The Ghosts of Christmas Television Past Part II

First out of the gate, on Bonfire Night (November 5th), was Don Taylor’s The Exorcism. This short teleplay was screened as part of the anthology series Dead of Night and tells the story of a couple celebrating Christmas with a couple of friends in their newly renovated rural cottage. However the original inhabitants of the farm house are less than impressed by the new, higher class tenants...

Now not only is The Exorcism rather scary – and again often turns up in lists of the most terrifying TV – but also it is somewhat unusual as it may be one of the only Marxist ghost stories ever produced! It’s a superb piece of 1970s television, as equally grounded in serious drama as it is in the supernatural genre, and its mix of class concerns and ghosts work wonderfully well together, giving it a weight of intelligence we see too rarely in television these days. While most of the epiusodes of the Dead of Night series were wiped, thankfully The Exorcism survived and has now been released on DVD.

Of course technically, The Exorcism was not broadcast at Christmas-time - November is a little too early to count. However the story itself is set at Christmas, and what is more it has since been repeated over the festive period, often alongside repeats of other televisual ghost stories over the festive period.

Christmas Eve the same year, also brought the return of Lawrence Gordon Clark and A Ghost Story For Christmas, this time with a version of A Warning To The Curious. Airing at just after eleven o'clock on Christmas Eve, here we had the story of Paxton (Peter Vaughan), a chap somewhat down on his luck, who is searching the wilds of East Anglia for a long lost Saxon crown. Although still very faithful to the original, here Clark has modified the ghostly manifestations; rather than the more horrible rotted revenant found in James’s story, Clark opts for portraying the ghost as a more human shade of the rustic farmer. And it’s a concept that works well for the screen, adding a sense of a clash between the rural and the urban. However the production is no less eerie for it, as Clark makes excellent use of the windswept East Anglia landscapes in which the silhouette of the guardian of the crown appears.

Again this adaptaton has Clive Swift appear as Dr Black, who once again serves us a kind of onscreen narrator, and rather neatly making this production a sequel to the previous year's The Stalls of Barchester. Once again, this proved to be a big hit with viewers, and the concept of these adaptations being an annual tradition was now becoming firmly established, and Clark comissioned to make another for the following Christmas.

Also this story and this adaption have inspired a rather wonderful creepy ghost hunting game called The Lost Crown by Jonathan Boakes and Darkling Room, plus he has also created this rather wonderful little tribute site - check it out here.

The final part of 1972's triumvirate of terror came on Christmas Day night, courtesy of director Peter Sadsy and Nigel Kneale. Like much of Kneale’s work, The Stone Tape explores the point where science fiction meets the supernatural, with all his usual thought provoking finesse. Starring Michael Bryant, Jane Asher and Iain Cuthbertson, the story concerns a group of scientists who set up in an old manor house to research new recording mediums only to discover that the ancient building has a few recordings of its own...

Yet again this television film is famous for terrifying audiences down the years and still packs a punch today. However like Kneale’s other works, such as the Quatermass quartet and Beasts, its real power lies within the intellectual and imaginative meat he places on the bones of genre hokum. And it is interesting to note that although on the surface of things, the scientific sounding explanation Kneale provides for the hauntings actually makes the ghosts more terrifying rather debunking their fear factor. And while Kneale did not originate the idea that ghosts may be some sort of recording, this tale made such an impact that the concept is still commonly referred to as "the stone tape theory".

Incidentally it is also worth noting that both Michael Bryant and Iain Cuthbertson would also appear in other Christmas ghost stories a few years later.

Naturally A Ghost Story for Christmas was to return for Christmas 1973, however this year there were a couple of minor changes. While Lawrence Gordon Clark returned to helm another James classic, in fact the first ever ghost story Lost Hearts written by MR James, this time rather than handling scripting duties himself the dramatisation was done by Robin Chapman. Chapman would go on to pen another Christmas ghost story (see Haunted below) and write more than thirty episodes of another great horror series Tales of the Unexpected. Also while the previous two episodes of this now annual series had aired on Christmas Eve, Lost Hearts was broadcast at 11.25 PM on Christmas Day night. I rather suspect the success of The Stone Tape shown on Christmas Day the year before may have prompted this move.

As you would expect, Clark yet again he delivers the goods, and once again Lost Hearts is another production that regular appears in round-ups and lists of most terrifying television moments. And rightly so, for while there are a great many works of weird fiction that feature spooky infants - indeed it’s almost a sub-genre in its own right -this version of Lost Hearts features some of the most chilling of all the child ghosts ever to haunt the screen. And what's more, and very unusually for TV of the period, even gets away with including the explicit gore that features in James's original tale.

