The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral by M.R. James is possibly my favourite ghost story. It was televised by the BBC in 1971 and starred Robert Hardy and the James regular Clive Swift. Unlike other BBC adaptations for television and radio over the decades, this version changed very little from the original, which takes an ostensibly dull premise – a man looking through a collection of documents to piece together the death of an archdeacon – and turns it into something rather chilling.
The best James stories share an array of interchangeable themes. One is theft and subsequent haunting. In both A Warning to the Curious and The Treasure of Abbott Thomas, greed or curiosity compels somebody to take something of either monetery or intellectual value. Fear of supernatural punishment leads them to attempt to return it. With usually disastrous results, especially in the BBC adaptations. The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral follows a similar thread, with a guilty victim increasingly troubled; although in this case he has orchestrated the death of another to further his own career. The supernatural has a hand in his own inevitable end.
My fertile imagination has left both the original James text and the BBC adaptation (truncated to The Stalls of Barchester) also interchangeable. They are complementary in providing the correct dose of ghostly satisfaction; the dark staircase, the black cat, the whispering voice:
The whispering in my house was more persistent tonight. I seemed not to be rid of it in my room. I have not noticed this before. A nervous man, which I am not, and hope I am not becoming, would have been much annoyed, if not alarmed, by it. The cat was on the stairs tonight. I think it sits there always. There is no kitchen cat.
The ghost stories of M.R.James are like a generous glass of mulled wine. Warming, but with an additional ingredient of spice to jolt you slightly. It’s important to remember that many of these stories were read aloud to students, and the subject matter of often over zealous antiquarians could be read as a warning not to take one’s studies too seriously. At least not at Christmas.
The Stalls of Barchester was first shown on Christmas Eve 1971. And so on the same day in 2008 I wish you all a very Merry Christmas…
Every Christmas I revert to habit and immerse myself in M.R. James. A recent bout of insomnia found me watching this television version of the short story Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad during the quiet and cold early hours. Filmed in 1968 for the BBC, it was directed by Jonathan Miller and stars Michael Hordern. A masterpiece of atmosphere, this is one of the best James adaptations ever; Hordern is excellent and the tale is genuinely creepy and unsettling.
Hordern plays Parkin, an eccentric academic, the kind of role he was born to play. Muttering to himself and breaking into half chanted songs, he is a distant and introverted figure who rolls up to stay at a guest house in Norfolk for a short holiday. He tends to shun the company of the other guests, walking alone on the beach during the day and sitting on his own at dinner. Whilst other guests are content to holiday around the golf course, Parkin prefers solitary walks along deserted beaches with only his muttering for company. During one of his outings he discovers a forgotten graveyard and investigates an ancient grave, half tumbling into ruin and down into the beach below. There he finds a small whistle…
Whistle and I’ll Come to You is the greatest of all M.R. James television adaptations, coming a few years before the BBC got into their stride with the A Ghost Story For Christmas series. It follows the best of all James’ themes, that of the warning to the curious. Parkin doesn’t believe in the supernatural, and as he dismisses anything ghostly over a breakfast conversation you can imagine James rubbing his hands together with glee. Once he inevitibly blows the whistle he is disturbed by vivid dreams, kept awake by images of dark figures following him across the beach. He hears rustling sounds, and the maids comment that both of the beds in his room have been slept in. He eventually has a chilling encounter that will leave him a different person entirely; if not a firm believer on the supernatural then positively disturbed for evermore.
Miller’s film is quite rightly hailed as a classic of British tv. Starting particularly soberly, a pair of maids arranging the stiff sheets of a bed, it develops into one of the most chilling films you’ll ever see. And the bedsheets .. such a prelude for what is to come. Hordern is in possibly his greatest role and, apart from some good support from Ambrose Coghill as a fellow guest, he carries the whole film himself. The photography is in black and white, beautifully shot. There’s no music and less than the usual amount of dialogue. It’s just brilliantly atmospheric, from Hordern’s trudging sound across the shingle to the groans of the ghostly disturbed. Fantastic viewing, especially in the twilight hours.
