A Ghost Story For Christmas.

The BBC has been making horror and supernatural thrillers for many years but i think it reached a peak with a series of 8 Ghost Stories televised between the long dark chilling nights of Christmas 1971 and 1978 collected under the banner A Ghost Story For Christmas.

The most successful from the works of the great British writer of Supernatural tales of M R James.
Subtle yet very chilling and in the best adaptations terryfying, they were the perfect antidote to the Christmas excesses and remain extremely effective even now.

Original Transmission Dates:

24/12/71 The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral.

24/12/72 A Warning to the Curious.

25/12/73 Lost Hearts.

23/12/74 The Treasure of Abbot Thomas.

23/12/75 The Ash Tree.

22/12/76 The Signalman.

28/12/77 Stigma.

25/12/78 The Ice House

With the advent of DVD Interest in these shows has increased with the teasing release by the BFI of 2 of them on separate releases A warning to the curious and The signalman.
Although sparse on extras (interviews with surviving cast members would have been nice) its nice just to be able to view them at all.
The picture quality by todays standards is a little soft and scratchy but i think it lends them a wonderful sense of time and place.
They also include nice sleeve notes and readings of the Original stories but will we ever see the others in this series?

If rumour is correct we may not , it seems the expense of licensing etc only allowed these to become available.

Christmas has been traditionally linked with Ghost Stories and it is with a great feeling of nostalgia that the BFI releases spurred me into finding the other stories.

As a young lad i remember being allowed to stay up late and view by chance some of the most scary adaptations seen on TV. Sleepless nights ensued on viewing what i found out to be a repeat of a warning to the curious.
At the time i was not aware i was watching a series , lets face it once a year is a long time to wait.

The series is best known for adaptations of M R James stories but has adaptaed with great success The signalman by Charles Dickens and later turned to more modern time settings but with the same eerie sense of foreboding.

It seems though that the mantel has been picked up by BBC4 , due to increasing interest and fan pressure they have found within their hearts to perhaps carry on the tradition.
This year christmas 2005 was an exceptional and unprecidented time of rejoicing for myself we not only got a whole week of repeats of old adaptations (including the never repeated Ash Tree) but a new one in the form of A View From A Hill by M.R. James.
Any fan of the series must have been excited and thanks must be extended to BBC4 for taking up the challenge of presenting a new tale.

BBC4 have continued the tradition again xmas 2006 saw another adaptation of M. R. James with NUMBER 13 another fine adaptation though flawed by the lack of some crucial elements it was still well worth viewing and congrats can be extended again.
One big question is though why not bring back the great Lawrence Gordon Clarke? From his screentalk at the 2007 Fantastic Films festival in bradford (which i was lucky enough to attend) he seems very willing so why not bring him back to the helm, lets face it his vision made the early adaptations so very memorable so come on BBC4.

Newly available are my collections of MP3 readings and audio dramas so far 4 volumes in MP3 format with hours and hours of material , some incredibly rare readings and some radio docs, inspired by original material and even some parody.

Over the next pages i will give more details on each episode, brief plot outline, cast and script writers.

FIRST BROADCAST 24th Decenber 1971.

DR. Black a historian is cataloguing the library archives of a college when discovers the diary of an Ambitious cleric Dr. Haynes and unravels the mystery surrounding his untimely death.
The cleric Dr Haynes becomes so impatient waiting an aged Archdeacon of Barchester to die so that he can take his place that engineers the old man's murder. Soon, he is being stalked by a sinister black cat and by a hooded figure both of which seem to have sprung to life from carvings on the cathedral's choir stalls.

The first story and an excellent start, it follows the basic structure of the source story and is perhaps a little hampered by this, it seems fairly slow moving for its short 45 mins. The pay off for the deliberate pacing is a shock which being incredibly well timed, as a young fellow scared me half to death and is not easily forgotten.
There are many familiar faces in this Clive swift plays Dr. Black the historian and narrator. Robert Hardy plays the ambitious cleric Dr. Haynes. Thelma Barlow of Coronation Street (MAVIS) stars as Dr. Haynes's sister Letitia Haynes.

DIRECTED BY Lawrence Gordon Clark who adapted the M R James story for the screenplay.
The first chapter in this unforgettable series now remains one of my personal favourites, although the pace may have some watchers rewinding as their attention wavers.

This has never been available to the public in any form to buy but has had frequent repeats so is in the hands of most collectors in vhs form, it was one of the first i aquired and was in very good shape, i now have a copy with New Introduction by Christopher Lee straight from a digital showing onto DVDR, quality of which is excellent.

First Broadcast 24th December 1972.

Perhaps my Favourite adaptation in the series, its use of landscape and eerie music strengthen the quality of this perhaps the finest of the series, measured pace building for one scene which is forever etched on my imagination although i'm not too sure what i saw.

The background legend of the three crowns is narrated by a returning Clive Swift in the role of Dr Black (is this the same person from Stalls of Barchester?)

According to legend there are three crowns buried on the Norfolk coast that protect England from invasion.
A brief prologue shows us what happens to one treasure hunter unlucky enough to be digging in the area where the crowns lay. He is swiftly executed by William Ager a descendant of the family given the job of guarding the crowns resting place.

We move forward in time to what appears to be the 1930's, an amateur archaeologist goes searching for the crowns (played by Peter Vaughan), ignoring the warning about the vengeful Ager family .
In a fantastic scene of great pace with swirling trees and great palpable paranoia he finds the crown. His trophy hidden in a bag he is pursued across the foreboding landscape by the vengeful relentless spirit of Ager.

