There'll be parties for hosting
Marshmallows for toasting
And carolling out in the snow
There'll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories of
Christmases long, long ago…
So sang Andy Williams back in 1963 in the festive hit ‘It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year’, and indeed Christmas has always been a time for spooky yarns, with Dickens’ A Christmas Carol being both the most famous Christmas tale and the most famous ghost story of all time. However the tradition no doubt dates back further into the mists of history, for what better time of year is there to gather around the fire and tell tales of revenants and spectres than when the days are shortest and the nights cold and long.
However aside from Dickens and the myriad versions of his classic that abound, one of the greatest authors of ghostly fiction, M.R. James shares a strong link with the Yuletide festivities. Indeed the majority of his weird fiction was written to be read aloud upon a Christmas evening, with the lights are low, the fire banked, and the port doing the rounds. Of course the rise of the idiot lantern largely spelt the end of storytelling as a common social activity. However all was not lost, as television in the UK has frequently revived the festive tale of terror, and frequently in the guise of works if not by the good doctor himself, then certainly inspired by his writings. So settle back in your favourite armchair and join me for a look at the spine chillers of Christman Past...
WHISTLE AND I’LL COME TO YOU (1968)
Our journey begins, oddly enough with an edition of the BBC’s arts documentary show Omnibus screened on the 7th of May 1968. Previously there had been other adaptations of some of James’ tales on both British and American TV, however none of these had screened over the Christmas season. And none packed the wallop of ‘pleasing terror’ that the Omnibus film Whistle And I’ll Come To You did. Directed by Dr Jonathan Miller, this short terrified TV viewers and was so successful that it is widely believed to have been the inspiration for the subsequent A Ghost Story For Christmas strand of festive programming.
Based upon based on James’ Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You My Lad, and starring the highly respected actor Michael Horden, this short film still stands up as one of the best of all the James adaptions and quite rightly regularly turns up with a respectable placing in most frightening moments countdowns to this very day. Beautifully shot in moody black and white, Whistle captures the essence of M.R. James perfectly – the period setting, brooding landscapes, suspect antiquities, and the learned fellow who falls afoul of malevolent supernatural forces.
Now the gentle reader may be wondering why this piece aired as part of the Omnibus series – a show that usually featured documentaries on the arts. Part of the answer lies in the fact that this was the age when television becoming more experimental in general, but in the main the reason is that Miller’s film is not just an adaptation of James’ story but also a critique of it at the same time. Miller has stated in interviews that he finds the gentlemen’s club atmosphere of James' stories, reeking of port and stilton, and populated by middle and upper class chaps somewhat cloying.
And in the spirit of so many politically conscious sorts who were decrying the class system in the late ‘60s, in spite of belonging to the ruling classes they despised, he therefore chose to deliberately emphasise certain aspects of the story. Parkins, the lead character, is portrayed as the almost stereotypical upper class twit of the bumbling academic variety. He is shown to be self absorbed and insulated from ‘real’ life by his scholarly and privileged background. And the haunting itself may be read as a psychological breakdown of this fusty, repressed fellow intead of an encounter with some dire spectral being.
And it is an approach that works marvellously, with the story operating on several levels at once seamlessly. And whether you favour the social/psychological interpretation or whether you prefer to take the piece as a straight traditional ghost story, it is equally effective either way. But in truth, the reason why this film works so well on multiple levels is less to do with Miller’s intelligent academic spin on the tale than elements that were actually already there.
Firstly, it should be noted that this blurring of psychological and supernatural events in already present in many of James’ tales. Miller may have thought he was doing something radical here but in fact the “was it a ghost or something in his own mind” trope is a surprisingly old spin of the ghost story. Indeed as far back as the 1870s, Sheridan le Fanu was penning tales that offered the same options of interpretation, Green Tea being perhaps the famous example. And tellingly, James believed le Fanu to be the master of the supernatural tale, editing Madame Crowl’s Ghost & Other Tales of Mystery the definitive collection of le Fanu’s short weird fiction.
Secondly, although a cursorory glance at his biography may suggest that James was exactly the kind of crusty old scholar he so often wrote about, the truth is somewhat different. Although it is true that James never strayed far from the halls of academia and was prodigiously erudite, there was more to Monty (as his friends knew him) than a socially awkward fellow lost to the wider world in a dusty bubble universe of books, monographs and brass rubbings. He was a keen traveller, a bicycle enthusiast, member of numerous clubs and a lover of games of all kinds; in fact Monty was so gregarious, friends and colleagues were amazed how he found the time to conduct all his socialising and gaming and yet still pursue his academic works with impressive rigour.