This short story by M.R.James was immortalised in 1974 by the BBC’s Ghost Story for Christmas adaptation directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark. This year the BBC are proudly showing a selection of their James adaptations, although this one is repeated with alarming regularity. But I’m grateful – The Treasure of Abbot Thomas is one of the most satisfying ghost stories I’ve ever seen.
Or read. After watching it again the other evening I was tempted to reread the original short story so I could sit down and conduct a compare and contrast exercise. Interestingly, the two are quite different, and John Bowen – who wrote the television screenplay – has reworked the story quite dramatically. Where the original ends quite comfortably, perhaps something welcome for a 1904 Christmas, the film has a particularly chilling ending to it. More suited for the 1970s, still apt for today’s audience. Very apt for my tastes – I must confess that I prefer the film more.
The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (1974). Are you sure you really want to go ahead with this?
The story follows Mr Somerton, an antiquary who attempts to unpick a code that is scattered in various places by the late Abbot Thomas. Somerton unravels the mystery that leads him to the Abbot’s gold, with supernatural consequences that lead him to return it to its hiding place as soon as he possibly can. It’s a classic James warning to the curious, but with mostly harmless results.
Bowen and Clark’s film casts the excellent Michael Bryant as Somerton. One of their embellishments to the tale is to show him as a firm disbeliever of anything supernatural. All the more to prove him wrong as the story unfolds. Somerton is seen exposing a charlatan at a fake séance. He pursues Thomas’ scattered clues purely as a keen researcher (it’s an interesting puzzle to him, something of a Victorian sudoku), and seems oblivous to the sinister monks who creep around the church where he carries out his studies. But although possibly an intellectual giant, Somerton is weak of the flesh. Climbing to the church roof to pursue his leads he is overcome by vertigo and almost topples to his death. Discovering that the treasure is entombed in an underground crypt, he can only just control his trembling frame as he wades through the flooded tunnels to claim his prize.
And – and this is the heart of all James’ stories – this is where it will always go catastrophically wrong. After he has retrieved the treasure of Abbot Thomas, Somerton is reduced to a jabbering wreck, ranting about the thing of darkness that tries to break into his rooms. A spell has been cast. No choice but to put it back…
Where I think this film succeeds is in its dark ending, one that has continued to haunt me over the years – with or without repeated viewings. As the now recovering Somerton, convalescing in a country garden, is left in his bath chair to greet his doctor as he strolls towards him we notice from Bryant’s horrified face that something is very, very wrong. The figure that approaches is hooded and swift. It’s approaching to claim its victim. The curious has been warned, but there’s still no getting away with their audacity. Somerton is unforgiven. There’s one last terrifying shot of the petrified antiquary meeting his cloaked nemesis before the closing credits. We see one final glimpse of him before he is taken.
In my youth, I remember climbing the stairs to bed but leaving the lights on after I’d watched The Treasure of Abbot Thomas. The other night I did the same.
It’s that time of year again when I start enthusing about the BBC’s adaptations of M.R.James stories. This year, BBC4 are showing several of its excellent television films over the Christmas period. Highlights include:
The Stalls of Barchester. From Christmas 1971 and starring Robert Hardy and Clive Swift.
Lost Hearts from Christmas 1973. I have vague memories of being allowed to stay up and watch this as a small child. It forged my association with Christmas and ghost stories, and is very, very sinister if you haven’t seen it.
Whistle and I’ll Come to You. Made in 1968 and starring Michael Hordern. Directed by Jonathan Miller, who really should have done more of this sort of thing.
A View From A Hill. From Christmas 2005, when the BBC revived their tradition of M.R.James adaptations.
Number 13. From Christmas 2006.
