Poor old television has been blamed for many things over the years; killing cinema, encouraging juvenile deliquency and the decline of cribbage as a social pastime. And come the festive season, all the old-timers moan that now we just bloat in front of the flickering screen rather socially enage our nearest and dearest. However in fairness, the old goggle box has at least absorbed and indeed preserved one old Yuletide tradition, and that is the telling of ghost stories upon a Christmas night.
Now obviouslv over the decades, myriad versions of Dickens' classic have been produced, with countless incarnations of Scrooge being bedevilled by Mr Marley playing out in the corner of our living rooms. However one of the greatest authors of ghostly fiction, M.R. James also has a strong link with the televisual Yuletide festivities. Indeed, as we heard in the first part, the majority of his weird fiction was written to be read aloud upon a Christmas evening, with the lights are low, the fire banked, and the port doing the rounds. Of course the rise of the idiot lantern largely spelt the end of storytelling as a common social activity, but in the UK at least, the old tradition has continued, with various channels frequently reviving the festive tale of terror, and frequently in the guise of adaptations of tales by the good doctor himself.
So then, settle back in your favourite armchair and join me for a look at the spine chillers of Christman Past...
WHISTLE AND I’LL COME TO YOU (1968)
Our journey begins, oddly enough with an edition of the BBC’s arts documentary show Omnibus screened on the 7th of May 1968. Previously there had been other adaptations of some of James’ tales on both British and American TV, however none of these had screened over the Christmas season. And none packed the wallop of ‘pleasing terror’ that the Omnibus film Whistle And I’ll Come To You did. Directed by Dr Jonathan Miller, this short terrified TV viewers and was so successful that it is widely believed to have been the inspiration for the subsequent A Ghost Story For Christmas strand of festive programming.
Based upon based on James’ Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You My Lad, and starring the highly respected actor Michael Horden, this short film still stands up as one of the best of all the James adaptions and quite rightly regularly turns up with a respectable placing in most frightening moments countdowns to this very day. Beautifully shot in moody black and white, Whistle captures the essence of M.R. James perfectly – the period setting, brooding landscapes, suspect antiquities, and the learned fellow who falls afoul of malevolent supernatural forces.
Now the gentle reader may be wondering why this piece aired as part of the Omnibus series – a show that usually featured documentaries on the arts. Part of the answer lies in the fact that this was the age when television becoming more experimental in general, but in the main the reason is that Miller’s film is not just an adaptation of James’ story but also a critique of it at the same time. Miller has stated in interviews that he finds the gentlemen’s club atmosphere of James' stories, reeking of port and stilton, and populated by middle and upper class chaps somewhat cloying.
And in the spirit of so many politically conscious sorts who were decrying the class system in the late ‘60s, in spite of belonging to the ruling classes they despised, he therefore chose to deliberately emphasise certain aspects of the story. Parkins, the lead character, is portrayed as the almost stereotypical upper class twit of the bumbling academic variety. He is shown to be self absorbed and insulated from ‘real’ life by his scholarly and privileged background. And the haunting itself may be read as a psychological breakdown of this fusty, repressed fellow intead of an encounter with some dire spectral being.
And it is an approach that works marvellously, with the story operating on several levels at once seamlessly. And whether you favour the social/psychological interpretation or whether you prefer to take the piece as a straight traditional ghost story, it is equally effective either way. But in truth, the reason why this film works so well on multiple levels is less to do with Miller’s intelligent academic spin on the tale than elements that were actually already there.
Firstly, it should be noted that this blurring of psychological and supernatural events in already present in many of James’ tales. Miller may have thought he was doing something radical here but in fact the “was it a ghost or something in his own mind” trope is a surprisingly old spin of the ghost story. Indeed as far back as the 1870s, Sheridan le Fanu was penning tales that offered the same options of interpretation, Green Tea being perhaps the famous example. And tellingly, James believed le Fanu to be the master of the supernatural tale, editing Madame Crowl’s Ghost & Other Tales of Mystery the definitive collection of le Fanu’s short weird fiction.
Secondly, although a cursorory glance at his biography may suggest that James was exactly the kind of crusty old scholar he so often wrote about, the truth is somewhat different. Although it is true that James never strayed far from the halls of academia and was prodigiously erudite, there was more to Monty (as his friends knew him) than a socially awkward fellow lost to the wider world in a dusty bubble universe of books, monographs and brass rubbings. He was a keen traveller, a bicycle enthusiast, member of numerous clubs and a lover of games of all kinds; in fact Monty was so gregarious, friends and colleagues were amazed how he found the time to conduct all his socialising and gaming and yet still pursue his academic works with impressive rigour.
