These two cracking pieces of television from 1971 and 1972 properly kicked off the BBC's "Ghost Story for Christmas" season (the earlier M.R. James "Whistle and I'll Come To You" was not part of the Christmas series). They started with two of the master's best-known and atmospheric tales.
"The Stalls of Barchester (Cathedral)" is one of James's most effective stories. The mounting pressure on Archdeacon Haynes as he gets supernatural vengeance for his wrongdoing is actually rather harrowing in the book. The producers do a good job of representing this with the character here (played superbly by Robert Hardy), though it still doesn't match the book. Nevertheless, this is a superbly made and beautifully filmed episode. The Norwich location is perfect, as is the cast, which includes Clive Swift and even young Mr Grace and Mavis from Corrie!
"A Warning to the Curious" was a good choice for a follow up, although being quite different it shares the same sort of claustrophobia and incomprehensible supernatural terror. The fantastic Peter Vaughan deviates considerably from the character in the book, but still is highly effective as the ambitions treasure hunter. There is more cinematic production beautifully filmed on that most Jamesian of locations, the coast of East Anglia. Clive Swift returns, playing Dr Black, in what would be his final appearance in the series.
The bonus features bring us the same stories again, as produced by the BBC in 2000 for another "Ghost Stories for Christmas" series. These featured Christopher Lee as James in a recreation of the traditional Christmas Eve readings. Although it's hard to imagine the tall and commanding Lee as James, these are beautifully done and Lee's wonderful voice and manner is perfect for these stories. The production is lovely too - gorgeous academic rooms, old books, glasses of port and blazing fires - interspersed with short dramatisations from the stories. I hope the remainder of this series sees a release. If that were not enough the original 70s films have a new introduction with Lawrence Gordon Clark.
The picture quality varies, and is best on "Warning", which despite its noise and bits of damage is generally superb, it could almost be HD if you squint.
The producers of all these episodes did a wonderful job of capturing the spirit of the original stories. Nothing quite matches the thrill of reading the originals, especially for the first time, but nevertheless these are very special pieces of vintage television.