❉ We look back on the festive tradition of the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas series, which was revived in 2005.
“Perhaps it is something of a reaction to the otherwise jolly time of year. Something feels right about pushing things off kilter, beside a warm fire, for the safe thrill of having your flesh creep. It’s a healthy scare, that Jamesian ‘pleasing terror’, a catharsis. It’s just as important as having a good laugh.” – Mark Gatiss (BBC Arts, 2013)
1968 featured what could be regarded as the first, proper horror story made by the BBC for television: an adaptation of the M.R. James story Whistle and I’ll Come To You. Originally airing as an episode of the arts programme Omnibus, the episode was extremely popular with the audience. Although a noted historian, it is his ghost stories for which M.R. James is remembered and they have become the benchmark against which most British horror literature is compared – James’s ghost stories are models of the genre, and their deceptively simple narrative style lend themselves well to adaptation.
His stories do not feature blood-spattered gore, but aim for the more psychological approach before raw horror is revealed, a carefully-constructed escalation of fear which leaves the reader unnerved even after completion of a story. James had several key rules for his ghost stories: the setting must be a normal one, in which the reader could find themselves; events should begin normally, with odd elements creeping in until they take over; the ghosts must be malevolent. It should also be noted that whilst some have cited James as a reactionary, in that much of what befalls people is due to curiosity, nothing could be further from the truth – as a historian, James was presenting the very worst thing he could imagine happening to someone; the truth causing them harm.
Whistle and I’ll Come To You is a perfect example of his work (an stuffy professor, alone in a quiet seaside resort, discovers a whistle carved from bone in an overgrown graveyard. He cleans the whistle, discovers a cryptic warning upon it, but blows it anyway. A ghost soon comes to plague him) and the adaptation is very true to the original. It is also extremely disquieting for the viewer, despite any real horror occurring (the adaptation is so well done that the sight of a sheet blowing in the wind is utterly terrifying).
Michael Hordern gave a particularly strong performance, and the production is unusual in that it features almost no dialogue. Natural sound conveys much of the atmosphere, as do the desolate beaches of an out-of-season resort. The programme was very successful, and as ghost stories at Christmas have a strong tradition in the UK the BBC commissioned a series of them to be made, all of them transmitted on, or around, Christmas Day. M.R. James would be used as the author of the source material, and the annual series began with The Stalls of Barchester in 1971.
The story was chilling rather than openly horrific, and as such was again extremely successful. Despite being made more than forty years ago the play is as effective when viewed today as it was then (no doubt helped by the historical setting – the story takes place in the 1800s). It is also very well cast, with Robert Hardy (a character actor usually cast in colourful or eccentric roles) acting very much against type as the murderous minister.
1972’s edition was A Warning to the Curious, one of James’s most disturbing and bleak stories, in which an archaeologist discovers an antique crown which would have been better left hidden – it is guarded by a supernatural creature.
Lost Hearts the next year is even more disturbing – an orphan, adopted by a kindly old man, is haunted by the ghosts of two children. It transpires that the children are not trying to scare him, but instead wish to protect him from the intentions of his adopted father: in a bid to achieve immortality the old man is cutting the hearts from the bodies of still-living children and eating them. The concept is horrific in the extreme, and the film does not shy away from the idea (showing in one scene a young boy with his chest ripped open and his heart missing).
The Treasure of Abbot Thomas is a cautionary tale in which a scholar (most of James’s characters are scholars, discovering secrets from the past which should have stayed hidden) discovers a series of clues leading to the location of the treasure of a disgraced abbot. Naturally he locates the treasure, but at a terrible cost.
The Ash Tree was the final film adapted from a James story (a man inherits an estate and discovers that it comes with a price) and was followed the next year by The Signalman, based on the short story by Charles Dickens. An extremely unsettling story, it concerns the precognitive experiences of a lonely signal man working on a railway. He has been seeing a spectre from some days and ultimately it transpires that the figure is a warning of his own death. The story is haunting, and the poor signalman is played perfectly by Denholm Elliott, in one of the finest entries of the series.
The following year saw an original story by Clive Exton, Stigma, in which a family’s renovations of their property uncover a mysterious stone which is keeping an executed witch in place. When the stone is removed, an ancient curse is unleashed.
The final film in the series, in 1978, was The Ice House, an unusual story by John Bowen (again original) about a health farm and the people there, and the plants growing all around. (Many viewers found the film both confused and confusing, something with which this writer sympathises.)
In 2000 the BBC produced a series called ‘Ghost Stories for Christmas, with Christopher Lee’ in which Lee played M.R. James reading four of his own stories. Three have subsequently been released on DVD but the second episode, The Ash Tree was not released owing to rights issues about the music used, which is from the soundtrack to ‘The Name of the Rose’ (1986), composed by James Horner. Here’s the episode, taken from an off-air recording:
The ‘Ghost Story for Christmas’ series was revived briefly in 2005 and 2006 on BBC4 with a return to M.R. James: A View from a Hill was 2005’s offering, a pleasingly old-fashioned story which sits comfortably with the earlier films. A historian borrows a pair of unique binoculars, through which he discovers that he can see buildings as they were in the past. A ruined abbey appears to be completely rebuilt, but he also sees the infamous Gallows Hill next to the abbey and soon finds himself pursued by the vengeful spirits of the executed.
Number 13 concerned the terrifying story of a small hotel and room 13, which didn’t exist…except for when it did. A guest at the hotel sees the door to room 13 late one night and is surprised the next morning to find the door has vanished. Further investigation shows that the door only appears at certain times, and naturally the guest eventually enters the room, with terrible consequences.
2010 saw another adaptation of Whistle and I’ll Come To You, one that departed substantially from the source material (although it should be noted that at least two sections of the film are extremely effective), and in 2013 Mark Gatiss presented another James story, The Tractate Middoth, a mostly faithful version, although Gatiss does change the original’s happy ending for something far more sinister. Sadly television budgets and a general indifference from the BBC have prevented further installments from appearing.
❉ If you wish to enjoy the BBC’s ‘Ghost Stories for Christmas’ in high quality, you can purchase a six-disc DVD collection released by the BFI in 2013, RRP £32.99