The Ash Tree was the BBC’s 1975 Ghost Story for Christmas. It is perhaps the most unusual of their M.R. James adaptations.
Unlike the others in the series, The Ash Tree offers the least in seasonal fireside comfort viewing. Where the memory of the BBC M.R. James films invite memories of a comfortable supernatural tale, foolish men meddling with treasure and so on, The Ash Tree is decidedly strange and stands out as a stark entry, particularly in the use of location shooting.
The Ash Tree was first broadcast on 23 December 1975 at 11.35. Directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, Edward Petherbridge takes the lead as Sir Richard Castringham, who has recently inherited a country seat with an unfortunate history. The house has been cursed since the day his ancestor, Sir Matthew, condemned a woman to death for witchcraft. It is soon discovered that the ancient ash tree outside his bedroom window is the root of the problem.
Petherbridge is very good as Castringham, and the film is fairly horrific and impressive for the BBC budgetry considerations at the time. Particularly vivid are the ghoulish creatures that pour out of the tree on Castringham’s last fateful night.
Although I’ve yet to review the two modern day Ghost Story for Christmas entries, Stigma and The Ice House from 1977/8, I feel my job is really done here. But it’s quite comforting that after six years of writing about M.R. James on the BBC my wishes have finally come true with the recent release of the entire series on DVD. The collection has some excellent extras, including introductions by Laurence Gordon Clark. Most interesting though is the booklet of essays which point towards other supernatural anthology series of the time. Most notably there is Dead of Night from 1972 and Out the Unknown which ran from the mid 60s until 1971. Some, but only a few, episodes survive from them but are available on YouTube. I’ll be reviewing some soon. I’ve also rediscovered the BBC series West Country Tales from 1982. having watched several episodes I’m happy to report that it’s rather excellent and will keep me going in ghostly review for some time to come!
Incidentally, Lawrence Gordon Clark jumped the comfortable BBC ship in 1979 to direct a version of M.R. James’ Casting the Runes which also featured Edward Petherbridge, along with Jan Francis and Iain Cuthbertson. Worth investigating.