Christmas 1974 saw A Ghost For Christmas airing this year at the slightly earlier date of December 23rd. Once again Lawrence Gordon Clark was at the helm, but this time the script was penned by John Bowen, who previously had written the classic folk horror Play for Today Robin Redbreast (1970) and scripted the episode A Woman Crying for the series Dead of Night, and and would go on to write The Ice House, the last episode of A Ghost Story for Christmas.

This tale features the kind of antiquarian puzzle-solving that The Da Vinci Code has turned into a genre all of its own, with a reverend sommerton, played by Michael Bryant, unravelling the clues to a cache of riches secreted by one of his predecessors. One of the key features that distinguish Mr James's works from the rank and file of typical ghost stories is his conception of the supernatural forces he invokes. Rarely are his ghosts simply the appearance of some one long dead; often they are insubstantial shapes, beastly chimera or demonic forces. And even when they do appear to be deceased humans, they are nearly always malformed or horribly altered in some fashion. And The Treasure of Abbot Thomas brings such an indescribable ghoul to the screen in grand style. Although some have criticised this production for not quite capturing the horribly earthy apparition conjured by James in the original text, due the limits of special effects it is probably wise that Clark elected, much like Miller did, to approximate the essence of the spectre on screen rather than faithfully recreate it.

Likewise while the original tale see the treasure-hunting cleryman venture to Europe, BBC budgets meant that the titular treasure was secreted in a more convenient English location. However none of this detracts from the story, although keen readers of James will note that Bowen has added a couple of flourishes of his own to the tale, making this a somewhat looser adaptation than those that preceded it.

HAUNTED (1974)
Now here we have one of the more obscure entires in this gazetteer of Christmas televisual ghost stories. It seemed like rival channel ITV had noted the success the BBC was enjoying with these annual screenings of ghostly tales, and hence in 1974 they decided to create some eerie stories of their own. Made by Granda television and produced by Derek Granger, Haunted was a series of two ghostly tales that aired over the Christmas period. And while Haunted was never repeated, thankfully the tapes survived and have now been released on DVD.

The first was entitled The Ferryman and was directed by John Irwin. Based on a Kingsley Amis story, it starred Jeremey Brett, who would later find fame as Sherlock Holmes in a long running ITV series, as a writer who finds events around him are beginning to mirror one of his own novels. The second was entitled Poor Girl was directed by Michael Apted. This to owas based on a short story, this time by Elizabeth Taylor (no, that that Liz Taylor), and was adapted for the screen by Robin Chapman. Of the two, it is Poor Girl that feels most like a Christmas ghost story, and as the story concerns a Victorian governess taking a post in a seemingly haunted house, it may be considered a close relation to The Turn of the Screw.

Once again on the 23rd of December, Lawrence Gordon Clark returned to bring us his version of The Ash-Tree, a tale of 17th century witchery and revenge. Adapted for television by David Rudkin, who had earlier gave us the highly strange Penda's Fen and would later pen the enigmatic scifi Artemis 81, his version of The Ash-Tree drips with subtext and evokes the spirits of old English mythology and paganism. It may be one of the shorter adaptations produced in A Ghost Story For Christmas series, but it is one of the richest, with Rudkin and Clark creating a work dense with imagery and that may be interpretated on several different levels.

Again like the previous year's offering this is a looser adaptation of the tale, but here rather than adding plot points and flourishes to the story, Rudkin instead opts for a more impressionistic mode of story-telling. However if that all sounds somewhat suspiciously highbrow and possible at little too dry and arty, be assured that this little film does stay true to James's tale and certainly delivers the chills. There's real horror in the scenes of the witch trials, but the crowning terror is the conception of the witch’s familiars, that are truly freakish and disturbing – seriously if you have a phobia of long -egged beasties you might want to give this one a miss!

This year saw a departure from the norm, with instead of the usual serving of Monty, we had a slice of Dickens, featuring his other great ghostly work other than A Christmas Carol – a short tale called No. 1 Branch Line The Signal-Man. Starring the late great Denholm Elliot, who turns in a spectacular performance as the troubled railway man, this brings Dickens’s memorable tale to screen in masterful style.

