The Ghosts of Christmas Television Past Part IV

Just as the 1980s had begun with televised readings of MR James, there is a pleasing symmetery to the fact that the first manifestation of Christmas television ghosts of the new millenium should take the form of further readings from Monty. However, this little series was perhaps their finest incarnation yet, for this time we had Sir Christopher Lee recounting the tales. And this series took it a step further too, striving to recreate the original readings of these stories - hence we have Sir Chris in period dress in a dimly lit study recounting the stories to a small audience of gentlemen. Furthoremore, for added authenicity, some portions were actually filmed at James's beloved Kings College.

The four tales chosen to be told were - The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral (aired at 11.15PM on 23rd December), The Ash-Tree (aired at 11.25PM on 26th December), Number 13 (aired at 10.50PM on 29th December), and A Warning to the Curious (aired at 9.45PM on 30th December). Like both Spine Chillers and Classic Ghost Stories of MR James mentioned above the texts were edited for television, but as this series had a longer running time, we recieved more complete versions, retold wonderfully in Mr Lee's sonorous tones. Again this have been included in the BFI A Ghost Story for Christmas DVDs, although for some obscure reason The Ash-Tree is absent.

As a prelude to a series of A Ghost Story For Christmas repeats on BBC4, this half hour documentary was commissioned as an introduction to the season. This is a concise exploration of the man and his work, somewhat slighter than A Pleasant Terror (1995), but worth viewing for a plethora of notable talking heads including Kim Newman, Ruth Rendell and Christopher Frayling, among many others. And of course, in the days before many of these Christmas ghost stories were released to buy, it was a delight to revisit many of them in this season of repeats.

Following the warm reception 2004’s season of repeats garnered, the BBC decided to revive the old ways and commissioned a brand new adaption of a James classic, to sit as the jewel in the crown of another round of repeats for Christmas 2005. Director Luke Watson turns out a typically lush period piece, and it was a fine return to the traditions and the standards of the old Ghost Story For Christmas series. And while purists at first typically moaned that this production wasn't as good as the old Lawrence Gordon Clark ones, over the years A View from a Hill has been recognised as a worthy addition to the canon, and sits very comfortably with the 1970s episodes. Indeed now it has become a favourite episode for many A Ghost Story for Christmas fans.

NUMBER 13 (2006)
Indeed A View From A Hill proved such a hit with viewers, another was commissioned for the following Yuletide, this time with Pier Wilkie taking the directorial reins. Much like The Teasure of Abbot Thomas in the 1970s series, this tale lost its European location due to a limited budget. However the plot of Number 13 proved to be solid enough to survive losting the Scandinavian flavours of the original tale, and again here we had a another modern episode which slotted in very neatly with the original episodes. However sadly although this was another quality production, which brought Number 13 to the screen in style, the revival of A Ghost Story for Christmas ended here. And it was not through any failing on the production team’s behalf, but that arch enemy of genre television, the dreaded budget cuts, which decreed that BBC4 would stop making dramas full stop. Considering the frequent repeats both of these 21st century episodes have enjoyed, this decision seems more than a little shortsighted. However if the series had resurrected itself once...

And indeed the BBC coffers were mysterious refilled a couple of years later. Perhaps they decoded some obscure reference in a stained glass window or maybe there was sufficient caterwauling at the lack of a new ghost story in 2007. But regardless of the arcane reasons why, 2008 saw a new BBC4 mini-series entitled Crooked House, produced and written by The League of Gentlemen’s Mark Gatiss. Centring around one Geap Manor, each episode told a different tale from the benighted dwelling’s troubled history. First we had the tale of The Wainscoting, which aired at 10.30PM on the 22nd of December. The following night, at the same time, we had a story of a spectral bride in Something Old, and finally on Christmas Eve, this chilling series came to a close with The Knocker. And then the whole saga was repeated as feature length omnibus on December 28th.

Now Mr Gatiss certainly knows his stuff, and here he crafted a trilogy of eerie fare, perfect for the festive season. For not only is Crooked House a fine addition to the canon of Christmas ghost stories on TV, but it also was packed with nods to the greats of British supernatural fiction - for example it recalls the anthology movies of Amicus and the Clavering Grange stories of R Chetwynd Hayes. And it proved that there is still a place for a ghostly tale amid the Christmas festivities of the 21st century, and what’s more, original works can work just as well as adaptions of the old masters. A pleasing terror indeed!

This new adaptation of the Henry James favourite was produced by the BBC and screened between Christmas and New Year on BBC1 on December 30th. However sadly this version was less successsful than its predessecor ten years earlier. Of course it looked fantastic, with all the lavish attention to detail as you'd expect from a BBC period drama. But the story had been quite needlessly updated to the 1920s, and while one may argue that the essential story is somewhat timeless, this change of era added nothing to the tale. More troubling however was the further tinkering with the original plot, which despite good performances from the cast, left the story in a somewhat confused state. Those damning words 'missed opportunity' spring to mind. And sadly much the same could be said of the followinmg year's foray into festive spirits...

Now excitement was very high among Jamesians and lovers of the supernatural when it was announced that Christmas Eve 2010 would see a brand new adaptation of this classic tale come to the small screen. The trailer looked fantastic, full of Clark-esque wintry landscapes and boasting the excellent John Hurt as Professor Parkin. However sadly this turned out to be something disappointment.

