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"Such a nest of catarrhs and agues was never seen...",
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This review is from: Classic Ghost Stories of M R James [DVD] (DVD)
These short presentations of classic ghostly tales by M.R. James are among the best TV versions of the master's work, and probably my own personal favourite. Compared to Lawrence Gordon Clark's famous adaptations from the 1970s these are short and simple affairs. Each episode, dating from Christmas 1986, is just 15 minutes long but captures the story perfectly. In their storytelling rather than dramatisation format they are the closest to M.R. James's original stories and his fabled storytelling sessions.
Robert Powell stars as the storyteller. Set in the library in his dean's lodge, he relates the tale in his beautifully unctuous voice. His storytelling skills are superb. A slight pause here and there, a knowing look or maybe a slightly raised eyebrow add wonderfully to the presentation of the story. In three of the tales there are also cutaways to a little dramatised action from the tale.
Nowhere is this used better than in "The Mezzotint", which features the titular mezzotint and its sinister transformations. This is one of James's most effective tales and this dramatisation of it is quite brilliant. Seeing the mezzotint in the action is a simple device to help the listener visualise, without overdoing it. Equally the rather horrible spiders on the bed scene in "The Ash-Tree" is much more sinister in this one than the better known 1975 adaptation.
The set used for the storytelling is lovely to look at. The library is furnished with interesting bookcases and antiquarian books, a roaring fire and tapestry curtains, whilst various props in the storytelling are used to add to the interest.
Since many of James's words are used verbatim these are faithful adaptations, even if they are abridged.
The bonus feature brings more pleasant terror. "Spine Chillers" from children's storytelling series "Jackanory" is really very similar. Michael Bryant stars as a slightly more urbane storyteller in a rather more elegant library. These films rely on Bryant holding the interest and use no dramatic inserts. Although nothing quite tops the Powell readings for me, Bryant is just as good in his own way and these readings are a must see too. Considering the Powell ones were late night TV and the Bryant ones teatime TV for children, there's really no difference in tone or style. If it didn't say "Jackanory" at the end it wouldn't be the least obvious this was children's TV. The viewer can do a direct contrast since both series feature "The Mezzotint".
The picture quality is fine throughout, with a film transfer for the Bryant episodes and video transfer for the Powell ones. For a 1980s TV programme these aren't quite as sharp as they could be, but still perfectly acceptable.
It should be noted that this disc has been included in a reissued version of the Ghost Stories for Christmas DVD box set, so anyone new to the wonderful world of ghostly tales at Christmas would be well advised to go for that instead. For anyone who has the earlier 5 disc set this one is a must. The box set also includes 3 of Christopher Lee's 4 readings from 2000, broadly similar to the ones on this set, but not with quite the same magic as the Powell readings.
As always, the BFI have included a booklet with essays to round off the set. Essential viewing this Christmas!