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BBC Ghost Stories: Vol 5

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Luke Watson
Pier Wilkie
Mark Letheren
Pip Torrens
David Burke
Greg Wise
Paul Freeman
Bottom Line: 

 The BBC’s celebrated “Ghost Stories for Christmas” strand, which ran throughout most of the 1970s, culminated with two atypical newly written contemporary stories, “Stigma” and “the Ice House”, the latter -- broadcast in 1978 -- being the last and probably least of the series. But it was Lawrence Gordon Clark’s earlier run of moody adaptations of classic MR James tales, along with his version of the best of Charles Dickens’ ghost stories, “The Signalman”, that lingered in the collective imagination of those of us who grew up during the decade in which these short films were first broadcast -- feeding the aura of yuletide nostalgia which has since gathered itself about that fondly remembered annual wintertime series. Clark’s measured, respectful and grown-up treatment of the source material, his subtle use of visual symbolism and the series’ quiet but masterful evocation of atmosphere through a lucid display of natural light, landscape and architectural detail, helped set the tone for the era each film set out to invoke, and has defined the stylistic trappings of the ‘serious’ ghost story in its various TV incarnations ever since.

The best of Clark’s films successfully married a voguish psychological approach to the ghost story with a taste for accurate period detail, whilst retaining its traditional and more direct intent of conjuring mood and bringing about a sense of unease through the accumulation of small but telling details in the narrative, the style favoured by the writer who was the beneficiary of most of Clark’s work: the Edwardian antiquarian and Cambridge scholar MR James. This approach to the writer’s work had actually been inaugurated several years before in Jonathan Miller’s highly regarded black and white 1968 “Omnibus” film adaptation of James’ “Whistle and I’ll Come to You”, where the pure dread experienced by Michael Holden’s increasingly unravelled Cambridge don, becomes as much an expression of his isolation in the face of approaching senility as a manifestation of vengeful supernatural wrath on those who seek to know what shouldn’t be known. Clark similarly fleshed out James’ spare prose (in which any psychological underpinning implied therein gives the impression of being largely involuntary on the part of its author) with social or historical background detail, which helps import a psychological richness to the stories without straying too far from the author’s original intentions. Thus, a film such as 1972’s  “A Warning to the Curious” – possibly the best of the series – is augmented and transformed by a slight shift in its historical setting which brings the date of the events depicted forwards to give the story a 1930s Depression era backdrop that allows the young, privileged Edwardian holidaymaker of the original short story (who indulges himself in amateur archaeology purely out of a sense of intellectual curiously) to become the older, lower-class individual seen in the film being played by Peter Vaughan: a desperate unemployed tradesman aiming to turn his fortunes around by digging up and acquiring a valuable but cursed crown, buried on the East Anglian coast in Saxon times, and now guarded by a murderous ghost.

In 2005 the BBC’s digital channel BBC Four commissioned a new adaptation of an MR James short story -- the first in many years – to be screened in December during the run-up to Christmas. It was a version of James’ previously un-filmed tale “A View from a Hill”, a story originally published in the London Mercury in 1925 and reprinted in the same year’s collection “A Warning to the Curious” and in 1931’s “Collected Ghost Stories”. The screening was preceded and accompanied by repeat runs of Clark’s 1970s James adaptations, plus his version of Dickens’ haunting story “The Signalman”, along with Miller’s “A Warning to the Curious” – which was by now retrospectively being seen as a de facto part of the original strand, even though it had actually first been produced for the BBC’s flagship arts documentary series in 1968 as an inventive alternative to a straight biographical film about the Edwardian author.

The approach taken by the production team behind this first attempt for twenty-seven years to revive the tradition of classic ghost stories from the BBC at Christmas (other ‘one offs’ of varying quality had of course sporadically appeared around the festive season in the meantime) indicates clearly a preoccupation with the visual formula and stylistic choices executed by Miller in 1968 and developed by Clark in the early- to mid-seventies; so much so in fact that both this and the following years adaptation of “Number 13” can be regarded as being just as much about the BBC indulging a nostalgia for the 1970s series itself as they were about continuing to pay homage to the Jamesian ghost story and its relationship to the Christmas tradition.