Beautifully shot and looking extremely wintery, Clark masterfully emphaises the isolation and loneliness of the benighted signal-man and uses the tones of the line warning bells to brilliant effect in the soundtrack. However where the production really soars in the double-punch of Denham Elliot's mesmerising performance and the vivid and genuinely nightmarish phantasms Clark conjures to illustrate his tale. And while the original tale is undoubtedly one of the great classics in the ghost story genre, this television adaptation manages to be make it even more haunting on the screen.

STIGMA (1977) & THE ICEHOUSE (1978)
Having successfully broke away from MR James tales the previous year, these last two entries in the series saw further departures. Firstly these two tales were set in the modern day, and secondly rather than adapt existing classic they featured original teleplays. Now to my mind, this was a serious misstep, and indeed they spelled the end of the BBC tradition of producing A Ghost Story For Christmas every year.

While one must applaud the impulse to do something fresh rather than rest on their period drama laurels, Stigma and The Ice House unfortunatey shift away tonally from what had come before. And one suspects that Clark himself was dubious about this change in direction, for Stigma was the last of these festive productions he would helm, with David Lister taking over the reins for The Ice House.

Although not without merit, somehow they fail to engage the imagination in the same way as the preceding entries, and certainly lean too closely into the winds of psychodrama for some viewers. Whereas previous episodes had delivered solid spooky chills, this brace of tales instead invoke general weirdness in lieu any legitimate ghostliness. Of the two, The Ice House works best for me personally, it feels like a more rounded story despite all the ambiguity and unanswered questions, whereas Stigma plays out more like a visual tone poem. They are interesting televisual experiments, and their disturbing oddness recalls at times the ‘strange stories’ of Robert Aickman, but one cannot help feeling that if they had continued to dip into the classic ghost stories, and tackled the likes of le Fanu, LP Hartley or H. Russell Wakefield, then possibly the series could have continued for several more years with ease.

Now although Auntie Beeb had given up the ghost, Lawrence Gordon Clark wasn’t quite finished yet. April 1979 saw him bring another James classic to the screen, this time for the ITV Play House series. Despite this airing in spring rather than around Christmas, Casting The Runes does merit a place in this round-up of Yuletide telly terrors, for in addition to being directed by a master of the form, the story itself is set in the deep of winter.

Based on Casting the Runes by MR james, like its previous screen adaption, Night of the Demon aka Curse of the Demon in the US (1957), Clark relocates the story to the present day and presetns a somewhat looser version of the story. However, unlike Tourneur’s movie, although a classic in its own right, Clark retains more of the essence of the original tale by James. And the results are very effective, proving that the strength of James’ fiction does not solely rest on its period flavours and glimpses of an England long since vanished. Iain Cuthbertson plays a fine villain, turning in a great performance as the sinister Julian Karswell, while Jan Francis as the journalist investigating him, makes a compelling heroine and pleasingly breaks up the boys' club atmosphere that sometime can pervade the clasic ghost story.

For man yyears this production remained little seen and never repeated, however thankfully once again, the tapes did survive, and it has now been released on DVD in a rather handsome package that includes some fantastic bonus features. One is a short version of another MR James tale, Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance, made for a schools program in 1976, which while brief dovetails beautifully with the Clark adaptations - indeed it is only a pity it was not screened at Christmas! While the other draw is A Pleasant Terror (1995), a documentary on the life and works of MR James himself which we shall encounter a little later in this gazetteer...

However while over on the BBC, A Ghost Story For Christmas was sadly not to return, we did get an unofficial addition to the festive canon, and appropriately enought it came from where the series had its origins. For in 1979, arts documentary series Omnibus were at the festive spirits again, and on 23rd December they screened another meta-adaptation of an old classic ghost story. It was not another exploration of MR James but rather fittingly, it was a screen version of a tale by a writer who, as we have already heard, was a considerable influence on James, Sheridan Le Fanu. However like Mr Miller's short film, this was not simply a straight adaptation of the text; instead it uses the story as a framework through which to inform the viewer on the lives and techniques of old Dutch masters. It's fascinating viewing however be advised that for those expecting pure spectral chills may feel it is wandering from the point.

However despite the slow pacing, there is supernatural horror to be found here, although the production really does slowly creep up to it. But it has to be said, when the spectral does manifest itself, it does so in a startling climax that delivers some very powerful and unpleasant imagery. It may be one of the more curious productions on this list, and certainly will not be to all tastes, but it does have unique qualites all of its own. Once again, the recording survived and has been released on disc by the BFI.

However while A Ghost Story for Christmas had run its course and come to close, the tradition would survive into the 1980s with other hands taking up the spectral torch...

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