras disc than a main feature.