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A Ghost Story for Christmas: The Ash Tree (1975)

Broadcast as a “Ghost Story for Christmas” in 1975, The Ash Tree was the BBC’s last adaptation of the work of M.R. James for three decades, and also their most adventurous—indeed, it bears the stamp of the scriptwriter almost as prominently as its original author. The scriptwriter in question was David Rudkin, a widely acclaimed dramatist in his own right, and one of the BBC’s most distinctive talents in the 1970s, best known for his visionary Play for Today, Penda’s Fen. Broadcast the preceding year, it is a profoundly strange, fiercely intelligent and palpably pagan work—qualities which Rudkin also brings to The Ash Tree. The result is the most challenging adaptation of James’ work, and one which divides audiences; Rudkin certainly offers no quarter to the viewer, but for those beguiled by his unique aesthetic, it ranks as one of the strongest entries in the Ghost Story for Christmas strand.

The Ash Tree is widely regarded as one of M.R. James’ finest works, in terms of both literary technique and the atmosphere of horror the story invokes. It is thus merciful that Rudkin’s script does not take too many liberties with The Ash Tree’s basic plot; rather, like Jonathan Miller’s 1968 adaptation of Whistle & I’ll Come to You, it draws out certain psychological and sociological themes which were absent in the original text. Thus, in the 18th Century, Sir Richard Castringham inherits a country seat which he sets out to improve; he soon finds himself plagued by an ash tree outside his bedroom window, and inexorably succumbs to the curse placed on the family by Mrs. Mothersole, whom his ancestor, Sir Matthew, had condemned to death for witchcraft a few generations earlier. Although this tale represented a mere “pleasing terror” for James, in Rudkin’s hands it attempts to stand as a damning indictment of patriarchal oppression in the early modern period.

Rudkin’s principal innovation is to transmute the image of Mrs. Mothersole from the stereotypical crone implied by James into an independent young woman who catches the eye of the repressed Sir Matthew Castringham, thereby casting her subsequent persecution as a manifestation of the authorities’ fear of liberated female sexuality. In this respect, the adaptation strongly resembles Michael Reeves’ classic film, Witchfinder General, released several years earlier in 1968. However, whilst that film is an exclusively human tragedy, in which the women tormented by Matthew Hopkins are innocent victims, The Ash Tree confuses the matter by imputing genuinely magical powers to Mrs. Mothersole. Although her activities are initially confined to innocent herbalism and shape-shfting, she resorts to maleficium in extremis and the resulting manifestations at the climax represent something truly corrupt. As such the conclusion almost feels like an anti-Enlightenment manifesto.

Equally distinctive is the script’s elision of the two time periods—Sir Richard in “the present”; Sir Matthew in “flashback”—which emphasises the immanence of history, whilst invoking an oneiric and sometimes elliptical atmosphere. The two Castringhams are so closely identified with each other that viewers unfamiliar with the original story may find the narrative’s protean chronology somewhat confusing, especially as Edward Petherbridge plays both roles. As such, Petherbridge acts as the lynch-pin of the drama, and like Peter Vaughan and Michael Bryant before him, he portrays James’ haunted protagonist with appropriate intensity, ably delineating the dual protagonists’ ambiguities. Indeed, his enactment of Sir Matthew’s psychological struggle between faith, rationalism and lust transforms the squire from a moral coward into something resembling sympathetic character.

The British landscape is also a significant player in the drama. Although the original story was set in Suffolk (like many of James’ tales), Clark relocates it to Cornwall, where the wild moors and desolate outcrops provide an elemental backdrop to the action—exquisitely photographed by Lawrence Gordon Clark. The brutality of 17th Century society reflects the brutality of the environment, whilst emphasising the atavistic “pagan” current with which many writers have associated historical witchcraft and to which Rudkin was no stranger. Such ideas, have long been discredited amongst scholars; however, the “witch cult” hypothesis continues to inspire the creative imagination—especially attempts to evoke the “folk horror” aesthetic which pervades this production. With interest in that sub-genre burgeoning, Rudkin’s adaptation surely stands as ones of its foundational texts in the televisual medium and displays many of the idiom’s strengths, alongside its attendant confusions.

