The Tractate Middoth is the latest in the sporadic Ghost Stories for Christmas series, with Mark Gatiss adapting and directing this M.R. James story. Gatiss is a natural choice for the task – his accompanying documentary proved him a worthy student of James, along with his previous television ghost story credentials in his 2008 series Crooked House. This new M.R. James adaptation was broadcast on BBC2 on Christmas Day.
The Tractate Middoth is familiar James material, with a secret will hidden inside a book located within a labyrinthine library. It’s guarded, naturally, by a dark spectre. When the book is taken and the will is discovered the thief is punished by supernatural means. There’s little more to it really, although Gatiss added some appropriate menace with the interior library scenes and did a fine job with source material that relies a little too heavily on coincidence. Roy Barraclough and Una Stubbs each provided comic turns in the drama. Although appreciated, it was slightly awkward as comedy isn’t really something that fits snugly into M.R. James. The cast also included Sasha Dhawan (fresh from his role in An Adventure in Space and Time), Louise Jameson, John Castle and David Ryall as root of all the ensuing evil, the hideous Dr Rant.
It’s difficult though to be critical as any new James adaptation is welcome. Rather like Doctor Who, it’s something I’d prefer to be there than not, although a late night showing on Christmas Eve may be the more fitting schedule. But hopefully the BBC will reinstate A Ghost Story for Christmas annually. I expect that Mr Gatiss will be up for it.
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.
This year the BBC offered a rare treat for M.R. James fans with a new adaptation of Whistle and I’ll Come to You. As a student of the ghost story genre I was very satisfied with the film although I suspect that many a die hard James devotee was left disappointed. The 2010 version was really M.R. James in name only, with many changes to the original short story. Most of the similarities I picked up were with Jonathan Miller’s 1968 film, taking the chilling image of an indistinct figure on a deserted beach as its key terrifying motif.
Whistle and I’ll Come to You 2010 was frustrating for me as I watched it with a small family audience. Confused by the subtleties of the storyline they turned to me for an explanation as an apparent expert on James. As the original had been changed so much I couldn’t provide one. They expected answers from an often vague and ultimately open ended film. They turned their confusion and dissatisfaction towards me.
However, now given time to digest both this and my Christmas overindulgence I’ve concluded that this was indeed an excellent adaptation. John Hurt plays Parkin, portrayed so well in 1968 by Michael Hordern, although Hurt added an extra layer of pitiful terror to the man. Parkin 2010 leaves his ailing wife in a rest home and visits a hotel by the sea for a few days contemplation and rest. A bleak and empty establishment where Parkin learns he is the only guest. Walking on the beach he discovers – not a whistle – but a wedding ring with the engraving “who is this who is coming?” Following the discovery, Parkin is troubled by something; the indistinct figure on the beach, a scratching under his bed at night, the rattling of the door…
Writer Neil Cross takes many liberties in bringing this 1905 story up to date, although I found it an absorbing study of age, death and the real purpose of the supernatural. Coming to terms with his haunting, Parkin remarks that more terrifying than ghosts is the living shell of a human being, suggesting that the wife he has left behind is the most chilling reality in his world. The closing scenes, where Parkin fails to keep out what’s rattling at his hotel door, are genuinely frightening. I’ll remember this film for a long time.
So highly recommended, but you must put your yellowing Ghost Stories of an Antiquary to one side and enjoy this for what it is; a film that takes only the smallest ingredient of James, a dashing of Miller, but employs the ever reliable Hurt to deliver something of real quality.
Still as the night was, the mysterious population of the distant moon-lit woods was not yet lulled to rest. From time to time strange cries as of lost and despairing wanderers sounded from across the mere. Were not they coming nearer?
It’s Christmas Eve once again so cast your thoughts back 37 years to when Lost Hearts was the BBC’s 1973 Ghost Story for Christmas. This television adaptation of the M.R. James ghost story often features in lists of favourite tv and film terrifying moments. Lost Hearts isn’t repeated that often, and I think it is down to the power of Lawrence Gordon Clark’s film in leaving a lasting impression on viewers. Whilst similar to the other BBC James films in striking the right balance of atmosphere, this one stands out on its own with some particularly vivid ghosts and, perhaps most disturbing of all, the appearance of Joseph O’Connor as the very disturbing Mr Abney. If your memory is failing you, this is the one featuring a pair of particularly spooky children backed by some chilling hurdy gurdy music.
In the original short story, Stephen Elliott is a young orphan who goes to stay with his eccentric cousin Mr Abney. Apparently some kind of reclusive scholar, the elderly gentleman is welcoming to the boy although, as with the best of M.R James stories, it only takes a page or two before the reader realises that something isn’t quite right. Why does he keep asking Stephen’s age? What exactly is he up to in his study?
M.R.James creates a brilliantly effective ghost story without appearing to do very much at all. As usual, he sets a believable scene, telling the reader just enough to move them off into the chills of the tale. Stephen learns from Abney’s servants that he had previously befriended two children who subsequently disappeared. The reader eventually deduces that the old man was up to no good and that Stephen is next in the succession of victims who may be contributing to his cousin’s enduring longevity. Something to do with lost hearts, ancient scripture and a generous glass of port.
