Tag Archives: Witchcraft

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


Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Supernatural Radio Drama Capsule Reviews 1

Afternoon Play: The Ditch (BBC Radio 4 – 1st February 2010)

Tom Saunders, a wildlife sound recordist, goes missing, leaving only a collection of recordings and a notebook. These fall into the hands of his radio producer, who tries to piece together what has happened. His quest leads him back to the disturbing aural landscape of Slaughton Ditch, where an obsession with hidden sounds has terrifying and fatal consequences.” A play teeming with ideas, this press-office synopsis cannot possibly hope to do justice to The Ditch—surely one of the finest examples of supernatural drama ever produced for radio.

Utilising the talents of internationally renowned sound-recordist, Chris Watson, few radio ghost story have taken such advantage of the aural medium. Given the nature of its topic, this is perhaps inevitable; but it is not just the excellent field-recordings on the soundtrack—the whole play could only work on radio. It makes use of “found footage”, weather reports, author-narration and wildlife documentaries to create something that is as much aural-collage or sound-installation as it is drama.

Meanwhile, the subject matter is an almost visionary fusion which includes ideas surrounding electric voice phenomena (EVP); T.C. Lethbridge’s theory of residual haunting (previously dramatised by Nigel Kneale in The Stone Tape); ornithological comment on the behaviour patterns of migratory waders; and landscape phenomenology that recalls the philosophy Alan Garner has often expressed in his work. The result is a unique example of radio drama; a highly recommended auditory experience.

Voices from the Grave: The Parson (BBC Radio 4 – 4th January 2008)

This final episode in the enjoyable Voice from the Grave series is sadly not as strong as some preceding entries, possibly because it has a somewhat predictable trajectory for anybody familiar with ghost-stories or folk-horror. The new vicar of the parish—who is suffering from post-traumatic stress connected with his experiences working as a missionary in some unnamed war-torn country—attempts to prevent “Bottle Kicking”—a local calendar-custom reminiscent of traditions such as Cornish hurling, the Jedburgh Hand Ba’ or the Haxey Hood.

Needless to say, the villagers are not too thrilled by an outsider interfering in their cherished sport; especially as the function of the ritual turns out to be something more than cultural preservation and community bonding. The “land needs blood” motif is scarcely unfamiliar, but it has interesting points to make about the propriety of the ritualised tribal conflict which many sporting customs represent. Similarly, moral questions are raised as the eponymous parson appears to be victorious, but at what cost to his own spirit?

However, these philosophical themes are not sufficiently developed, and the play is ultimately forgettable. It is ably produced and well-performed by radio veterans such as Geoffrey Beevers, but the script simply doesn’t offer enough of a new variation on the basic “folk-horror” formula or even enough action. The relatively happy ending is similarly problematic; it’s all wrapped up too neatly and consequently the play fails to haunt us as it should. As such, this episode of Voices from the Grave is worth a listen but it’s unlikely to inspire much devotion.

Voices from the Grave: Middlewitch (BBC Radio 4 – 2nd January 2008)

BBC Radio 4 claimed the dramas written for this series were “more than simply scary – they are studies of humanity, love, rage and despair, of passion, longing and pain”. Personally, I get quite irked by the patronising insistence that weird fiction must study the human condition and I am quite fond of stories whose metaphysical explorations require characters that are barely more than ciphers. Still, if mainstream media must balance the outer limits of supernatural fiction with “human interest” then at least one must be done well and preferably both.

However, it is a rare occurrence that both human and supernatural aspects work in harmony to the extent evident in Middlewitch—arguably the highlight of BBC Radio 4’s Voices from the Grave series. The story concerns an aged wise woman who sits watching the shore at a remote Welsh coastal town steeped in 19th Century Methodism, alongside a naïve under-age couple hoping to make love for the time and a new minister struggling to understand the hateful legacy of one of his Victorian predecessors.

The play handles the “new vicar trying to understand the curse on his congregation” motif far better than its series-mate The Parson; there is simply far more going on, and whilst it’s hardly an original plot, the characterisation excels. This is augmented by passionate performances which really convey the drama with conviction. This is especially true of the downbeat climax; you can really hear the urgency in the actors’ voices. As a result, Middlewitch is a profoundly haunting play whose implications will linger with you long after listening.

Solstice (BBC Radio 4 – 21st December 1985)

A curious piece, this one: its ambitions are certainly admirable, but it tacks too close to the two qualities with which BBC radio plays are so often damned in the public imagination—worthiness and pretension. It primarily takes the form of a monologue, delivered by “Father Christmas” as he explores the pagan roots of the midwinter festival and the shamanic origins of the character. It’s the sort of territory fruitfully explored by Robert Holdstock in Mythago Wood two years earlier; but whilst Solstice displays some of the same magic, it cannot really match that masterpiece.

The winter shaman’s narrative dominates—apart from a few interjections from a raven and the hag of winter—but too often the tone seems hectoring rather than forbidding (which I assume is what it’s aiming for). A reading of the poem Littleblood from Ted Hughes’ neo-shamanic verse cycle Crow only serves to demonstrate a lightness of touch that is sadly lacking elsewhere in the play. The drama only occasionally connects us with that primal, atavistic dread of the cold and darkness which pagan midwinter festivals were once a beacon against.

Inevitably, it contrasts the conspicuous consumerism and glib platitudes of our own Christmas celebrations with the harsh realities of the winter solstice for man at the end of the last ice-age. Taking full advantage of the aural medium, the sound of adverts jingles and cash registers are blended with crackling frost and howling winds. It’s an atmospheric stew and an important message, but sometime risks sounding like a self-righteous sermon at the expense of dramatic momentum. Solstice is ultimately a failed experiment—a polemic as opposed to a play—but there is beauty in it still.

Leave a comment

Posted by on April 18, 2014 in BBC Radio, Folk Horror


Tags: , , , , , , ,