Produced by BBC Television : originally transmitted on 23rd December 1975

 

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K9 & Company: A Girl’s Best Friend

To this day, fans of Doctor Who regard K9 and Company as an infamous relation whose name is not to be mentioned in polite company. This is hardly surprising: although the viewing figures were respectable, the pilot episode was a critical flop and a full series was never commissioned—a small mercy for which many were thankful. The horrific theme-tune alone—just one of the many crimes Ian Levine has perpetrated against Who fandom—is enough to trigger post-traumatic stress disorder in some viewers. However, with the exception of the title sequence, K9 and Company isn’t actively bad; merely uninspiring. Whilst such banality cannot be excused, it’s now interesting to view the episode in the context of “folk-horror”—a sub-genre which has received much critical attention recently.

One of the reasons K9 and Company fails to gel is the bizarre decision to remove the eponymous mechanical hound from an overtly sci-fi landscape: with the exception of K9 himself, there is no other fantastical element to the programme—which has the effect of undermining the credibility of the primary folk-horror narrative, and leaving K9 an incongruous inclusion in his own series. As a vehicle for Sarah Jane Smith, the episode is fine; as a showcase for K9, it is disastrous. The problem is compounded by the introduction of Brendan—one of those smug child-geniuses of whom John Nathan-Turner was so fond—who further detracts attention from the star whilst being utterly infuriating in his own right. The character’s only virtue is to offer a welcome inversion of gender-roles where getting captured is concerned.

Even as folk-horror, K9 and Company is thin gruel. The plot—such as it is—is a familiar one: an insular village is home to a witchcraft coven who require human sacrifice to ensure the crops do not fail. Even by 1981, this particularly motif had been flogged to death and the episode offers no radical twist on the formula. The pagan pageantry is effectively handled, but the coven never feels to be much of a threat. Although the ever-reliable Colin Jeavons imbues his character with both the required cowardice and menace, there is little suspense regarding the identity of the coven leaders and the actors they chose to play the part lack the gravitas provided by the likes of Bernard Hepton (Robin Redbreast) or Christopher Lee (The Wicker Man).

The philosophy of witchcraft as portrayed in the episode is as inconsistent as the rest of it: it’s implied that the coven has a long tradition in the village; yet they worship Hecate—who as an ancient Greek goddess is unlikely to have been worshipped by a genuine folk-tradition in the Cotswolds. Perhaps this reflects the syncretic influence of writers such as Robert Graves, Margaret Murray, James Frazer and Gerald Gardner, who attempted to identify many ancient female deities with a single “Great Goddess”. The Wicker Man, for instance, admits that Summerisle’s pagan tradition was largely invented by a Victorian antiquarian. However, there is no such clarification here. Doubtless the origin-myths of Wicca were so insidious at the time that even the writers were confused on such points of authenticity.

If the episode has a saving grace, it is the character of Sarah Jane Smith. In the parent series, she was too often relegated to a subordinate role, whose purpose was to ask questions, scream, fall over, and get captured. Here she is written as the character was originally intended: proactive, resourceful and confident; a reminder of just why Sarah Jane is DW’s most fondly remembered regular. Indeed, one of the reasons there is so little sense of threat in the episode is not merely that we do not particularly care about the fates of Aunt Lavinia or Brendan, but that a common-or-garden witches’ coven seems no match for the character. Needless to say, she is played with verve by Liz Sladen. Even amidst such mediocrity, her performance shines: watched today, it only emphasises the tragedy of her early death in 2011.

Produced by BBC Television : originally transmitted on 28th December 1981

 

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Supernatural Radio Drama Capsule Reviews 1

Afternoon Play: The Ditch (BBC Radio 4 – 1st February 2010)

Tom Saunders, a wildlife sound recordist, goes missing, leaving only a collection of recordings and a notebook. These fall into the hands of his radio producer, who tries to piece together what has happened. His quest leads him back to the disturbing aural landscape of Slaughton Ditch, where an obsession with hidden sounds has terrifying and fatal consequences.” A play teeming with ideas, this press-office synopsis cannot possibly hope to do justice to The Ditch—surely one of the finest examples of supernatural drama ever produced for radio.

Utilising the talents of internationally renowned sound-recordist, Chris Watson, few radio ghost story have taken such advantage of the aural medium. Given the nature of its topic, this is perhaps inevitable; but it is not just the excellent field-recordings on the soundtrack—the whole play could only work on radio. It makes use of “found footage”, weather reports, author-narration and wildlife documentaries to create something that is as much aural-collage or sound-installation as it is drama.

Meanwhile, the subject matter is an almost visionary fusion which includes ideas surrounding electric voice phenomena (EVP); T.C. Lethbridge’s theory of residual haunting (previously dramatised by Nigel Kneale in The Stone Tape); ornithological comment on the behaviour patterns of migratory waders; and landscape phenomenology that recalls the philosophy Alan Garner has often expressed in his work. The result is a unique example of radio drama; a highly recommended auditory experience.

Voices from the Grave: The Parson (BBC Radio 4 – 4th January 2008)

This final episode in the enjoyable Voice from the Grave series is sadly not as strong as some preceding entries, possibly because it has a somewhat predictable trajectory for anybody familiar with ghost-stories or folk-horror. The new vicar of the parish—who is suffering from post-traumatic stress connected with his experiences working as a missionary in some unnamed war-torn country—attempts to prevent “Bottle Kicking”—a local calendar-custom reminiscent of traditions such as Cornish hurling, the Jedburgh Hand Ba’ or the Haxey Hood.

Needless to say, the villagers are not too thrilled by an outsider interfering in their cherished sport; especially as the function of the ritual turns out to be something more than cultural preservation and community bonding. The “land needs blood” motif is scarcely unfamiliar, but it has interesting points to make about the propriety of the ritualised tribal conflict which many sporting customs represent. Similarly, moral questions are raised as the eponymous parson appears to be victorious, but at what cost to his own spirit?

However, these philosophical themes are not sufficiently developed, and the play is ultimately forgettable. It is ably produced and well-performed by radio veterans such as Geoffrey Beevers, but the script simply doesn’t offer enough of a new variation on the basic “folk-horror” formula or even enough action. The relatively happy ending is similarly problematic; it’s all wrapped up too neatly and consequently the play fails to haunt us as it should. As such, this episode of Voices from the Grave is worth a listen but it’s unlikely to inspire much devotion.

Voices from the Grave: Middlewitch (BBC Radio 4 – 2nd January 2008)

BBC Radio 4 claimed the dramas written for this series were “more than simply scary – they are studies of humanity, love, rage and despair, of passion, longing and pain”. Personally, I get quite irked by the patronising insistence that weird fiction must study the human condition and I am quite fond of stories whose metaphysical explorations require characters that are barely more than ciphers. Still, if mainstream media must balance the outer limits of supernatural fiction with “human interest” then at least one must be done well and preferably both.

However, it is a rare occurrence that both human and supernatural aspects work in harmony to the extent evident in Middlewitch—arguably the highlight of BBC Radio 4’s Voices from the Grave series. The story concerns an aged wise woman who sits watching the shore at a remote Welsh coastal town steeped in 19th Century Methodism, alongside a naïve under-age couple hoping to make love for the time and a new minister struggling to understand the hateful legacy of one of his Victorian predecessors.

The play handles the “new vicar trying to understand the curse on his congregation” motif far better than its series-mate The Parson; there is simply far more going on, and whilst it’s hardly an original plot, the characterisation excels. This is augmented by passionate performances which really convey the drama with conviction. This is especially true of the downbeat climax; you can really hear the urgency in the actors’ voices. As a result, Middlewitch is a profoundly haunting play whose implications will linger with you long after listening.

Solstice (BBC Radio 4 – 21st December 1985)

A curious piece, this one: its ambitions are certainly admirable, but it tacks too close to the two qualities with which BBC radio plays are so often damned in the public imagination—worthiness and pretension. It primarily takes the form of a monologue, delivered by “Father Christmas” as he explores the pagan roots of the midwinter festival and the shamanic origins of the character. It’s the sort of territory fruitfully explored by Robert Holdstock in Mythago Wood two years earlier; but whilst Solstice displays some of the same magic, it cannot really match that masterpiece.

The winter shaman’s narrative dominates—apart from a few interjections from a raven and the hag of winter—but too often the tone seems hectoring rather than forbidding (which I assume is what it’s aiming for). A reading of the poem Littleblood from Ted Hughes’ neo-shamanic verse cycle Crow only serves to demonstrate a lightness of touch that is sadly lacking elsewhere in the play. The drama only occasionally connects us with that primal, atavistic dread of the cold and darkness which pagan midwinter festivals were once a beacon against.

Inevitably, it contrasts the conspicuous consumerism and glib platitudes of our own Christmas celebrations with the harsh realities of the winter solstice for man at the end of the last ice-age. Taking full advantage of the aural medium, the sound of adverts jingles and cash registers are blended with crackling frost and howling winds. It’s an atmospheric stew and an important message, but sometime risks sounding like a self-righteous sermon at the expense of dramatic momentum. Solstice is ultimately a failed experiment—a polemic as opposed to a play—but there is beauty in it still.

 
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Posted by on April 18, 2014 in BBC Radio, Folk Horror

 

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Hammer House of Horror: The House That Bled to Death (1980)

Possibly the most famous episode of Hammer House of Horror, The House That Bled to Death is as lurid as its title suggests. Ironically the appellation cannot help recalling The House That Dripped Blood; a portmanteau film produced by Hammer’s great rival—Amicus—which is rather less literal than this televisual outing. The plot is a familiar one: an average nuclear family moves into the modern suburban house in which a brutal murder was once committed. It is not long before they start to experience all manner of supernatural phenomena: the walls run with blood; a severed hand turns up in the fridge; and most significantly two hunting-knives keep reappearing in mysterious circumstances.

As ever, the influences on this episode of Hammer House of Horror are not difficult to discern: the most conspicuous is certainly The Amityville Horror; the film of which had been released the previous year—based on a bestselling book published in 1977. Closer to home, the episode was surely also influenced by the narrative of the Enfield Poltergeist: although Guy Lyon Playfair’s book on the subject could only have been released a short time before the episode was written, the case gripped the British tabloid media from August 1977 until the paranormal activity abated in 1979. Although much of the imagery is drawn from the many domestic horror movies produced through the 1970s in the US, it is the controversy surrounding the books themselves that seems to have been episode’s principle inspiration.

Sadly many of the shock techniques deployed by The House That Bled to Death have lost their impact today and the episode certainly pales compared to that high watermark of British “suburban haunted-house” stories, Ghostwatch—it tries too hard to be graphic at the expense of building dread. The climactic set-piece in which a children’s party is showered in blood by a ruptured pipe ought to be sickening; however, the use of such vividly scarlet “Kensington gore” diminishes the credibility of the scene. The only truly disturbing moment is the sight of the family’s cat impaled on a broken window; a particularly nasty moment which makes you wonder if the script-writer was familiar with Nigel Kneale’s classic haunted-house story, Minuke—in which the family’s pet dog suffers a similar fate.

The double-twist conclusion leads us into Tales of the Unexpected territory and redeems much of what has gone before by demonstrating that its tackiness was deliberate. Yet like so many twist endings, it also leaves you feeling cheated—with the impression that the time you invested in the previous forty-five minutes was wasted on an extended set-up that proved to be misdirection. Moreover the rationalisation offered by the conclusions transmutes the episode from supernatural horror to psychological thriller in an instant. Whilst it makes us pause to ponder the effect cases like Amityville or Enfield had on the young children at the centre of those media maelstroms, it is ultimately a hollow revelation and rather less satisfying that its author doubtless intended.

Produced by Hammer Films in association with ITC Entertainment : originally transmitted on 11th October 1980.

 

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The Watch House (1988)

Based on a 1977 novel by prolific children’s author Robert Westall, The Watch House was adapted for television in 1988 by BBC North-East. The three-part series is set in “Garmouth”: a thinly-veiled pseudonym for Tynemouth, where the series was actually filmed. Children’s television drama had a penchant for going further afield than London and the Home Counties in this period—think Moondial, The Snow Spider, Century Falls, Earthfasts, Elidor and more—a trend which often yielded a potent atmosphere missing from series with more narrow horizons. The Watch House is especially successful in its evocation of the genius loci, thanks to its loving use of the ruins of Tynemouth Priory and the eponymous Watch House of the First Volunteer Life Brigade.

Like Moondial, The Watch House was originally written with a real location in mind and mercifully the BBC budget stretched to filming there. But that is not the only similarity: both dramas open with an adolescent girl being fobbed off into the care of some distant relative she has never really met and supernatural events throughout act as a counterpoint to personal trauma. Sadly, this strategy isn’t as deftly accomplished as it was in Moondial and Ann—the protagonist—is a more prickly character than Minty ever was. The ebb-and-flow of the narrative is also poorly handled; a number of emotional beats seem to happen off-screen between episodes and so each part starts at a moment of high tension which seems disconnected from the conclusion of the preceding installment. The effect is quite jarring.

The supernatural aspect of the plot concerns a haunting at the titular life-brigade watch-house which Ann must resolve before she can achieve her own emotional closure. Its motifs are far less unique than Moondial but thankfully the terror delivers: I originally watched the story aged five and it traumatised me thoroughly. The double-haunting makes a clever twist and the malevolence of one ghost is particularly well conveyed. If the jump scares seem muted today they certainly weren’t at the time. Even now the way the camera focuses on the dusty skull is particularly eerie, although the image I most vividly remember being disturbed by is the ship’s figurehead carved into a representation of a Hoplite—especially its final destruction.

Watched as an adult, it is undoubtedly the sense of place which is most vividly communicated and the watch-house itself is probably the most powerful presence in the serial; an abandoned, cobwebbed building full of strange and forgotten artifacts—it evokes a potent melancholy which is emphasised by the mournful incidental music. The conclusion ties things up rather neatly so as to provide the closure that will prevent years of nightmares; thus, the serial does not haunt us in the way we might like. However, it was not made for adults, and the fact that a number of images lingered with me over so many years is a mark of its success as children’s supernatural drama. There is always need for such entry-level supernatural drama; and whilst it may not hold up as well as Moondial for an adult audience, there remains much to enjoy for those attuned to the genius loci.

Produced by BBC1 : originally transmitted 7th – 21st December 1988

 
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Posted by on March 6, 2014 in 1980s, BBC Television, Children's TV

 

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Hammer House of Horror: Guardian of the Abyss (1980)

It was a coincidence that I watched Guardian of the Abyss so hot on the heels of Warlock; my viewing schedule just happened to fall that way. Nonetheless it was a serendipitous, even synchronistic juxtaposition and while their use of occultism is fascinating to ponder individually, studying them in tandem is more instructive still. Both episodes use the language and motifs of the Western Mystery Tradition faithfully—neither reduces its practice or study to mere devil-worship—but there the similarity ends. The relative moral complexity of Cosmo Gallion’s circle in Warlock is entirely lacking in the Order of Choronzon: where Gallion was seeking knowledge and enlightenment; in Guardian of the Abyss, Charles Randolph is motivated entirely by pride and a base lust for power.

Indeed, Charles Randolph is essentially an analogue of Mocata, from Hammer’s 1968 cinematic adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s novel—The Devil Rides Out; and the narrative of Guardian of the Abyss is reminiscent of that classic film in several respects.These correspondences are only highlighted by the presence of Rosalyn Landor, whose first screen role had been in The Devil Rides Out when she was only ten years old. Fortunately her participation in Guardian of the Abyss was not a mere sop to cinema history and here she is the perfect choice for her aloof and otherworldly character. John Carson is similarly well cast—but as a veteran of Hammer villainy, that is unsurprising: he brings to Charles Randolph all the diabolical menace he exuded playing Squire Hamilton in Plague of the Zombies.

Guardian of the Abyss was scripted by David Fisher, who was responsible for a similarly occult-themed 1978 episode of Doctor Who—The Stones of Blood. Both these stories suggest he was fully conversant with occult mythology and Guardians of the Abyss is full of references that suggest he was aiming for a certain verisimilitude. Aleister Crowley’s attempts to invoke Choronzon are referenced; as are Doctor Dee’s experiments with Edward Kelly—his shewstone and his receipt of the Enochian language. Inevitably there is a glut of more clichéd imagery, including mesmerism, poppets and blood-sacrifice: this is a Hammer production after all! It’s curious to think that audiences in 1980 were expected to be fully conversant with such material—a legacy of the counter-culture’s diffusion into mainstream media.

Certainly the nods to The Devil Rides Out are intentional; there is even a plot device lifted straight from The Wicker Man and it shares that film’s downbeat ending. Indeed, although Guardian of the Abyss may exemplify the “demonisation” of occult traditions in popular media (no pun intended), you cannot say it isn’t appropriately spooky. The Order of Choronzon are a thoroughly sinister bunch and—despite some dodgy prosthetics—the climax is genuinely chilling. Indeed, it is probably far more unnerving than the conclusion of The Devil Rides Out. At the end of the day, that is exactly what you want from an episode of a horror anthology series—even if it means smearing Thelemites in the process. Besides: isn’t the frisson of transgression exactly what draws many people to the Left Hand Path in the first place?

Produced by Hammer Films in association with ITC Entertainment : originally transmitted on 15th November 1980

 

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The Avengers: Series 2 – Warlock (1963)

To anybody who is familiar only with Emma Peel era Avengers—arguably the high-point of the series—watching an episode from its second season can be disconcerting. Although it still has greater warmth than many spy series from the early-1960s, the whimsical—even surreal—elements which truly distinguished the Peel episodes are missing; the focus is more on espionage than eccentricity. Nonetheless, even at this early stage the series captured an archetypal imagined “Englishness” which—like that evoked by The Prisoner—is hard to beat. The episode “Warlock” is a fine example in this respect, featuring a very English perspective on the dark arts.

The episode revolves around the plot by a Russian agent to steal technological secrets from British scientists by exploiting their connection with an occult group led by the charismatic Cosmo Gallion. Needless to say—mesmerism and poppets are involved. Such plots would become a staple of British telefantasy over the next decade but this was an early outing—broadcast in January 1963—and the occult underground had not yet received the publicity generated by the likes of Alex Sanders and the rise of the psychedelic counter-culture. Indeed, Cosmo Gallion may very well have been based on Sanders, who made his first press splash in September 1962.

Western esotericism was not wholly absent from popular media at the time—the black-magic novels of Dennis Wheatley remained bestsellers after all—but most portrayals of the practice were negative: occultists were characterised as either devil-worshippers or cranks. “Warlock” is quite unusual in taking ritual-magick very seriously and adopting quite an ambivalent—rather than a wholly hostile—attitude towards its morality. Peter Arne plays Dr. Cosmo Gallion as a fiercely intelligent and almost sympathetic character; although he may take Russian money to ensnare a government engineer through mesmerism, he remains contemptuous of the agent’s petty motives and personally aims at higher knowledge.

Equally, the script does not appropriate the motifs of occultism unfaithfully and evidently proceeded from a familiarity with the principles of the Left Hand Path. There are references to the interface between occultism and parapsychological research, whilst Steed and Cathy Gale show a healthy respect for the “psychological” effects of magick. The creed of Thelema—do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law—is correctly deployed and there are nice touches like Gallion’s occult bookshop being in Bloomsbury—home to the revered Atlantis Books since 1922—and a possible reference to the Lower Quinton pitchfork murder.

Interestingly, “Warlock” was originally written to introduce the character of Cathy Gale but the order of the episodes was changed before transmission. As such, much more is made of Gale’s anthropological background than was later the case; indeed she likens the effects of ritual-magick to vodoun and obeah, which she’d witnessed first-hand in Africa. Gale makes a fine character through which to explore the philosophical underpinning of the episode and provides a parallel with Gerald Gardner, who incorporated his anthropological experience of folk-magic into his fledgling Wiccan religion.

The episode culminates with the Ritual of Asmodeus—an evocation which we are told involves considerable risk. It is suggested the rite has not been successfully performed in over a century; a caveat which is possibly meant to recall the disastrous attempt to summon Choronzon performed by Aleister Crowley and Victor Neuberg in the Sahara Desert on 6th December 1909. Asmodeus was regarded as a demon of lust; hence Gallion regards Ms. Gale as the perfect candidate with whom to perform the invocation. Although the episode portrays the climactic ceremony as a relatively chaste affair—The Avengers was a pre-watershed series after all—it is well-choreographed nonetheless.

Nobody is going to trumpet “Warlock” as a top-tier episode of The Avengers or even a lost classic in the occult-horror genre any time soon; indeed Cosmo Gallion and his acolytes are amongst the least-terrifying Thelemites ever portrayed on screen. However, it is precisely this permissive attitude that makes the episode so fascinating to anybody interested in the cultural history of Western Mystery Tradition. Poised chronologically between the success of Dennis Wheatley’s black-magic novels and the publicity-seeking antics of self-professed Wiccans such as David Farrant, “Warlock” is a rare example of an early televisual drama that depicts ritual-magick with a degree of integrity and respect.

Produced by ABC Television : originally transmitted on 27th January 1963

 
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Posted by on February 25, 2014 in 1960s, ABC Television

 

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Whistle & I’ll Come To You (2010)

Like many people, my first reaction upon hearing that BBC were filming a new adaptation of M.R. James’s Oh Whistle & I’ll Come To You My Lad was an incredulous “Why?” Not only does a version already exist, directed by Jonathan Miller in 1968, but it is widely regarded as definitive. When there are so many stories in the Jamesian canon crying out for adaptation (Count Magnus being an obvious example) this seemed like an utterly fatuous exercise. Even more aggravating was the promise of “a horrifying psychological twist in the tale”. The notion that the work of either James or Miller could be improved upon is arrogant in the extreme and the current belief amongst commissioning editors that every supernatural drama must come with a “psychological” angle to engage the audience is just patronising.

In this version, Professor Parkin is no longer an antiquarian, but a physicist. Nor he is a bachelor, but a man exhausted from caring for his dementia-stricken wife. Leaving her in the care of a nursing home, he travels to an out-of-season seaside resort they favoured as young lovers, where rather than discovering a whistle amidst the ruins of a Templar preceptory, he finds a wedding ring amongst the sand dunes. In the context of the adaptation, this makes thematic sense but it also renders the use of James’s title utterly redundant and like so many things in this production, leaves you wondering why the BBC didn’t opt to produce an original drama instead of piggybacking on classic source material.

To an extent, Cross provides an interesting variation on James’s original theme. Indeed, it is almost an inversion of it. In that story, Professor Parkins’ sanity is threatened by the prospect of an immaterial world, which his rigidly materialist world-view simply cannot accommodate. Here, the terror comes not from the possibility of the spiritual realm, but its demonstrable absence. It is clear throughout the script that Parkin is haunted not by ghosts, but the knowledge that whilst her physical shell remains, the spirit of the woman he loved for so many years is lost forever. It is a supernatural drama for our sceptical age, one of which you can imagine Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett approving.

Cross’s adaptation is equally an inversion of Miller’s perspective on the text. In that film, the protagonist is destroyed by his solitude. Here he is broken by his love. However, whilst Miller’s psycho-sexual interpretation was ambiguous enough to still allow for a purely supernatural reading, it is difficult to see how these modern ghosts can be regarded as anything other than manifestations of a trouble psyche. This certainly violates one of James’s own explicit rules of the ghost story: “It is not amiss sometimes to leave a loophole for a natural explanation; but, I would say, let the loophoole be so narrow as not to be quite practicable”. Again, Cross seems to be deliberately inverting James, leaving a loophole for a supernatural explanation and a very narrow loophole at that.

Meanwhile, the production itself is solid enough. John Hurt is as compelling as ever, giving an appropriately harrowed performance as Professor Parkin, but Leslie Sharp is wasted in a minor role. There are a couple of impressive set-pieces such as the revelation that Parkin had spent the night alone in the hotel and the scene in which hands grope under the door. Yet sound is rarely used as effectively as it was in the Miller version, whilst the beach scenes lack his directorial flair. Equally, the omission of the “face of crumpled linen” robs the narrative of one of its most original and iconic images, replaced by a predictable climax. It confirms the whole affair as an unsatisfactory bastardisation of James’s work, which in seeking to distinguish itself forgets the very factors which made the original story so powerful. Whatever interesting ideas it had, they should’ve been explored in another context.

Originally transmitted on 24th December 2010
Produced by BBC2

 
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Posted by on February 16, 2011 in 2000s, BBC Television, M.R. James

 

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The Hunger: The Swords (1997)

Surprisingly, given their almost unfilmable ambiguity, adaptations of the stories of Robert Aickman for television are more common than you might imagine. However, they are not especially easy to acquire. There was a dramatisation of Ringing the Changes in 1968, retitled The Bells of Hell, that has sadly been wiped; and an indifferently scheduled series produced by HTV West in the early Nineties called Night Voices, featuring stabs at The Inner Room, The Hospice, The Trains and Hand In Glove, which is nigh on impossible to track down. More recently, there has been Jeremy Dyson’s short film version of The Cicerones, usually relegated to Channel 4 in the early hours of the morning but generally regarded as the most successful attempt at bringing Aickman’s work to the screen.

However, arguably the most curious effort is this one, a half-hour dramatisation of one of Aickman’s most-remembered stories, if not one of his best. It was broadcast in 1997 as part of an anthology series called The Hunger, a glossy co-production between UK and Canadian companies, which combined horror and “erotica” to produce the sort of television you used to find late at night on obscure channels before the internet provided adolescents with access to real pornography. As such, an adaptation of an Aickman story might not seem an obvious choice, especially as the opening episode. Whilst the original tale is certainly about sex to some extent (insofar as any Aickman story can be definitively said to be about anything) television series such as these are not known for qualities like ambiguity and subtlety, qualities which define Aickman’s best work.

