The Ghosts of Christmas Television Past Part III

Now the 1980s proved to be a fallow time for the Christmas ghost story, but seasonal spirits were still haunting the googlebox around the end of the year. Now for many years a staple of BBC childrens television had been a program called Jackanory. This show ran for decades and the format was brilliantly simple - take a book, get an actor to sit down and read it on camera, with occasional illustrations sprinkled it. Now at the dawn of the 1980s, there was a short-lived but more mature spin-off from this legendary BBC childrens programm, for winter 1980 saw the birth of Spine Chillers, a similar exercise in televisual story telling but instead of focusing on readings of classic childrens literature, this show delivered a host of classic weird tales.

It ran for twenty episodes in November and December of 1980 and including tales from the likes of HG Wells, Saki, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and WW Jacobs. However it also featured reading of several MR James stories. These were The Mezzotint which aired on 21st of November, A School Story on 28th November, and The Diary of Mr Poynter on the 12th December. And were all read with aplomb by Michael Bryant, who had previously starred in The Stone Tape and The Ash-Tree. Full details of the show and the stories read can be found here. Much like its parent show Jackanory, and later programs delivering straight readings, the stories were somewhat abridged to fit the running time, and in some cases to make the vintage text sound natural to the modern viewer, but all the same these were highly atmospheric exercises in pure storytelling.

Sadly the full series had never been released on DVD, but the James episodes are available as extras on the BFI releases of A Ghost Story for Christmas. Also home recordings of other episodes do surface on the like of Youtube. On the Christmas ghost story front, we should note that Michael Bryant also reurned for the final episode of Spine Chillers which aired on December 19th 1980 - and this was a reading of a ghost story set at Christmas - Jerry Bundler by WW Jacobs, bring this under-rated and underseen series to a suitable festive close.

If you tuned into BBC1 children's TV at twenty to five on 23rd of December 1980, you would have been in for a spooky surprise. The Bells of Astercote was an one-off drama, direced by Marilyn Fox, who would later helm classic BBC serials such as The Lion, The Witch and Warbrode, and Five Children and It later in the 1980s. It was adapted from a novel by Penelope Lively, a highly respected author of books ofr both adults and children, and no stranger to the ghost story, having created classics such as The Ghost of Thomas Kempe (1973) and A Stitch in Time (1976). However this TV drama was based on her first novel Astercote (1970) and was written for the screen by Valerie Georgeson, who would later write well-loved kids series such as Johnny Briggs, Simon and the Witch and The Animals of Farthingwood.

The plot tells of two children, Mair (Siobhan Brooks) and Peter (Ifor Williams) who discover that in a certan patch of woods is a mysterious man named Goacher (John Branwell), who is guarding a medieval chalice. The kids assume he is a local crazy, as Goacher seems to believe that the chalice protects their village from the plague. However as the children will discover, the past and the present are about to collide in an eerie fashion when the chalice is stolen...

While in many ways this was an unusal offering from the BBC childrens TV - more usually they produced serials rather than 50 minute one-off dramas - The Bells of Astercote certainly made an impression. And while it has never been released on DVD yet, it is still much talked about, and thankfully a copy surfaced on Youtube a couple of years ago!

Based on a 1973 book by Edward Chitham, this supernatural drama was eritten by Geoffrey Case and directed by Renny Rye, who would later go on to direct The Box of Delights. It aired at 5.40 PM on BBC2 on 31st December 1982, bringing a distinct chill to the eve of the New Year. It is the stories of two kids, Tess (Judith Allchurch) and David (Ian Stevens) who are fascinated by local history, and discover an ancestor who myseriously died young. However as they begin to uncover the story of Abigail Parkes, it seems her spirit is not at rest as it should be.

While not the most terrifying tale eve filmed, this is a solid ghost story which is nicely atmospheric and is a fun fity minutes. Renny Rye nicely paces out the unfolding eerie mystery, and the two teen leads are particular good. It was repeated in March the following year and has now been released on DVD.

In November 1982, Britain got a brand new TV channel, something that means little now in the modern multi-platform world, but a seismic event in national television back in the 1980s when we only had only three channels to choose from. While new boy Channel Four quickly marked itself out as delivering a good deal of niche and experimental television, it did also want to produce more tradtional quality TV too. And hence in its second year, it attempt to revive the Christmas ghost story tradition. NOw as you can see in this chapter of the gazetteer, the tradition wasn't entirely dead, however in the 1980s it did seem to have become relegated to childrens TV, and Channel 4 sought to rectify this with not only a more adult offering, but even got Lawrence Gordon Clark to direct it!

