Count Magnus: A Ghost Story for Christmas

❉ Was the ghost story all M.R. James fans wanted to see a case of being careful what you wish for?

Mr Wraxhall (Jason Watkins).

Count Magnus (BBC Two, 23 Dec 2022) is getting slated by The Guardian for not being a modern horror, which misses the point somewhat of why it’s there and what the target audience is. It was written around 1904 and has remained a favourite among fans of the ghost story, ranking fourth out of all the M.R. James ghost stories in a 1995 Ghosts and Scholars poll, behind Whistle and I’ll Come To You, Casting the Runes and A Warning to the Curious, three of the most famous ghost stories ever written, and it’s no surprise that in 1978, the great Lawrence Gordon Clark wanted to adapt it for the BBC’s Ghost Story for Christmas strand.

In a 2014 interview, Clark recalled, “The BBC had cut the budget and I wanted to make Count Magnus by M.R. James but they wouldn’t put up the money for it, which I felt was pretty short-sighted considering the success we’d had with the series.”

The M.R. James adaptations went into mothballs, only to be revived slowly this century. We got an adaptation of A View From A Hill in 2005, and an underrated version of another Scandinavian horror, Number 13 the following year. In 2013, Mark Gatiss, buoyed by the success of Sherlock and his History of Horror documentary series, and with Doctor Who and several other series under his belt, successfully pitched a BBC version of The Tractate Middoth. Then came another interregnum where, despite the success of the story, the BBC didn’t want to put resources behind it. But Gatiss kept pitching and after his own original Ghost Story, he got his hands on Martin’s Close, one of the curate’s egg James stories. And then, faced with the lockdowns, he worked on The Mezzotint.

And now that filming is possible again, Gatiss tried his hand on the story all James fans wanted to see. Count Magnus.

Deacon (Allan Corduner), Wraxhall (Jason Watkins).

The story is about a travelogue author, Wraxall, who winds up in Vestergothland (Southern Sweden) and becomes entranced with the local legends around a long dead aristocrat. Count Magnus died in the seventeenth century, but rumours of his deal with the devil and a black pilgrimage live on. As do the stories of what happened to two youths who tried to test folk tales of Magnus’s ghost still living.

You may have been a bit of a rascal in your time, Magnus, but for all that I should like to see you..” said Mr Wraxall and indeed the fans. It was a case for Wraxall of being careful what you wish for, but what about the rest of us?

It’s clear from early on the love that Mark Gatiss has for the story. The film is remarkably faithful to the original source – bar one final flourish, which I had predicted when I saw the cast list, everything is as James wrote it. (And even that twist is hinted at.) Some of the shots are taken out of Clark’s earlier style, and there’s a few scenes borrowed directly from It Follows.

Excepting one moment of gore (retained from the original story), the scares are more atmospheric. It also refuses to bash you over the head with what’s going on. I like one scene where you see the follower, but it’s out of focus a way back, and you might just assume it was the priest, as Wraxall does. Shades of A Warning to the Curious there, and the thing in the distance we assume is something friendly is a James favourite. The first padlock falling, we hear from outside the mausoleum. (Incidentally Count Magnus was a real-life person, and his mausoleum is inside a church, but we can let that slide!)

Froken de la Gardie (MyAnna Buring).

The story hinges on its main character, and luckily Jason Watkins is wonderful in the role of the doomed Mr Wraxall. He gets the man’s (over) friendliness, his inability to read a room, and his unceasing curiosity down pat. He is also able to hint at Wraxall not being in control of his own events too. As a character I feel bad for him, because it’s not his fault his people skills are non-existent, and that he doesn’t realise he’s in a ghost story until far too late.

Watkins role takes up most of the thirty minutes, but of the other cast, special mention goes to MyAnna Buring as Froken de la Gardie, the Count’s living descendant. A figure present but in the background of the short story, her darkened dining room bristles with ghost story atmosphere, and her advice to Wraxall could almost be in neon green. But he misses them. Of course.

Had it had five minutes more, we could have got more of Wraxall on the ferry (a lovely bit of paranoia, shown in quick snippets here which don’t get it fully across) and of Belchamp St Paul, a lovely little English village to have a nasty haunting in.

But that would be splitting hairs. I’m delighted that this wonderful little tale finally gets its moment in the sun. Mark Gatiss had already shown us his love for the genre, but here, he mixes it with the highest levels of his talent to produce the best ghost story he’s made for the BBC yet. And just when you think you can’t top any of that, Toby Hadoke shows up! A treat for lovers of the old school ghost story.

Highly recommended.

❉ ‘Count Magnus: A Ghost Story for Christmas’ was originally broadcast on BBC Two, 23 December 2022, and is available for viewing on BBC iPlayer: See all episodes from A Ghost Story for Christmas

 Michael S. Collins, who lives in Glasgow, is the editor of Other Side Books. A former Fortean Times book reviewer, Michael was editor of The 40p website, as well as two editions of The Christmas Book of Ghosts. His horror fiction can be found in magazines such as Diabolic Tales and Stupefying Stories, among many others. He has no pet dragons. Honest.

Images: BBC/Adorable Media/Can Do Productions/Michael Carlo.

Become a patron at Patreon!