The second volume in what will be a five DVD collection of BBC ghost story adaptations, currently in the process of being released by the BFI, features the first two instances in the corporation’s celebrated “Ghost Stories for Christmas” strand; an annual series of classic ghostly tales which were produced in the 1970s and screened over sequential Christmas eves up until 1978, many of them adaptations of stories by the Edwardian Cambridge scholar and antiquarian M.R. James. The series has since come to be viewed as TV genre-classic and the first one of the films, a version of James’ story “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral” -- first published in the April issue of the periodical ‘Contemporary Review’ in 1910, and later republished in the collections “More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary” (1911) and “Collected Ghost Stories” (1931) -- was the brainchild of former BBC documentary-maker Lawrence Gordon Clark, who saw it as a possible route into the BBC’s drama department as a writer-director and, by suggesting the idea of adapting another of James’ tales, was hoping to build on the positive reaction already generated by Jonathan Miller’s 1968 version of one the Cambridge don’s most famous stories, “Whistle and I’ll Come to You”. That, and the fact that the period drama was at the height of its popularity as a genre at this point the early 1970s, and the BBC had come to cherish its reputation as a trustworthy bastion of ‘the quality literary adaptation’ (investing a great deal of its image and prestige in maintaining that perception), helped persuade the BBC Controller at the time, Paul Fox, to take a chance on allowing Clark complete creative control and a small budget to experiment on bringing MR James to the masses, deciding later to transmit the resulting forty-five minute film – entirely shot on location on 16mm, which gave it even more the air of a quality production – late at night on Christmas eve, 1971, and thereby unwittingly starting a trend.
“The Stalls of Barchester” is one of the most faithful adaptations of James’ work ever made for the small or large screens. The original James story playfully references the fictional world of the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope’s ‘Barchester Chronicles’ series with its title: this was a group of works produced between 1855 and 1867, commencing with the publication of the novel “The Warden” and concluding with “The Last Chronicle of Barset”, all of which were set in and around the fictional Cathedral city of Barchester in the county of Barsetshire, and which the novelist used as a means of satirising the local and national politics of his day, as well as contemporary disputes then affecting the Anglican church, which mainly centred on the on-going antipathy between High Church adherents and followers of the Evangelical movement. James’ tale takes the form of a story that has been pieced together by its scholarly narrator from old obituary notices, diary entries and faded notes found in a dusty tin box in a corner of the college library while busy cataloguing manuscripts (a believable pastime, frequently carried out by James himself), and together make it possible to form a record of the affairs of a former 19th century archdeacon, who is recorded as later having met such a horrible end at the foot of the stairs in his home at the Cathedral Close in the diocese of Barchester.
The story is a masterclass in implied action taking place between the lines of the text, as most of the events which eventually make the unfortunate clergyman the target of such a dire instance of supernatural vengeance are merely assumed from our having been exposed to the narrator’s close reading of the records and notes at his disposal, rather than uncovered as a result of direct reportage. And even as the Archdeacon catalogues in his diaries every subsequent instance of supernatural visitation he experiences in the wake of these undisclosed actions (chillingly, he even expresses there the hope that such ‘experiences’ turn out merely to be indicators of “an infirmity of the brain” rather than the vile manifestations they appear to be), even these take the form only of the most fleeting visions glimpsed out of the corner of the eye, unnatural sensations which cause unease and upset of the nerves, or what appear to be brief auditory hallucinations.
Even more horrifying, these increasingly pronounced and malevolent manifestations are recorded as having taken place over a number of years: James’ ghosts are perfectly happy to take their time in destroying their victims’ peace of mind before they set about destroying their bodies, it seems. As was invariably the case with M.R. James’ literary output, the whole tale assumes a mantle of authenticity in this form of telling, the legend the author constructs to account for the tragedy which befalls the venerable Archdeacon John Benwell Haynes seemingly stretching even further back into history to encompass shadowy pagan rites from the dark ages, with more vestigial power to disturb the peace of the host than his ‘Defence of Episcopacy’ in the governance of Anglican affairs (the academic tome he spends his days writing as a distraction) is able to counter. It becomes apparent that a grotesque carving of macabre figures – a feral, arched feline form and a robed, horned representation of Death itself -- made in the late-seventeenth century and now adorning the ends of the archdeacon’s stall (‘some curious ornamentation’, as James puts it) harbours a supernatural evil, having been made from oak timber that once formed part of an ancient ‘Hanging Tree’, beneath which human bones were long ago dug up from the surrounding soils dating from pre-Christian times. The puritan sculptor of the stall -- named John Austin -- also turns out to have left a note promising doom to anyone who touches it if they be ‘he who has a bloody hand!’
