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Casting the Runes (1979)

‘Casting the Runes’ is widely regarded as one of M.R. James’s most memorable tales (it achieved second place in a poll of members of ‘Ghosts & Scholars,’ the M.R. James society) and as such, it’s hardly surprising that it has been brought to screen on two occasions, firstly as Jacques Tourneur’s acclaimed 1957 black and white film, ‘Night of the Demon’ and subsequently in this rather more humble television production dating from 1979. It is often erroneously recalled as part of the BBC’s ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’ strand as it shares the same director, the redoubtable Lawrence Gordon Clark. However, it was actually transmitted by ITV much later in the decade and despite the presence of Clark behind the camera, it’s somewhat less effective than any of his earlier James adaptations.

It is particularly hampered by that scourge of so much 1970s television drama on a tight budget (and inspiration for a fine Monty Python sketch), the uneven contrast between the use of film for location work and video in the studio. The Ghost Stories for Christmas, on the other hand, were shot entirely on film. So whilst Clark’s photography is typically rich and atmospheric for the wintry exterior scenes here, it’s frequently compromised by the flat, over-lit interiors. The production also suffers from being given a contemporary setting. Divorced from the context of Edwardian academia, the ambience of which so suffuses James’s work, much of the dread and isolation seems to evaporate, whilst Clark’s camera is given far less detail to linger over.

The updated narrative is something this adaptation has in common with ‘Night of the Demon’ and it’s impossible not to compare the two. Certainly the film is more successful, exuding a potent sense of paranoia and tension largely absent here. Fortunately the television production is not entirely lacking in terror. The opening scene is particularly effective, expertly directed by Clark who unlike Tourneur does not reveal too much of the threat. Equally, the scene in which Dutton discovers Karswell’s warning mysteriously manifested in the frames of her film is an eerie moment, with Jan Francis making a far more sympathetic protagonist than Dana Andrews. Meanwhile, Iain Cuthbertson does a fine job of matching Niall MacGinnis’s memorable performance as Karswell, despite the bizarre American accent.

More problematically, the production seems to compare itself to ‘Night of the Demon,’ apparently purposefully avoiding an attempt to compete with one of the film’s defining moments, the suspenseful climax in the train carriage when the runes are finally passed back to Karswell. Indeed, the conclusion here is so perfunctorily handled that the entire story feels decapitated and denied an effective pay-off, its earlier shortcomings remain in focus. ‘Casting the Runes’ ultimately comes across as a flawed effort, not without its moments, but lacking the atmosphere of Clark’s earlier productions for the BBC. Whilst we can be thankful for Tourneur’s film, it still seems a shame that a director so sympathetic to James’s vision as Clark was unable to do full justice to one of the writer’s most characteristic works.

Originally transmitted on 24th April 1979
Produced by Yorkshire Television

 

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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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Mr. Humphreys & His Inheritance (1976)

I have to confess that I’ve never regarded ‘Mr. Humphreys & His Inheritance’ as amongst the most substantial works in the M.R. James canon. It certainly comes as no surprise to discover that it was only written to fill up his second volume, the imaginatively titled ‘More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary’ (1911). Essentially, this is a Jamesian ghost story by numbers, despite the pleasing motif of the maze (the inheritance of the title). Indeed, the fundamental problem with the story is that the maze qua maze is largely incidental to the narrative. Despite James’s credentials as an antiquarian, little is made of the symbolism and mythology of the labyrinth and we are left with scarcely more than standard James plot built around some rather arbitrary motifs.

Thus it is a surprise that anybody thought the story worth adapting. Or rather it would be were it not rather a peculiar dramatisation, designed not as a work in its own right but as a means to demonstrate the use of incidental music for dramatic effect in television, complete with an introduction from the composer himself. This is rather ironic when you consider that one of the defining aspects of the Ghost Story for Christmas adaptations, for example, is the very sparseness of their scores. Silence, and sudden eruptions out of it, are far more effective tools in the evocation of the supernatural. There are certainly numerous points here where these techniques would have been far more successful in creating ‘dramatic effect’ than all those oboes and clarinets constantly burbling away in counterpoint.

