WARNINGS TO THE CURIOUS: THE BBC’S ‘A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS’
With a 6-disc boxed set and a new installment slated for this season, we speak to Lawrence Gordon Clark, Kim Newman, Helen Wheatley and the BFI’s Sam Dunn about this pioneering series, its legacy and the lingering appeal of the holiday horror tradition.
(Note: This article is available online for a short time while it awaits print in Video Watchdog, with permission from Tim and Donna Lucas)
North American horror fans typically delight in the fall season, where that first falling leaf signals the onset of the Halloween frenzy. From the Great Pumpkin to pumpkin spice lattes, it is the one time of year when mainstream society seems to validate those things that horror fans champion all year long. Houses are transformed into haunted mazes and suburban cemeteries, cinemas and TV stations offer a smorgasbord of classic horror programming, children are allowed to stay up late to listen to scary stories. But on the other side of the pond in the UK, it’s another time of year that is most strongly associated with ghosts and ghouls: Christmas.
The summer of 2012 saw the release of a five-disc BFI boxed set of the BBC’s much-beloved 1970s holiday series A Ghost Story for Christmas, timed to celebrate the 150th birthday of its patron saint, the British scholar and raconteur Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936). The release was immensely popular, prompting a flood of hauntological nostalgia and causing the BFI to revisit a number of creepy television outings in its wake. Now they’ve topped it with a new 6-disc Expanded Edition, which hit shelves in the UK on Oct 28th in Region 2 PAL format.
The tradition of ghost stories for Christmas began at least as early as the 1840s, with Charles Dickens one of its pioneering proponents. “In many ways, the traditional Christmas as it’s celebrated in the UK and US was invented for A Christmas Carol,” says author and film historian Kim Newman, “though Dickens was observing a fashion in celebrating the holidays that drew on German things – Christmas trees, presents, meals – popularised by Prince Albert. The happy family Christmas of A Christmas Carol, incidentally, is contrasted with the truly miserable Christmas Dickens writes about in The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”
The appearance of A Christmas Carol in December of 1843 coincided with the Victorian-era commodification of Christmas and its establishment as a largely domestic ritual, and was a huge critical success, with the first edition selling out in less than a month. Dickens responded with a series of Christmas novellas released annually throughout the 1840s, as well as seasonal short stories published in his weekly journals Household Words (1850-1859) and All the Year Round (1859-1895), some of which – The Haunted House (1859), The Signal-Man (1866) for example – were supernatural in nature (The complete Dickens Journals Household Words and All the Year Round can be read online at http://www.djo.org.uk/).
As such, the tradition of yuletide terror tales is often referred to as a “Dickensian” one, but the writer who presides most heavily over this custom is M.R. James, who was known for gathering his students and colleagues at King’s College, Cambridge (and later, Eton College) on Christmas Eve for a hearthside recitation of ghost stories that he would pen just for the occasion. Dramatizations of this oral holiday tradition even exist in the form of televised recitation of his tales by actors including Robert Powell and Christopher Lee (selections of which are included on the expanded DVD set).
M.R. James’ brand of horror is more H.P. Lovecraft than Stephen King (Lovecraft himself was a fervent admirer of James), not only due to its academic protagonists, male-centric plots and a post-Gothic emphasis on more primal forms of horror, but also because – in the words of Gothic Television author Helen Wheatley – his position as a prominent academic in real life “lends his work the gravitas that isn’t automatically afforded to King.” Indeed, Lovecraft fans will find much to cherish in James’ work. “There’s a donnish, know-it-all aspect to James that might be perceived as subliminally educational or the classical equivalent of geekiness,” says Newman, “all the passages in mock-mediaeval Latin or faked church records. That said, ghost stories weren’t seen as academically respectable until quite recently – even academics who wrote them, like James, wouldn’t take them seriously.”
