The fourth volume in the BFI’s series of DVD releases, which will bring together all of the episodes filmed for the BBC’s famous annual “Ghost Stories for Christmas” strand of TV films across five discs, brings us to the last three entries in the original 1970s series initiated by writer-producer-director Lawrence Gordon Clark’s first two adaptations of the ghost stories of MR James in 1971 and 72. Although the series continued to mine James’ supernatural fiction for the next three years, employing Clark as each entry’s director but now under the producer-ship of Rosemary Hill, by 1976 the team was struggling to find MR James material that could be adequately adapted on the limited budgets available to the series. Clark had wanted to bring the author’s vampire tale “Count Magnus” to the screen, and at one stage had planned to film “Number 13” but in the end felt that it could not be done successfully unless a Scandinavian location could be procured; eventually it was decided that another famous 19th Century ghost story, from perhaps that century’s most highly regarded popular author, Charles Dickens, could provide the series with its requisite Christmassy chills for a more manageable price.
“The Signalman” actually became the most successful and is one of the most memorable, adaptations in the entire series. Author and screenwriter Andrew Davies, who’s TV work includes some of the BBC’s most revered costume drama adaptations of the literary works of Jane Austin and Charles Dickens as well as the pastiche lesbian Victoriana of Sarah Waters, stayed true to the dialogue and incident of the original Dickens tale, which was first published by the author in his weekly popular journal ‘All the Year Round’ in 1866, and is widely believed to have been provoked by his near-death experience the previous year when he was involved in a cataclysmic rail accident while traveling on the ill-fated Folkestone Express on the Staplehurst line with his mistress (the actress Ellen Ternan), in which seven of the train’s first class carriages plunged over the edge of a viaduct along with the engine and the luggage van. Dickens’ own carriage was left precariously balanced on the edge of the drop into what was described in later newspaper accounts as a muddy scene of carnage below. As well as escaping so narrowly with his life, the manuscript for Dickens’ last completed novel “Our Mutual Friend” had an equally lucky reprieve from oblivion that day, but the author continued to suffer from flashbacks and various nervous conditions relating back to the experience for the rest of his life. The accident was later determined to have been caused by a foreman misreading the time table and mistakenly thinking he had enough time to repair a broken section of track, and was then compounded by the station flagman being positioned too close to the repair work to be able to provide fair warning to any unexpected engines that might still stray onto the damaged line.
All of Dickens’ contradictory feelings both of awe and fear about the progress and wonders and social change emerging as a result of the agency of the industrial revolution which his fiction so ably tracked, argued with and celebrated simultaneously, seem to have been poured into this subsequent one short story of only a few pages in length. The author had always been a firm sceptic with regard to the trappings of Victorian spiritualism, mercilessly exposing its chicanery in many magazine articles and in his journalism. At the same time, Dickens positively relished ghost stories, and published a number of them over the span of his literary career including of course the most famous of them all, “A Christmas Carol”.
Whilst being remembered today for his campaigning social conscience, Dickens was still always something of a champion of progress in general as it was then exemplified in the aspirations of the Industrial age (John Ruskin once disparagingly referred to Charles Dickens as ‘a leader of the steam-whistle party par excellence’) and, for instance, once described with delight, during a visit to Rome in 1852, something which many in his age (and ours) would have seen as tantamount to a desecration, when he writes admiringly how an ‘electric telegraph shoots through the Coliseum like a sun-beam – in at one ruined arch and out the other’. After his experience on-board the Folkestone though, it is possible to read creeping doubt and ambivalence about this horrible new means of death on a massive scale that ‘the steam-whistle’ and the advance of the railway was now making a possibility to even the most affluent of Victorians for the first time; and Clark and Davis’ adaptation of the story adds its own ringing note of unease in its haunting depiction of telegraph wires as trembling carriers of messages on the ether (an anachronistic electronic score by Dick Manton entrenches the notion) – as uncanny and imponderable in their way as the supposed goings on any the parlour room of a mid-Victorian spiritualist – and in its reproduction of some of the most telling lines of original Dickens dialogue, which pause to mention the wind ‘in this unnatural valley’ and the ‘wild harp it makes of the telegraph wire’.
But “The Signalman” works so effectively as a ghost story precisely because it turns out not to be one in the conventional sense at all: it has all the ingredients required for such a tale – a forbidding, isolated location; a diabolical apparition; an narrator relating uncanny events told to him in confidence, etc., -- but Dickens fashions them into an allegory that speaks of an unease at the relentless march of the machines of the industrial age – seemingly shaping the fate of man through unyielding locomotive regularity, forever altering the landscape (with ‘unnatural’ valleys and hills) and exposing an existential horror founded in feelings of inadequacy experienced so acutely by the individual in a world where responsibility for the lives of hundreds could now fall on the shoulders of just one man (like Henry Benge – the unfortunate foreman responsible for the Folkestone crash) thanks to his unprecedented dependence on new forms of mechanical technology. For the efficiency they provide also brings the fateful knowledge of the inevitability of the kind of incidents that will have such truly horrific consequences. The psychological fall-out from such feelings of helplessness and the isolation as might have been experienced by someone like Benge informs the anxiety-ridden pall of looming dread which hangs across “The Signalman”, with its sense of the vice-like grip of fate propelling a hapless protagonist towards a doom he can only sit (in his shadow-filled box) waiting for as it threatens to envelope him -- tormented by predictive visions of destruction involving events which he can do nothing to influence or alter or even understand the significance of.
