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The Signalman

Saturday December 24, 2011 in charles dickens | ghost stories

“Halloa! Below there!”

In 1976 the BBC moved away from their usual ghostly M.R. James Christmas offering. Instead, on 22nd December that year, they screened an adaptation of The Signalman by Charles Dickens. The Signalman is perhaps one of the all time classic ghost stories. Dickens excels in the genre but this is also a brilliant film; a demonstration of how low budget, atmosphere, great writing and performances can create something truly magical.

ghost from The SignalmanDenholm Elliott as the troubled and ultimately doomed signalman is possibly the greatest asset of this production. Elliott is magnificent, perfectly capturing the edgy and nervous man, condemned to dull, repetitive – yet very important – tasks in his solitary employment. So horribly haunted – he’s actually quite painful to watch at times.

Elliott is an actor perhaps not immediately thought of alongside the supernatural, although when you dig there are some gems. Most notably there is his appearance in Hammer’s To the Devil a Daughter (1976) and their tv classic Rude Awakening from 1980, Vault of Horror (1973) from Amicus and some obscure appearances in Mystery and Imagination in the late 60s (as Dracula) and the other tv appearances Supernatural in 1977 and The Ray Bradbury Theatre in the late 80s. But extending this list any further may suggest that Elliott was at times a jobbing actor. The Signalman, however, proves his immense talent.

Returning to our 1976 Dickens adaptation, the signalman of the title is troubled by ghosts, each of which has delivered a grim portent. He’s haunted terribly in his lonely employment. The first ghost warns of an awful collision in the tunnel nearby. The second of a young bride falling from a train. Both of these warnings come true, with the signalman a witness to the terrible events. The third tragedy is suggested by a visiting spirit covering its face, waving one arm and repeatedly calling “Halloa! Below there!” The signalman mistakes a traveller – who calls out these very words to him – for the ghost, and nervously invites the stranger (played by Bernard Lloyd) into his signal box. He recounts his tales to him, his attention often snatched by his solemn duties.

Ghost Story for Christmas director Lawrence Gordon Clark works up the menace wonderfully and the adaptation is written by Andrew Davies, who tackled both Bleak House and Little Dorrit thirty or so years later. The Signalman offers a cosy sort of terror, with the traveller mostly bemused by the odd railway worker until the eventual tragedy strikes, where the third and final terror strikes on the poor signalman himself. I think, however, by then it was a blessed release for him.

Although still a classic to watch, it’s probably not wise to look into the story too deeply. For example, why his employment is continued after witnessing multiple tragedies in the same small stretch of railway. Why didn’t his line manager look closely at health, safety and well being issues? Or at least grant the poor man a spot of annual leave. And so on. But remember, this is Ghost Story for Christmas time. Soak up the atmosphere. Believe.

“He was cut down by an engine, sir. No man in England knew his work better. But somehow he was not clear of the outer rail. It was just at broad day. He had struck the light, and had the lamp in his hand. As the engine came out of the tunnel, his back was towards her, and she cut him down. That man drove her, and was showing how it happened. Show the gentleman, Tom.”
The man, who wore a rough dark dress, stepped back to his former place at the mouth of the tunnel.
“Coming round the curve in the tunnel, sir,” he said, “I saw him at the end, like as if I saw him down a perspective-glass. There was no time to check speed, and I knew him to be very careful. As he didn’t seem to take heed of the whistle, I shut it off when we were running down upon him, and called to him as loud as I could call.”
“What did you say?”
“I said, ‘Below there! Look out! Look out! For God’s sake, clear the way!’”

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