While James wasn’t especially prolific – 25 short stories spread over four collections – and his fiction wouldn’t necessarily find its way into school curricula, he has been adopted as Britain’s most respected horror writer. Aside from early radio adaptations in the 1940s (Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, my Lad on the BBC’s Appointment With Fear, aka The Man in Black and even stateside with Casting the Runes on the CBS radio program Escape) this role was cemented with Jonathan Miller’s 1968 television adaption Whistle and I’ll Come to You for the BBC’s Omnibus series.
Few of James’ stories have made it to the big screen – Casting the Runes being the most popular, with adaptations by Jacques Tourneur (Night of the Demon, 1957), Sam Raimi (Drag Me to Hell, 2009) and a new version currently in development by Joe Dante – but television has proven a great medium for his work. The black-and-white Omnibus film Whistle and I’ll Come to You is a stark but effective tale of a socially-obtuse vacationing academic who is pursued by a ghost after finding an ancient whistle in the seaside sand-dunes. Bolstered by brilliantly selective sound design that renders banal, everyday sounds into loud threats, Miller’s ghost is utterly terrifying – despite being literally made of bedsheets.
The incredible critical and popular success of Miller’s adaptation prompted a then-documentary director named Lawrence Gordon Clark to pitch the idea of a holiday special based on M.R. James’ The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral to the BBC in 1971. “In 1969 Paul Fox, the then Controller of BBC 1, gave me the joyous task of making the first Ghost Story for Christmas,” explains Gordon Clark, “which I’d offered to him because I thought the BBC Christmas schedules would be the better for it, and because I wanted to film one of the stories that my father had read to me as a boy, to see if I could scare the hell out of an audience just as Dad had done with his reading of M.R. James to me. I chose The Stalls of Barchester because it is one of his most intricate and ultimately chilling stories.”
As with many James tales, there is a framing story, wherein an academic researcher stumbles upon old documents that hint of transgressions past. In this case, the hidden crime is that of an archdeacon who orchestrates the death of his bumbling octogenarian predecessor, convincing himself that it was for the betterment of the cathedral he then inherits. James’ tale sees the researcher’s framing story accompanied by that of his investigation – a para-text of diary entries, obituaries and newspaper notices that allows for two first-person narratives to cleverly co-exist. “James uses the device of time perspective often and very well,” offers Gordon Clark, “enshrouding the central action with the uncertainty of reportage.”
But the archdeacon’s jealous actions make him the target of a vengeful spirit that resides in the cathedral’s elaborate choir stalls, whose carved wood originated in the Hanging Oak – a tree used in pagan sacrifices. “The Saxon god Woden was hung on an oak tree much as Christ was hung on a cross,” says Gordon Clark. “The puritans cut down the oak tree hoping to kill the old beliefs and sanctify its wood by using it in their cathedral. Instead its blood-soaked power lived on in another form.”
When I grew in the wood
I was watered in blood
Now in the church I stand
He that touches me with his hand
If a bloody hand he bear
I council him beware.
-M.R. James, from The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral, 1911
“James had a genius for imbuing objects from the past with implacable malignity,” Gordon Clark continues, “the bronze whistle in Whistle and I’ll Come to You, the Saxon Crown in A Warning to the Curious, the Mappa Mundi in Mr. Humphry’s Inheritance and so on. Hitchcock claimed that his ‘Macguffin’ could be anything or nothing so long as people were prepared to kill for it, and perhaps that’s why some of his films are compelling but ultimately empty constructs. James’ objects are truly frightening because they resonate with our deepest and oldest fears about what lurks in the darkness outside the comfort and light of the tribal campfire. A whistle blown could summon who knows what fears, or perhaps a terrifying storm, a crown buried in a coastal barrow was a sacred guardian against invasion and to remove it earns the ultimate punishment, and when Haynes sits in the Archdeacon’s throne in the choir stalls for the first time he puts his hand on the carved figure of a crouching cat that adorns his armrest and his fate is sealed.”