In the light of this, one begins to realise that the bibliophile fogies and the stolid antiquarians that feature so often as his protagonists are not as Miller assumes, exercises in veiled autobiography, but are likely drawn from real people Monty encountered during his life. And it’s worth remembering that his tales were written to be read aloud to an audience of his peers, and hence there is a great deal of wit and humour in James’ tales. So it’s not a stretch to imagine that some of his characters would be in fact caricatures, subtley ribbing figures well known to his audience.
However, none of the above detracts from the film itself, and indeed Miller may be forgiven his ignorance of both the history of the ghost story and James himself as at the time legitimate literary attention had not been paid to either. Furthermore, it may be argued that in making Whistle And I’ll Come To You, Miller brought James’ works back into both the critical and the public consciousness, in much the same way Nigel Kneale’s BBC adaptation of 1984 elevated awareness of Orwell’s seminal political sci-fi novel.
It is a truly wonderful piece of film making. Horden’s performance is simply superb and Miller’s direction is flawless, delivering beautifully composed shots that play with light and shadow, and scenes that are exceedingly uncanny. And seemingly, in blowing that ancient whistle Horden and Miller not only called forth that spectre with the “intensely horrible face of crumpled linen” but also a host of other malign spirits from the vasty deep...
THE STALLS OF BARCHESTER (1971)
And lo, three years later on Christmas Eve, viewers were treated to a new James adaption – this time of The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral. Helmed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, Stalls is a wonderful version of Monty’s tale, drawing on the considerable expertise of the BBC drama department – and on televison at the time, no one did period pieces better than the Beeb. This time shot in colour, Clark perfectly presents the tale of a clergyman troubled by some curious wooden carvings.
The production was a great success and Clark was called back to produce another tale for the following year. And so the Ghost Story For Christmas series was born. But furthermore, Clark’s lush rendition of Robert Hardy being tormented by the vengeful dead obviously hit a chord as 1972 turned out to be a bumper years for festive supernatural telly...
THE EXORCISM (1972)
First out of the gate, on Bonfire Night (November 5th), was Don Taylor’s The Exorcism. This short teleplay was screened as part of the anthology series Dead of Night and tells the story of a couple celebrating Christmas with a couple of friends in their newly renovated rural cottage. However the original inhabitants of the farm house are less than impressed by the new, higher class tenants...
Now not only is The Exorcism rather scary – and again often turns up in lists of terrifying TV – but also it is somewhat unusual as it may be one of the only Marxist ghost stories ever produced! It’s a superb piece of 70s television, as equally grounded in the serious drama tradition as it is in the supernatural genre, and its mix of class concerns and ghosts work wonderfully well together, giving it a weight of intelligence we see too rarely in television these days.
A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS (1972)
Christmas Eve the same year, also brought the return of Lawrence Gordon Clark and A Ghost Story For Christmas, this time with a version of A Warning To The Curious. Here we have the story of Paxton (Peter Vaughan) who is searching the wilds of East Anglia for a long lost Saxon crown. Although still very faithful to the original, here Clark has modified the ghostly manifestations; rather than the more elemental and nebulous apparitions found in James’ story, Clark opts for portraying the ghost as the watchful spirit of a rustic farmer. And it’s a concept that works well for the screen, with Clark making excellent use of the windswept East Anglia landscapes in which the silhouette of the guardian of the crown appears.
Plus this story and its adaption have inspired a rather wonderful little tribute site by Dark Fall creator Jonathan Boakes – check it out here.
THE STONE TAPE(1972)
The final part of '72's triumvirate of terror came on Christmas Day night, courtesy of director Peter Sadsy and Nigel Kneale. Like much of Kneale’s work, The Stone Tape explores the point where science fiction meets the supernatural, with all his usual thought provoking finesse. The story concerns a group of scientists who set up in an old manor house to research new recording mediums only to discover that the ancient building has a few recordings of its own...
Yet again this television film is famous for terrifying audiences down the years and still packs a punch today. However like Kneale’s other works, such as the Quatermass quartet and Beasts, its real power lies within the intellectual and imaginative meat he places on the bones of genre hokum.