A Pattern of Roses was based on a novel by KM Peyton first published in 1972, and issued for a while in the US under the title So Once Was I. It tells the story of a teenager, Tim (played by Stuart Mackenzie) who moves with his parents to an old cottage. He learns that decades ago, a boy his own age had died there in mysterious circumstances, and with the help of a friend Rebecca (Suzanna Hamilton) begins to investigate.

Airing on the 29th December 1983, this hour long tale didn't quite deliver the kind of chills we'd come to expect from Lawrence Gordon Clark, largely due to the source material been more of teenage drama than ghost story proper. However it must have proved popular with viewers, as Channel Four would repeat it several times over the next few years. But sadly it did not lead to a new annual series of ghost stories on the channel at the festive season. Also in later years A Pattern of Roses also became noteworthy as it featured the first screen appearance of Helena Bonham Carter. While it was released on disc back in 2010, copies now are somewhat pricey, but it has surfaced in other more accessible and less expensive places such as Youtube in recnt times.

While John Masefield's classic fantasy is not strictly speaking a ghost story, it does feature strange spirits, demons, dark magic, and a wicked clergyman, which for my money makes it a close relation. And certainly this BBC TV serial had plenty of spooky moments, for while in the main it was delightfully magical, some scenes did scare many younger viewers. Plus as the story's climax takes place on Christmas Eve, this serial was deliberately scheduled so that the final episode aired on Christmas Eve itself. For more on the book, this TV series plus various other incarnations, do visit our special The Box of Delights section.

The 22nd of December this year brought a real treat for Monty fans – a lengthy documentary on James produced by his biographer Michael Cox. Hosted by character actor Bill Wallis, this film is the ideal introduction to James, his life and works. We hear from luminaries such as Sir Christopher Lee, Ruth Rendell and Dr Jonathan Miller, plus it has some specially filmed dramatic moments, with Michael Elwyn taking the role of MR James. Plus, in a rather nice touch, it also features assorted clips from previous screen adaptations. It’s all lovingly done, and is both enlightening and entertaining. And thankfully it was included as a rather generous bonus feature on the Network DVD of Casting the Runes (1979).

In 1986, our seasonal ghost thrills came once again from BBC children's television. In much the same vein as The Box of Delights, this three part serial brought another well-loved children's classic to the small screen - The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M Boston. Scripted by John Stadelman and directed by Colin Cant, this serial began airing at on 26th November with the final part going out on 17th December. It tells teh tale of a young boy Tolly, played by Alec Christie who goes to stay for Christmas with his grandmother (Daphne Oxenford. Her old house is in the heart of the country contains many secrets, and is home to the ghosts of three children.

While not as well known as The Box of Delights, The Children of Green Knowe is another wonderul BBC adaptation of a classic novel. But while havig much of the same charm as the previous serial, sharing a sense of magic and a festive setting, this three part series is a good deal more ghostly, and with the story being steeped in history and ancient places, it does feel very Jamesian in many respects. It has been released on DVD and it is a pity that the BBC never got round to filming the other books in the series.

In December 1986, we got a spiritual succesor to both A Ghost Story for Christmas and Spine Chillers in the form of a short BBC2 series of more MR James readings. This time Robert Powell was tasked with the role of storyteller, and a selection of favourites were performed and intercut with dramatised inserts. Begining on Christmas Day night, and with another story following almost nightly throughout the week. The tales read this time were - The Mezzotint (screened at on 10.55PM on 25th December), The Ash-Tree (midnight on Boxing Day night), Wailing Well (00.35AM on 29th December), Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad (11.35PM on 29th December) and The Rose Garden (11.30PM on 30th December).

While again the stories were abridged to fit a regular running time of 15 minutes, Powell dressed in old fashioned scholar's robes and installed in a vintage study, makes a fine narrator and the little dramatic inserts are effective without distracting from his performance. Again these are included as an extra on the BFI DVDs of A Ghost Story For Christmas.

Celebrated childrens author Robert Westall is best known for his novel The Machine Gunners, however he was also a lover of ghost stories and wrote many of his own. And one of his other great books is The Watch House, first published in 1977, is a fine ghostly novel, which was brought to the screen by the BBC in 1988. It was adapted for TV by William Corliss and directed by Ian Keill, and tells the tale of Anne (Dianna Morrison), who goes to stay for the summer with her mother's old nanny in the seaside town of Garmouth. Here she discovers the titular building and discover a ghostly prescence there.