Clarke’s adaptation is successful in recreating the story’s complicated pieced-together structure and, most notably, eschews the psychological approach taken by Miller’s adaptation (which in some respects worked just as well as a gentle satire of the kind of fusty, professorial academic of whom James was a prime specimen) in favour of more traditional seasonal scares, in a rendering of the tale which endeavours to take the malevolent spectral manifestations and apparitions of James’ literature seriously. This version alters the time frame of the story though, setting the main events concerning Haynes’ haunting in the middle- to late-Victorian era rather than the late Georgian period of the original, while Clarke (who adapted the tale himself) also added a ‘wraparound’ framing device set in the early 1930s (twenty years after the date on which James first published it) in which Clive Swift plays the part of one of the author’s typical antiquarian protagonists -- a Dr Black – although this character is an invention of Clarke’s, devised to fulfil the role of the academic who’s investigations of college records leads to the unearthing of the old trunk which contains the materials from which the hundred year-old story is then reconstructed.
Dr Black is just the sort of character who is usually made the victim in James’ nastier tales, but here he and his librarian colleague (Will Leighton) are merely the vehicles for bringing an old story to light, while providing the requisite Jamesian ambience of musty libraries full of ancient records and neglected manuscripts, so essential to any recreation of the author’s milieu. In its Victorian-set flashback scenes, Robert Hardy plays Haynes, the promising Anglican bachelor who starts the story expecting very soon to inherent the archdeaconry of the elderly Pulteney’s Barchester diocese (played by ‘the Young Mr Grace’ of “Are You Being Served?” fame, Harold Bennett) but finding such expectations being thwarted year-upon-year as the inextinguishable archdeacon continues to prevail into his nineties, with no apparent prospects of his snuffing it anytime soon.
Here Clarke indulges in the sort of wry humour that’s often to be found in Trollop’s Barchester novels, and of a sort which is being pastiched to some extent in James’ story: a montage shows how the same sluggish Church rituals re-occur year in, year out, but with a diminishing number of acquaintances in attendance on each occasion as they one-by-one die off; although the one man who would be thought most likely to expire, and so provide the ambitious Haynes with the post he’s been waiting on for some many years, continues on and on. When Pulteney finally does cop it, it is as a result of an accident, or rather ‘carelessness’ on the part of his maid -- who apparently misplaced a stair-rod holding the carpet in place, precipitating a nasty fall and a broken neck – rather than natural causes. From records of payments made by Haynes to the maid in question (and an almost illegible blackmail note, scribbled by the maid herself, which falls out of the sleeve of Haynes’ diary) Black infers that the new archdeacon was responsible for what was in fact the crime of murder, commited by Haynes against old Pulteney.
The rest of the tale is a quiet exercise in the creation of sustained atmosphere, with its shadowy suggestion of a lurking menace invisibly cloistered among the vestibules and clerical courtyards of cathedral life; yet always attended by a subtle gallows humour which is also very much accentuated by the enjoyable performances of the other members of cast, which include Coronation Street’s Thelma Barlow as Haynes’ unmarried sister Letitia -- the haunted clergyman’s only human line of defence against the encroaching sense of isolation which his experiences while in occupancy of the creaking, ill-lit and dark-wainscoted archdeacon’s residence, begin to foster. Also supplying a grim strain of humour is the cathedral’s verger (Martin Hoye), who’s detailed explanations of the grisly carvings found elsewhere among the stalls – twisted figures detailing the seven deadly sins -- add to the suppressed sense of guilt which the spectral experiences and uncanny sensory impingements on Haynes’ everyday consciousness begin to probe with an ever more steadfast remorselessness. Those experiences are examined with a scholarly precision and dedication by Swift’s cheerfully thorough Dr Black, in the 1930s framing section of the film, as he pours over the diary entries in the company of his friendly librarian co-helper, enthusiastically noting how the archdeacon refuses to acknowledge the truth of his plight’s origins in the supernatural, despite having by now established the provenance of the oak used to create the haunted objects perched on each end of his lectern in the Cathedral stall.