Full details on the BBC4 site. It’s disappointing that there doesn’t appear to be a brand new production for 2007, but I’ll be quickly leafing through the Christmas Radio Times when it comes out just to check…
In the meantime, here’s the ending of the truly chilling A Warning to the Curious from Christmas 1972:
‘It is Number 13, you see,’ said the latter.
‘Yes; there is your door, and there is mine,’ said Jensen.
‘My room has three windows in the daytime,’ said Anderson with difficulty, suppressing a nervous laugh.
‘By George, so has mine!’ said the lawyer, turning and looking at Anderson. His back was now to the door. In that moment the door opened, and an arm came out and clawed at his shoulder. It was clad in ragged, yellowish linen, and the bare skin, where it could be seen, had long grey hair upon it.
Anderson was just in time to pull Jensen out of its reach with a cry of disgust and fright, when the door shut again, and a low laugh was heard.
M.R.James, Number 13.
During the 1970s, the BBC treated viewers to an annual M.R.James adaptation in its Ghost Stories for Christmas series. Thanks to the Internet Movie Database I’ve found it surprisingly easy to catalogue the entire series as well as other James adaptations, although I must confess a lot of the following is culled from memory:
Night of the Demon (1957)
Based on Casting the Runes, this is a cracking British film directed by Jacques Tourneur.
Mystery and Imagination (1966)
Four stories were filmed for this long forgotten TV series: Casting the Runes, Number 13 (as Room 13), Lost Hearts and The Tractate Middoth.
Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968)
Filmed for the BBC’s Omnibus, Michael Hordern stars and Jonathan Miller directs. An eccentric old professor finds an ancient whistle on an isolated beach and gets more than he bargained for. Rarely repeated, probably due to the fact that it was shot in black and white, this is a very creepy and odd little film.
The Ghost Stories for Christmas series:
The Stalls of Barchester (1971)
A Warning to the Curious (1972)
Lost Hearts (1973)
The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (1974)
The Ash Tree (1975)
The Stalls of Barchester and A Warning to the Curious are most familiar to me, possibly because they were the most often repeated, and watching all of the films when they were shown again last year I found A Warning to the Curious by far the best. Watch out for the satisfyingly scary ending.
Although made more than thirty years ago, the films have stood the test of time. The BBC appear to have splashed out a little on the budgets, with a lot of location shooting. The series is also interesting for featuring a host of recognisable British actors, including Peter Vaughan, Robert Hardy, Michael Bryant and Clive Swift.
The series moved away from James with Charles Dickens’ The Signalman in 1976 and a new story the following year, Stigma. Lawrence Gordon Clark, who had directed all of these films, offered his final James story in 1979 with a contemporary version of Casting the Runes.
La Chiesa (1989)
This obscure Italian film by Michele Soavi is an adaptation of The Treasure of Abbott Thomas.
Christopher Lee’s Ghost Stories for Christmas (2000)
Christopher Lee took an undeserved credit here as he was actually playing M.R. James, recreating the Christmas Eves where he would read his stories aloud to his students at Cambridge. The Stalls of Barchester, The Ash Tree, Number 13 and A Warning to the Curious were featured.
BBC Four to the rescue
Last Christmas, the BBC revived their James adaptations with a classy film of A View From a Hill. This year they screened a new version of Number 13 starring Greg Wise.
In Number 13, the guest in hotel room fourteen notices that he is adjacent to room twelve. What’s particularly disturbing for him is that room thirteen mysteriously appears between the two rooms only at night-time, squeezing the roomspace so that only two windows face the bed instead of three. Other ghostly goings on begin to occur surrounding the rather unusual inhabitant of the new room which are played out only in muffled noise and shadow.
I’m still digesting the new adaptation of Number 13 after just watching it, but I found Wise excellent in the title role, and although some liberties have been taken with the text, this is still pleasingly good and very much in the spirit of James. And the BBC do justice to that terrifying arm…