This reflects the very physical aspect to James’ brand of horror, his emphasis on revulsion and monstrosity that can be touched and felt – from the black ooze of The Treasure of Abbot Thomas to the animated linens of Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad. As Lovecraft himself noted in his seminal 1927 essay Supernatural Horror in Literature: “In inventing a new type of ghost, he has departed considerably from the conventional Gothic tradition; for where the older stock ghosts were pale and stately, and apprehended chiefly through the sense of sight, the average James ghost is lean, dwarfish, and hairy—a sluggish, hellish night-abomination midway betwixt beast and man—and usually touched before it is seen.”
The Stalls of Barchester would mark the beginning of an annual tradition that ran throughout the 1970s and has continued periodically to this day, largely using James stories as source material. It would come to be called A Ghost Story for Christmas, although the series title did not actually appear onscreen until 1976. The original run of A Ghost Story for Christmas spanned from 1971-1978, with each film coming in under an hour and premiering on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, usually right before midnight. That first instalment set the tone for the whole series; in contrast to Jonathan Miller’s more tidy approach with Whistle and I’ll Come to You, The Stalls of Barchester was a deliberately underlit (it used candlelight – four years before Barry Lyndon), visceral horror tale whose murky, ambiguous darkness – both literally and figuratively -was redolent of the times. It would be a dark decade in British television; from Escape Into Night to Children of the Stones (the former remade in 1988 as Bernard Rose’s Paperhouse) and an onslaught of ghastly public information films, 1970s TV programming is credited with scaring a nation of children out of their wits. And posited as holiday ‘family’ fare, the Ghost Stories for Christmas were an important part of that deluge.
Gordon Clark followed up The Stalls of Barchester with A Warning to the Curious (1972), starring British character actor Peter Vaughan – coming straight off Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs – as an amateur archaeologist who is followed by a malevolent force after he uncovers one of the mythical three crowns that protect the Suffolk coastline (although it was actually filmed in Norfolk). A Warning to the Curious is perhaps the closest Gordon Clark came to the brooding stillness of Jonathan Miller’s Whistle and I’ll Come to You; its emphasis on coastal exteriors, the obsessive intensity of the central character, the dark spectre that dogs him at every step. It also reintroduces Clive Swift as Dr. Black, a character carrying over from the previous year’s The Stalls of Barchester.
Fan-favourite Lost Hearts (1973) came next, by which point the BBC realized they had a hit series on their hands and started populating the show with more supporting staff. Simon Gipps-Kent, a popular child actor of the time (later to pop up on The Tomorrow People and Tom Baker-era Dr Who) stars as an orphan who is taken in by an unfamiliar elderly relative to live in a huge Georgian house in the countryside. But when he starts seeing the apparitions of two dead gypsy children on the grounds, he suspects that his mysterious benefactor (Joseph O’Connor) may have sinister plans. It is the only series entry with deliberate camp elements, in the form of O’Connor’s Caligari-inspired performance, but this is possibly to counteract the film’s ultimately disturbing message about predatory adults. While the heavily made-up child-ghosts may seem dated today, they were legitimately terrifying at the time, aided in no small part by their grotesque smiles, overgrown fingernails and the exotic, repetitive thrum of the hurdy gurdy.
The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (1974) is the most ripping mystery of the bunch, starring Michael Bryant as a theologian who teams up with a young posh protégé to try to uncover a treasure allegedly hidden on the Abbey grounds. Bathed in blue and black hues, with the chameleonic Bryant practically unrecognizable from both Girly and The Stone Tape in the years previous, the adaptation moves the action from Germany to Somerset’s Wells Cathedral where it incorporates the famous 14th century stained glass ‘Jesse Window’ as part of the mystery. It was one of many departures from the original text, and as Gordon Clark explained in his 2011 e-book Lawrence Gordon Clark’s Ghost Stories for Christmas : “I had a little difficulty persuading the dean and chapter to allow us to film there because they’d given permission to Pier Paolo Pasolini to shoot his Canterbury Tales there a year or two before, and he’d filmed an orgy in the cloisters. But James’ rather more genteel approach to damnation and death was eventually adjudged to be OK and filming went ahead.”