Hardy gives a restrained performance as Haynes – who comes across in this interpretation as an introverted yet rigid type, convinced of his own rectitude while clinging to a belief in the rational order of the musty gentrified world he presides over, repeating the same desperate phrase over and over in his later diary entries – ‘I MUST be firm!’ – which, Dr Black notes, is a phrase etched with increasing heaviness into the paper, upon each successive occasion that it appears alongside yet more descriptions of the unnerving episodes of the uncanny which are afflicting his existence. The depiction of those experiences, which James described so memorably in the original text, is a relatively straightforward matter of whispered voices in the dark, footsteps pursuing Haynes along a cobblestoned close in the evening and the sensation that the carved feline sculpture takes sentient form and prowls the house in the night, along with the expectation of a bony, robed, clawed hand placed upon his shoulder on the stair. James’ ghoulish description of Haynes’ awful fate, in which the victim’s features, upon the discovery of his corpse, are described as looking mauled beyond recognition, ‘as if by the agency of some savage animal’, cannot be reproduced in a tasteful BBC production, but John McGlashan’s photography captures plenty of authentic seeming period atmosphere in the film’s use of its Norwich Cathedral location; and with the seasonal sounds of Norwich Cathedral Choir filling the soundtrack, the work has the fitting air of solemn Victorian propriety hanging about it.
“The Stalls of Barchester” proved to be a hit and so Clarke was commissioned to follow it up the following year with another M.R. James classic. This time he chose one of the author’s later works, and perhaps one of his most accomplished. “A Warning to the Curious” was first published in the London Mercury in 1925; it was the title story of James’ fourth collection, published the same year, before taking its rightful place in the “Collected Ghost Stories” of 1931. Once again James drew on the East Anglian landscapes of his childhood; his description of the fictional east coast setting of Seaburgh is actually a fairly accurate rendering of Aldeburgh, Suffolk, a place the young James was accustomed to visiting regularly as his paternal grandmother resided there until her death in 1870. The town was also a holiday destination for Cambridge dons in the late nineteen-hundreds and also had literary associations for James since it featured as a location in one of his favourite novels: “No Name” -- one of the best works by the English Victorian novelist and friend of Charles Dickens, Willkie Collins. A similar East Anglian setting provided the setting for “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to you, My Lad” but “A Warning to the Curious” is the story which most revels in the atmospheric details of its descriptions of expansive, flat beachfronts and the wind-beaten lines of battered firs in the copses that line the exposed edge of the coast.
Clarke approached his adaptation of the story with a view to making it as cinematic as possible, cutting much of the dialogue and relying on evocative camera imagery and a sombre, discordant, ominous-sounding soundscape which lends the adaptation an austere mood and conjures the required air of dread. This approach is very different to that which was achieved in the previous story, with its understated humour and traditional Victorian period drama ethos. The tone of this adaptation is unrelentingly bleak and chilly, despite the reoccurrence of Clive Swift’s character Dr Black, who this time isn’t quite so lucky in escaping his own brush with a supernatural malevolence, despite having only a secondary involvement with the main story. Black, who didn’t feature in either of the original stories, was completely the addition of Clarke’s imagination, but acts as a kind of talisman for the traditional, kindly Jamesian academic who stumbles into a retributive world of spectral evil beyond his ken.
The story is founded in that familiar of Jamesian tropes in which found ancient objects of antiquarian interest are discovered to harbour supernatural associations, unleashed when they are disturbed from their buried resting place in the landscape by well-meaning scholars. This was the basis for “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, my Lad” but in this instance James built on some supposed real mythology from the dark ages involving magical coins said to have been buried on the coast in Anglo Saxon times to to ward off invasion, conflating it with the heraldic three crowns which appear in various old banners and arms associated with the East Anglian region, to come up with the idea (which many subsequently came to believe to be fact, so persuasively does James present it as such) that three Saxon crowns were once buried at various points along the coast in order to ward of invasion. The story was written a few years after the First Word War and is believed by many to be James’ response to the loss of so many of his colleagues and pupils while he himself stayed at home, excused participation on health grounds.