In the light of this, one begins to realise that the bibliophile fogies and the stolid antiquarians that feature so often as his protagonists are not as Miller assumes, exercises in veiled autobiography, but are likely drawn from real people Monty encountered during his life. And it’s worth remembering that his tales were written to be read aloud to an audience of his peers, and hence there is a great deal of wit and humour in James’ tales. So it’s not a stretch to imagine that some of his characters would be in fact caricatures, subtley ribbing figures well known to his audience.
However, none of the above detracts from the film itself, and indeed Miller may be forgiven his ignorance of both the history of the ghost story and James himself as at the time legitimate literary attention had not been paid to either. Furthermore, it may be argued that in making Whistle And I’ll Come To You, Miller brought James’ works back into both the critical and the public consciousness, in much the same way Nigel Kneale’s BBC adaptation of 1984 elevated awareness of Orwell’s seminal political sci-fi novel.
It is a truly wonderful piece of film making. Horden’s performance is simply superb and Miller’s direction is flawless, delivering beautifully composed shots that play with light and shadow, and scenes that are exceedingly uncanny. And seemingly, in blowing that ancient whistle Horden and Miller not only called forth that spectre with the “intensely horrible face of crumpled linen” but also a host of other malign spirits from the vasty deep...
THE STALLS OF BARCHESTER (1971)
And lo, three years later on Christmas Eve, viewers were treated to a new James adaption – this time of The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral. Helmed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, Stalls is a wonderful version of Monty’s tale, drawing on the considerable expertise of the BBC drama department – and on televison at the time, no one did period pieces better than the Beeb. This time shot in colour, Clark perfectly presents the tale of a clergyman troubled by some curious wooden carvings.
The production was a great success and Clark was called back to produce another tale for the following year. And so the Ghost Story For Christmas series was born. But furthermore, Clark’s lush rendition of Robert Hardy being tormented by the vengeful dead obviously hit a chord as 1972 turned out to be a bumper years for festive supernatural telly...
THE EXORCISM (1972)
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 '70s 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.
A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS (1972)
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. Here we have the story of Paxton (Peter Vaughan) 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’ 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. Plus Clark making excellent use of the windswept East Anglia landscapes in which the silhouette of the guardian of the crown appears.
THE STONE TAPE(1972)
The final part of '72'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. 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 hauntings actually makes the ghosts more terreifying rather debunking their fear factor.
LOST HEARTS (1973)
Christmas Day the following year saw Lawrence Gordon Clark tackling another James classic, this time his first ever short story Lost Hearts. By now Clark had the director’s chair permanently for A Ghost Story For Christmas, and yet again he delivers the goods. Now there are a great many works of weird fiction that feature spooky infants, indeed it’s almost a sub-genre in its own right, however Lost Hearts features some of the most haunting of all child ghosts. And Clark brings them to life perfectly and, unusually for TV of the period, even gets away with including the explicit gore that features in James' original.
THE TREASURE OF ABBOT THOMAS (1974)
The 23rd of December saw yet more James via Clark. 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 clergy man unravelling the clues to a cache of riches secreted by one of his predecessors. By apart from ancient riddles, this adaption also features a very faithful portrayal of one of James’ typically elemental spirits.
One of the key features that distinguish Mr James' works from the rank and file of typical ghost stories is the 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. (For an in-depth assessment of the variety and nature of his spectres see my articles The Presence of More Formidable Visitants and The Natureof the Beasts).
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.
THE ASH TREE (1975)
Upon the same day the next year, Clark brought us his version of The Ash-Tree, a tale of 17th century witchery and revenge. Adapted for television by David Rudkin, who earlier gave us the highly strange Penda's Fen and later 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 shortest adaptation produced in the Ghost Story For Christmas sereis 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.
However if that all sounds somewhat suspiciously highbrow and possible at little too dry and arty, be assured that this little films does stay true to James tale and certainly delivers the chills. There's real horror in the scenes of the witch trials but futhermore the conception of the witch’s familiars are truly freakish and disturbing – seriously if you have a phobia of long legged beasties you might want to give this one a miss!
THE SIGNALMAN (1976)
This year saw a departure from the norm, with instead of the usual serving of Monty, we had a vintage slice of Dickens, featuring his other great ghostly work other than A Christmas Carol – 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 is probably my favourite in all the Ghost Story For Christmas series. Not only does it bring Dickens’ memorable tale to screen in masterful style but it does that oh-so-rare thing, it surpasses the original. Somehow the story’s twist end plays out better on the screen and Clark conjures up some striking scenes with a spectral steam engine that linger in the memory a long time after the credits roll.
STIGMA (1977) & THE ICEHOUSE (1978)
Having successfully broke away from James’ canon the previous year, these last two entries in the series saw a further departure. These tales are set in the modern day and feature original teleplays not based on any existing work. 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.
