Director Lawrence Gordon Clark is celebrated for his direction of the seventies TV adaptations of the ghost stories of M. R. James. Clark brought a technical finesse, dramatic pacing and sensitivity to these productions. He was hugely sympathetic to the spirit of James’s writing.
In the cinema we really only have Jacques Tourneur’s wonderful, but very different, James film, Night of The Demon to equal the BBC Christmas outings (Though James’s influence can also be strongly felt in Piers Haggard’s Blood on Satan’s Claw and Nigel Kneale’s scripts for The Stone Tape and especially the Beasts episode 'Baby'). Above all Clark’s craftsmanship is exemplary in presenting us with spooky televisual drama of a dark intimacy (Of course apart from Clark’s own scripting he also employed seasoned adaptors like John Bowen and David Rudkin).
The James stories in Ghost Stories for Christmas volume 2 are the Clark-directed 'The Treasure of Abbot Thomas' (1974) and 'The Ash Tree' (1975). Yet this ghost story strand departs from M. R. James to also give us Charles Dickens’s story 'The Signalman' (1977) and two contemporary stories, the psychologically disturbing 'The Ice House' (1978) and the folk horror frights of 'Stigma' (1977).
These five short films, ranging in length from 32 to 37 mins, are, for me, masterly examples of not just brilliant ghost / horror tale productions but an important part of a long tradition of short stories / short scripts realised for TV stretching back to programmes like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone.
Almost fifty years on these BBC ghost stories come shining through as classics of TV drama.
The 'Treasure of Abbot Thomas' concerns a treasure of gold to have been hidden in the grounds of a church. Thomas was an alchemist and supposedly in league with the devil. A priest and his friend set out to discover the treasure - a quest resulting in horrific consequences for those who dare. Michael Bryant is superb as the reverend Somerton who’s attacked by the slimy deposits, clinging to his discovery, and then fiercely pursued by a hooded ghostly monk. Clark’s editing is terrifically exact, knowing just when to pull back from or towards subtle shocks. It’s well written (Bowen’s script even incorporates a satirical swipe at mediums) visually arresting and the memorable choral and percussion music of Geoffrey Burgon is appropriately disturbing.
'The Signalman' is a powerful study of solitude, mental disturbance and pre-cognition. Denholm Eliot arguably gives us his finest TV performance as the railway signalman haunted by spectres and a train crash. Andrew Davies’s script - or is it really Dickens’s story? - digs deep into the fears of the signalman and his visitor friend. Whilst Clark directs with a rare feel for the uncanny. Those moments containing the cried out question “Hello, below there!” will long stay with you. A wonderful ghostly drama.
'Stigma' is from an original story by Clive Exton and is a horror film rather than a ghost narrative. A family are living in a cottage very near the megalithic stone circle at Avebury. A stone is discovered in their garden. On unearthing it an intense wind strikes Katherine (Kate Binchey) who is then stricken by an ancient curse that causes her to bleed uncontrollably. Exton’s writing explores her bleeding on both the level of paganistic forces and an inferred marital tension with her husband Peter (Peter Bowles). Clark elicits excellent performances from everyone and brings an authentic domestic poignancy to this folkish horror short.
John Bowen’s 'The Ice House' is even less of a ghost story and more of a creepy, surreal depiction of menace and containment more in common with the unclassifiable stories of Robert Aickman.
Paul (John Stride) is recuperating, after leaving his wife, by residing in a health spa in the countryside. His masseur has disturbingly “cool hands” which is the first sign of odd happenings in the spa. Nearby is an old ice house and a strange species of flower. (“The flowers are not self-pollinating. They persist until they are replaced.”). The brother and sister who run the spa speak in a formal manner which has a blank verse quality reminiscent of Harold Pinter. Their ‘intension’ is to freeze the bodies of the residents, keeping them in a state of preservation in order to delay or even defeat death. Paul cannot escape. Powerful, original and brilliantly daring, 'The Ice House' shifts us into the realm of allegorical SF horror.
David Rudkin realised his talent for evoking the supernatural to great effect in his screenplay for M. R. James’s 'The Ash Tree'. Edward Petherbridge plays Sir Richard / Sir Matthew in an account of the new owner, of Castringham Hall, who is determined not to marry his fiancée and produce heirs. But the ash tree tapping outside of his bedroom window disturbs him along with his ancestor’s involvement with a witch forty five years ago in 1690.
Subtly different viewpoints and perspectives make 'The Ash Tree' so gripping. Through elliptical editing and staging Sir Richard is eerily transported back into a dark past which puts him on trial for his relative’s behaviour during the witch’s hanging. It’s beautifully filmed and acted, maintaining a cryptic and guilty relationship with Richard’s ancestry and his fight to resist a witch’s curse. The scenes in his bedroom when devilish things crawl over his body and the eventual burning of the ash tree are some of the creepiest passages in the whole of the BBC Ghost Stories series.
This three disc set comes with many extras and commentaries. I particularly recommend Nic Wassell’s seventeen minute video essay Spectres, Spirits & Haunted Treasure; Adapting M. R. James (2023). Just about the most succinct film on the differences between the films and the stories I’ve seen.
Ghost Stories for Christmas volume 2 also includes two later BBC M. R. James films A View from the Hill (2005) and Number 13 (2006).
I’d have liked to have included them in the seventies productions as outstanding adaptations but alas they are not. They’re perfectly adequate, in their own way, but for me, too detached with a tendency and to muffle the Jamesian horror, and they lack a real sense of belief in their source material.
A year ago I wrote praising the BFI’s Ghost Stories for Christmas volume 1. Volume 2 is equally as good. And the Blu Ray format brings an even greater depth and definition to these films. This is a limited edition that you should snap up immediately.
- Alan Price