DVD Review: Ghost Stories - Classic adaptations from the BBC - Volumes 1 and 2 / Director(s): Jonathan Miller, Andy de Emmony, Lawrence Gordon Clark / Starring: Michael Hordern, John Hurt, Robert Hardy, Clive Swift, Peter Vaughan / Release date: 20th August
Some of you might recall a time when the BBC gave us I, Claudius or the definitive dramatization of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. You might also remember more costume dramas than you can wave a BAFTA at, or Tom Baker wearing a scarf in some popular children’s sci-fi programme or another. This was, dear reader, the ‘Golden Age of BBC Drama’; a time when the Beeb could do no wrong; a time when quality just fell out of Auntie’s drama department. And of course, there were those strange BBC traditions, like A Ghost Story for Christmas, when the BBC would deliver a chilling yuletide present for the grown-ups to watch while wrapping the presents. If you were lucky, you might have even got to watch them yourselves. But nostalgia and history should never be confused. Were these annual supernatural outings really as good as we remember? Well the BFI is bringing them all out on DVD so it looks like we’re going to find out.
Although the whole series will be available before the year is out (all bar one of which were based on the stories of M. R. James) the first releases are Whistle and I Will Come to You (both the 1968 and 2010 versions on one disc) and The Stalls of Barchester (1971) together with A Warning to the Curious (1972). The transfers are, as with all BFI releases, top quality and both discs come with extras ranging from interviews with those involved to a couple of Christopher Lee’s ‘talking head’ style readings of M. R. James broadcast by the BBC in 2000 on the second disc.
The first disc is actually a bit of a misnomer as A Ghost Story for Christmas actually only ran from 1971 to 1978 (with a revival in 2005 and 2006). However, Jonathan Miller’s 1968 adaptation of Whistle and I Will Come to You (made for the BBC‘s Omnibus series) was both the catalyst as well as the blueprint for the series that followed so its inclusion is both expected and welcome. Widely regarded as a classic of the genre, this fairly straight telling of James’s 1904 short story might come as a bit of a surprise to a modern audience. In a sense, it couldn’t be more low-key with a small cast and minimal dialogue. With little in the way of visual trickery it would be tempting to describe this black and white production as spooky rather than scary but actually that wouldn’t do it justice. The wide open spaces of the British coastline have never seemed so empty and terrifying. If you’re wondering quite how these open spaces might be frightening then think of the hotel in The Shining (1980) and remember the BBC pulled the trick off first. As Michael Hordern’s dogmatically rational protagonist has his beliefs questioned to breaking point, there is real horror here; Hordern’s portrayal of a man at his wit’s end in the denouement is a genuinely unsettling experience. The limited special effects do look a little creaky today but overall this production stands the test of time as a lesson in subtlety to modern film-makers.
Again, the 2010 re-make is not strictly ‘canon’ but its inclusion is not unexpected. However, it does seem a little more out of place. Although we have an engaging performance from John Hurt in particularly world-weary form, along with some extremely atmospheric cinematography, the whole thing doesn’t work anything like as well as it should. The major problem is the fact that it veers significantly from the original story. Although there is nothing wrong with that in principle, writer Neil Cross seems to have wanted to tell an entirely different tale. You can almost hear him arguing with the BBC about the great story he’s got only to be told that he’s doing Whistle and I’ll Come to You and that’s that. The result is a story about an ageing academic leaving his dementia-suffering wife in a nursing home while he visits their old haunts by the sea, shoehorned into James’ original. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite fit and we’re left with something that doesn’t actually make a great deal of sense. Even the found whistle of the original story is replaced by a ring in a move that even manages to make the title nonsensical. This is actually a great shame as Cross’ story of the guilt-ridden protagonist haunted in a desolate seaside hotel would have almost certainly been compelling had it been left at that. But that brings up another problem with this version. While it is highly effective as a ghost story that manages to scare the bejesus out of you at times, it’s also a desperately depressing tale. Not a problem in itself, but I’m not entirely convinced we want our Christmas ghost stories to be quite that dark. Perhaps that’s just personal taste but if we think of the tradition going back to A Christmas Carol (debatable, I know), then we get creepy but we also get redemption. James wasn’t big on redemption but you never come away from one of his stories with a sense of misery. And is the Japanese-horror influence of the climax also a bit too sharp for a Christmas tale? Maybe I’m getting old yet I can’t help but think the spirit of these things is to not stray too far from ‘creepy’ and to keep well away from ‘terrifying’. Still, if that’s your kind of thing and you can work your way around the self-inflicted problems of the plot, there is much to enjoy here. Just don’t expect to feel too festive.
The second disc brings us to A Ghost Story for Christmas proper with the first two productions broadcast in 1971 and 1972. The Stalls of Barchester is a straight re-telling of James’s original with Robert Hardy as the ruthless Archdeacon who can’t quite wait for his 92-year old predecessor to vacate his position by natural causes. One deviation from the source material is that the supernatural elements of the story are shown rather than suggested. While that may be to its detriment, it must be said that they also represent the only scares to be found in this particular episode and they are pretty well done. But despite some rather voyeuristic camera work stalking the protagonists through the cloisters of Barchester Cathedral (actually it’s Norwich), the pace is perhaps a little too gentle, the tension a little too subtle; ultimately, it just hasn’t aged very well despite some good old-fashioned story telling. It’s still quite satisfying and atmospheric but you’ll have no problem getting a good night’s sleep afterwards. If you’ve got a turkey to cook then this is probably a good thing to be watching on your Christmas Eve.
However, A Warning for the Curious is quite possibly the pick of the bunch. It isn’t perfect; a somewhat unnecessary and contrived flash-back opening not featured in the source material undermines the idea of a mysterious figure seen only in the corner of the eye. It would be far more effective if we never saw William Ager (the last guardian of an Anglo-Saxon crown) as a living soul, let alone see him in close-up engaged in conversation. However, the variation to the story’s end is quite clever and goes some way to make up for the misstepped beginning. Of course, with a setting so similar to Whistle and I Will Come to You, the trick of using open spaces along beaches where distant figures can barely be made out is repeated but somehow, it doesn’t feel like a re-hashed idea. The mixture of tension and scares is just about perfect and ultimately this is about as good a Christmas ghost story as you’re going to get.
Despite some flaws and the not-always-flattering passing of time, both these discs are well worth owning. Despite their festive intentions they’re worth a watch any time of year and I won’t hesitate to bagsy the rest of the series when the review copies turn up. Mind you, the box-set might be nice for Crimbo. I’ll just drop some hints to my wife...
Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968 and 2010 versions):
The Stalls of Barchester / A Warning to the Curious: