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The final three original BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas - and the first is a cracker!,
This review is from: Ghost Stories from the BBC: The Signalman / Stigma / The Ice House (DVD) (DVD)
The original BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas came to an end with this trio of tales that saw a shift in tone from the previous M.R. James adaptations. With a planned adaptation of 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.
Available separately or as part of Ghost Stories for Christmas - The Definitive Collection (5-DVD set), the DVD also includes a booklet with essays on all three stories.