And while one must applaud the impulse to do soemthing fresh rather than rest on thier period drama laurels, Stigma and The Ice House unfortuanty shift away tonally from what had come before. And one suspects that Clark himself was dubious about the 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 and lean too closely into the winds of psychodrama. Whereas previous episodes had delivered solid spooky chills, this brace of tales more often invoke general weirdness than any legitimate ghostliness. Of the two, The Ice House works best, it feels like a more rounded story despite all the ambiguity and unanswered questions it raises, whereas Stigma plays out more like a visual tone poem. They are interesting televisual experiments, and their disturbing oddness recalling the ‘strange stories’ of Robert Aickman, but one cannot help feeling that if they had continued to dip into the library of classic weird fiction 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.
CASTING THE RUNES (1979)
But 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. Now despite this airing in spring rather than around Christmas, Casting The Runes merits a place in this round up of Yule terrors, as in addition to being directed by a past master of the form, the story itself is set in the deep of winter.
Like the previous adaption of this tale, Night of the Demon aka Curse of the Demon in the US (1957), Clark relocates the story to the present day and weaves a looser version of the plot on screen. However, unlike Tourneur’s movie, although a classic in its own right, Clark retains far more of the essence of James' tale. 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.
SCHALCKEN THE PAINTER (1979)
- Also this year, Omnibus were at the festive spirits again, for on 23rd December they screened another meta-adaptation of an old classic ghost story. However this time it was an adapation of a writer who, as we have already heard, was a considerable influence on MR James, Sheridan Le Fanu. However like Mr Miller's short film, this was not simply a straight adaptation of the text; instead it uses teh story as a framework through which to inform the viewer of the lives and techniques of old Dutch masters. It's fascianting viewing however for those expecting spectral chills may feel it is wandering from the point.
However despite the slow pacing, there is supernatural horror to be found here, abliet with the production slowly creeping up to it. But it has to be said , that when the spectral does manifest 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.
SPINE CHILLERS (1980)
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. In an more mature spin-off from legendary Children’s BBC programme Jackanory, winter 1980 saw the birth of Spine Chillers, a similar exercise in televisual story telling but instead of focusing on adapting readings of classic childrens' literature for a young audience, this show delievered a host of classic weird tales.
Naturally enough alongside such luminaries as HG Wells, Saki, Sir Arthur Coan Doyle and WW Jacobs, several MR James stories were screened The Mezzotint, A School Story and The Diary of Mr Poynter and were read with aplomb by Michael Bryant, who ahd previously starred in The Stone Tape and The Ash Tree. Full details of the show and the stories read can be found here.
A PLEASING TERROR – The LIFE & GHOSTS OF M. R. JAMES (1985)
The 22nd of December this year broug ht a real treat for Monty fans – a lengthy documentary on James produced by his biographer Michael Cox. Hosted by genre favourite character actor Bill Wallis, this film is the ideal introduction to James, his life and works, and is interspersed with clips from previous adaptations as well as some specially filmed dramatic moments. It’s all lovingly done, and is both enlightening and entertaining.
CLASSIC GHOST STORIES OF M. R. JAMES (1986)
Again in December, the BBC produced more James readings. This time Robert Powell was tasked with the role of story teller, and a selection of favourites were performed and intercut with dramatised inserts. This time out the stories selected were - The Mezzotint, The Ash-Tree, Wailing Well, Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad and The Rose Garden.
THE WOMAN IN BLACK (1989)
Airing on Christmas Eve, this ITV feature length television film was an adaption of Susan Hill’s novel of the same name. Not only was it unashamedly Jamesian but the screenplay was crafted by Nigel Kneale. And Kneale and director Herbert Wise pulled out all the stops, producing a film that left an indelible impression on its viewers. And again this another work that regularly turns up in most terrifying telly lists. In addition to sporting bags of atmosphere, it features one of the most frightening scenes I’ve ever seen (see here for moire details) – one that will almost induce a heart attack when you watch it, and will return to keep you awake once you retire to bed.
THE TURN OF THE SCREW (1999)
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, and while obvious a mere television feature could not compete with the beautiful and eerie cinematography of Freddie Francis in the The Innocents, it is another very fine version of James' tale.
In some regards it is actually closer to the original text, as where Clayton emphaised the spectral, this version focuses more closely on the theme of moral decay and incipent insanity. And certainly this fine production has too long been overshadowed by The Innocents, for it is a wonderful alternative screen version of this festive favourite.
GHOST STORIES FOR CHRISTMAS (1999)
The first Christmas of the new millennium saw the readings continue, but in perhaps their finest incarnation yet. This time we had Sir Christopher Lee recounting the tales, but this series took it a step further, striving to recreate the original readings of these stories. Hence we have Mr Lee in period dress in a dimly lit study recounting the stories to a small audience of gentlemen, and better still portions were actually filmed at James' beloved Kings College. The four tales chosen to be told were - The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral, The Ash-tree, Number 13 and A Warning to the Curious. Like both Spine Chillers and Classic Ghost Stories of MR James mentioned above the texts were edited for television, but with a longer running time, had now recieved more complete versions rendered wonderfully in Mr Lee's sonorous tones.
