The final disc in the series of Ghost Stories for Christmas, with new M.R. James adaptations from 2005 and 2006.
For reviews of the four previous discs in this series, go here, here, here and here.
The Ghost Stories for Christmas ended with two original, contemporary-set stories (Stigma and The Ice House) which had received mixed reviews. Also, the series’ originator Lawrence Gordon Clark had left the BBC for a freelance career, though he had returned to direct Stigma. He had also revisited M.R. James, source material for five of the eight BBC Ghost Stories, for ITV in 1979 with an updated version of “Casting the Runes” (also the origins of the only credited big-screen adaptation of James, 1957’s Night of the Demon).
However, many people had strong memories of the BBC Ghost Stories, especially the five Jameses and The Signalman, adapted from a Dickens short story. At Christmas in 2000 for BBC2, Christopher Lee performed four readings of James stories, staged as to recreate the author’s famous readings to friends and associates. (Three of these are included as extras on these DVDs. The fourth, a reading of “The Ash-tree” could not be included due to rights issues.)
Interest in the James adaptations was no doubt fuelled by the DVD releases in 2001 and 2002 by the BFI of the 1968 Whistle and I’ll Come to You, A Warning to the Curious and The Signalman and repeat TV showings of the other 70s James adaptations. (Stigma and The Ice House have never been repeated on television to my knowledge, though.) There were plenty more James tales not yet adapted, even if you discounted the ones that would have been prohibitedly expensive, such as the Swedish-set “Count Magnus”. So, in 2005, the BBC decided to revive the series and made another Ghost Story for Christmas.
A View from a Hill (39:04)
Fanshawe (Mark Letheren) visits the home of Squire Richards (Pip Torrens), an impoverished landowner, to catalogue his archaeological collection. While being escorted around Richards’ lands, Fanshawe borrows an old pair of field glasses that had belonged to a local amateur archaologist, Baxter, who had died in mysterious circumstances. While using them to look at Gallows Hill, Fanshawe sees different things through the glasses than he does with the naked eye…
“A View from a Hill” was first published in the London Mercury in May 1925, three months before “A Warning to the Curious” appeared in the same magazine. “View” was republished in the same year in James’s collection A Warning to the Curious and Other Stories. It had never been adapted for television before. Lawrence Gordon Clark had considered it for the 70s series but had decided it would not lend itself well to adaptation. However, he praised the 2005 version, adapted by Peter Harness (his first produced script) and directed by Luke Watson. The production was done at short notice: Harness was commissioned to write his script in September 2005 and production was in November and the result was broadcast on 23 December on BBC Four.
Harness’s adaptation updates James’s story from the original period to the 1940s, no doubt due to budget constraints. There is the occasional false note: no 1940s English squire would say “gotten” as the past tense of “get” as that would very much have been an Americanism then. Inevitably, given the changes in television production since the 70s, this new version is in a sense conflicted by modernity (high-definition video, widescreen, stereo sound) and tradition (harking back not just to James but to people’s memories of the 1970s stories). But it’s a worthwhile revival, with engaging performances not just from Letheren and Torrens but also from David Burke as the Squire’s manservant Patten. It builds up to some decent scares. But, as with The Ice House, its director is not the equal of Clark, and you sense this is just missing that vital spark that the best 70s stories had.
Even so, the results were well enough received that the BBC commissioned another Ghost Story for Christmas, another M.R. James adaptation, the following year.
Number 13 (40:14)
In 1900, M.R. James took a cycling holiday in Scandinavia, and used his experiences for foreign settings for his stories. “Number 13” saw its first publication in his collection from 1904, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary and is set in Viborg, Denmark. However, for obvious budgetary reasons, this new television adaptation, scripted by Justin Hopper and directed by Pier Wilkie (who had produced A View from a Hill), could not stretch to overseas location shooting, so was made in the grounds and library of Winchester Cathedral.
Professor Anderson (Greg Wise) is booked into a hotel but asks to be upgraded to room 12. While trying to work, he is disturbed by noises from the next room – but in the morning, room 13 is not there any more….
”Number 13” had been adapted for television twice before, by NBC television in the USA in 1961 in its series Great Ghost Tales and by ABC Television in 1966 as part of its series Mystery and Imagination, which also included adaptations of “Lost Hearts” and two others not later done by the BBC, “The Tractate Middoth” and “Casting the Runes” (though the last-named was later redone for ITV as mentioned above). In both cases the story was retitled Room 13 and both are sadly no longer survive in the archives. Given the budgetary issues, this new Number 13 is a fair stab at the story, though the changing spatial sense of the hotel is beyond it. Much of the horror is conveted via the soundtrack, which underlines the point that sensory incompleteness (such as in radio, black and white film) is a powerful stimulus to the imagination and a sense of the uncanny by which supernatural horror works. Visually, the most we see is a black-gloved, giallo-like hand. As before, performances are good, though Greg Wise is a little too handsome to be quite the stuffy repressed bachelor scholar type James wrote about so frequently. David Burke makes a second appearance in the series.
In the same year as Number 13 the BBC broadcast a live version of Nigel Kneale’s script for The Quatermass Experiment (all but the first two episodes of the 1953 original being lost) and an adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s The Haunting of Toby Jugg under the title of The Haunted Airman. However, after these two attempts at reviving the 1970s James adaptations as short films, the BBC did not continue them. In 2009 they produced a feature-length version of the work of another James, Henry’s The Turn of the Screw (another ghost story told as a tale within a tale) and returned to M.R. James after a fashion the following year with Whistle and I’ll Come to You, discussed in my review of the first disc in this series. Whether the BBC will do more – there are certainly plenty of other M.R. James stories available – remains to be seen at the time of writing.
The fifth of the BFI’s Ghost Stories discs is, like the others, dual-layered and encoded for Region 2 only. It is available singly and also as part of two box sets: a collection of all five (affiliate link here) and, in the first quarter of 2013, a four-disc set The MR James Collection: Tales from the Master of the Ghost Story, which removes the fourth of the five discs of the larger collection. Affiliate links on this review refer to the single-disc edition. The box sets have one large booklet instead of five separate ones, with some essays removed.
Both A View from a Hill and Number 13 carry 12 certificates. The full box set is rated 15 because of the presence of Stigma. The M.R. James Collection set will be a 12.
Between 1978 and 2005, television technology changed. The 1970s Ghost Stories were shot on 16mm film, and while 16mm is still occasionally used in television, more and more productions are shot on video, specifically these days high-definition video. That was the case with both of the stories included on this DVD. We are also in the widescreen era, so the aspect ratio which was 1.33:1 in the 1970s is now 1.78:1, and is anamorphically enhanced on this DVD. The results are everything they should be, and certainly reflect what I saw – on a standard-def TV set at the time, admittedly – in 2005 and 2006. It’s not really filmlike – you don’t get that 16mm grain – but that’s par for the course for material like this.
Another development since the 1970s was stereo television sound. Both stories have Dolby Surround (2.0 played in ProLogic mode) soundtracks. A View to a Hill doesn’t have much in the way of surround, those speakers being used mainly for the music score. Number 13, on the other hand, does have some use of directional sound and, despite not having a LFE channel, some deep bass.
Unlike the four earlier single discs, this one does have optional English hard-of-hearing subtitles, and the box sets will have them on all discs. I did spot one error, though. In Number 13, two references to that creature of East Anglian folklore, the Black Shuck, are rendered as the “black shark”.
The only on-disc extra is the Christopher Lee reading referred to above, made as part of a series of four by BBC Scotland, directed by the appropriately-named Eleanor Yule, and broadcast over Christmas and New Year 2000. This one is Number 13 (29:21), presented in 16:9 anamorphic.
The booklet, twenty pages plus the covers, contains essays on A View from a Hill by Simon McCallum and “Shadow play: BBC Four and ‘Number 13’” by Jonathan Rigby. The usual spoiler warnings apply here. In addition there is the biography of M.R. James by Reggie Oliver which has appeared in previous booklets in this series and a look at James’s original stories by Robert Lloyd Parry. In addition there are credits for both stories, credits for the Christopher Lee reading plus notes on this by Jonathan Rigby, and transfer notes and DVD credits.
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