The third volume of the BFI’s DVD releases of the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas takes us from 1973 to 1975, with three tales adapted from M.R. James.
This is the third of five reviews of the BFI’s DVD releases of the BBC’s Ghost Stories. For the reviews of the first two, go here and here,
Lost Hearts (34:51)
A Warning to the Curious had been a great success, attracting an audience of over nine million after 11 at night. At the time, Lawrence Gordon Clark was working for the BBC’s Documentaries department, but with Lost Hearts, the now-annual Ghost Story for Christmas came under the banner of the BBC Drama department. This meant that while Clark continued to direct, Rosemary Hill became the producer, and Clark no longer wrote the scripts himself. The first film under this arrangement was Lost Hearts, adapted by Robin Chapman. Chapman had a solid career, often specialising in the crime genre (I discuss his work in my review of two of his 1960s serials, Big Breadwinner Hog and Spindoe.) As those two distinctly adult stories show, he wasn’t squeamish and his leanings towards the macabre would later show in the many episodes he wrote later for Tales of the Unexpected.
“Lost Hearts” was one of M.R. James’s earliest stories, first read aloud in 1893 and published in Pall Mall Magazine in 1895, featuring in James’s first collection Ghost Stories of an Antiquary nine years later. While its horror is more overt, and gruesome, than many of his later works, it shows that James’s technques were already largely in place: the scholarly tone, of piecing together the story from people’s recountings and written records, the tales within tales, are all there. It is a story of childhood, with Chapman’s adaptation putting us in the viewpoint Stephen (Simon Gipps-Kent), just about to turn twelve, recently orphaned and living with his uncle Mr Abney (Joseph O’Conor). But who are the two children, a boy and a girl, whom Stephen sees in the house? And what are Mr Abney’s real plans?
Well, I won’t spoil it for those unfamiliar with the story, but it leads up to a suitably gory finale. Joseph O’Conor’s performance is exemplary, eccentric affability hiding something much darker. Clark’s direction, some well-chosen locations and the fine work of regular film cameraman John McGlashan (who photographed all of Clark’s James adaptations) add to the effect. And those two children are truly creepy.
The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (36:51)
“The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” first saw print in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary and is another essay in how intellectual curiosity can so easily cross over into destructive greed. However, unlike Mr Abney, the Reverend Justin Somerton (Michael Bryant) is not the villain but the protagonist, but in his search for the hidden treasure of the fifteenth-century abbot of the title he equally brings disaster on himself.
John Bowen adapted James’s story. He had been active as a writer since 1960, and continued to the end of the 1990s. His 1970 Play for Today, Robin Redbreast was an earlier notable exercise in the macabre, and he had contributed to the 1972 anthology series Dead of Night he would come back to write the last 70s Ghost Story for Christmas, The Ice House, an original story this time, which I will discuss in my review of the fourth DVD in the series. Many distinguished actors appeared in the 70s Ghost Stories, but Michael Bryant was one of the most distinguished. He had made his name as the son in Talking to a Stranger, John Hopkins’s four-part serial from 1966 and was memorable as a POW imitating insanity with disastrous results in the “Tweedledum” episode of Colditz. In the horror genre, he had had a leading role two years before in The Stone Tape. In a series with many strong performances, Bryant’s stands out, though maybe matched two years later by Denholm Elliott’s in The Signalman.
Clark and McGlashan make good use of the architecture and grounds of Wells Cathedral, including one very sinister gargoyle. Abbot Thomas also has the first composed music score of the series, an early commission for Geoffrey Burgon. While you could argue that this is one of the most restrained of the Ghost Stories in its visual horrors, it’s as well-crafted as any of them.
The Ash Tree (31:53)
“The Ash-tree” (first published in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, its title repunctuated for television) was a story that Clark had particularly wanted to film. Sir Richard Fell (Edward Petherbridge) comes arrives at the stately home he had inherited, and is due to marry Augusta (an early role for Lalla Ward). The house is dominated by a large ash tree, and as Richard delves into his family history, he uncovers a story of a woman, Anne Mothersole (Barbara Ewing), hanged as a witch by his ancester Sir Matthew (Petherbridge again) and who cursed him and his descendants.
The adaptation this time was the work of David Rudkin, a writer much exercised by the darker side of British rural traditions and the impact of these archetypal patterns on the present. He made his name as a stage playwright, with the then-controversial Afore Night Come in 1962, and began to write for television as well as the theatre shortly afterwards. His best-known small-screen work is Penda’s Fen, a highly ambitious 1974 Play for Today, directed (on film) by Alan Clarke. Rudkin and Clark accentuate the sexual tension implicit in the original, including the series’ first nude scene. In his introduction, Clark considers that he and Rudkin were a little at odds with James, with their 1970s sensibilities seeing Anne Mothersole as more of a victim rather than the malign force that James portrayed her as. Even so, The Ash Tree builds to a gruesome finale, and shares with one other of the Ghost Stories (I won’t say which, to avoid spoilers) in resolving on the discovery of a buried skeleton.
The third volume in the BFI’s Ghost Story series is a dual-layered DVD encoded for Region 2 only. There will also be a boxset of all five discs. For affiliate links for the boxset go here. Lost Hearts and The Ash Tree earn this DVD its 12 certificate, and the boxset has a 15. The Treasure of Abbot Thomas is PG-rated.
All three films were shot in 16mm and are presented on DVD in their correct ratio of 1.33:1 without anamorphic enhancement. They do show some minor speckling here and there but nothing too distracting. The images are inevitably softer and grainier than 35mm- or HD-sourced items would be, but that’s inherent in the original materials, and that’s the way they have always looked. In fact, they probably look better than they would have done at the time, given the advances of television technology in the nearly forty years since. (Don’t forget that many people would still be watching these films in black and white and even on 405-line televisions.)
The soundtracks are the original mono, and are clear and well-balanced, especially when you consider how important sound is to effective horror. There are no subtitles for the hard-of-hearing on the single DVDs, but the boxset discs will have them.
The only on-screen extras are optional introductions to each film by Lawrence Gordon Clark, running 10:50, 10:39, and 8:05 respectively. Each one begins with a well-deserved spoiler warning, so don’t watch them if you haven’t seen the films or read the stories before. Clark gets through a lot in the short running times, detailing how each film came about, including several anecdotes from the set. (His request to film Abbot Thomas at Wells Cathedral was originally turned down flat, as the Cathedral had objected to what Pasolini had shot there for The Canterbury Tales.) He says he would like to fix a few things about Abbot Thomas as he did not have as much time as he would have liked, and considers The Ash Tree one of the less successful James adaptations.
In 2000, Christopher Lee made four half-hour dramatisations of M.R. James’s legendary readings for BBC Scotland. These were broadcast over the Christmas and New Year holiday period that year, and three of them have been included on the appropriate DVDs in this series. However, the fourth, The Ash Tree has not been included due to rights issues.
The booklet contains essays on all three films, by Ramsey Campbell (spoiler warning) for Lost Hearts, by Alex Davidson for Abbot Thomas and by Dick Fiddy for The Ash Tree. In addition there is a two-page biography of James by Reggie Oliver (also in the booklet for Volume 1), a biography of Clark by Simon Farquhar concentrating on the three films in this booklet, Robert Lloyd Parry on the original stories, stills, a reproduction of one of Clark’s storyboards for Abbot Thomas and film and DVD credits.
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