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BBC Ghost Stories: Volume 3

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
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Directed by: 
Lawrence Gordon Clark
Simon Gipps-Kent
Joseph O’Conner
Michael Bryant
Paul Lavers
Edward Petherbridge
Bottom Line: 

 The third disc in the BFI’s DVD series, which collects together all of the annual films that were produced under the BBC’s “Ghost Stories for Christmas” strand during the 1970s, features the third, fourth and fifth MR James adaptations directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, beginning with 1973’s “Lost Hearts” – an adaptation of one of James’ earliest short stories, and one of his most atypical. By this point, the success of his previous two self-produced Christmas ghost stories, “The Stalls of Barchester” and “A Warning to the Curious”, had brought Clark’s work formally to the attention of the BBC drama department after several years in which the former documentary-maker had been allowed to experiment with the annual series and develop each film more or less alone, while continuing with his documentary work the rest of the year, this arrangement allowing him to direct, produce and write both inexpensive dramas without any interference from outside. The high ratings enjoyed by “A Warning to the Curious” though, meant that the annual ghost story was hereafter to be treated as a proper prestige production under the auspices of the BBC drama department proper, and with all that that entailed; now Clark found he had also to work with established producers and professional writers & script editors – a reality which took the films away from his personal overview, although he continued working on them, but now only officially as the resident director. Nevertheless, Clark developed a strong working relationship with producer Rosemary Hill, and the first fruit of their collaboration is an atypical but mesmerising interpretation of a story James himself was dissatisfied with, and only included as the second tale in his first collection, “Ghost Stories of an Antiquary”, to bulk up the page count.

Written between July and October 1893 (when it was read aloud to the Chitchat Society) then later published in the Pall Mall Magazine in 1895, “Lost Hearts” is the first of James’ stories to feature an amoral, Faustian protagonist who seeks occult knowledge and will do anything to get it, the most famous of which appears in his story “Casting the Runes” (adapted for a film by Jacques Tourneur called “Night of the Demon”). This story though, set in the late-Georgian period, has something of a Dickensian quality to it and is unusual in that its ghosts are for once, recognisably human and, indeed, sympathetic: instead it is the outwardly charming and avuncular Mr Abney -- the tale’s would-be sorcerer -- who takes guardianship of his twelve-year-old orphaned cousin Stephen Elliot at his rambling Lincolnshire manor house, who’s mercurial eccentricity cloaks darker motives behind a kindly surface benevolence.

From its opening shot of a post-chaise ferrying master Elliot (Simon Gipps-Kent) to his new home at Aswarby Hall, the clattering horse-drawn vehicle emerging from the mist caught hanging across the early morning landscape of an autumnal English countryside in John McGlashan’s haunting camera work, the stylishness of this BBC adaptation is apparent from the off and although it follows the original story pretty faithfully, the dramatization by Robin Chapman takes the risk of introducing the story’s two child ghosts in the very opening moments -- to us and to the young hero of the story -- and endows them with a solidity and a reality thereafter which takes the tale into the realm of magical dark fairy tale (despite their ability to appear and disappear at will and to walk through solid bedroom doors at night) with a similar poetic feel to some of the work of Jean Rollin, in which an innocent child is inducted into this pastoral realm of the spirits which is a refuge from a danger he is as yet unaware of. The film revels in the gentle bucolic bliss of its picturesque surroundings, depicting the spectral children as being at one with this natural landscape, their laughter wafting on the breeze as Stephen enjoys the peaceful solitude of the grounds surrounding the estate.

The only other three residents of the isolated but vast house which has now become Stephen’s new home all seem perfectly benign: Mrs Bunch the kindly housekeeper and cook (Susan Richards) and Parkes the taciturn butler are welcoming enough, and the man of the house (and Stephen’s benefactor), Mr Abney (Joseph O’Conor), is a rosy-cheeked scholar with snowy white hair and a jolly demeanour, who spends most of his time with the boy quoting from ancient tomes from his library shelves relating to pre-Christian magical traditions, the terrible significance of which will only later become all too apparent.

Mrs Bunch assures Stephen that despite his eccentric ways, Mr Abney is the kindest man you could ever hope to meet, having already previously taken in several other wandering children under his roof – a little gypsy girl and an Italian boy with a hurdy-gurdy. Both mysteriously vanished, of course, but such are the ways of gypsies and foreigners.

 If the darker themes are not already apparent to the viewer by this stage, Stephen’s encounters with the ghosts of the two raggedy children inside the old house soon makes them plain: in Stephen’s dreams the ghost children dance through the landings and corridors at night to the strains of the boy’s hurdy-gurdy, their skin displaying a deathly grey pallor. During one encounter, the smiling children pull back their tatty shirts to reveal a gaping wound in the left side of each of their chests!