The stained glass operates as something of a map, with clues leading to the Abbot’s treasure, which (as in A Warning to the Curious) is guarded by a supernatural being – in this case a sludgy black beast. Gordon Clark saw the film’s monster as a failure, as budgetary constraints prevented the creation of something more akin to James’ description:
I was conscious of a most horrible smell of mould, and of a cold kind of face pressed against my own, and moving slowly over it, and of several—I don’t know how many—legs or arms or tentacles or something clinging to my body.
-M.R. James, The Treasure of Abbott Thomas, 1904
But Gordon Clark is too hard on himself – the creature is effective, like the sinewy manifestation of a shadow.
Further physical abominations were on display in its follow-up The Ash Tree (1975), starring Edward Petherbridge (later to show up in Gordon Clark’s own version of James’ Casting the Runes for ITV in 1979) as an aristocrat who is plagued by his ancestor’s execution of a local witch decades earlier. The Ash Tree is the shortest of all the instalments, but somehow seems the longest, and its protracted sequences in bright daylight fall aesthetically flat. But the film comes alive at night, as the deformed spiders birthed by the witch’s curse scurry about in the darkness, providing the protagonist – and the film – with a tangible sense of twitchy anxiety. While the main house and grounds were filmed elsewhere, The Ash Tree of the title was actually filmed on Gordon Clark’s own property – although it mysteriously died two years after the filming.
For all five of these adaptations, Gordon Clark worked with cinematographer John McGlashan and sound recordist Dick Manton, who he credits with establishing the gloomy aesthetic that would be the hallmark of the series (as well as editor Roger Waugh who edited all the original series’ James adaptations save 1973’s Lost Hearts). Central to that aesthetic were the authentic East Anglian locations that have been the inspiration for many a terror tale, even aside from those of M.R. James.
“James lived in East Anglia – the region that encompasses Norfolk and Suffolk – for most of his life,” explains Helen Wheatley, “hence his setting of his stories there. However, there is also a broader sense of the region as being rather out on a limb, a relative hinterland, which lends itself to ghost story telling I think. In James’ stories, and their television adaptations, the geography and landscape of the region – expanses of flat land, the whispering grasses of the East Anglian coast line, sparsely populated agricultural land – has a particularly haunting quality.”
There was nothing to be seen: a line of dark firs behind us made one skyline, more trees and the church tower half a mile off on the right, cottages and a windmill on the horizon on the left, calm sea dead in front, faint barking of a dog at a cottage on a gleaming dyke between us and it: full moon making that path we know across the sea: the eternal whisper of the Scotch firs just above us, and of the sea in front. Yet, in all this quiet, an acute, an acrid consciousness of a restrained hostility very near us, like a dog on a leash that might be let go at any moment.
-M.R. James, A Warning to the Curious, 1925
While Lost Hearts remains the favoured installment among the era’s younger viewers (many of whom are now making horror films of their own), the series hit a ratings high with the eerie Dickens adaptation The Signalman (1976). It was the first to eschew James in favour of his predecessor, with a tale Dickens had written for All the Year Round at Christmas 1866 as part of his ‘Mugby Junction’ collection of railway stories. Inspired by anxiety surrounding his own experience in the Staplehurst rail crash of 1865 (and likely influenced by the Clayton Tunnel Crash four years prior), Dickens’ claustrophobic tale is about a railway signalman who is dogged by an apparition he keeps seeing on the tracks just before an accident.
The title role is chillingly portrayed by Denholm Elliott in the film: intensely wound-up, fastidious, sweaty. And the orbless spectre, on those brief occasions when it appears, is genuinely dreadful. The episode was highly acclaimed, despite almost not being made due to budget cuts; Scottish playwright and critic Simon Farquhar even went so far as to say it was “better than the book.”
But a miscalculation followed; forgoing period literature in favour of a contemporary tale by esteemed TV writer Clive Exton (Doomwatch, 10 Rillington Place) for the 1977 instalment Stigma led to disappointed audiences who felt that the series had started to lose its way. It’s not an opinion I share. The lone female-centric tale in the original canon, Stigma is about a rural family whose backyard excavations reveal a large ancient boulder that, when disturbed, releases a curse that causes the mother to spend the rest of the film in the bathroom, trying to figure out how and why she is haemorrhaging to death. It is a confrontational film with prolonged nudity and unavoidable menstrual connotations, possibly a bit too heavy for the seasonal ghost story crowd. But an essential component of the series all the same.
