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Category Archives: A Ghost Story for Christmas

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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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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A Ghost Story for Christmas: Number 13 (2006)

For the second adaptation in BBC4’s revival of the Ghost Story for Christmas tradition I was hoping they might branch out beyond the works of M.R. James, but it was not to be and instead we have to be satisfied with a solid attempt at ‘Number 13’. Even in terms of the Jamesian canon it’s a less radical choice than the previous year’s ‘A View from a Hill’ but it is a fine tale nonetheless. The realisation suffers from some of the same weaknesses as its aforementioned predecessor but in other respects it is a more assured effort. In terms of direction, Piers Wilkie is still no Lawrence Gordon Clark but the atmosphere here is more powerfully sustained, in contrast to the sometimes disjointed feel of ‘A View from a Hill.’ It also seems as if he is working with improved resources, with the distinguished cast a particular strength.

The ever reliable Greg Wise plays Anderson, the protagonist haunted by the nocturnal Room 13 and whilst in the original story he comes across as a rather amiable character, here he is presented as the archetypal aloof and repressed scholar. Academic arrogance was always a favourite Jamesian theme but whereas he seemed content to regard it as mere oblivious curiosity, in common with most modern adaptations Wise portrays it as a manifest character flaw for which he is duly punished. Meanwhile, ever since Jonathan Miller’s seminal adaptation of ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad’ there has been a tendency to project a psycho-sexual reading on James’s work and here it is evident in the contrast between Anderson and his fellow patron of the inn, the lawyer Jenkins (Tom Burke), the id to Anderson’s super-ego.

For the most part, Wilkie succeeds in generating the requisite sense of dread. Incidental music is again kept to a minimum, allowing whispers and electronic squalls to puncture the uneasy silence whilst visually, shadows are utilised to fine effect (and rather more bizarrely, Hieronymous Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’). With regard to the narrative in particular, the alteration in the dimensions of Anderson’s room caused by the manifestation of the neighbouring Room 13 is efficiently conveyed, but as with ‘A View from a Hill’ one of the defining moments of the story is fluffed and as this occurs during the final act, it is a less forgiveable blunder. Although this may have been the result of budgetary constraints, it leaves the production feeling somewhat anti-climactic.

This error is somewhat redeemed by the final revelation, which suggests that Anderson may have had a lucky escape and which lingers in the mind for some time afterwards. This grisly discovery beneath the floorboards of Room 12 is unique to the adaptation and some may object that it is unfaithful to James’s more subtle and ambiguous conclusion. However, ‘Number 13’ is rare amongst his stories in that the protagonist emerges with his life and sanity intact and following the director’s mishandling of the climax, this deviation serves to emphasise the peril. Thus the viewer leaves the production feeling better disposed towards it and content to admit that whilst it has its flaws, it is largely a very respectable addition to the Ghost Story for Christmas canon, boding well for the future.

Originally transmitted on 22nd December 2006
Produced by BBC 4

 

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