Mr Abney’s cheerful, comic-Dickensian demeanour, which casts him apparently as the picture of adult rectitude and authoritative trustworthiness, in fact masks his true identity as a multiple child abductor and killer, a pastime cultivated through his antiquarian learning. Requiring three still-living hearts of children who are on the cusp of adulthood as part of an ancient immortality rite, the old scholar has been tempting youngsters no-one will miss into his home, selecting those approaching their thirteenth birthday and looking after them until the eve of their adulthood, when he paralyses them with a drug made from a herb grown in the grounds of the house, and cuts out their hearts with a sacrificial knife while they’re still conscious! Stephen has of course been selected to be the third and final child who will have to endure this same hideous fate.

Clark continued to make his personal directorial input visibly apparent in this much slicker, beautifully produced adaptation of M.R. James’ dark put playful story, especially when crafting evocative compositions which use the film’s selected locations and landmarks extremely wisely and inventively, often finding haunting prefiguring symbolism in certain features of architecture or landscape. The ghostly children themselves are in some respects more exaggerated renditions of ghost-spectres than is usual in James’ work, with their long claw-like nails and over-sized fang-like teeth denoting a great amount of time spent rotting in the grave (as does their grey zombie-like skin colouring) before Stephen unwittingly resurrects their innocent playful sprits and allows them to take their revenge on Abney. The film’s gentle bucolic ambience and fairy tale-like telling belies the deep-seated childhood fear of irresponsible adults that’s surly being tapped into here, and the hypnotic hurdy-gurdy music (gleaned from library soundtrack cues) which accompanies the ghosts’ dream-like wanderings inside the house at night, as well as their eventual revenge on Abney, tinges the supernatural menace of the story with a hint of Camberwick Green-style (or other such children’s programming) nostalgia,  lending it a certain playful charm lacked by the other tales in the series.

Adapted from M.R. James’ 1904 story (written to order for his first collection, “Ghost Stories of an Antiquary”), “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” was freely adapted by John Bowen and emerges, with numerous changes made to the original, as an interesting and rewarding interpretation, which contrives to tease out some interesting new angles on James’ perennial themes in what is otherwise a fairly standard scenario of the author’s fiction: i.e., a scholarly academic sets out to solve an recondite mystery by deciphering cryptograms and codes left by a long-dead abbot who once dabbled in alchemy (all of which are said to be clues that will lead to a stash of treasure buried  in the grounds of an obscure German abbey) only to find something hideous and uncanny has been left as ‘a guard’, and the whole legend is but a ruse designed by the diabolical dabbler to trap treasure seekers.

Most of the story as James told it dealt in detail with the protagonist’s attempts to uncover and decode the abbot’s obscure series of instructions by translating dense paragraphs of Latin (all of which are lovingly transcribed in the text), and interpreting symbols and hidden messages secretly worked into engravings on a series of stained glass church windows. The dénouement does feature James at his most delightfully ghoulish (and in fact, the TV version cannot hope to match it and so doesn’t try to) and the detailed description building up to the moment when, thinking he’s unearthed an old leathery bag of treasure hidden in a hollow down a well, the teller of the tale takes said object in his arms, only to discover he is clutching to his a face a toad-like goblin smelling of mould with tentacle-like appendages, is James’ prose at its most powerfully nightmarish.

Bowen retains this core of the story, but also comes up with a wholly new angle with which to embellish it that draws on Victorian spiritualism and the era’s vogue for private home séances (and, on the other side of the equation, for the business of publically exposing fake mediums) a practice which really started up in earnest during the mid-1800s and continued into the Edwardian period and beyond. The tale now takes on new dimensions in Bowen’s adaptation, which expands on it to examine the fault lines between these new forms of popular belief just emerging, and the learned establishment variety -- the ‘rational belief’ of a Cambridge scholar (anyone admitted to Cambridge in this period had also to take up Holy Orders), who’s Christianity is bound up more in the minutiae of study, translation and academic riddle-solving than it is in bringing solace to the grieving.

The film opens with an atmospheric rendering of everyone’s idea of what constitutes a typical Victorian séance of the period (joined hands around a deal table in a darkened front parlour room, etc.); in this case it is a gathering which has been assembled in the home of the wealthy Lady Dattering (Virginia Balfour). The mediums in attendance are also a typically ripe pair of apparently obvious frauds, of a kind viciously satirised in Browning’s poem “Mr Sludge, the Medium”. The duo in question, Mr & Mrs Tyson (Frank Mills and Shelia Dunn) are a husband and wife ‘act’, showily attempting contact with the spirit of Lady Dattering’s recently deceased husband, but who are unable to achieve it, they say, because of the presence of an unsympathetic spectator -- namely Peter, Lord Dattering (Paul Lavers), Lady Dattering’s ambitious son.

