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Tag Archives: BBC Television

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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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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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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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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