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.
In Hitch-Hiker terms, I suppose this is the fourth DVD of the James trilogy. The selection makes sense, as this volume gives you the three non M R James stories of the long occasional Christmas series. I can't comment on The Ice House or Stigma, as I can't remember whether I saw them on TV (I will have to wait until this volumeis actually released) , and my automatic preference would be the missing MR James productions, i.e. Number 13 and View from a Hill, but no matter - this DVD gets five stars purely for The Signalman. (Copies of the old release of this production are advertised at obscene prices.) Denholm Elliott excels in Dickens' story of the custodian of a lonely signalbox obsessed by - he knows not what, except that it strains to the utmost his professional conscience. Lest you find the premise fanciful, you can take this as a commentary upon the new, dreadful demands of work in the Industrial Revolution; it is also worth considering that Branwell Bronte suffered malaise through his short stint working at a station which was, similarly, deserted and at the foot of a deep cutting. (Admittedly he had a few other issues - drink, drugs, inherent instability ...) Like the performance of Michael Hordern in Whistle and I'll Come to You, we are treated to an old-fashioned British "character actor" at the very top of his form; this may be a revelation to somewhat younger viewers who have seen Elliott only as the cynical butler in Trading Places. The producer is Andrew Davies; this may be his only significant horror production, but his ability to depict human nature and emphasise angst is an additional factor in the success of The Signalman.
Stop press 1 Aug 2012 - belated release of a fifth disc, with the two remaining MRJ stories, but also all five discs as a box set.
Christmas Eve during my teenage years included watching these delights. Along with the earlier adaptation of Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come To You My Lad, The Signalman is one of the most scariest pieces of television I have ever experienced. So, buy this and the others in the series and wait for Christmas. Get out the mince pies, open a bottle and turn off the lights. And try not to be alone …
Given the age of these examples of rare and classic BBC programming they stand up surprisingly well despite the obvious limitations inherent in the sound and image. Moving away from the classic tales of MRJames, LeFanu and Dickens was not a good decision as it reduced the audience for this annual event and probably resulted in it's demise. "Stigma" and "The Ice House" are far removed from the style and content of the other films but are still of interest. "The Signalman" of course is very fine but "Stigma" would probably been more at home in the Hammer House of Horrors TV series as its tale of witchcraft in 1970's Avebury is decidedly out of keeping with the rest of the series - though very effective and enjoyable. It's "The Ice House" however which is the true anomaly. This very "theatrical" piece with clear overtones of Pinter is totally misplaced here and led to considerable disappointment with fans when it was originally screened. That said, and dated though it is, it is a fascinating and unsettling piece whose ambiguity, allegorical sub-text,visions of a decidedly worrying after-life and images of dead folk, incestuous siblings and truly fearful garden plants (sic) linger well after the episode is over. Hell really does seem to be "other people" in this enigmatic, very formal and deliberately mannered, self-conscious romp. So all in all, this triple bill is essential viewing for connoisseurs and lovers of ghost stories alike. But DON'T view the "introductions" until you have seen the episodes - they give far too much away!
I bought this for 'The Signalman' only so can't really comment on the other two - haven't watched them yet. I first saw this when it was shown on the BBC as a Christmas ghost story long before video/DVD. The transfer to DVD isn't brilliant by today's standards but it's all about story and the performance. I used to be a signalman myself in the 80's in a box located miles from anywhere and I can attest from personal experience that strange things happen (if only in your own mind) in the small hours of the morning and I was really glad the door had a lock on the inside :-).
I bought this purely for the signalman..a ghost story i must see i was told..the other two stories are ok and watchable..but the signal man outshines them both..a charles dickens short story set in victorian times telling of a signalman haunted by a ghost warning of impending doom..this reminded me of scrooge and is creepy and gripping..for fans of steam trains this story has them,an old signal box and a cosy coal fire..great acting,great story a must see..
I saw these stories when they were first on the BBC, and thoroughly enjoyed them. As things in the supernatural programmes/films/books, have moved on since these were first shown, I was hoping that they weren't too 'creaky'. Must admit that I was pleasantly surprised that they still help my attention. I put them on when a friend came round for luch, as she is always interested in what books/dvds/cds I have bought since she was last here. As she is a lot younger than me, I though that she would find them boring, as they are not as fast paced as the more modern horror stories, but she enjoyed them very much. I will have to look and see if there are more DVDs with the old BBC ghost stories, as I would like to get all of them.
Hi.I have been reading the signal man by Charles dickens in swedish.And i must say that the novel and movie is the same in every detail.A reel old-fashion ghost story. And Denholm Elliot as the signal man is excellent.