Clarke’s adaptation changes quite a few of the details of the story this time, for one thing removing the distancing effect brought about by fixing the action three times removed from the narrator and pitching the tale as having once happened to a friend of a friend of a friend (which works well enough on paper to add authenticity and atmosphere, but is unnecessary and distracting in a TV or film adaptation) while losing one of the three main players in the drama completely; and, interestingly, Clarke’s screenplay also completely changes the nature of the central character: James usually only includes working class characters in his stories as a form of comic relief or as an illustration of non-learned foolishness. The central figure of the original version of “A Warning to the Curious” was a typical scholarly type called Paxton, who happens to be visiting the coastal spot which forms the locale of the tale, while indulging in some recreational amateur archaeology. While searching for the last of the three holy crowns, still believed to have successfully warded off German invasion many times since, he learns about the local Ager family, and how each generation had passed down the line the task of guarding what is in fact the last of these holy crowns to have so far avoided being unearthed or destroyed. The last of the line, a William Ager, has recently died of consumption unmarried, and by finding out from locals the site at which he used to spend his hours in solitary guardianship, Paxton manages to locate and dig up the artefact, only to be cursed from then on with the sensation that he ‘is never alone,’ and eventually meeting another of James’ graphically described violent demises: ‘his mouth [was] full of sand and stones, and his teeth and jaws [were] broken to bits.’
Clarke brings the time frame of the story forward slightly to the depression era, and makes Paxton an unemployed middle-aged working class clerk hoping to transform his fortunes by making an historic discovery and proving himself the equal of the scholarly set who usually dominate the disciple of archaeology. Played by Peter Vaughan, Paxton is a sympathetic figure who would have been easy for audiences to identify with in the recession-hit early 1970s, a fact which only makes his fate all the more tragic. In the original story, the vengeful ghost is much more indefinable and nebulous, mostly only ever described as a shadowy presence that is at one point mistaken for Paxton’s discarded coat, pictured spread out over the site of the crown’s disinterment when he goes back there with Dr Black (who happens to be holidaying in the same seaside lodging house and is perhaps more inclined to believe Paxton’s story about being stalked by a supernatural entity, because of his involvement in the Barchester case) to try and placate the entity by returning the artefact to the earth from which it came.
Here, though, Clarke makes the spirit of William Ager a much more solid manifestation of malevolence. Some viewers take issue with this variance and with the film’s prologue, which establishes Ager as having already become a deranged, brutalised killer even before his death when he is shown hacking down one unfortunate amateur digger twelve years before the events of the main part of the narrative. But Clarke’s re-conceptualisation of the story and his stripping away of its more literary contrivances successfully draws on horror movie imagery in combination with inventive camerawork by McGlashan, to re-create an agoraphobic’s sense of helpless vulnerability in response to Norfolk’s vast, flat autumnal coastal landscapes, bringing an icy sustained sense of dread to the screen and a feeling of inescapable inevitability to the protagonist’s fate, which is bound up in the image of the flailing, black-clad figure of Ager’s ghost (John Kearney) who can often be seen approaching at a run from afar, a distant dot on the horizon at first, but drawing ever closer, inducing in the viewer the knowledge that it is only a matter of time before the cleaver-wielding entity is falling upon the hapless clerk. This is perhaps the scariest of all five of Clarke’s M.R. James adaptations; picking up on a few lines in the text of the story, Clarke also makes Ager’s ghost sometimes visible to others, even when it remains invisible to Paxton, so there really is no escape from the sense of being pursued by irrational but thoroughly malevolent forces, even when in public. The melancholy tone is cemented by the epilogue to the tale, which sees the kindly Dr Black also about to become Ager’s next victim, despite his really having had nothing to do with the removal of the crown; merely his involvement with Paxton’s attempts to evade his own demse is enough to seal his fate.
Both films are included on a single disc and although they’ve not been restored to a pristine condition, the 16 mm film elements are satisfactorily on a par with previous TV broadcasts of these works. They come with new ten minute introductions by Lawrence Gordon Clark detailing the background to their making, and the two relevant episodes of the BBC Scotland quartet of half hour readings, “Ghost Stories for Christmas with Christopher Lee” which appeared in 2000. In these Lee, apparently playing M.R. James according to the series narrator (but, as you will see from Jonathan Rigby’s writing on the series, included in the booklet with the disc, this is not what Lee himself intended when he gave the performance), is shown settled in a study in front of a group of earnest young Edwardian-era college pupils at Cambridge on Christmas eve (the series was shot on location at Kings College) after the sherry has been measured and mortar boards checked, delivering atmospheric readings of the tales in question. Beautifully shot in gold-hued period splendour to deliver a reconstruction of James’ famous Christmas readings, Lee’s voice is in sonorous form, these two films providing the perfect rendering of the original stories if you can overlook the rather overstated mugging to camera perpetrated by some of the actors playing the aged don’s young students.
In addition, a fine booklet with numerous essays, biographies and assessments of all the material here by the likes of Jonathan Rigby and Adam Easterbrook (to name but two) is an essential and pleasurable guide to these two fine BBC classics.
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