HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERon 24 February 2013
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  [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.