The first two of the BBC’s 1970s Ghost Stories for Christmas, adapted from stories by M.R. James, released on DVD by the BFI.
The BBC ran a Ghost Story for Christmas every year from 1971 to 1978, and these eight short films (five from M.R. James stories, one from Dickens, two from original scripts) make up the second, third and fourth of the BFI’s five DVD releases and eventual box set. Jonathan Miller’s 1968 Whistle and I’ll Come to You anticipated their style and mood, but these films are the core of this set: if they were not so well regarded and remembered, the mid-2000s attempt to revive the series (which make up the fifth disc, plus the 2010 Whistle, which is included with Miller’s version on the first) would most likely not have happened. And the important name here is that of Lawrence Gordon Clark, who produced and directed the first seven of these eight, and wrote the scripts for the first two.
Born in 1938, Clark began his television career by making documentaries, but he had ambitions to direct drama. He had been an admirer of James’s stories since schooldays and in 1971, impressed by Miller’s adaptation three years earlier, pitched the idea of adapting another James story to Paul Fox, the then controller of the BBC1. Fox gave him the go-ahead. Clark’s choice amongst James’s work was “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral”, which in its adaptation (by Clark, credited onscreen as producer and director but not as scriptwriter) shed the last word of its title.
The Stalls of Barchester (45:15)
“The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral” was first published in Contemporary Review under the even longer title of “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral: Materials for a Ghost Story” in 1910 and was included the following year in James’s second collection More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. Like many of James’s works it is a story told within a story with a narrator, Dr Black (Clive Swift) piecing together the strange fate of Archdeacon Haynes (Robert Hardy). Like Whistle, it’s a tale of an inanimate object – the wooden stalls of the title – harbour uncanny, even demonic, forces.
Clark’s film took a lot of pointers from Miller’s, including shooting on location (Norwich, which had been the inspiration for the fictional Barchester) and using 16mm film rather than videotape. However, colour had by now arrived on both BBC channels (and also ITV) and John McGlashan shot Stalls in colour. No doubt the majority of viewers in 1971 would have been watching in black and white, but subsequent repeats (and indeed this DVD) allow us to appreciate McGlashan’s work, not to mention the expertise the BBC provided in period/historical production (the framing story is updated to the 1930s. Haynes’s story to the 1870s) and costume design, despite the tiny budget. Given the film’s late-night showing time, there was less need to fit neatly into a predetermined scheduling slot, so Clark was at liberty to run as short or as long as he needed to. In fact, Stalls is the second-longest of the 70s run of Ghost Stories for Christmas after its successor A Warning to the Curious (more of which below), with later ones coming in between half an hour and forty minutes. Even so, Clark paces the story expertly. This film contains one of the creepiest cats you’ll ever see and builds up to a climactic scene that will raises the hairs on the back of your neck.
The lead performances by Hardy and Swift are as solid as you would expect. Further down the cast list you’ll find Harold Bennett, who took up acting in his retirement and is best known for comic roles in Are You Being Served? and Dad’s Army, as Haynes’s hapless predecessor Archdeacon Pulteney. There’s also a link back to Whistle in the casting of Ambrose Coghill as a museum curator. And this is a rare credit for Derek Ware’s stunt group Havoc outside Doctor Who.
Broadcast on Christmas Eve 1971, The Stalls of Barchester was a success and Clark was commissioned to produce another James adaptation for the festive season the following year. This time, Clark is credited as writer and producer but not as director.
A Warning to the Curious (50:07)
“A Warning to the Curious” is a later James story, first appearing in the London Mercury in 1925 and then being reprinted as the title story of James’s collection in the same year. Unlike the stories written in the early years of the twentieth century or the last years of the nineteenth, it has a more or less contemporary setting (post World War I) and even includes such new-fangled technology as a camera. Again, it’s told indirectly. Set in “Seaburg” in Suffolk (with an H on the end in James, inspired by Aldeburgh), it concerns a man called Paxton (Peter Vaughan who, being in his late forties, is older than in the original) who hears of a legend of three crowns from the old kingdom of East Anglia, buried long ago and intended to protect the land from invasion. Only one is left, and Paxton is determined to find it.
You can sense a growing confidence in Clark’s adaptation of the story. Necessarily, he simplifies the multiple levels of narration. He places the focus on Paxton. James’s narrator, to whom Paxton tells his story, becomes Dr Black (Clive Swift reprising his role from Stalls), coming in halfway through. Clark also adds an opening scene where an earlier archaeologist meets an untimely end at the hands of the crown’s guardian William Ager (a superbly sinister John Kearney).