Now I can appreciate that the makers were very worried about treading the same televisual territory so excellently mapped out by Dr Miller. However the desire not to be seen as simply copying the Omnibus version is no excuse for the violence perpetrated on the text here. To begin with, and perhaps most egregiously, the whistle of the original story is excised and replaced with a ring! Furthermore the plot itself deviates from James and introduces an additional plot about Parkin's troubled feelings over his wife's descent in to senile dementia. Needless to say, devotees of MR James were not happy. And I must admit to giving this production some rather robust remarks when it came out.

However time is a great healer, and while it still irritates many folk that this was not a proper adaptation of the classic tale, some, myself included, have found that if one can approach this drama as a ghost story in its own right, one that just happens to share a title with Monty's famous story, there is a great deal to enjoy here. John Hurt is of course fantastic in the role and the direction and cinematography is first class. And the production manages to be both chillng and movingly melancholy too. It is certainly worth reappraising, and indeed plays better without the expectation of being a new version of an old favourite. And while it can be argued it would be better with a new name, if you go and read the poem by Robert Burns from which James took the title, you will see why the 2010 version is called Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You.

James Herbert was best known for his violent and gorey novels such as The Rats and The Fog. However as he matured as a writer, Herbert began telling far more subtle tlaes, and in his later years wrote some cracking ghost stories, one of which was The Secret of Crickley Hall published in 2006. Very much taking his cues from MR James, who stated that a good ghost story was a close relation of the detective tale, in The Secret of Crickley Hall Herbert presented us with a very engaging ghostly mystery that was just begging to adapted for the screen.

And in 2012, BBC1 did just that, presenting the story as a three part mini series. Written and directed by Joe Ahearne, The Secret of Crickley Hall aired on Sunday nights, begining on the 18th of November and concluding on December 2nd. With strong central performances from Suranne Jones, Douglas Henshall and David Warner, this was a real treat and to be honest it was only a shame it hadn't been scheduled a little closer to Christmas.

Christmas Day 2013 brought us a double helping of MR James. First there was a brand new adaptation of a classic James tale. Scripted and directed by Mark Gatiss, on BBC2 at 9.30PM, we were treated to a screen version of The Tractate Middoth. Now while at first there was the expected muttering about how it wasn't as good of the old ones, this is now appreciated as another fine addition to the canon, and folks are clamouring for a DVD release to go with their BFI box set of the other incarnations of A Ghost Story for Christmas.

And it is easy to see why. Firstly it is filmed in very much the style of Lawrence Gordon Clark and like the original series, the cast is studded with a host of veteran actors such as Eleanor Bron, David Ryall, Louise Jameson and Roy Barraclough. Our hero was played by Sacha Dhawan, neatly proving that not all James's stories are about crusty, dusty old dons, the spectre of old Dr Rant was realised in a memorably chilling fashion. However despite its warm reception, it would be another few years before A Ghost Story for Christmas returned. However back on Christmas Day in 2013, there was more from Mr Gatiss...

...For following directly after The Tractate Middoth at 10.05 PM, was second serving of Jamesian goodness. Here we had a brand-new hour long documentary on Monty, once again written by Gatiss. While it covered much of the same ground as the earlier James biography A Pleasant Terror (1995), there was a good deal of new material here, giving us a fresh view of Monty's life and works rather than just retreaded the same ground. Plus as an added bonus it also featured the great Robert Lloyd Parry as MR James. Again folk are still clamouring for this to get a DVD release.

Seemingly inspred by the success of The Secret of Crickley Hall, Sunday night on BBC1 in late 2014 once more had a ghostly chill, in the shape of a new three part mini series. Beginning on 23rd November, with second and third parts following on 20th November and 7th December, Remember Me told the tale of a man haunted by a most persistent and malevolent spectre. Written by Gwyneth Hughes and directed by Ashley Pearce, and starring Michael Palin, Jodie Comer and Mark Addy, Remember Me was a delightfully eerie mystery and featured a most sinister haunting. A quality production all round and again like The Secret of Crickley Hall my only nitpick is that it would have been nice to have this new ghostly tale screened a little closer to Christmas.

After enjoying several years with something supernatural to watch in December, there was a fallow period yet again. However the indefatiguable Mark Gatiss managed to prise some money from the BBC to make a ghostly tale. Very much getting the go ahead becasue he could make it on a very small budget, The Dead Room was an original teleplay by Gatiss featuring minimal locations and a very small cast. However this was not too much of a problem as they secured the great Simon Callow to play the lead role.

The Dead Room is a fairly simple ghost story, centred on an old actor with a dark secret coming back to haunt him. However what was entertaining for MR James fans was the fact that Gatiss set out to write this tale using the rules MR James himself laid out in an essay on ghost stories, and furthermore several of Monty's remarks on ghost stories found their way into the script. While not perhaps the most chilling or dynamic ghost story for Christmas, The Dead Room was nevertheless a welcome treat for Christmas Eve on BBC4. But more importantly, it clearly went down well enough for the BBC to allow Mr Gatiss to put together another tale for Christmas 2019. And so the tradition continues once more...

© Hypnogoria 2019