The screenplay was the result of a collaboration between screenwriter Peter Harness (who has since gone on to write for the British version of the Scandinavian crime drama “Wallander”), producer Pier Wilkie and former “Brookside” and “Holby City” director Luke Watson (whose more recent credits include episodes of “Hustle” and “Shameless”). The resulting screen version of the tale largely successfully negotiates the feat of staying true to the spirit of the James original while bringing a modern visual vocabulary to a treatment which echoes Clark’s approach to his adaptation of “A Warning to the Curious”. Certain identifiable Jamesian motifs, which have come to be seen as being essential components of his storytelling -- largely because of a familiarity with the TV versions of “Whistle and I’ll Come to You” and “A Warning to the Curious” -- but which are in fact mostly absent from this particular tale in written form, have been added … probably with a view to increasing the drama while enabling the production to ape something of the aesthetic choices made by more recent screen dealings with the supernatural, which have been greatly influenced by the rise of Japanese Kwaidan films since the period of the late-nineties. This TV adaptation of “A View from a Hill”, then, retains the key narrative features and events of the story but embeds them in a significantly transformed context from that of the original, in order to enable Harness and Watson to darken one of James’ most understated stories with a psychological post-war ennui, which, while remaining only a suggestive presence in the background of the story, nevertheless underpins and becomes fundamental to the relationship between the two central characters as they’re envisioned here.

James’ original story was set at the height of mid-summer, in the depths of the Herefordshire countryside in June –a location that seems about as far removed from the kind of gloomy, crepuscular setting more usually associated with ghostly tales of dread as could be imagined. James spends some time describing the general locale in prettifying not horrifying terms -- quiet, picturesque and verdant as it reclines amid quaint, gravel-paved countryside train stations that connect untouched villages, with their ancient church tower steeples still gleaming in the sun,  nestled between wooded hills and surrounded by green pasture lands. Although the named villages of the tale are all fictitious, James is said to have been inspired by the countryside in and around Kilpeck, a small hamlet just outside Hereford near the Welsh border, where the widow of his friend and illustrator of some of his stories, James McBryde, owned a farm that James would often visit during term holidays and after he became guardian to the child of McBryde’s widow, Gwendolyn.  

In the story, the main protagonist is another of the author’s ‘men of academic pursuits’ -- a Mr Fanshawe… who goes to stay with a slightly older recent acquaintance of his in is country Hall residence. During a walk that takes the duo up to a hilltop that looks out over the surrounding countryside, Fanshawe borrows a pair of Squire Richards’ heavy old field glasses and is presented with a magnificent view of the nearby Fulnaker Abby … except that the place is in reality now merely a ruin when viewed without the binoculars, neglected ever since the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. Even more disconcertingly though, the now heavily wooded area known as Gallows Hill appears, when likewise viewed through the haunted glasses, to present a view of a clearing hosting what Fanshawe takes to be a dummy gibbet, complete with the unedifying sight of a body still swinging upon the end of it!

later in the story, after a typical James set-piece in which Fanshawe ill-advisedly takes a walk through the very wooded glade which had previously appeared to be the location of the 16th Century execution he witnessed up on the hill and is pursued by unseen but malevolent forces, Richards’ elderly manservant Patten -- a local man, well-versed in village legend -- brings the tale to a close with an postscript account of the unnatural origins of the field glasses, which were apparently the creation of an oculist by trade (but also an occult dabbler in necromancy) called Baxter. In this flash-back, Baxter emerges as a semi-educated charlatan who nevertheless suddenly manages to make a name for him-self in archaeological circles after presenting a series of amazing, unlikely but valuable discoveries to a number of respected academic journals -- all of them made in the area, by his own hand, within a short space of time. Baxter comes to a sticky end, though, after it is discovered that he used the boiled bones of condemned men in an unholy brew which he added to the interior of the field glasses he made, thus allowing one to see through them with the ancient eyes of long dead men. Because of these unnatural alchemical methods, Baxter was able to pass himself off as an expert in local history and draw up accurate sketches of the Fulnaker abbey priory house as it would have looked when in its prime; as well as make valuable contributions to contemporary archaeological research, thus transgressing both earthly law and class boundaries. James’ social conservatism lies behind the subtext of this tale then: which is concerned principally with a simple tradesman who develops ideas above his station and dabbles with the supernatural to enable him to realise them … 

