Review: BBC Ghost Stories - Volumes 3 and 4 / Cert: Vol 3 (12), Vol 4 (15) / Director: Lawrence Gordon Clarke, Derek Lister/ Screenplay: Robin Chapman, John Bowen, David Rudkin, Andrew Davies, Clive Exton / Starring: Simon Gipps-Kent, Michael Bryant, Edward Petherbridge, Denholm Elliot, Peter Bowles, John Stride / Release Date: Out Now
Two discs in which the BFI complete their releases of the BBC Ghost Stories, productions which ran on BBC2 in the UK between 1971 and 1978 and were, in their way, as anticipated by their television audience as any of the more populist Morecombe and Wise Christmas Specials of the time were by theirs.
Generally inspired by the short stories of MR James, the Ghost Stories were usually low-budget pieces, tightly written and beautifully-mounted and they were designed to chill and not terrify an audience. These stories, often slow and understated, deliver subtle scares but the fact that so many of them are remembered by the audience nearly thirty years later and still stand the test of time for curious newcomers is an absolute testament to the care and attention with which they were made.
The six tales across these two well-presented box sets are a mixture of four creepy Victorian tales and two contemporary stories (even though the very last tale, The Ice House is noticeable for its stilted, anachronistic dialogue) and it’s possible that modern tastes might find the Victorian stories a little on the sluggish side. Volume 3 kicks off with Lost Hearts, a tale of the quest for immortality and features a pair of quite hair-raising claw-fingered ghoul children. The Treasure of Abbot Thomas climaxes with some unsettling oozing black slime and the mewling, squeaking tree-spiders which infest the last few scenes of the witchcraft story The Ash Tree still have the potential to become the stuff of nightmares.
Volume 4 moves on from MR James and includes The Signalman, a classic BBC adaptation of Charles Dickens’ most famous supernatural story (it certainly terrified Christopher Ecceston’s Doctor in Doctor Who!) and in the original story Stigma probably the most accessible of the stories for a 21st century audience the removal of an ancient menhir from the garden of a house adjoining the famous Avebury stone circle unleashes an ancient and lethal evil upon the house’s owners. The curious Ice House is probably the least engrossing of the six stories presented across the two discs due to unsympathetic characterisation and an underwhelming and rather obvious denouement.
Perfect for those seeking subtler thrills than those offered by modern horror, the Ghost Stories DVDs are an ideal accompaniment to fast-approaching cold Winter evenings and while they won’t send you scuttling behind the sofa they’ll almost certainly give you those delicious little shivers of dread and apprehension which come from only the most finely-crafted supernatural stories.
Special features: Both DVDs includes generous booklets with essays from esteemed authors and academics (Ramsey Campbell, Dick Fiddy, Matthew Sweet amongst them) and director Lawrence Gordon Clark provides lengthy on-screen introductions to the five episodes across the two discs which he directed.