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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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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: 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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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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