The TV version ditches all but the briefest of glimpses of Baxter (played by Simon Linnell) as he was presented in the original story’s flash-backs to this lower class upstart’s secretive occult practices, but adds him as a mysterious spectral presence in black instead, with a crumbling ancient skull clutched to his face as a mask – a figure who is glimpsed by Fanshawe (Mark Letheren) in uneasy nightmares which interrupt his sleep after his first use of the homemade binoculars. The 1940s setting facilitates a much more class-conscious relationship between Fanshawe and Richards (played by Pip Torrens -- who brings a neat line of disdainful toleration to his portrayal of the Squire), which echoes the extra level of character detail brought to “A Warning to the Curious” in Lawrence Gordon Clark’s 1972 film: now, rather than the central characters being two friends who share a similar background and outlook (the Squire Richards of James’ story was based on an antiquarian friend of the author’s, Dr Henry Owen), Fanshawe instead becomes the product of post-war Grammar School education -- conscious of the class distinction between himself and his host (which establishes a further connection between Fanshawe and Baxter -- who uses more unearthly powers to better himself) – after being invited to the Hall in order to make an inventory and establish the value of a collection of artefacts the Squire has inherited from his deceased father and now means to sell-off to facilitate the continued upkeep of the Hall.

After the war, the landed gentry found it increasingly difficult to maintain their stately homes and estates; the Squire’s need to sell-off his collection becomes a reference to the shifting power basis and class relations then taking place in the rationed and cash-strapped England of the mid-forties, as does the reference to the butler Patton (David Burke) staying on at the Hall unpaid. But this adaptation most readily shows its hand as being one that is nostalgically beholden to the films produced and directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark in the 1970s through the kinds of scenes composed by director Luke Watson and director of photography Chris Goodger, which often return to the classic imagery which was so evocative in Clark’s 1970s works: even the opening shot – of Fanshawe alone in a deserted railway cutting -- harks back to Clark’s eerie adaptation of “The Signalman”. The summer setting of James’ prose is exchanged for a late-autumn one, and the location is now Surrey (and the Thames Valley) rather than Herefordshire. The scene in which Fanshawe stumbles upon the stone base of a gibbet in the woods and realises he has arrived on the site of the former gallows, is made even more dramatic through snatched sightings of a silhouette of a menacing figure following him, which clearly draws on the imagery of the vengeful guardian who watches over the buried crown in Clark’s version of “A Warning to the Curious”. The story is also altered slightly to make it conform more readily to the standard formula most associated with an MR James ghost story – that in which the protagonist is punished for tampering with a long dormant element or feature of the past that’s been captured in the landscape. In the original, apart from an unpleasant experience when he is pursued by something through the woodland of Gallows Hill, James’ protagonist comes away fairly unscathed. In the TV version though, he becomes entranced by the opportunities newly opened up by the magical power possessed by the binoculars to present a vanished past to the eyes of the present. He makes a trek to the location on which Fulnaker Abbey once stood and discovers that by looking through the lenses at the site, he can see the building up close as it once was, and even venture inside it. Of course, in this telling of the story there is something dark and shadowy that’s also lurking within the walls of the priory which Fanshawe’s interference has allowed to get out!

“A View from a Hill” was a relatively successful attempt to re-conjure the departed spirit of the BBC’s Christmas ghost story strand, and the same production team were allowed to reconvene for another stab at it the following year, this time with an adaptation of another MR James tale … his story about a haunted hotel room, “Number 13”. Once again changes were made to the content of the original text that brought the finished film into closer alignment with the broader public perception of what constitutes the Cambridge scholar and writer’s usual subject matter and general approach to his work; and once again elements of previous adaptations were woven into this telling of it.

 James’ original 1899 tale was one of a handful he set abroad, in this case in Denmark. It was probably written during a period in which MR James, his friend James McBryde and another acquaintance, travelled extensively through Denmark and Southern Sweden on a bicycling holiday, although the author didn’t visit the city of Viborg – the setting of the story – until the following year. James furnishes the tale with many references to Danish history – his usual method for injecting verisimilitude and a sense of authenticity into his portrait of certain events that require an extreme suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader. Denmark’s switch from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism during the Reformation period is the backdrop of this story about a traveller identified as Mr Anderson, employed to research Church history in Denmark, becomes intrigued by the mystery of a disappearing hotel room that is sometimes, during night hours, apparently situated between his room and his neighbour’s, but which disappears come the daytime. The phenomena is accompanied by weird shifting proportions and changes in dimensions within his own room and the prancing figure of a dancing man, discernible through the window in silhouette form against the wall of the building opposite, whose cavortings are accompanied by odd ‘drunken’ singing. The mystery is uncovered in the Viborg records office and appears to concern a 14th century practitioner of the dark arts called Nicholas Francken, whose presence in a house belonging to Bishop Jørgen Friis (the real Catholic Bishop of Viborg at the time) leads to a major rift with the Protestant opposition. Of course, the site on which the house once stood turns out to be the location of the hotel Anderson himself is now staying in.

