The Signalman Review
Charles Dickens, better known for such classic literature as Bleak House, The Pickwick Papers and Great Expectations, amassed a small number of ghost stories, a number of which were written before the birth of a later exponent of the form, MR James. Where some of the scenes in Dickens' more traditional work would terrify his readers, such as the death of Nancy in Oliver Twist, Dickens used his ghost stories to unnerve and chill his audience, setting his stories down on paper for a performance at Christmas. As with MR James, Dickens noted that traditional fiction has supernatural events occurring on Christmas Eve as snow falls outside and homes are quiet but for the crackle of the fire and the clock striking midnight. As both Dickens and James realised, the feeling of being in such a place will have the horror of spectres flickering just out of sight regardless of the haunting being either real or imagined.
An unnamed traveller (Lloyd) encounters a signalman (Elliot) on a lonely stretch of track in a remote part of the countryside. Over a cup of tea by the fire, the signalman befriends the traveller and confides in him the terrible sights and sounds he is experiencing. Having happened twice before, these occurrences are a premonition of disaster and the signalman knows that, no matter what else should happen, a terrible event is soon to occur...
In common with A Warning To The Curious, also part of their Archive Television range, the British Film Institute have now issued The Signalman on DVD, originally filmed as part of the BBC's A Ghost Story For Christmas and first shown in 1976, the sixth of the series. This story heralded the end of using MR James as source material, a pattern that was to be repeated with the seventh and eighth instalments that commissioned original scripts by Clive Exton and John Bowen - Stigma and The Ice House, respectively.
Unlike MR James, an academic who tended to set his stories within a world populated by characters with whom he was familiar, Dickens preferred to write his novels and short stories with men of not such high standing who often underachieved and struggled to understand the spiritual, emotional and financial movement of the world around them, sometimes with hope and optimism, sometimes not. Here, Dickens has the titular signalman as an intelligent but lowly worker, studying algebra and languages in his isolated signal house, not as a way to advance his career, a promotion he knows is unlikely, but as a method to keep his mind active in the daily grind of his operating of the track signals. The importance of this is such that we never feel the signalman is remiss in his work or that the supernatural occurrences are illusions. Although their stories are set far apart, Dickens and James never allow the reader to forget that the horrors felt by the cast of their stories are very real and not at all of their imagination.
If there are problem with this, it is that Dickens often uses a man who is better read, the traveller in this case, to affirm the thoughts of the signalman and to assure him that, as an intelligent man, he is not imagining these horrors. Looking back now, we can see the traveller as being really quite patronising to the signalman, similar to the caricature of Holmes mocking Watson's foolish solutions to the crime in hand but that is viewing the story with the benefit of over a hundred years of history and the erosion, however slight, between the working and middle classes. Looked at as one would at the time, the differences between these social classes were still well pronounced and Dickens simply reflects the society of his time.
Beyond this very slight note, The Signalman is a very effective work, confined within the small stretch of track in which it is set to present, at only thirty-nine minutes, a short television programme that is almost bent double by both the claustrophobic atmosphere of the signal house as well as that of impending doom. The tension builds steadily throughout, with the film only pausing occasionally to better establish the relationship between the two leading men but being unafraid to crash through these moments of stillness with nerve-shattering events from the signalman's history, used by Dickens to explain the wariness with which he approaches his work and the suspicions he has over the appearance of the traveller.
Of the cast, well, there are only two main cast members and both Bernard Lloyd and Denholm Elliot do a wonderful job, particularly Elliot who captures the fear in the eyes of the signalman and the horror at hearing the words, "Halloa! Below there!", not only the opening words of the short story and the greeting from the traveller to the signalman but as the words whispered by the spectre witnessed at the mouth of the tunnel.
Despite not being adapted from one of the many superb short stories by MR James, The Signalman is great. Once again, the casual buyer may find the short running time a problem but for fans of the English tradition of ghost stories, this is recommended without hesitation.
As with A Warning To The Curious, The Signalman was filmed on 16mm but was transferred onto videotape, which was the only version of the film available to the BFI. As a result, the picture is often very soft with muted colours. It really doesn't matter - The Signalman is unlikely to be presented better looking than it is here and any fan of the series, or this individual film, will purchase regardless.
Being a television production, the visual effects are few and barely noticeable, preferring to concentrate on the unsettling stillness of the English countryside, which is used to good effect here as it was elsewhere in A Ghost Story For Christmas.
Otherwise, the DVD has been transferred in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. There are no chapter stops.
Having only an English mono soundtrack, The Signalman has been presented as it was originally broadcast and sounds very good indeed. Visual effects are more expensive than the aural equivalent and with many BBC productions limited by cost, the BBC radiophonic workshop were called on many times to add colour to the story. Not so here, however, as The Signalman is really about the relationship between the two men, built on conversations by a fire, and the fear that one man has about the responsibility he bears. This is not a point made forcefully with an intrusive soundtrack but one made subtly with the silence of the valley through which the train line runs with only the passing of steam trains and the ring of a telegraph bell as connections to the world beyond. These silences allow the moments of horror to be very effective with the squeal of brakes and of terror having much more impact than they would otherwise have in a more cluttered soundtrack.
As with other titles in the series, The Signalman has been provided with few extras but, rather than providing unnecessary and irrelevant material, the BFI have concentrated on only two suitable bonus features:
Reading Of The Original Short Story (40m, 1.33:1 Non-Amamorphic Still Image, Mono): This is a complete reading of The Signalman by John Nettleton that demonstrates how closely the BBC's adaptation, by Andrews Davies, sticks to Dickens' original text.
Profile of Lawrence Gordon Clark (Three Pages of Still Images): This provides a brief biography for the director of The Signalman but as he was also responsible for directing A Warning To The Curious, it is duplicated from that earlier DVD release.
Dick Fiddy has supplied sleeve notes both for the original series of A Ghost Story For Christmas and this specific title. Fiddy is restricted by the lack of space on the DVD sleeve and actually provides very little information on the content of the film, preferring to discuss its origins instead.
There is also a weblink to the BFI website but it does not link to any special DVD-enabled content.
As with the rest of the BBC's A Ghost Story For Christmas, The Signalman is simply wonderful television and, once again, the BFI have issued a DVD that celebrates the English ghost story tradition but also archiving an example of why publicly-funded British television is worth holding on to.
The casual buyer may find fault with the short running time of the main feature and the lack of extras but, being honest, there simply is not that much available for The Signalman and what there is here will, I'm sure, be viewed and listened to more that once. That fact alone will ensure this disc provides more value than the many discs I own on which the main feature is watched only once, never mind the extras. As with the rest of the short ghost stories filmed by the BBC and released by the BFI, fans of The Haunting, The Uninvited or The Others will find much of interest here.