After one of the series finest moments the frightening scene in his bedroom, the terrified archaeologist tries to appease his pursuer by returning the crown to its resting place with Dr Black's help.

Lawrence Gordon Clark uses a lot of implied storytelling here which can be missed upon first viewing the back story of the character played by Vaughan is suggested by a few simple scenes and the pleasant landscape becomes a thing of pure dread.
The William Ager spirit is somewhat amusing in appearance , how wrong appearances can be.

The BFI chose well with this release on DVD and although now looking quite ragged by modern standards it lends the production a great sense of time and nostalgia.
Lets face it when i saw this i did not even have colour TV.
So does it stand the test of time? Is it as eerie as when i watched as a child..........I thought so.

The whole use of landscape and lonely haunting atmosphere is highly reminiscent of The BBC adaptation of OH WHISTLE AND I'LL COME TO YOU but i think more successful.

The series struggles to reach these heights again its not until later that we get a glimpse of this kind of skillfull filmmaking.

First Broadcast 25th December 1973

Stephen, an orphan, moves to his rich Uncle Abney's house and is haunted by two ghostly children. He learns that a gypsy boy and an orphan girl had both been cared for by his uncle and that both had mysteriously disappeared.

Not personally one of my favourites, it seems more in keeping with Childrens tv perhaps because of the performance and make up of the ghostly children, the make up used is seen far too much and closer inspection reveals its limitations. If the children had been used far less in close up it could have been a lot better.
The ending is dissappointingly very upbeat, which does not work at all for me.

One of the best things is the haunting music played on the Hurdy Gurdy it is quite creepy indeed. Perhaps one of the most memorable things about Lost Hearts is Lawrence Gordon Clarke's fantastic use of landscape and lighting a sheer joy , i know many fans of the series remember this fondly but i was not scared even as a youngster by this.
The performances by the leads are very good on the whole but for the flawed make up the kids are very adept. In essence the original story is one of the most controversial with its abuse of estranged children and it does have its moments.
The atmosphere though is more playfull than menacing its mainly the eerie outdoor scenes that work the best.

The Treasure Of Abbot Thomas
First Broadcast 23rd December 1974

One of the last adaptations with that certain intangible something , the cautionary tale of greed overtaking a rational thinking University Professor.
The prologue is pure artistic invention and some purists would say unwanted , but i feel it shows the sceptical scientific atittude of the Antiquarian one University Professor who is asked by an ex pupil to sit in on a pair of 'mediums' preying on his family.
They are exposed with clever reasoning by the professor. Perhaps this does show his sceptical attitude towards the supernatural which will become his downfall when not heeding the warnings when searching for the lost Gold of a supposed Alchemist , one Abbot Thomas, who buried his treasure somwhere in the grounds of the University.
Its one of the highlights of the series for me , the shocks are well executed the finding of the treasure is etched on my memory i vividly remember it from its tv showing.
The music is again a highlight in this production the almost monastic feel and sparse percussion is very fitting for the subject matter and the time of year it was shown.
It has been shown several times by the beeb so someone there must like it , winter 2004 it still conveyed the same sense of dread i remember from my childhood viewing.

The production values look rich and probably add to that certain something, something i can only say is similar to Hammers productions.

The ending is the final shock as in A Warning to the curious it seems that the return of the Treasure is not enough the end is very fitting and one of the best closing moments.

The Ash Tree
First Broadcast 23/12/75

Sir Richard Dickin returns from abroad to take up residence in the family home he has inherited , insisting he stay in his ancestors old bedroom not touched since his sudden death, in the room he is plagued by vivid daydreams and visions of his ancestor Sir Matthew Dickin.Sir Richard has become aware the local animals are dying from a mysterious pestilence, a local clergyman tells him the events surrounding the death of his predessesor , told in dreamy flashbacks his ancestor condemned a local woman Mrs Mothersole to hang , she curses him and his descendents. The witchfinding Sir Matthew died soon afterwards in his bed from some mysterious illness which turned him black!! His architect in preparing a new wing to the house in preparation of the return of beloved Lady tells him to remove the ash tree as it may be the source of the malady befalling him. Will he suffer the same fate as his ancestor? The ash trees secret is a shocking one not easily forgotten.
It has to be said that many find this adaptation a little unsatisfying but it is fairly faithful to the original short story adapted by David Rudkin its failing is lack of storytelling in the traditional manner , it twists between past and present in a sophisticated way but this may be too much for its short running length. Edward Petherbridge as Sir Richard/ SirMatthew does not help upon first viewing this dreamy way of telling the back story in a series of flashbacks is rather confusing , it works better upon repeat viewings and also for the audience that have read the original story.
The casual viewer may find it confusing , but for those familiar with the original short it does bring something new to the table rather than a straight re-telling. It does convey the underlying fact that Sir Richard no matter what he does cannot escape the past where Mrs Mothersole and her children are concerned he is one and the same as his predessessor. The production follows previous efforts in its use of eerie lonely landscape and sparse natural sound only this time there is very little music, a daydreamy tone takes a turn into the nightmarish as the story draws to a truly memorable climax making for one of the creepiest endings yet seen sending a shiver down the spine with crying babies used to great effect on the sparse soundtrack. For a shown once 40 minute piece of television all this clever cinematic cutting may have been too much making it less than a memorable effort.

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