Review: Classic Ghost Stories / Cert: 12 / Director: David Bell / Screenplay: David Bell / Starring: Robert Powell, Michael Bryant / Released: October 28th
Like a bit of M. R. James? Of course you do. The BBC, on the other hand, absolutely loves the work of the old provost. So much so, in fact, that since 1968, no less than 92.7% of the Beeb’s drama budget has been spent on adapting his incomparable ghost stories for its Christmas television schedules . These have usually been top-notch dramatisations of James’ scholars doing scholarly things in picturesque parts of Olde England, only to find their rational worldviews tested to breaking point by spooky goings on. However, on a couple of occasions they kept the budget down with simple readings of James’ stories, illustrated by the odd picture and/or some actors wordlessly performing key scenes. Think Jackanory for grown-ups and you’ll get the idea. They most recently did this in 2000 with Christopher Lee but this DVD features the Robert Powell readings from their 1986 Christmas series Classic Ghost Stories.
To be honest, despite the BBC’s sterling and often-groundbreaking efforts on their fully dramatised versions of his work, this is actually how M. R. James was supposed to be experienced. We’re in an academic’s office that simply “must tell us” of some rum goings on that came to his attention in a diary or down his club. It’s all about old-fashioned storytelling, and despite the lack of visual majesty, these are quite possibly the most enjoyable adaptations of James the BBC has done. Pick of the bunch is almost certainly that James classic The Mezzotint. It’s about a picture that changes when nobody is looking at it and this is the perfect medium for the tale. There’s also The Ash-Tree (with some surprisingly scary live-action “creatures”), Wailing Well (made all the more chillingly authentic with actual old photographs), The Rose Garden and that old perennial Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad (which the BBC have now done at least three times to this writer’s knowledge). The quarter of an hour length to each is just right for both the format and for the source material that never feels the need to spell out exactly what went on; there’s no needless exposition in a James story. The atmosphere is perfect and, if Big Chris will forgive us, this batch is far superior to the more dated 2000 versions. We really can’t think of anything better to watch before bedtime at Christmas.
The disc also features three episodes of Spine Chiller, which really was part of the Jackanory series and feature Michael Bryant reading three more James stories (although The Mezzotint is one of them) in slightly more abridged and lower budget versions for children. Despite being lower-rent (there are no illustrations or enacted scenes) they’re still very effective.
So in these days of high production values and CGI wassitcalleds, we’re recommending a DVD of just a bloke telling you a story? Yep, you bet we are.
Extras: Spine Chiller