A Ghost Story for Christmas: The Tractate Middoth
The expectation, at least in our household, is that sometime soon Steven Moffat will announce he is handing on the Dr Who show-running duties to another pair of hands. The main candidates to take on this grave responsibility seem to be Chris "Broadchurch" Chibnall and Moffat's fellow Sherlock conspirator, Mark Gatiss. For those of us who first became aware of the latter fellow when he was selling "special stuff" and being kidnapped in the "local" shop, it's often hard to remember that he had already began his life as a writer before the League of Gentlemen made his face so widely known.
With his career as a fine character actor going well, it's intriguing to see Gatiss adding yet another string to his bow with this his first directing gig. As BBC radio's Man in Black and the writer of the fine series The Crooked House, as well as the writer/presenter of recent documentaries on horror cinema, he has clearly become the Beeb's designated scary man. Here he adds to the wonderful tradition of MR James adaptations at Christmas by both writing and directing The Tractate Middoth. This shortish adaptation is mounted quite beautifully and strewn with admirable character actors after Gatiss' own heart - John Castle, Una Stubbs, Roy Barraclough and Louise Jamieson all appear. Centre stage is given to Sacha Dhawan, who played Waris Hussein in An Adventure in Space and Time, as a keen young librarian caught up in a tale of an old book and a twisted inheritance involving the secretive Castle and the much nicer Jamieson.
For brevity's sake, a lot is crammed into 35 minutes and the action is decidedly pacey for those used to older MR James adaptations. This means that the device which brings our young librarian upon Jamieson's lodgings seems a little artificial and his desire to fight her corner against her cousin happens rather quickly as well. The key moments though, the spookiness in the library and the priestly apparition, are excellent though and Gatiss ensures we are creeped out as the story ends, ostensibly happily.Whilst not as spare as previous MR James short films by the Beeb, this is in keeping with their spirit and well acted. The writing is crisp and shows an adeptness in raising questions of anti-semitism in an otherwise faithful script. Above all, Gatiss does well as a débutant director by using familiar actors and ensuring his key set-pieces are delivered well.
So well, that it begins to beg the question as to whether he wants to be the next show-runner for the BBC's greatest asset, and whether he has the time to, what with this new interest, his ongoing other writing and his appearance in Game of Thrones. Given Chibnall did so well with The Great Train Robbery and Broadchurch and given his current prominence my money would be on him, not Gatiss, to be the next charged with providing our favourite Time-lord with adventures...
Tractate Middoth was shown on BBC2 on Christmas day 2013, followed by Gatiss in a documentary exploring MR James. Both programmes are available on iPlayer.