A Warning To The Curious Review
As with the review of the BFI's issue of Jonathan Miller's 1968 version of Whistle And I'll Come To You, A Warning To The Curious is an adaptation of an MR James story. Unlike the earlier tale, adapted in 1968 for its Omnibus strand of arts programming, A Warning To The Curious was produced by the BBC for its annual A Ghost Story For Christmas in 1972, the second of a series that began on Christmas Eve in 1971.
A Warning To The Curious was the title story in a collection of six tales of the supernatural published in 1925 having been independently published in the London Mercury some years before. It was MR James' tale of archeology and the conflict between ancient, pre-Christian beliefs and modern religion. Being MR James, there is also the ever-present sense of horrors unseen, shadows flitting across the night sky and of spectres barely within earshot but just detectable against the sounds of an English night.
A Warning To The Curious concerns the three ancient crowns of Norfolk, each one said to guard the shores of Norfolk and England from invasion. Two crowns have been lost - one was dug up, removed from the county and melted down in 1687 and another into the encroaching sea - but until now, there have only been rumours surrounding the location of this last crown. However, when Paxton (Peter Vaughn), an amateur archeologist from London, arrives at the train station in Seaburgh for a short holiday, the suspicions of the locals are aroused when he begins enquiring about William Ager, the last known guardian of the third crown, now dead some number of years. Paxton disregards both the objections of the local community and the myths surrounding the crown but before long, he hears the wheezing of a spirit close behind him and the closer he gets to his prize, the closer the guardian approaches...
The original short story is a rather warm tale compared to the rest of MR James' work. A Warning To The Curious is told from the point of view of an unnamed narrator who is on holiday in the town of Seaburgh - based on Aldeburgh - with his friend, Dr Henry Long. There they meet the only other resident of the hotel - Paxton. There are many similarities between the original story and the BBC's adaptation from that point on but there are as many more differences including losing the narrator and the renaming of Dr Henry Long to Dr Black (Clive Swift). Otherwise, the main differences between the two are that the BBC adaptation adds a stronger plot and one more suited to a television drama than James' original story could provide. For example, the short story already has Paxton in possession of the crown whereas the film begins with a slightly unnecessary prologue set twenty years before the main story that shows, quite graphically, the extent to which the guardians will protect the location of the third crown. None of the liberties taken with the original text are out of spirit with James' original tale and the feeling is that the director, Lawrence Gordon Clark, has been as faithful as was possible.
In the principal roles - and it is a very small cast - Vaughn and Swift do an excellent job. Initially, the two men only pass the time with one another, including some reticence on the part of Vaughn but as his character becomes ever more terrified of the spirit he has disturbed, Swift becomes his only ally in a community that distrusts him. As the film progresses, Vaughn and Swift become inseparable with the former relying wholly on the latter to retain some part of his sanity. The real star, though, is Lawrence Gordon Clark, the director, writer and producer of A Warning To The Curious. Clark never wastes a moment in either his writing or directing with each scene and line of dialogue serving only to move the film on. Such is this impression that the viewer will hear a line from Swift to Vaughn or see a a single shot that changes the entire story, sometimes immediately, sometimes only after fifteen or twenty minutes have passed. Clark also impresses on the viewer certain ideas, leaving them guessing as to how the film will resolve itself only to surprise the viewer whilst remaining consistent with everything that happened previously.
There are, however, moments that stop this from film from being recommended without question. For a start, the prologue has the touch of a cheap slasher movie about it as an unnamed archeologist is slain by William Ager and the ability of the actors beyond Vaughn and Swift is open to question. Still, these are minor objections in a film that adds to the source material in such a way that rarely feels out of place and, after watching it, had this viewer going back to the original story to read it once more. The build up of tension is very well handled and there are a sufficient number of small moments of an English village life to open the story up beyond the oppressive atmosphere of Paxton's search for the lost crown of Norfolk. As with Whistle And I'll Come To You and the rest of MR James' legacy, A Warning To The Curious is a wonderful example of English storytelling and Lawrence Gordon Clark has produced a similarly great example of what British television can do when it is required to do no more than present a superb story, simply told.
