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A Warning to the Curious

Thursday December 24, 2009 in m.r. james | ghost stories

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…

Peter Vaughan and Clive Swift in A Warning to the CuriousA 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…

I’m sad that the BBC has stopped picking little-known stories to adapt for TV. The Christmas Turn of the Screw showed why doing familiar stories doesn’t work: lots of people have seen Jack Clayton’s hard-to-better 1961 film The Innocents so they know how it goes; apart from that, this adaptation was strangely lacking in atmosphere or empathy, and seemed to remove all the ambiguity about whether the Governess was having delusions – no-one else ever saw the apparitions.

As a child, I can remember being terrified by the ITV adaptation of M R James’ The Tractate Middoth (Mystery and Imagination) – a version that, sadly, no longer exists. If only TV producers had time to hunt out and select more stories like that…

John H    Wednesday January 20, 2010   

Yes the Christmas Turn of the Screw was disappointing, and pointless really considering that ITV produced an equally weak version only a few years ago (the one with Colin Firth in the role that Michael Redgrave played in The Innocents).

And it’s a shame that tv producers no longer stick their neck out and make original choices.

The Book Tower    Wednesday January 20, 2010   

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