Unsurprisingly, if there is one regard in which this production succeeds, it’s capturing the backstreet seediness of the original story. The updated setting of a fetish club juxtaposed with monologues from Timothy Spall’s perfume salesman perfectly capture the banality of lust, although you suspect that wasn’t quite what the makers intended. Nonetheless, much of the nuance of Aickman’s story has been lost. Whilst Amanda Ryan brings an effective numb innocence to her role as Musidora, the showgirl who can be pierced by swords and remain unharmed, this device seems to have been reinterpreted as a transparent quasi-Freudian metaphor for penetrative sex. This simplistic perspective leads to the story’s original climax being substituted for something far less strange and infinitely less unnerving.

You also have to question the wisdom of casting vacant pretty-boy Balthazar Getty as the protagonist. Not only is he a profoundly limited actor, but by portraying this character as a wild-child who has come to London to escape a life of excess, you lose much of the potential thematic resonance of the story, even in this simplified interpretation. The repressed, sexually-frustrated mummy’s boy of Aickman’s original tale makes far more psychological sense, even in the limited terms the in which producers have chosen to interpret it. But such a casual, unthinking approach is typical of the programme as a whole. You could hardly expect a series of this nature to produce anything less than a bastardisation of Aickman’s uniquely weird vision, but by trying to shoehorn the story into a comprehensible and familiar narrative for a general audience they’ve ironically ensured it also fails on its own terms.

Originally transmitted on 20th July 1997
Produced by the Movie Network

 
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Posted by on February 5, 2011 in 1990s, Robert Aickman

 

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A Ghost Story for Christmas: The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (1974)

Whilst it is relatively popular amongst readers of M.R. James, I have to confess that ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’ has never been favourite of mine. The details of the treasure hunting always struck me as rather dry and repetitive, causing it to seem like a rare case of James allowing his scholarship to overburden the narrative. That it proves one of the most successful of the BBC’s adaptations came as something of a surprise and whilst not quite in the same league as ‘A Warning to the Curious,’ it is a thoroughly absorbing and unnerving production. It is also, after ‘The Ash Tree,’ the most liberally adapted, grafting on an extra protagonist in the form of Lord Peter Dattering to act as a collaborator with the Rev. Somerton (thereby more easily allowing exposition) and a domestic sub-plot concerning the Dattering family.

Thankfully these additions do not detract from the integrity of the story. Indeed they positively enhance it. Quite aside from providing sufficient material to ensure that the pace does not drag (an occasional failure of the Ghost Story for Christmas series), it provides for a wonderful prelude in which Dattering’s mother attempts to contact her late husband through a fraudulent seance, quickly debunked by Somerton. This scene both foreshadows the genuine supernatural phenomena to come and establishes the hubristic rationality of the protagonist. Michael Bryant excels here and continues to impress as the tale progresses, adeptly portraying the conflict of a man torn between academic propriety and naked greed. Following his equally strong turn in ‘The Stone Tape’ we must consider Bryant a veteran in the ranks of the haunted.

Equally satisfying is the fact that the treasure hunting aspect seems to work far better in the visual medium, although this is possibly because it gives Lawrence Gordon Clark ample opportunity to let his camera linger over some exquisite church architecture. This ecclesiastical context allows for the deployment of much archetypally chilling imagery including gargoyles and half-glimpsed cowled figures. The soundtrack also reflects it, occasionally augmenting its percussive emphasis with monastic chorale and disembodied Latin whispers. These techniques may be familiar but their efficacy cannot be denied. Meanwhile, the climactic supernatural manifestation is of a particularly Lovecraftian character and Clark conveys its horror well, assisted by the judicious use of a slug!

However, perhaps the strongest asset of the production is its final shot, the ambiguity and terrible implications of which linger long in the mind. It does full justice to James’s assertion that the spirits in a successful supernatural tale must be implacably malevolent and in its uncomfortable lack of resolution, leaves the viewers themselves haunted. It is its faithfulness to James’s intentions, despite the additions to the plot, which really distinguishes ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas.’ For whilst there are other strong adaptations, their success sometimes derives from their own merits (e.g. Jonathan Miller’s ‘Whistle & I’ll Come To You’) and I feel that only the preceding year’s adaptation of ‘A Warning to the Curious’ is quite as effective at capturing the full atmosphere of James’s work.

Originally transmitted on 23rd December 1974
Produced by BBC 2

 

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