Airing at 5.05PM as part of children's TV, in a simiar slot to The Box of Delights and The Children of Green Knowe, and the three episodes were broadcast weekly -with part 1 on the 7th December, part 2 on 14th, and the conclusion coming on 21st - and deliversome fine chills for the festive season. It was also repeated in December 1990/January 1991 twice, on Sunday mornings on BBC2 and at 5.05Pm on Fridays on BBC1. However while the book remains in print, sadly the series had not had a DVD release yet.

For lovers of ghost stories, Susan Hills The Woman in Black surely need no introduction. Over theyears it has become a long-running stage paly, a feature film from Hammer and been dramatised on the radio severa ltimes. However its most notorious incarnation aired on Christmas Eve in 1989. This was a feature length television film priduced by ITV, and featured the screenplay by none other than the great Nigel Kneale. And Kneale and director Herbert Wise pulled out all the stops, producing a film that left an indelible impression on its viewers. Once again this another work that regularly turns up in most terrifying telly lists, and rightly so.

However sadly do to copyright wrangles, this TV version of The Woman in Black is not available on DVD. Well, at least not officially... For bootleg versions aren't too difficult to find and are usually of a decent quality having been copied from an earlier but now deleted video release. It also regularly manifests on the likes of Youtube.

Written Nigel Williams and directed by Hammer veteran Peter Sasdy, this was a two part drama, that aired on the 14th and 16th of December on BBC2. The story tells of a professor of creative writing scripting, played by Peter McEnery, who is scripting a film about Ezekial Oliphant, a 17th-century witch-hunter who hanged his own wife and mistress as witches. However old Ezekial seems to be exerting an undue influence over our professor...

This two parter has an interesting premise and the script from award-winning writer Williams is very good. Likewise, as you would expect from a veteran like Sasdy, the direction is spot on too. However, as several reviewers have remarked, sadly most of the cast are nibbling the scenery, which does rather undercut the production. However it was well-remembered enough to warrant a DVD release.

Another somewhat obscure entry in this ghostly gazetteer, this was an fifty minute TV movie, and shown on ITV on 30th December. A British/Candanian coproduction, itwas directed by Alvin Rakoff and written by Fiona McHugh, and filmed at Malvern Priory. It tells the tale of a young chorister who finds kinship with a friendly spirit. This is more of a ghostly drama than an exercise in chills, but does have a great deal of charm, not to mention beautiful music and atmoshperic locations. Sadly never released on DVD, but you can find copies haunting Youtube.

Another ghostly treat from ITV, who seemed to have been very much keeping the tradition of ghostly Christmas alive in the 1990s. And this adaptation of the famous comic tale by Oscar Wilde was very much a Boxing Day treat for all the family. Starring the great Ian Richardson as the titular spectre with a solid supporting cast including Celica Imrie, Donald Sinden and Pauline Quirke, this was a very entertaining version of the classic tale.

Shown at 5.05Pm on Channel Four on Christmas Day 1999, this was a twenty-five minute drama about a houseful of ghosts for younger viewers, based on a story by Leslie Thomas, who wrote the comic novel The Virgin Soldiers and the Dangerous Davies detective thrillers. However as this little ghostly tale has never been repeated or released on disc there is sadly not much else to report on this particular Christmas ghost story.

Henry James' novella of moral corruption and the supernatural has long been regarded as a classic of the ghost story genre and was turned into an equally classic film The Innocents by Jack Clayton in 1961. And as screen adaptions go, it is a very hard act to beat. However Christmas 1999, saw ITV mount this lavish production starring Johdi May and Colin Firth. It aired at 9PM on Boxing Day, and while obviously a mere television feature could not compete with the beautiful and eerie cinematography of Freddie Francis in the The Innocents, it was in fact another very fine version of James' tale.

In some regards it is actually closer to the original text, as where Clayton emphasised the spectral, this version focuses more closely on the theme of moral decay and incipent insanity. Personally I tend to feel that this fine production has too long been overshadowed by The Innocents, for it is a wonderful alternative screen version of this festive favourite.

And so the century did end, however if you thought the new 21st century would see ghosts and Christmas as old fashioned, think again...

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