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Tag Archives: Supernatural TV

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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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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