“I agree with you about Stigma,” Gordon Clark concedes, “it’s a very disturbing story but I don’t think we did it justice. I didn’t have the services of the crew I wanted and, believe it or not, they had cut the budget even further in spite of the great success of The Signalman the year before, and I’m afraid I’d lost faith in the production by then. We were so rushed it was like filmmaking by numbers, and once you’ve lost the joy of doing something, it’s time to move on.”
The immediate aftermath of Stigma was the departure of Gordon Clark from the series he created, and after one last, admittedly forgettable chapter – The Ice House directed by Coronation Street alum Derek Lister (its only saving grace is that it stars David Beames of Chris Petit’s Radio On) – the original series folded.
But the ‘ghost’ of these ghost stories lingered; Gordon Clark went freelance, taking another M.R. James adaptation – Casting the Runes – to ITV, where it debuted to great acclaim in April 1979, while a plethora of seasonal terror tales continued periodically on the BBC throughout the next few decades, including the short-lived official reprise of A Ghost Story for Christmas in 2005 and 2006 with James adaptations A View From a Hill and Number 13, respectively. Whistle and I’ll Come to You was remade for the BBC in 2010 starring John Hurt, his character’s misanthropy controversially muted with the addition of a love interest. Add to these the odd 70s TV special running in tandem with Lawrence Gordon Clark’s series and it becomes clear that the trajectory of the televised Christmas ghost story is sometimes hard to follow.
Kim Newman gives us a bit of a breakdown: “The internal politics of the BBC are pretty complex,” he admits, “but as I understand it, A Ghost Story for Christmas was a series produced by Lawrence Gordon Clark that ran annually on BBC1, while other productions often yoked in (on DVD box sets and the like) are from other strands (Schalcken the Painter and the Jonathan Miller Whistle and I’ll Come to You were originally shown in a series called Omnibus, which mostly consisted of arts documentaries) or series (Late Night Horror, Dead of Night, The Mind Beyond, Supernatural) aired on BBC1 or 2, or as stand-alone specials (The Stone Tape, Ghostwatch) – not all at Christmas. The BBC also had regular drama slots (Play for Today, The Wednesday Play) that aired one-off dramas – which usually meant broadly realistic, socially-engaged material, but ran to the odd horror or ghost story (Robin Redbreast, out on DVD now, was a Play for Today, and so was Alan Clarke’s Penda’s Fen). There were also a lot of spooky stories done in children’s drama slots. ITV, our commercial television station, had its own ghost series (Haunted, Shades of Darkness, Spooky) and one-offs (such as Clark’s Casting the Runes). Besides Nigel Kneale, there were other UK TV writers – John Bowen, John Burke, Robert Muller, Brian Clemens – who specialised in macabre and supernatural subjects. And our tendency to do literary adaptations meant that often series devoted to a classic writer would include their ghost stories alongside the stuff they were more known for – series adapting Conan Doyle, Hardy or Agatha Christie, for instance, included ghost episodes. Someone should probably do a book sorting all this stuff out.” (In the meantime, the website ‘Haunted TV’ contains a year-by-year breakdown of all supernatural-themed British radio and television from 1936 to today, available at http://webspace.webring.com/people/th/hauntedtv/index.htm.)
A good deal of these peripheral programs have appeared as supplements on the 2012 five-disc set, but its claims to definitiveness were defied by this year’s ‘Expanded Edition’, which saw another disc’s worth of materials unearthed, namely the complete Classic Ghost Stories, a 1986 series in which actor Robert Powell (The Asphyx) adopts the role of M.R. James to preside over dramatizations of The Mezzotint, The Ash-Tree, Wailing Well, The Rose Garden and Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad. Additionally, the disc boasts three Jamesian episodes of the 1980 supernatural kids’ series Spine Chillers, featuring original Ghost Story for Christmas alum Michael Bryant (1974’s The Treasure of Abbot Thomas) reading The Mezzotint, A School Story and The Diary of Mr Poynter. All the material on this 6th disc was simultaneously released on a disc of its own under the title Classic Ghost Stories.
