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