As the adaptation was produced only to serve this educational purpose, it is a mere twenty minutes long and I doubt the story could’ve sustained much longer. The direction is surprisingly effective considering the presumable production limitations. There are a number of atmospheric shots of the maze itself and some serviceable animation at the rather abrupt climax. However, there is little of the tension so essential to such an adaptation and doubtless this would have been greatly limited by its status as a schools programme. The two lead performances, from actors unlikely to prompt recognition even in 1976, are functional but not especially distinguished. Nobody here achieves the same haunted dread so potently conveyed by Denholm Elliot in ‘The Signalman’ or Peter Vaughan in ‘A Warning to the Curious.’

Ultimately, it’s difficult to know in what regard to hold this adaptation. On one hand, it’s pleasing that such an obscure work has been afforded a measure of immortality on screen. Yet conversely, it is impossible to deny that it’s far from the most chilling of James’s stories in the first place and that the constraints of the production could not help but contribute to creating a predominantly bloodless affair. Notorious obscuritan that I am, I’m inevitably predisposed towards the former perspective but there is still a substantial difference between being glad that I have something on my shelf and feeling the desire to view it again. Undoubtedly its brevity helps in that respect but it is never going to transcend its status of minor curiosity as opposed to buried treasure.

Originally transmitted on 21st June 1976
Produced by Yorkshire Television for ITV Schools

 

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The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: The Horse of the Invisible (1971)

Produced by Thames in the early Seventies, each individual episode of ‘The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes’ showcased one of the less celebrated fictional detectives of the late Victorian and Edwardian era and whilst the series was primarily composed of mysteries of a corporeal nature, it was perhaps inevitable that it should include one of the more interesting examples of that milieu, William Hope Hodgson’s psychic investigator, Thomas Carnacki. The title of the series suggests that the emphasis was on the sleuths themselves and indeed, a number of celebrated names filled the central roles, including Robert Stephens, Derek Jacobi and Charles Gray. Here, in something of a premonition of his association with John Carpenter, we are treated to Donald Pleasance’s take on Carnacki, the ‘Ghost Finder.’

It’s difficult to assess his portrayal in terms of how faithful it is to the original source as Hodgson writes the character as a cipher, little more than a vehicle for the stories he seeks to tell. However, taken on its own terms it’s certainly an interesting performance, emphasising an almost diffident introspection which often appears otherworldly. He also exhibits a certain melancholy which furnishes the drama with its emotional heart. If there is a complaint to be made, it’s that his presence is perhaps insufficient to succeed as a leading man. Yet I suspect that is more of a problem if, through experience of the original stories, you are predisposed to regard Carnacki as a serial protagonist as opposed to the isolated context of this adaptation.

Ultimately though you have to ask whether ‘The Horse of the Invisible’ was really the best Carnacki story to adapt. From a certain perspective, it is possible to see the logic. It certainly shows off Hodgson’s pseudo-scientific embellishments to full effect, with psychic photography, poltergeist phenomena and even Carnacki’s infamous electrical pentacle, whilst the denouement presents an interesting twist. Unfortunately, however, when translated to the visual medium there is something unavoidably Pythonesque about a phantom horse. The director achieves a couple of effective shots with very limited resources but he is fighting a losing battle. The ideas of the story do not simply fail to translate to screen, the very operation of translation actively undermines them.

Thus ‘The Horse of the Invisible’ is conspicuously lacking in the atmosphere of dread essential to good supernatural television. It might be argued that we cannot expect an adaptation from 1971 to truly achieve this anyway but some of the best Ghost Stories for Christmas date from the same period. The programme’s principle excuse is that in the context of the series the focus was on the detection methods of Carnacki rather than the paranormal phenomena per se and it this respect it does perhaps succeed. However, it is impossible not to feel that a more potent drama could’ve been manufactured had they but chosen the story more carefully and as a consequence, this stands merely as an interesting curio rather than a substantial addition to the canon.

Originally transmitted on 18th October 1971
Produced by Thames Television

 

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