Still many more of those related titles Newman mentions have trickled out on DVD in the last year. Interestingly, this horror-heavy BFI release schedule coincides with the rise of the hauntology ‘movement’ in the UK – if it can be rightly called that – which ranges from the tongue-in-cheek graphic design of Richard Littler’s Scarfolk Council blog (http://scarfolk.blogspot.co.uk/) to Ghost Box Records’ selective championing of musicians influenced by library cues and sound bites from UK public information films, gothic television and high-minded, perverse Ballardian sci-fi. “Most of these titles are from the 70s (a decade which resonates uniquely and profoundly with many 40-somethings) and, as well as dealing with ghosts of the past in terms of their stories and subject matter, they are themselves ghosts of our own cultural past,” explains Sam Dunn of the BFI, “In this way, these releases speak to a fascination with the concepts and ideas that the likes of Ghost Box, Lancashire Folklore Tapes and Moon Wiring Club explore in the world of music publishing. More generally, the whole process of identifying cultural artefacts that have ‘gone missing’ and giving them a new lease of life on DVD (such as the BFI is doing with these BBC titles, and with its Flipside strand) is akin to the endeavours of record labels such as Mordant Music, Rise Above Relics, Finders Keepers, Blackest Ever Black, &c., all of whom make it their business to unearth hidden gems which are not only deserving of our time and attention, but which, even in an over-saturated culture, can offer something which still feels fresh and can offer a truly alternative experience of great merit to those viewers and listeners who are inclined to seek them out.”
While repeats of the original series are common over the holidays, in spring of this year BBC2 announced that an all-new Ghost Story for Christmas adaptation of M.R. James’ The Tractate Middoth would premiere this December, to be written and directed by The League of Gentlemen’s Mark Gatiss, whose own horror anthology Crooked House was a 2008 Christmas offering inspired by Gordon Clark’s moody 1970s tele-terrors (it screens on BBC2 on Christmas Day at 9:30pm, details HERE). Gatiss also paid tribute to Gordon Clark by penning the foreword for Spectral Press’ upcoming book The Christmas Ghost Stories of Lawrence Gordon Clark, a collection featuring all the original M.R. James tales that Gordon Clark has adapted over the years with introductions for each by Gordon Clark, as well as an unfilmed “Count Magnus” script by Basil Copper, interviews, unpublished behind-the-scenes photographs and more (the book can be ordered online at http://spectralpress.wordpress.com).
The canonical 1970s ghost stories have also been playing theatrically throughout the UK this winter as part of the BFI’s ‘Gothic Season’ national programming initiative, alongside staples such as Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, Peter Sasdy’s The Stone Tape (with Sasdy in attendance) and Michael Reeves’ The Witchfinder General, and were among the subjects discussed at an associated panel on anthology TV horror at the BFI London on December 18th (following a screening of the Shades of Darkness episode “Feet Foremost”).
But this big screen treatment is a bit of an experiment; one reason the shows were so popular was that the intimacy of the TV set – as opposed to a theatrical environment – emulated in some way the oral tradition of storytelling. “I think it’s to do with the security of the hearth,” says Gordon Clark, “and, earlier, the camp fire – warding off the terrors of winter and darkness and frightening in a pleasurable way because the listeners are enjoying that security. No one I think would enjoy a frightening story if they felt themselves to be in real danger at the time. This maybe is why television is such a good medium for ghost stories, because you watch it in the security of your home – hopefully!”
In addition to my interviewees, special thanks are due to Sean Hogan, for first introducing me to the Ghost Story for Christmas series, and to Kristopher Woofter whose research into the folkloric and moral traditions of Christmas for the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies were especially helpful.