Directed by Pier Wikie (the producer of the previous year’s adaptation of “A View from a Hill” and more usually, as a director, associated with the BBC’s daily afternoon soap, “Doctors”), the TV version of “Number 13” most obviously differs from its source by completely ditching (probably for budgetary reasons) the Danish setting. Instead, The Golden Lion Hotel becomes a 17th Century English inn, and the amiable Mr Anderson of James’ story is characterised by actor Greg Wise as a prissy, rather vain and intellectually arrogant academic who is appalled by the capitulation to superstition suggested by the establishment’s avoidance of the number 13 in the hotel room numbering system. He forces the staff to move him to a different room for trifling reasons and is initially dismissive of the hotel receptionist’s (David Burke) offer to fill him in on some of the history of the locale – for he, after all, is a well-regarded historical researcher, with a reputation for being ‘something of an authority’ on such matters. The re-casting of David Burke, who also played Patton in the previous year’s “A View from a Hill”, is the first minor but telling detail which connects this and the previous film to a ‘tradition’ that came about during Clark’s 1970s run of adaptations, which developed a habit of recasting several actors in small roles across several different stories. Clive Swift even returned playing the same character in 1972’s “A Warning to the Curious” as he did in Clark’s first adaptation, “The Stalls of Barchester”, in 1971.

Justin Hopper’s screenplay tries to develop the notion of sexual repression being at the root of Anderson’s buttoned-up attitude; an embellishment of his character that’s in line with the psychological approach taken in many of Clark’s films: a later scene in the dramatization in which the apparently confident academic finds himself isolated and nervous around the almost exclusively female clientele of the hotel during an awkward dining room scene, is also highly reminiscent of a sequence in Jonathan Miller’s version of “Whistle and I’ll Come to You”, in which Michael Hordern’s disconnection from his surroundings is highlighted by his cheerful self-imposed isolation during dinner from the other guests frequenting his boarding lodge. Anderson is rather sneery in regard to his louche-seeming neighbour Jenkins (Tome Burke), the easy-going, tipsy, flirtatious young businessman staying in room 14 next-door, whom Anderson at first assumes to be responsible for the noises drifting through the wainscoted walls of his room in the night. To ram home the concept that the ghost room from which the sound of male and female merriment can be discerned is on one level a representation of Anderson’s repressed psyche, a large reproduction of the central panel from Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights (the one reference to the tale’s original Scandinavian setting affordable in this version!) is hung prominently on the wall that during night hours connects his room to the realm beyond: a warning, painted in oils, in which the temptations of the flesh are depicted in the lustful abandonments of horrific devilish forms.

The film also quotes rather extensively from Clark’s adaptation of “The Stalls of Barchester” during its library scenes, which recall the latter’s framing device in which Clive Swift’s research into the activities of Bishop Haynes unearths the main story, which is then told in flash-back. This time the grounds and library of Winchester Cathedral bring the required air of sombre antiquarian seriousness to proceedings. The switch in location of course demands a different historical back-story inform the relationship between Bishop Walgrave (as he’s now known) and his devilish charge Nicholas Francken. Not unexpectedly, the religious and social turmoil of the English Civil War years and the witch trials that became particularly frequent during these middle decades of the 17th century now provide the required context. The conflict between royalist and parliamentarian also becomes a metaphor for the internal war going on in Anderson himself … between his habitual stiff, unyielding intellectual intolerance and total isolation from fleshy temptations … and a more wanton side represented by the womanising, velvet smoking jacket-clad Jenkins, who at one point exclaims during dinner, when Anderson is discussing his discoveries with the group, how ‘those Puritans seem like rather a grim lot if you ask me – telling people what they can and can’t do all the time? I’d much rather be a Cavalier!’ In his library researches (assisted by a mysterious Mr Pickwick-like records keeper played by Paul Freeman), Anderson discovers, amid papers relating to the period concerning objections to the prayer book, stained glass and Popish ornaments, complaints about the goings on at a house kept by Bishop Walgrave in which ‘curious lights, strange cries and a stranger who comes and goes in the night-time’ have been sighted. Later he discovers a yellowed wax-sealed envelope that’s fallen out of one of the volumes in which all this material has been recorded, and which contains a parchment document signed by Walgrave’s friend, Nicholas Francken. The same name crops up again in the 1647 trial documents of a woman called Anna Mundy, whose testimony during the proceedings at which she is accused of witchery contains, amid all the lovingly rendered detail of her confession that she be guilty of drowning children and suckling a giant rat familiar, an account of how Mundy was taken to see ‘the Devil’s emissary’ in a local house belonging to the Bishop, where he did ‘conjure evil spirits and bade me make covenant with the Devil’. 