A Warning To The Curious was originally filmed on videotape but, looking at it now, the picture is contains soft and fuzzy exterior shots with harsh, poorly lit interiors. Then again, the film would have been presented in this manner in its original broadcast in 1972 so the BFI's transfer is not one that can be overly criticised.
As the film progresses, though, the dialogue hints that such a look may be deliberate. For example, when Swift says that he finds it difficult to tell where the beach ends and the sky and the sea begin, the subsequent view is very soft indeed but serves to confirm this view from shore. Again, in an earlier scene, when Swift first meets Vaughn, it is difficult to tell exactly who it is that is approaching but Vaughn's opening comment confirms that we were not meant to know who it was, as he didn't. Of course, much of this dialogue - not present in MR James's original story - may have been deliberately added to impress on the viewer this very opinion, knowing that video was never going to be particularly technically impressive but I'm prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt here.
Otherwise, the DVD has been transferred in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. There are no chapter stops.
As with Whistle And I'll Come To You, the soundtrack to A Warning To The Curious is really quite wonderful with long periods of silence allowing room for the eerie sounds of the coast to be heard, including the screech of gulls, the wash of waves on the beach and the wind that whips inland. The interior scenes, on the other hand, are soundtracked by the ticking of grandfather clocks and cracking of an open fire. The whole film is wonderfully reminiscent of the very series - A Ghost Story For Christmas - for which this film was produced and is best watched late at night with the lights dimmed.
The soundtrack is been presented here, as it was originally, in English Mono but is without subtitles.
The BFI Archive Television series has a problem in that it often contains titles for which few extras are available and A Warning To The Curious is no exception. Still, to their credit, the BFI have chosen not to release a DVD that is completely absent of extras, adding the following to the main feature:
Reading Of The Original Short Story (43m51s, 1.33:1 Non-Amamorphic Still Image, Mono): This is a complete reading of A Warning To The Curious by Michael Hordern, who performs wonderfully in capturing the warmth of the fireside telling of the original tale. This might be an obvious extra but it is a most welcome one.
Profile of Lawrence Gordon Clark (Three Pages of Still Images): This provides a brief biography for the director of A Warning To The Curious and who was involved in A Ghost Story For Christmas from its very beginning, coming up with the concept when he worked in the BBC's General Features department.
Biography of MR James (Two Pages of Still Images): This is a very short biography of the writer of A Warning To The Curious taken from the few scraps of information that is available and covering much of the same information as is available elsewhere, including DVD Times' review of Whistle And I'll Come To You.
Dick Fiddy has supplied sleeve notes both for the original series of A Ghost Story For Christmas and this specific title. Unlike many other titles in the Archive Television series from the BFI, the sleeve notes on the title feature are not extensive, barely filling one column on the facing-page inset to an Amaray DVD case but the notes presented for A Ghost Story For Christmas, whilst being only slightly longer, have much more content including the listing of all stories filmed for the series.
There is also a weblink to the BFI website but it does not link to any special DVD-enabled content.
The BFI should be praised for releasing such a wonderful example of the English ghost story tradition if not providing a disc packed with extras. Still, finding any extras for a film that no matter how superb, is only a very minor entry in the history of British television is still to be applauded. As anyone reading my review of Whistle And I'll Come To You will be able to tell, I am foremost a fan of MR James and gladly purchased this disc to add to my collection of his work. However, I'm not sure that a casual buyer would find the same appeal in this title. My recommendation, therefore, is qualified by saying that A Warning To The Curious is wonderful but that it may only hold limited interest to anyone who is unfamiliar with MR James, the shorter form of the English ghost story or the restoration of classic British television. To anyone else, whose interest is piqued by any of the above, there will be much to savour here.