December 22, 2015
There must be something ghostly in the air of Christmas — something about the close, muggy atmosphere that draws up the ghosts, like the dampness of the summer rains brings out the frogs and snails.” – Jerome K. Jerome, Told After Supper (1891)
Late in the night on Christmas Eve from 1971 to 1978, the BBC would air an adaptation of a classic ghost story, dark tales of cursed crowns, spider babies, and heart-eaters preceding the broadcast of midnight mass. It is a tradition that goes back to the Victorian and Edwardian eras, when the dean of English ghost stories, M.R. James, would gather friends and colleagues to debut his latest chilling yarn after Christmas Eve revelries. The first five BBC productions adapt James’ work, and do justice to his clammy atmospheres. Director Lawrence Gordon Clark shot on location and on 16mm, able to conjure the fog-choked isolation of James’ doomed protagonists. All eight of BBC’s original Ghost Stories For Christmas, as well four from the series’ 2005 revival, are available in a haunting six-DVD set from the BFI (for those with Region 2 capable players).
The English tradition of Christmas Ghosts emerged due to the boom in periodical publishing in the mid-19th century, after the repeal of the newspaper tax in 1855. The holidays were the best-selling season, so publishers would release year-end round-ups with the year’s most popular stories, many of which were supernatural. Charles Dickens was pivotal in pushing the ghostly, from his Christmas Carol in 1843 to his publishing scads of scary stories in the Christmas edition of his All the Year Round magazine. M.R. James would continue the tradition at Cambridge, where the scholar would debut one ghost story a year at his Christmas Eve party.
The idea for the BBC series was conceived following the success of Whistle And I’ll Come to You (’68), an M.R. James adaptation filmed for BBC’s Omnibus. Director Lawrence Gordon Clark and DP John McGlashan were plucked from the BFI’s stable of talent and assigned to the new ghostly initiative. The first “Ghost Story for Christmas” was of M.R. James’ The Stalls of Barchester in 1971, concerning a cursed rural cathedral, and followed by A Warning to the Curious in ’72. The latter is a particularly haunting bit of antiquarian superstition come to life. James was once an assistant in archaeology at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, and he used this background to concoct a bit of flim flammery surrounding the three Saxon crowns of East Anglia. James proposes that the crowns were buried along the coastline, and held powers that kept the country from harm. One neurasthenic stumbles upon the remaining crown, and is stalked by the spirit of its protector. The story is a mournful piece, first published in 1925, that yearns for the age before WWI. James saw many of his students depart and die in that conflagration, and the story reads as something of a lament for the loss of an entire culture.
The BBC adaptation streamlines the story, dropping the nested flashback framework and also adds motivation to the man who finds the crown. Instead of stumbling upon it, he seeks it out, having just been laid off from his clerking position. This makes for an easier to follow narrative, but also robs the story of much of its allegorical power. Instead of standing in for a nation, in the TV episode the treasure hunting crown-stealer is only in it for himself. McGlashan’s cinematography of the Norfolk coastline still finds an analogue to James’ text, capturing the malevolent glow of an emptied out beach in the off-season.
The 1973 entry, Lost Hearts, is one of my favorites, anchored by the jubilant sadism of Joseph O’Conor as aspirant warlock Mr. Abney. Mr. Abney is a solitary “researcher” who lives with his maid (Susan Richards) and butler (James Mellor) on an isolated villa. With his shock of white hair and wide eyes he looks like Alastair Sim’s Scrooge from the ’51 Christmas Carol. But instead of parsimony, Abney has a penchant for eating children’s hearts to attain immortality. His first two victims, a carefree young girl and a wispy Italian hurdy-gurdy player, begin to haunt his home, scarring the walls with their elongated nails. Using nothing but practical effects: some makeup, fake nails and an elegiac hurdy-gurdy tune, Lost Hearts slow-burns Abney to a crisp.
Sound is used smartly throughout the series. There are no insistent scores informing the viewers what to feel, but instead snippets of music are introduced that gain meaning in context. In A Warning to the Curious it is a breathy laugh that jumps out of the quiet soundtrack, shaking the treasure hunter to his core. In The Ash Tree (’75) Sir Richard (Edward Petherbridge) channels scenes from the life of his murdered cousin Sir Matthew (also Petherbridge), his voice a doomed chorus pushing Richard to his inevitable fate. See, Richard makes the mistake of moving the grave of an executed witch, and pays the price in an attack of grotesque monster-spiders with baby heads.
The Signalman (1976) is the most attentive to sound, as it follows a train track operator whose job is to respond to the bells and rings that inform him of the status up and down the line. When a specter appears at the tunnel and gestures wildly for danger, the signalman is at a loss. This is beyond the proscribed routine of his day, and the dangers beyond his ability to convey. Adapted from the Charles Dickens story, one he wrote after a near-death experience in a train crash, it’s a diabolical chamber piece whose tone of quiet dread is perfectly captured in the BBC film. The film stars Denholm Elliott as the lonely signalman, his monotony interrupted by a curious traveler (Bernard Lloyd) who takes breaks from his vacation to hear the train worker’s troubles.
The specter has appeared three times – after the first there was a horrific crash in the tunnel, following the second a bride fell off and was killed upon landing. Now the signalman patiently awaits the third tragedy. Elliott plays him with quiet paranoia, seething beneath his professional surface. Everything on the screen becomes part of the orchestrated tension, each bell and innocent gesture a mark of death. The traveller’s first introduction, a hearty “Hello, down there!”, is revealed to be part of the final goodbye.
What better way to prepare for the joys of Christmas morning than to contemplate your own mortality on Christmas Eve? These are stories of vanity, loneliness, and death after which no present will disappoint you. Socks will seem like a gift from God. So this Christmas Eve put on BBC’s Ghost Stories For Christmas, it has enough fear for the whole family.