Davis’ adaptation is always sensitive to the context of Dickens’ tale and captures the quaint formal qualities of the author’s writing in its mimicry of the starchy cadence of his dialogue, in what is essentially still a two-hander. But the film’s most lasting impression is made in the selection of evocative locations (Severn Valley Railway near Kidderminster; Bircham Coppice Cutting; and Highly Station for the signal box interiors); the compelling nature of the two lead performances from Bernard Lloyd as ‘the Traveller’ and Denholm Elliot as ‘the Signalman’; and Clark’s knack for framing memorable images, loaded with symbolic significance and dread. Denholm Elliot’s performance as the troubled Signalman --surrounded by the paraphernalia of modern communications yet isolated in his dark lonely signal box and left to dwell among his own thoughts in a job which requires no mental effort but which burdens him with its terrible responsibility – is one of his finest; and one of the primary pleasures of this adaptation lies in the interplay between his nervy self (a man who tries to distract his haunted mind by the study of ‘natural philosophy’ and higher mathematics to pass the time) and that of his optimistic, rationalistic interlocutor, who sees only excitement and possibility in the trappings of the age of steam, and is unaware that he is caught up with his saturnine friend in a web of fate that neither will properly comprehend until it is too late. The film takes the form of a dialogue between the unnamed Signalman and the Traveller, Elliot’s character recounting to Lloyd’s cheerful person his previous sightings of a dark figure, situated just beneath the red warning light outside the entrance to the looming tunnel on the line it is his job to monitor, which he has often sighted standing with its left arm raised to obscure its face while the other waves as though in warning. Indeed, each spectral manifestation has been accompanied by ghostly warning shouts, and has soon after been followed by a terrible accident on that very spot on the line. Clark underlines the story’s themes of fate and isolation with some eerie imagery, such as one shot in which the Signalman is shown emerging from the tunnel after the first accident, a tiny figure in the midst of its gaping maw, while a billow of steam flows out behind like an ectoplasmic shroud to envelope him. The spectral figure itself, which lowers its cloaked arm to reveal a blanched, sightless visage -- a face grotesquely contorted into an Edvard Munchian scream -- makes for one of the most chilling ghostly presences of the entire series.
For all its conjuring of doom-laden atmosphere, “The Signalman” embodied the peak of the approved classic literary ghost story adaptation on film, and indeed was the last such instance in the original 1970s series. For the following year, rather than adapt a classic text, dramatist Clive Exton was commissioned by the team to write a brand new story, making Lawrence Gordon Clark’s seventh and final film in the Ghost story strand a very different affair from its predecessors and the first original drama of the series to be set in the present day. Perhaps the worlds of Dickens and MR James now seemed too cosy and far-removed from the everyday realties of ‘70s Britain to allow their literary tales to function as anything more than a quaint fireside comfort, their supposed terrors neutered by their embodiment of what was now an accepted tradition which made it easier for them not to be taken too seriously. Exton was an experienced television writer who had contributed to dramas such as Terry Nation’s “Survivors” and “Doomwatch” and written for anthology series such as “Armchair Theatre” and “The Wednesday Play”. His contribution to the “Ghost Story for Christmas” series deals in the familiar haunted landscape of 1970s supernatural fiction, which was marked by its obsession with the notion of England’s pagan pre-history and New Age Earth Mysteries, and made emblematic by the country’s heritage of surviving stone megaliths: series such as “The Owl Service”, “Raven”, “Children of the Stones” and the 1979 “Quatermass” series routinely connected such ancient landmarks and their surroundings with the supernatural and the paranormal. The unknowable pre-history of such sites often became a signifier of the psychological undercurrents connecting lives lost in the past with our own, often through forms of re-enactment of long-forgotten events from this unrecorded landscape. In “Stigma”, Exton tells an ambiguous, disturbing tale which moves from suggestive supernatural hints to full-on horror when it brings the violent fate visited upon an ancient witch whose bones have been buried under a menhir in an Avebury country garden reverberating into the present-day for middleclass housewife Katherine (Kate Binchy) who is promptly assailed by strange malevolent forces.
