Book Review: The Dusty Bookshelf - The Ghosts of Motley Hall

PrintE-mail Written by Cleaver Patterson

Some years ago I was walking past a second hand bookshop in Charing Cross Road, when something caught my eye.  It was a rather insignificant, dusty looking paperback, yellowed with age, curling at the corners.  However, without a second thought, I bought it, for this was a book which more than anything, reminded me of the heady, carefree days of my childhood, when everything was fun and innocent, including television.

The Ghosts of Motley Hall was a popular kid's television show of the mid 1970's which revolved round the 'lives' of five deceased spirits, who were unable (or unwilling) to pass on.  Devised and written by Richard Carpenter (one of those creative wizards who no longer seem to exist in modern, commercially driven television), the creative genius behind such innocent delights as Catweazle, Robin of Sherwood and The Adventures of Black Beauty, the show is remembered fondly by many who grew up during that period.

Reading the book, a novelisation brought out in the wake of the show's success, you are reminded of its simplistic humour, which makes an appealing antidote in these days of full, in your face crudity, even where children's entertainment is concerned.  

" He owned a rubber plantation.  He died out there.  He was knelt on."

"Knelt on?" said Mr Wallace.

"By an elephant.  They say it was very quick."

"The elephant?"

"No - the accident," said Gudgin. 

Hardly sophisticated.  However Carpenter's staccato one liners give the novelisation an innocent sharpness, in the same way his script did for the show, making his writing appealing, on different levels, to both adults and children  The actress Sheila Steafel, who played the White Lady in the television dramatisation, best summed up the appeal of the show, and in the same way the novelisation, when she said, "The reason may have been that the writer Richard Carpenter never ‘played down’ to the lowest common denominator ....".

The other appeal in the book is Carpenter's power of description.  Opening the book, in a similar way to how he did each episode of the show, he describes the house in such vivid terms that the reader can almost feel the cobwebs and chill which surround the decaying Motley Hall.

The wind howled round Motley Hall.  It blew the dead leaves along the moss-covered terrace and sent them spinning down the steps to lodge in the long grass of the overgrown lawn.  It whistled over the roofs and tossed the rooks against the twisted chimneys; it rippled through the ivy clinging to the walls until the old house seemed to shiver.

The same is true with the ghosts themselves.  Reading many novels you conjure an image of a character in your mind, completely different from the one who appears on the television or cinema screen.  Not so here.  Carpenter's description of each of the ghosts is so vivid that, should you ever get to see the television show, it may seem that the lines between novelisation and dramatisation blur.  It helps, of course, that the same person wrote both, however Carpenter's ability as a wordsmith comes to the fore and his characters almost jump (or should that be float) from the page.

Sir George Uproar, Knight Commander of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George, slowly materialised in the Great Hall.  His ghostly form was quivering with indignation and his face, which made one think of a rather conceited old bloodhound, was flushed and puffed with anger.

The similarities between the show and the book don't stop there.  From the ghost's efforts to disrupt the sale of their home to the British Banana Company, to their battle with Matt the stable boy's evil doppelgänger who is intent on causing mischief and disharmony amongst them, Carpenter brings together a collection of incidents from the show to form a lively narrative, which can either complement the show, or be read as a stand alone novel without loosing any of its impact.

Novels and their television adaptations are often hard to marry.  You love one or the other, and are often disappointed when, having seen it on the screen, you read the book, or vice versa.  Not so with The Ghosts of Motley Hall, as this show (available again on DVD) and its novelisation, in more ways than one, seem so seamlessly to blend together.  Just one word of warning.  As with all good ghost stories, don't read it late at night, otherwise you too may well hear the haunting sounds of the White Lady as she swings, to and fro on the end of the bell-rope!

Cleaver Patterson

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