M. R. JAMES: THE CORNER OF THE RETINA (2004)
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 but worth viewing for a plethora of notable talking heads including Kim Newman, Ruth Rendell and Christopher Frayling, among many others.
A VIEW FROM A HILL (2005)
Following the warm reception 2004’s season of repeats had 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. 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.
NUMBER 13 (2006)
Indeed A View From A Hill proved such a hit with viewers, another was commissioned for teh following Yuletide, this time with Pier Wilkie taking the directorial reins. And although this was another quality production, bringing Number 13 to the screen in style, the revival ended here. Not through any failing on the production team’s behalf but that arch enemy of genre television, the dreaded budget cuts.
CROOKED HOUSE (2008)
However 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 three part 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.
And Mr Gatiss certainly knows his stuff, crafting a trilogy of suitably eerie fare. For not only is Crooked House a fine addition to the canon of Christmas ghsot stories on TV, but it also was packed with nods to the greats of British supernatural fiction - for example it recalls the anthologies of Amicus and the Clavering Grange stories of R Chetwynd Hayes (for more on this gentlemen of chills see here). And it proves that there is still a place for a ghostly tale amid the festivities, and what’s more, original works can work as well as adaptions of the old masters. A pleasing terror indeed!
THE TURN OF THE SCREW (2009)
This new adaptation of the Henry James favourite was produced by the BBC and screened between Christmas and New Year. However sadly this version was less successsful than its predessecor ten years earlier. Firstly the tale was quite needlessly updated to Edwardian times, and it looked fantastic, with all the lavish attention to detail as you'd expect from a BBC period drama. But further tinkering in the body of text led to a somewhat confused affair, and words 'missed opportunity' spring to mind. And sadly much the same could be said of the followinmg year's foray into festive spirits...
OH WHISTLE AND I'LL COME TO YOU (2010)
Now excitement was very high amnog 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 a real disappointment.
While 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 forthe violence perpetrated on the text here. To begin with, and perhaps most egregiously, the whistle of the story is excised and replaced with a ring! Furthermore the plot itself deviates from James and introductes a counter plot about Parkin's troubled feelings over his wife's descent in to senile dementia.
Now this new story strand could well make a fine ghsot story in itself, however when inserted into this classic tale, it has the effect of firstly ruining the magic of James' story and secondly neither has enough screen time to develop into soemthing interesting in its own right. Furthermore although this production does have some eerie scenes, a good many of them are cribbed from well-known sources such as Robert Wise's The Haunting and The Innocents.
However as disappointing as this last entry is, bringing us full circle to where we began, there is some comfort to had in the fact that the tradition of ghost stories for a Christmas night is still alive and well. And as lacklustre as the last two entires into the canon may have been, we can be safely assured that they will not be the last to haunt the winter darkness in December...Unfortunately only a handful of the above works have been released on DVD. The BFI produced DVD editions of Whistle And I’ll Come To You, The Signal Man, The Stone Tape and A Warning To The Curious but all now are out of print. Similarly The Woman in Black was released on disc and is also no longer available. However Crooked House is still on the shelves, as is Casting The Runes which comes with A Pleasing Terror as part of the extras and a short adaption of James' Mr Humphries & His Inheritance which was produced as part of an ITV schools programme.
As for the rest, there are no plans to release them on disc due to our old friend, the rights issues, something that has also sunk any hope of a re-release of The Woman in Black. All of which is a huge shame as a complete BBC Ghost Stories For Christmas boxed set would be a very fine thing indeed. However BBC4 regularly repeats them every year and many can now be viewed on Youtube. Plus if you are very very cunning you can find them on the internet as torrents and similar.
But it is a safe bet that there will be plenty of Ghosts of Christmas Yet To Come...
UPDATE (December 2012)
The wonderful folk at the BFI have now reissued all of the BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas which are vailable in several volumes or as one bumper set! The full contents are - both the 1968 and 2010 version of Whistle And I'll Come To You, The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral (1971), A Warning To The Curious (1972) , Lost Hearts (1973), I (1974), The Ash Tree (1975), The Signalman (1976), Stigmata (1977), The Ice House (1978), A View From A Hill (2005) , and Number 13 (2006). And among the extras are three of the Christopher Lee readings from 1999 (why his rendition of The Ash Tree is absent we have no idea).
And for audio lovers, here is the Hypnobobs podcast trilogy of Christmas Spirits
JIM MOON, first published 24th December 2009,revised and expanded 21st December 2011