The Lord decides that it would be interesting to test the Tysons’ alleged powers by calling on the services of his learned university mentor, the Reverend Justin Somerton (Michael Bryant), but finds him engrossed at that present time in translating the writings of the fifteenth century Abbot and part-time alchemist (the ‘Thomas’ of the story’s title) from records left and found in the cathedral’s library. Here Bowen’s screenplay suggests a father-son relationship between the aristocratic and rather precocious youngster and the older, equally confident antiquarian churchman; the two being depicted as bonded by the pursuit of academic excellence. Bryant delivers a lovely performance as Somerton – the charming and, indeed, likable intellectual clergyman, who later easily exposes the Tysons’ fakery by probing the strange fact that their séances’ priestly 14th century spirit guide appears unable to converse in either Norman French or Latin -- both of which would have been natural means of communication for someone of his standing in that period! The film then goes on to illustrate the couple’s joint investigation into the whereabouts of the Abbot’s lost treasure, their hunt uncovering clues through sudden bursts of insight and inspiration; though one of the first such pieces of information to set them on the right track appears to emerge during the séance meeting Somerton successfully debunks. Only Peter hears it though (a message from the deceased Abbott himself, perhaps?), so as well as suggesting a grain of truth might still linger in this quaint ritualistic drawing room spectacle so thoroughly dismantled by Somerton’s cutting rationalism, it also provides the first hint that the journey of investigation and detective work will actually lead to a subtle but telling rift opening in the relationship between the two men.

The way in which Clark uses imaginative symbolic visual representations throughout the film to illustrate the story’s themes while also drawing on Bowen’s plot additions in order to underscore the ambiguous relationship between the science of the period (the emergence of photography, for instance) and new forms of belief it was sometimes called upon to authenticate, add an extra layer of complexity and interest to James’ tale, and is paralleled by the gradual unveiling of Somerton’s material greed and, moreover, his hypocrisy in refusing to acknowledge that fact to himself or his young friend. The film version is in no way undermined by the budgetary need to relocate the story to England rather than have it occur in Germany, since Wells Cathedral provides ample opportunities for Clark’s unerring visual sense to manifest itself and is effectively supplemented by a haunting score (the first commissioned score of the series) of solemn plainsong by Geoffrey Burgon, who’s choral music accompaniment to the end credits of the BBC adaptation of “Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy” later became an iconic calling card. The climactic supernatural encounter with the Abbott’s guardian has necessarily had to be altered because of the rush and budgetary restrictions imposed on the production: the intricately designed stepped sunken well described in James’ story now becomes merely an underground tunnel while the guardian itself is here recast as a clever reference and play on the Browning poem, smugly quoted earlier by Somerton during the Tysons’ aborted séance, rather than the tentacled toad-like beasty James describes, but is nevertheless still attended by the smell of mould the author mentions following Somerton all the way back to his lodging house and lingering outside his room where his ultimate hypocrisy is decisively laid bare to his young friend, when Peter is called upon to help his unnerved colleague set things straight.

The third and last film on the disc is also Clark’s fifth (and last) adaptation of M.R. James for the “Christmas Ghost Story” series. Soon after directing “The Ash Tree” in 1975, Clark left the BBC to go freelance, although still returned to shoot two more films in the series (which was still being produced by Rosemary Hill), neither of them based on M.R. James ghost stories. Described by S.T. Joshi in his notes to the Penguin M.R. James collection “Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories” as being ‘perhaps the most explicitly grisly of MRJ’s tales’, “The Ash Tree” is also one of his most ambiguous, taking as its subject matter the witch trials of the late-seventeenth century and the persecution of women by the forces of the state. The story actually takes place across two distinct periods in British history, which allows the author to compare and contrast the accepted attitudes of the Squireocracy of the 1690s with those of its more ‘enlightened’ brethren of the mid-700s.The tale is basically a curse story in which the aftereffects of the misdeeds of the squire Sir Mathew Fell in condemning a simple peasant woman on his Suffolk estate, Mrs Mothersole (Barbara Ewing), to the ministrations of visiting Witchfinders in 1693, percolate down the generations until they eventually reach Sir Richard Fell, the latest inheritor of Castringham Hall and its surrounding lands, who is determined to erase the past by transforming his 17th century redbrick country pile with architectural additions fashionable in the 18th century and inspired by his recent ‘Grand Tour’ sojourn in Italy.