The centrality to MR James’ storytelling of the laborious processes involved in the act of historical research is nicely aped in the depiction of Anderson’s uncovering of these kinds of fictitious details, although the author’s usage of real Danish historical figures, legends and historical facts surrounding persons such as Daniel Salthenius – an 18th Century professor of Hebrew who wrote two contracts with the Devil signed in blood that James himself uncovered whole researching in Sweden in 1901 – provides the stories with a level of authenticity and plausibility that’s un-replicable in the film’s faux 17th century myth-making (even with its casual references to Mathew Hopkins) which is much more reminiscent of the content of a 1970s folk horror film like “Blood on Satan’s Claw”, for instance, than historical reality. The tiny budget allotted the producers of this adaptation also means that the shifting geometry of Anderson’s room is a prominent feature of the original story that is rather lost here, and Francken’s impish materialisations become merely the looming shadows of a figure in a cowl projected onto the Bosch-sporting wall of the Cambridge tenant’s room. The surreal passage near the climax of the tale in which Anderson, Jenkins and the hotel staff attempt to gain entry to room 13 when it appears once more in the night, resulting in a clawed hand in yellowing rags emerging from the doorway and attempting to drag one of their group inside, is re-jigged for modern sensibilities, although the resulting scene is still extremely effective: in this version the door swings open and the spectral figure of Anna Mundy materialises inside the black void, accompanied by disconcerting static electric crackling; before a black-gloved hand emerges from darkness and attempts to drag Anderson to his doom. There’s a nice detail set up at the start of the film when the hotel proprietor demands payment in advance from Anderson because a recent client absconded in the night without paying his bill, a detail which is resolved at the end when the floorboards outside the passage of hallway that marks where the ghost room appears in the night are removed to reveal the remains of the missing man’s tattered clothes, stuffed below ground!

Unfortunately, despite both these attempts to revive the Christmas ghost story series resulting in perfectly passable adaptations of James’ tales, neither seemed to grip the public imagination to the same extent as Clark’s originals. The repeat broadcasts of those films proved only to highlight that the 1970s series still retained a brooding, stylish charm that the new adaptations were unable to recreate or match despite their frequent references and quotations from Lawrence Gordon Clark’s work. The series has not been continued in the years since 2006 and the broadcast of a mini-series of related pastiche ghost stories by Mark Gatiss (“Crooked House”) and 2010’s radical re-interpretation of “Whistle and I’ll Come to You” look unlikely to spawn any similar tradition. The original 1970s series continues to prove its quality though, as its recent release by the BFI as part of this DVD colection has shown. This final volume also includes another episode of “Ghost Stories for Christmas with Christopher Lee”, a BBC Scotland production from 2000 in which Lee recreates the atmosphere of Christmas at King’s College, where James originally told his tales to an assembly of friends and graduate students in his rooms over a glass of sherry, with a log fire roaring in the grate. “Number 13” is the subject of this episode: it’s a version of the tale adapted by Ronald Frame with some of the antiquated language of the original amended and the recondite historical digressions removed. Lee gives a masterful reading, complete with eerie pauses to evoke tension and suspense, and he even reproduces the Danish accents of the supporting characters.

These film are included on one disc which, like the four previous volumes, is available independently; but an ideal Christmas gift this year for a friend with a taste for quality archive TV would be the five-disc “Ghost Stories for Christmas: The Definitive Collection” which brings all the films in the series together in one box set  which includes Jonathan Miller’s “Whistle and I’ll Come to You”, all the films in the 1970s series, plus these two recent adaptations, along with the 2010 version of “Whistle” to bring the series full-circle. All the volumes come with their own booklets and this final release is no exception, with excellent well-informed essays by Simon McCallum, Jonathan Rigby, Reggie Oliver and Robert Lloyd Parry making excellent reading accompaniment to both these included film adaptations.

The two modern takes on MR James’ work shown here are probably destined to be merely footnotes to Lawrence Gordon Clark’s ground-breaking series of films, but they are well-worth revisiting nonetheless, and are well-served by this BFI release.

Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!

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