The James story is one of his briefest and the BBC flesh it out by broadening the character of Abney, using O’Connor to depict an almost camply comical figure. Clark brings out the underlying menace very skilfully in the film. Stephen is quietly haunted by visions of two other children, a boy and a girl watching from a distance. Faces in windows, mysterious scratches on furniture, and snatches of laughter. This is the most enduring aspect of the film, the silent figures with claw like fingers who stand with arms crossed, over-protective of their hearts…
The BBC make one or two embellishments to the story, for example making Stephen’s birthday fall on hallowe’en. The endings also differ. Stephen overhears his cousin’s demise at the hands of the spirits in the original, whilst in the film we see him poisoning Stephen and the ghosts entering his study to finish him off. Both work effectively.
I’ve always found Lost Hearts to be the runt in the litter to the other celebrated M.R. James television adaptations that include Whistle and I’ll Come to You, The Stalls of Barchester and A Warning to the Curious. All deal with solitary gentlemen and their curiosity getting the better of them, although the pursuit is usually that of monetary or intellectual value. With Lost Hearts James makes the theme a little less obvious but gives a far darker undercurrent to the pursuit of knowledge. And its consequences.
This year the BBC return to James with John Hurt in a new adaptation of Whistle and I’ll Come to You. I wonder how they’ll do?
Marshes intersected by dykes to the south, recalling the early chapters of Great Expectations; flat fields to the north, merging into heath; heath, fir woods, and, above all, gorse, inland …. old firs, wind-beaten, thick at the top, with the slope that old seaside trees have; seen on the skyline from the train they would tell you in an instant, if you did not know it, that you were approaching a windy coast.
On Christmas Eve 1972 the BBC televised M.R. James’ classic ghost story A Warning to the Curious as part of their Ghost Story for Christmas series. The film has since become a classic in its own right; chillingly atmospheric and a perfect evocation of the wind-beaten and bleak seaside town of Seaburgh as described by James above. Although the viewer must allow for the production values of 1970s television, the mud flats and the hazy landscape are still brilliantly captured by director Lawrence Gordon Clark. And a small budget works in its favour, making the studio bound interior scenes extremely tight and claustrophobic. The eerie music, too, works wonders for the story.
The film begins with with a man digging a deep hole. James enthusiasts will tell instantly that he is going to meet a sticky end. The man is watched by a shadowy figure who warns him “no digging”. When he persists, the dark figure attacks and kills him. Twelve years later a man called Paxton arrives in Seaburgh, carrying suitcase and spade. Paxton is an amateur archaeologist searching for a fabled Anglo-Saxon crown, buried somewhere in the local area…
After checking in at his lodging house Paxton passes through a cemetery, where he learns that the site of the buried crown was once guarded by one William Ager, a man who has since died and who we presume to be our murderer from the first scene. The vicar indicates where Ager’s grave is but declines to show Paxton to it, as he has become suddenly “very cold”. As he looks at Ager’s gravestone Paxton notices, or thinks he notices, a dark clad figure watching him from the distance. This black robed spectre remains ever present just outside Paxton’s immediate field of vision. As James explains:
Sometimes, you know, you see him, and sometimes you don’t, just as he pleases, I think; he’s there, but he has some power over your eyes.
Paxton continues his research into the whereabouts of the crown, visiting Ager’s former home and a creepy curiosity shop. Gathering just enough information, he sets out to dig up the crown, announcing that he will be away overnight and catching a train. Returning to Seaburgh with his prize, he climbs into his train carriage and then turns to hear the guard holding the door open and calling “room for one more! Oh, sorry … I thought someone else was there” before shutting the door on the lone Paxton.
Following a troubled night Paxton reveals to Dr Black, a fellow lodger at the boarding house, that “someone” is now with him, the shadowy figure watching him has accompanied him from the burial site. He vows to return the crown and asks Black to go with him. Together they return the crown, Clive Swift as Black never being one to shirk his responsibilities when it comes to spooky tales. In the morning the two arrange to go walking together, but Paxton is enticed onto the beach by the shadowy figure, thinking it is Black. Dr Black later finds Paxton lying dead beside the burial mound.
The film ends with Black boarding a train to leave Seaburgh. He holds what looks like Paxton’s case. Climbing into the carriage, he turns to hear the guard holding the door open and calling “room for one more! Oh, sorry … I thought someone else was there” before shutting the door on the lone Black…
A Warning to the Curious stars Peter Vaughan as Paxton and Ghost Story for Christmas regular Clive Swift as Dr Black. Mr Paxton, a now redundant office clerk, attempts to rise above his lowly status by making this rare archeological find. As an embellishment to James’ original story, the film creates a solid class structure – from those above Paxton (Black, a local vicar) to those below him (the boots of his boarding house, the young girl he meets in Ager’s cottage). Where James warns antiquarians and learned men not to become too curious in their findings (The Treasure of Abbott Thomas, Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to you, My Lad) the film goes further in warning the likes of Paxton not too think too high above their social standing. And Black, by lowering himself to Paxton’s level, is seen to suffer too.
But the BBC adaptation doesn’t stray too far from the original classic, and the only serious change they make is creating Dr Black, who serves to replace James as the narrator figure and his friend Henry Long. All of the best ingredients are James’ inventions; the churchyard, the curiosity shop and the half glimpsed ghost of William Ager. Changes to James are always forgiven as the leads in the Ghost Stories for Christmas series always turned in fine performances, and here Vaughan and Swift are magnificent. Vaughan is perfectly nervy as Paxton, driven although quite terrified before the haunting properly begins, Swift is also perfect as Black, delivering his usual take of urbane reason.
If there’s still time, I urge you to read A Warning to the Curious by M.R. James this Christmas Eve…
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