 In the capable hands of screenwriter David Rudkin this film adaptation of the story teases out themes that lay buried deep in the sub-text of MRJ’s original, or perhaps went unnoticed by its author all together. While, in its approach to the on-screen depiction of 17th century period detail and its delicate pastoral mise-en-scène, as well as the fleshing out of Rudkin’s contemporary thematic elaborations to the text, the TV film bears comparison with other screen treatments of such subject matter, most notably Michael Reeves’ “The Witchfinder General” and Piers Haggard’s “Blood on Satan’s Claw”, the most immediately notable addition to the story is made apparent through its much more overt juxtaposition of the two time periods concerned, achieved by means of Edward Petherbridge playing both roles -- appearing as the accusing 17th century squire William in the 1690s and as Sir Richard, his domineering 18th century ancestor, as the story flips, sometimes almost unnoticeably, between the two centuries.

Cleverly, the screenplay draws comparison between the puritanical ideology motivating William to persecute certain women when they do not adhere to the age’s strict formulations of what constitutes approved and  proper femininity under the authority of the state, and who embody instead more pagan notions connected to the fecundity of the landscape; with the apparently opposite, non-superstitious licentiousness of his modern cousin (Richard possesses a volume of Henry Fielding’s bawdy novel “The Adventures of Tom Jones” and fills his puritan ancestor’s house with showy erotic paintings) with his desire to ‘conquer’ the natural landscape through his elaborate Italian flavoured architectural embellishments to Castringham Hall – a detail that marks out the flowery tastes of the moneyed land owners of the enlightenment age. There’s a distinctly un-Jamesian undercurrent of repressed sex and sadism marring Sir William’s willingness to allow Mothersole to be tortured and hanged as a witch; the scene in which he witnesses her being stripped and whipped upon a rack has more the flavour of the exploitation-tinged film treatments of the subject matter such as Michael Armstrong’s “Mark of the Devil” or even Jess Franco’s “The Bloody Judge” than is normally associated with the author’s work.

But the contrast between the repressions and the perpetration of misogynistic violence in the puritan age and the comfortableness displayed with the free expression of sexuality, which is evident between Sir Richard and his young fiancée (Lalla Ward, before her stint on Doctor Who” as Time Lady Romana) is combined with the story’s accent on the theme of nature and motherhood (the name Mothersole is not accidental here): the witch’s curse is still present in Sir Richard’s time, discernible in the pestilence which has affected the live-stock of the surrounding lands ever since; and Sir Richard’s disregard for the superstitions of his ancestors leads him to disturb the unhallowed grave of Mrs Mothersole as part of his building plans for adding an extra wing to Castringham Hall. Though Mothersole’s grave is found to be unaccountably empty, Sir Richard continues to push his luck and takes up residence in the very room in which Sir William was found dead while the renevations are in progress -- the room in which his body was found blackened by some untraceable poison soon after William was cursed from the gallows by the woman he allowed to die. For despite their differing social attitudes, both men in their distinct ways embody a desire to display mastery over their surroundings. The Ash tree of the title (symbolic in British folklore) grows outside the room in which Mathew met his macabre end and is also the site at which he first discovered the ‘unholy’ nature of Mrs Mothersole; so when Sir Richard moves in, he too discovers the meaning of her final words (‘mine shall inherit!’) -- delivered under the shadow of the noose before her death.

The slippage between the two centuries is skilfully handled by Clark, with Rudkin’s screenplay adeptly illustrating the connections between two very different ages and drawing the story steadfastly towards one of the most memorably macabre conclusions of British screen horror; building on James’ original spider motif by allowing us glimpses of a truly nightmarish set of creations (designed by John Freelander), spawned by the ancient witch as emissaries of her revenge: these bizarre images of scuttling baby-headed spiders emerging from the interior of the Ash tree (and the later discovery of the rotted corpse of Mrs Mothersole herself, crouched in the birthing position inside a hollow of the tree trunk) and congregating around Sir Richard in his bed as he sleeps; and -- even worse -- the disturbingly human baby cries which accompany them, had to have made for a particularly unnerving end to a Christmas eve for BBC 1 audiences back in 1975!

All three films appear on one DVD and have been transferred in standard definition from the best available elements, made available by the BBC. Each one comes with an introduction by Lawrence Gordon Clark running at about ten minutes each, in which the director talks about his collaborations and working relationships with Rosemary Hill, John Bowen and David Rudkin, and remembers the process of shooting each film. There is also another excellent booklet included, with extensive writings on each of the films and biographies of the lead actors. These shorter, more professionally produced tales also feature some of the most haunting imagery of the entire series and have been unavailable as an official DVD release until now. They will be highly prized by the series’ many fans.


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