DVD Review: Ghost Stories – Classic Adaptations from the BBC / Cert: 12 / Directors: Luke Watson and Pier Wilkie / Screenplay: M. R. James adapted by Peter Harness and Justin Hopper / Starring: Mark Letheren, Pip Torrens, Greg Wise, Paul Freeman and David Burke / Released: Out Now
Fancy a story about an academic doing something scholarly and turning up more than he bargained for? Well that’s fortuitous, as the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas is back. This time out the BFI have gotten around to its mid-noughties revival but, despite the 27 year hiatus that followed The Ice House (1978), this pairing of A View from a Hill (2005) and Number 13 (2006) sticks to the formula that worked so well in the seventies. So what we have here are two more tightly-made adaptations of M. R. James’s stories, and spooked academics in the glorious English countryside are once more in abundance. James really liked those academics.
A View from a Hill’s scholarly protagonist borrows an old pair of binoculars and sees things that just shouldn’t be there in an episode that has all the tropes that were put in place back in 1968 with the original Whistle and I’ll Come to You. Like Michael Hordern before him, Mark Letheren has moments of social awkwardness and mildly obsessive behaviour to indicate how rational our academic is before his world is thrown into turmoil by apparitions in the middle-distance and disturbing dream sequences. Before you know it, he’s in all sorts of bother. Despite the adherence to the Whistle model, View does have a few modern tricks up its sleeve with some jumpy bits of camera work and even a Blair Witch moment or two but it’s pretty much what you’d expect and an effective piece of Christmas spookiness.
Number 13 has Greg Wise as a professor staying in a hotel (there’s a lot of obsessive unpacking in these stories) while authenticating some old papers at the local Cathedral. No old paper was ever left unauthenticated in the works of M. R. James. There’s awkwardness as he’s asked to pay his bill in advance due to previous academics apparently doing a runner (we won’t insult your intelligence with a comment on that plot device) and further social discomfort at that favourite James set-piece of embarrassment, the dinner table. Our bookish chum is in room 12 but sometimes there’s also a room 13. Ooh, that’s spooky. It’s a bit clumsier than View with considerably less subtlety than we’ve come to expect from the series, but it’s good fun nevertheless and sports a genuinely chilling ending.
While this volume is as excellent as any other in the series, you can’t help but think we’ve seen it all before by now. In fact watching these makes you realise why the BBC strayed so surprisingly far from the formula when they revised the series again in 2010 with a remake of Whistle. James’s awkward academics’ embroilments with the supernatural might be fun but we think that maybe quite enough, thank you very much. Frankly, we’re getting a bit fed up trying to find alternate words for ‘academic’. Oh, you noticed...
Extras: Ghost Stories for Christmas with Christopher Lee