LOST HEARTS (1973)
Christmas Day the following year saw Lawrence Gordon Clark tackling another James classic, this time his first ever short story Lost Hearts. By now Clark had the director’s chair permanently for A Ghost Story For Christmas, and yet again he delivers the goods. Now there are a great many works of weird fiction that feature spooky infants, indeed it’s almost a sub genre in its own right, however Lost Hearts features some of the most haunting of all child ghosts. And Clark brings them to life perfectly and, unusually for TV of the period, even gets away with including the explicit gore that features in Monty’s original.
THE TREASURE OF ABBOT THOMAS (1974)
The 23rd of December saw yet more James via Clark. This tale features the kind of antiquarian puzzle solving that The Da Vinci Code has turned into a genre all of its own, with a clergy man unravelling the clues to a cache of riches secreted by one of his predecessors. By apart from ancient riddles, this adaption also features a very faithful portrayal of one of James’ typically elemental spirits.
One of the key features that distinguish Monty’s works from the rank and file of typical ghost stories is his conception of the supernatural forces he invokes. Rarely are his ghosts simply the appearance of some one long passed on; often they are insubstantial shapes, beastly chimera or demonic forces. And even when they do appear to be deceased humans, they are nearly always malformed or horribly altered in some fashion. And The Treasure of Abbot Thomas brings such an indescribable ghoul to the screen in grand style.
THE ASH TREE (1975)
Upon the same day the next year, Clark brought us his version of The Ash-Tree, a tale of 17th century witchery and revenge. Clark’s conception of the witch’s familiars are truly freakish and disturbing – seriously if you have a phobia of long legged beasties you might want to give this one a miss!
THE SIGNALMAN (1976)
This year saw a departure from the norm, with instead of the usual serving of Monty, we had a vintage slice of Dickens, featuring his other great ghostly work other than A Christmas Carol – No. 1 Branch Line The Signal-Man. Starring the late great Denholm Elliot, who turns in a spectacular performance as the troubled railway man, this is probably my favourite in all the Ghost Story For Christmas series. Not only does it bring Dickens’ memorable tale to screen in masterful style but it does that oh-so-rare thing, it surpasses the original. Somehow the story’s twist end plays out better on the screen and Clark conjures up some striking scenes with a spectral steam engine that linger in the memory a long time after the credits roll.
STIGMATA (1977) & THE ICEHOUSE (1978)
Having successfully broke away from James’ canon the previous year, these last two entries in the series saw a further departure. These tales are set in the modern day and feature original teleplays not based on any existing work. Now to my mind, this was a serious misstep, and indeed they spelt the end of the BBC tradition of producing A Ghost Story For Christmas every year.
Although not without merit, and directed with all the flair we’d come to expect from Clark, somehow they fail to engage the imagination in the same way and lean too closely into the winds of psychodrama popular at the time. Whereas previous episodes had delivered solid spooky chills, this brace of tales more often invoke general weirdness than any legitimate ghostliness. Of the two, The Ice House works best, with its disturbing oddness recalling the ‘strange stories’ of Robert Aickman. However one cannot help feeling that if they had continued to dip into the library of classic weird fiction and tackled the likes of le Fanu, LP Hartley or H. Russell Wakefield then possibly the series could have continued for several more years with ease.
CASTING THE RUNES (1979)
But although Auntie Beeb had given up the ghost, Lawrence Gordon Clark wasn’t quite finished yet. April 1979 saw him bring another James classic to the screen, this time for the ITV Play House series. Now despite this airing in spring rather than around Christmas, Casting The Runes merits a place in this round up of Yule terrors, as in addition to being directed by a past master of the form, the story itself is set in the deep of winter.
Like the previous adaption of this tale, Night of the Demon (aka Curse of the demon in the US)(1957), Clark relocates the story to the present day and weaves a looser version of the plot on screen. However, like Tourneur’s classic, the results are equally effective, proving that the strength of James’ fiction does not solely rest on its period flavours and glimpses of an England long since vanished.
THE MICHAEL BRYANT READINGS (1980)
Now the 1980s proved to be a fallow time for the Christmas ghost story, but Monty was still haunting the googlebox around the end of the year. Children’s BBC produced reading of three James tales through November and December this year. The stories were The Mezzotint, A School Story and The Diary of Mr Poynter.
A PLEASING TERROR – The LIFE & GHOSTS OF M. R. JAMES (1985)
The 22nd of December this year broug ht a real treat for Monty fans – a lengthy documentary on James produced by his biographer Michael Cox. Hosted by genre favourite character actor Bill Wallis, this film is the ideal introduction to James, his life and works, and is interspersed with clips from previous adaptations as well as some specially filmed dramatic moments. It’s all lovingly done, and is both enlightening and entertaining.
