The Ghost Train Review
Arthur Askey stars as Tommy Gander, a music hall comedian on his way to a show in Cornwall when he loses his hat out of the train window and pulls the communication cord to bring the train to a stop. Ignoring the tutting of the other passengers, Gander trots down the track to retrieve his hat before blowing the guard's whistle to get the train underway once again, saying, to anyone who's prepared to listen, that a minute or two of their time is not worth worrying about. But a minute or two does matter when the train pulls into Fal Vale junction and it turns out that they've missed their connection and that there won't be another train until the following morning. If Gander wasn't popular before, he's even less so now and the odd group of travellers grumble as they settle onto the hard wooden benches of the station.
Joining Gander are Terry Deakin (Richard 'Stinker' Murdoch) who's vying with Gander for the hand of young Jackie Winthrop (Carole Lynne), travelling with her cousin, the cricketer RG Winthrop. Completing the group are the flushed Dr Sterling (Morland Graham) - the hip flask of brandy that he has with him may have something to do with the deep claret colouring to his nose - the teetotal spinster Miss Bourne (Kathleen Harrison) and a young couple Herbert (Stuart Latham) and Edna (Betty Jardine) who are due to be married in the morning. Despite Gander's best efforts to have his fellow travellers warm to him, it's made worse when the stationmaster, Saul Hodgkins (Herbert Lomas), tells them that they can't stay in the station and that they must travel to the nearest town but when he tries to arrange transport, the phone line drops out. Settling in around the fire, Hodgkins tells them why he's so anxious about their staying in the station for the night - forty-three years ago that night, a train was heading for Fal Vale station when Ted Holmes, the stationmaster who was working that night, collapsed and died before he could close the bridge near the station, which led to the death of everyone on the train but for its driver, Ben Isaacs. On some nights, the ghost train can still be heard thundering past the station bringing death to all those who have seen it.
As Hodgkins leaves, Gander and the others settle down for a meal of what they can spare from their rations - this is set during wartime, after all - and Gander entertains them with a song and dance. But as the rain gets heavier and the night grows darker, the clock strikes eleven and Saul Hodgkins stumbles into the station and collapses. As Gander says, Hodgkins died at exactly the same time as Ted Holmes did forty-three years earlier and what was already an eerily deserted station becomes distinctly frightening as history looks to be repeating itself...
If you've ever been a student, it's very likely that you'll have seen The Ghost Train, much in the same way that you'll also have seen A Country Practice, Doctors and Win, Lose Or Draw. For what is ostensibly a ghost story, it really isn't frightening, despite it being produced by Val Guest, the director of The Quatermass Xperiment and The Day The Earth Caught Fire. Equally, it isn't particularly funny either but I suspect that's due more to Arthur Askey's type of humour and how it hasn't aged at all well - think of The Fast Show's Arthur Atkinson for an equivalent to Askey's high-pitched comedy. But The Ghost Train was made more than two generations ago. It isn't even that it's of our parents' generation, more that of our grandparents and with its matter-of-fact references to the war - blackouts, rations and the greater sense of security precautions that came with war - it's a perfect film for an afternoon, being not too long, perfectly entertaining for an audience who like a song and a joke or two and with a slight chilliness that runs through it, culminating with the rattling of the windows as the ghost train passes by the station at Fal Vale. It is so well suited to the afternoon that it's surprising that this DVD release doesn't come with a sachet of Earl Gray and a Battenburg, not to mention someone who, genie-like, pops out of the DVD case to tuck you in with a nice blanket.
The Ghost Train was based on a play by Arthur Ridley, who is best remembered as Private Godfrey in Dad’s Army. The Ghost Train is his most well known play but by all accounts he made little from it, selling the rights to it early in his career. It was, though, a popular production from its first staging in 1925 through five film or television versions before this one (1927, 1929, 1931, 1937 and 1939), whereupon the material was reworked as a comedy to suit Arthur Askey. There's still plentiful chills in it, though, with the telling of the ghost story hinting at the horrors to come whilst the various twists in the plot are sometimes surprising, never better than when Price (Raymond Huntley) and his sister (Linden Travers) show up late in the film, with one breathlessly waiting on the appearance of the ghost train, shrieking that she must see it, even breaking a window to do so.
But these moments, though most welcome when they come, are few and far between compared to the comedy schtick of Arthur Askey with the success, or otherwise, of the film depending on your ability to stomach him. Personally, I don't mind Askey and he's a damn sight less objectionable than the likes of Jimmy Carr, who's spoiled many a Channel 4 show recently. Askey never even gets close to spoiling The Ghost Train and, at times, I'd even go so far as to say that he raises the occasional laugh - following an explosion in the kitchen, he appears to say, "It was only the tea-urn...I tea-urned it on!" - but it's easy to see why many would think that it's not a film that's aged well.
It is, though, undeniably of its time and the various mentions of the war as well as the year in which it was made give The Ghost Train the feeling of being an authentic wartime film with the manner in which the passengers throw in what they have for a supper about the fire being a genuine nod to the spirit of the blitz. Without giving away the ending, The Ghost Train becomes less a supernatural thriller than a wartime one but it remains an enjoyable one throughout. Moreover, though, it's a perfectly comforting film, which is really the film's greatest strength and reason enough why The Ghost Train is best remembered as an afternoon film. So I suggest having that cup of tea or coffee, that slice of cake and to enjoy The Ghost Train sinking into your sofa whilst the fire crackles and the rain pours down outside.
One becomes very familiar with the level of quality shown on recent Warner Brothers releases, such as Ben-Hur and Ryan's Daughter and although The Ghost Train is certainly not of that standard, it's plenty watchable. The softness to the picture is noticeable, however, and the contrast fades every few seconds but for anyone who remembers what archive releases were like before this recent round of High-Definition restorations, The Ghost Train won't be a problem. Similarly, the 2.0 mono audio track, though prone to pops, clicks and a noticeable amount of background hiss, is fine but could have been cleaned up a bit. What is worth drawing attention to, though, is the lack of subtitles for without making any assumptions over the likely audience for this film and their hearing, I suspect that a fair few potential buyers who are more elderly than I will be annoyed at the lack of subtitles.
There are no extras on this DVD.
In the writing of this review, I had myself convinced that a film such as this would never be as successful now, thinking that we prefer our comic actors to be actors first and comedians second. But now, I'm not so sure. It may be that a modern adaptation of The Ghost Train wouldn't do at all well in the cinemas but as a series of television specials featuring comedians of the day, it could work well as a Sunday night comedy/drama, occupying the slot currently filled so well by Geraldine McEwan's Miss Marple.
As it was once worked around Arthur Askey, I'm sure that The Ghost Train would work equally well as a vehicle for Alan Partridge, Ted and Ralph or Victor Meldrew, despite him being, well, dead. Partly, this is because The Ghost Train is a fine play within which the social mores of the time can be placed but, as shown here, it works equally well when giving the space to a comedian to work in his act, as Arthur Askey and Richard 'Stinker' Murdoch do here. As it is, The Ghost Train works well by being a comedy/supernatural thriller that works just as well being one as it does being the other, leaving it entertaining throughout, a classic of British comedy and long overdue on DVD, making it most welcome.
Last updated: 04/05/2018 02:20:24