A strange cryptically coded story which deals in strong visual symbolism connected to female sexuality and its cycles of menstruation, and which connects them with the notion of forceful interference in the landscape of the past, “Stigma” is a folk horror mood piece which offers no one fully realised explanation for the disturbances visited upon the body of Katherine as the half-hour film reaches its bleak conclusion -- a fact which makes them all the more chilling. It starts with Katherine (Kate Binchy) and her teenage daughter Verity (Maxine Gordon) driving down to the family’s remote Avebury cottage, where workmen are about to attempt the removal of a large ancient stone from its lawn. A highly abstract but very noticeable visual motif dominates Clark’s imagery throughout involving blobs of red against an expanse of white – Katherine and Verity’s red car against the concrete highway in the film’s opening seconds, or the red dot of a light switch in the white-painted cottage kitchen, for instance – and the opening act contrasts the psychological tensions between the two females in view of Verity’s burgeoning womanhood and her interest in the virile, shirtless young man who’s attending to the removal of the ancient stone, and the visible tensions in the rope of the crane-pulley created by the physical act of attempting to disturb this previously untouched artefact. The virtually wordless images are accompanied by snippets of radio commentary reporting on the Voyager probe encountering ‘strange radiations’ in deep space. These oblique ideas come together in Clark’s framing of Katherine in relation to the giant phallic-looking hook attached to the crane that’s about to attempt to remove the stone, effected in such a manner that it appears to form a sort of noose about her neck! Although the workmen fail to remove the ancient rock, something is ‘released’ which affects Katherine in some indefinable way, and thereafter leads to her suffering a bodily stigmata-like malady which causes her to haemorrhage blood from her torso, which then seeps from the skin beneath her left breast as though it were porous!
Katherine’s tense desperation as she attempts to bandage-up and hide this bizarre affliction from her daughter and her husband Peter (Peter Bowles) is captured in Binchy’s striking performance throughout the rest of the film -- her character’s nakedness and vulnerability shown by Clark in disturbing imagery which illustrates the stark white expanse of her bathroom in relation to the unstoppable leaking blood that’s despoiling the symbolic purity of the room’s orderly white tiles and towels. Unlike in the MR James tales which have featured in most of these Christmas films, there is no sense that Katherine as a protagonist is being punished for her own transgressions; but she is either the victim of the woman who’s bones are eventually disinterred from beneath the menhir with an ancient dagger in their ribs, or else is suffering a psychic projection of that unknown person’s fate for reasons which remain unfathomable but which seem to connect up with a disturbance of ancient rhythms in the land. Exton’s script refuses to elaborate on the nature of what we are presented with and Clark faithfully sticks to ladling on visual rhymes, references and metaphors which bring atmosphere but little in the way of explanation. This is ultimately to the film’s benefit though, and what we are left with is a deeply unnerving enigma which takes the mood of Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion” and reconfigures it in the context folk horror material such as “Blood on Satan’s Claw”.
After the peak of strangeness and horror achieved by Clark in “Stigma” (the director’s final film for the series) the following year’s effort, and the final film in the original 1970s run, directed by Derek Lister, feels like something of a side-line and is indeed often overlooked in accounts of the BBC’s Christmas Ghost Stories. “The Ice House” is a highly stylised piece of work scripted by John Bowen, who had previously adapted “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” for Clark in 1974. John Stride plays Paul, a middleclass doctor taking a holiday in a health spa for the well-to-do in spacious, tastefully picturesque grounds run by an odd-ball brother-and-sister couple, Clovis (Geoffrey Burridge) and Jessica (Elizabeth Romilly). The other guests consist of older eccentrics (such as the elderly ‘Diamond Lady’ played by Gladys Spencer) and most remain mute and uncommunicative throughout, as though lost in a private revelry or frozen in purgatory. Paul’s relationship with Clovis and the strangely seductive Jessica dominates most of the film. He can’t help wondering why he is the only guest who appears to receive any attention from this unusual couple. They show him a pair of giant, Triffid-like flowers in the garden which have a pungent and hypnotically attractive scent that draws their prey to them; and Clovis and Jessica noticeably dress in the same matching colours as their horticultural pride and joy. One of the masseurs at the spa (David Beames) begs Paul to help him get away but then disappears, and there’s something odd going on in the wooden ice house down the bottom of the lane, despite Clovis and Jessica smilingly reciting the same phrase like an incantation -- ‘there is only ice in the ice house’ -- in response to Paul’s questioning on the matter. The arch dialogue, deliberately un-naturalistic acting of Burridge and Romilly (which brings to mind the style of an early Pinter play) and the generally heightened, mannered realisation of semi-surreal material which appears to be taking place in the-then present day but which also seems to exist in an undefined but genteel purgatory, makes this the most unrepresentative entry in the series and not an altogether successful one. There are few scares here (apart from one nicely executed set-piece) and the atmosphere is more one of a comic oddness than uncanny creepiness; the whole thing feels rather more like a self-regarding puzzle without a clear solution than a ghost story.
All three films are presented here in standard definition and look somewhat better than previous films in the series. The two films directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark come with introductions by the director and there is another excellent booklet with perceptive writing by Mathew Sweet and Simon Farquhar, as well as interesting pieces by Helen Wheatley and Alex Davidson on “Stigma” and “The Ice House”. Although the last film in the series didn’t do a lot for me personally, the other two are excellent and are well supported by interesting written material and Clark’s reminiscences in the introductions. On that basis, this fourth volume comes just as highly recommend as the previous three.