CLASSIC GHOST STORIES OF M. R. JAMES (1986)
Again in December, the BBC produced more James readings. This time Robert Powell was tasked with the role of story teller, and a selection of favourites were performed and intercut with dramatised inserts. This time out the stories selected were - The Mezzotint, The Ash-Tree, Wailing Well, Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad and The Rose Garden.
THE WOMAN IN BLACK (1989)
Airing on Christmas Eve, this ITV feature length television film was an adaption of Susan Hill’s novel of the same name. Not only was it unashamedly Jamesian but the screenplay was crafted by Nigel Kneale. And Kneale and director Herbert Wise pulled out all the stops, producing a film that left an indelible impression on its viewers. And again this another work that regularly turns up in most terrifying telly lists. In addition to sporting bags of atmosphere, it features one of the most frightening scenes I’ve ever seen – one that will almost induce a heart attack when you watch it, and will return to keep you awake once you retire to bed.
MR JAMES’ GHOST STORIES FOR CHRISTMAS (2000)
The first Christmas of the new millennium saw the readings continue, but in perhaps their finest iteration yet. This time we had Sir Christopher Lee recounting the tales, but this series took it a step further, striving to recreate the original outings for these stories. Hence we have Mr Lee in period dress in a dimly lit study recounting the stories to a small audience of gentlemen. The four tales chosen to be told were - The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral, The Ash-tree, Number 13 and A Warning to the Curious.
M. R. JAMES: THE CORNER OF THE RETINA (2004)
As a prelude to a series of A Ghost Story For Christmas repeats on BBC4, this half hour documentary was commissioned as an introduction to the season. This is a concise exploration of the man and his work, somewhat slighter than A Pleasing Terror but worth viewing for a plethora of notable talking heads including Kim Newman, Ruth Rendell and Christopher Frayling, among many others.
A VIEW FROM A HILL (2005)
Following the warm reception 2004’s season of repeats had garnered, the BBC decided to revive the old ways and commissioned a brand new adaption of a James classic, to sit as the jewel in the crown of another round of repeats. Director Luke Watson turns out a typically lush period piece and it was a fine return to the traditions and the standards of the old Ghost Story For Christmas series.
NUMBER 13 (2006)
Indeed A View From A Hill proved such a hit with viewers, another was commissioned for teh following Yuletide, this time with Pier Wilkie taking the directorial reins. And although this was another quality production, bringing Number 13 to the screen in style, the revival ended here. Not through any failing on the production team’s behalf but that arch enemy of genre television, the dreaded budget cuts.
CROOKED HOUSE (2008)
However the BBC coffers were mysterious refilled a couple of years later. Perhaps they decoded some obscure reference in a stained glass window or maybe there was sufficient caterwauling at the lack of a new ghost story in 2007. But regardless of the arcane reasons why, 2008 saw a three part series entitled Crooked House, produced and written by The League of Gentlemen’s Mark Gatiss. Centring around one Geap Manor, each episode told a different tale from the benighted dwelling’s troubled history.
And Gatiss certainly knows his stuff, crafting a trilogy of suitably eerie fare. And it is highly appropriate that this voyage through Christmas chills should end here with Crooked House. It proves that there is still a place for a ghostly tale amid the festivities, and what’s more, original works can work as well as adaptions of the old masters. A pleasing terror indeed!
Unfortunately only a handful of the above works have been released on DVD. The BFI produced DVD editions of Whistle And I’ll Come To You, The Signal Man, The Stone Tape and A Warning To The Curious but all now are out of print. Similarly The Woman in Black was released on disc and is also no longer available. However Crooked House is still on the shelves, as is Casting The Runes which comes with A Pleasing Terror as part of the extras and a short adaption of James' Mr Humphries & His Inheritance which was produced as part of an ITV schools programme.
As for the rest, there are no plans to release them on disc due to our old friend the rights issues, something that has also sunk any hope of a re-release of The Woman in Black. All of which is a huge shame as a complete BBC Ghost Stories For Christmas boxed set would be a very fine thing indeed. However BBC4 regularly repeats them every year and if you are very very cunning you can find them on the internet as torrents and similar.
However with a new adaptation of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw scheduled to appear on BBC1 between Christmas and New Year this year, it looks like there will be plenty of Ghosts of Christmas Yet To Come...