A Warning to the Curious was again broadcast late at night on Christmas Eve. 1972 was a bumper year for fans of the small-screen supernatural. Warning was preceded by the seven-part anthology series Dead of Night, of which sadly only three survive (any chance of them getting a DVD release?), and was followed on Christmas Day by Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape, which was originally intended as an eighth Dead of Night story. Admittedly I’ve only seen The Exorcism out of the Dead of Night series and find The Stone Tape somewhat overpraised, but Warning does stand out in this company, not least because it was shot on film on location, rather than on videotape in the studio as were the others. The longest of the 70s Ghost Stories, it is still confidently paced and unsettling if less overtly scary (at least to me) than Stalls. Again it benefits from McGlashan’s camerawork, of an autumnal Norfolk rather than wintry Suffolk, and strong performances.Peter Vaughan is an actor best known for his hard-man roles in either drama or comedy (he’d just done Straw Dogs and would go on to play Grout in Porridge – he’s still active in his late eighties, appearing recently in Game of Thrones) but he brings a sensitivity to the role of a scholar whose avarice is the undoing of him. Dick Manton’s discordant music score is another plus.
This second DVD release in the BRI’s release of the BBC Ghost Stories is dual-layered and encoded for Region 2 only. Affiliate links refer to the single-disc release: for those for the eventual box set (released on 22 October), go here.
A Warning to the Curious was previously released on DVD by the BFI in 2002 and the review on this site that I’ve linked to is by Eamonn McCusker. This new DVD has a 12 certificate due to Stalls (the box set will carry a 15); Warning retains its PG.
Both films are transferred in a ratio of 1.33:1, with anamorphic enhancement not necessary. Both were shot in 16mm. Warning is the only one of the 70s stories to have a HD master; Stalls and the six stories on Volumes Three and Four were transferred in SD. The colours are well-conveyed – as is the grain, which becomes quite heavy sometimes, especially in Warning. (In his review, Eamonn speculates that this might have been an aesthetic choice. It may well have been, though I’m doubtful how much this would show up on a 1972 set, especially as many people – including me if I’d been old enough to stay up to watch this – were viewing in black and white and possibly even 405 lines.) Both films have incidents of print damage, minor specks and scratches but nothing too distracting.
The soundtracks are the original mono, clean and well-balanced. However, I’ll repeat my regret that the BFI have not provided subtitles for the hard-of-hearing.
Both films are preceded by optional introductions by Lawrence Gordon Clark (9:31 and 12:08 respectively). These are best watched after the films if you haven’t seen them before and are not familiar with James’s originals, as both include plot spoilers. Clark talks about how he came to make these two stories, and was allowed to even though he went over budget on both occasions. He praises the BBC’s allowing for experiment and possible failure, such as in the long shooting time (eighteen days) he was given for Warning.
None of the extras from the 2002 release of Warning have been carried over to this new release. The text-screen biography of James and profile of Clark have been improved upon. We don’t get Michael Hordern’s reading of the original story, but instead we have the relevant two episodes of Christopher Lee’s readings (29:32 and 29:33 respectively), both directed by Eleanor Yule. These, two of four made by BBC Scotland and broadcast over the Christmas period in 2000, follow in the long tradition of telling a story to camera, which works just effectively for adults as it does for children (for example, Jackanory). These two readings (presented, like the Clark introductions, in 16:9 and anamorphically enhanced) recreate James’s famous readings at King’s College, Cambridge (“almost one hundred years ago”, not quite accurately), with Lee playing James. Lee had a personal connection to this, having met James in 1935, when Lee was a thirteen-year-old schoolboy and James was Provost of Eton, a year before his death. Lee’s readings are exemplary.
The BFI’s booklet begins with essays on the two television films, “Traces of Uneasiness: Lawrence Gordon Clark and The Stalls of Barchester” by Jonathan Rigby (which has a spoiler warning at the beginning) and “A Warning to the Curious” by Adam Easterbrook. Rigby places close attention to differences between story and film; Easterbrook puts Warning in context in a troubled time for Britain, and its place in 1972’s annus mirabilis for small-screen horror. This is followed by Robert Lloyd Parry specifically discussing the original stories. The booklet is completed by biographies of Clark, Robert Hardy, Clive Swift and Peter Vaughan, plus credits for the two films and notes on the extras and on the transfers.
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