Saturday, December 1, 2012

"What a strange evening it is"


Peter Vaughan plays a treasure hunter stalked by an 
ancient protector in A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS.

EACH Christmas from 1971 to 1978, the BBC broadcast late night, self-contained supernatural dramas which would become known under the umbrella of A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS. The first five episodes were all based on stories by M.R. James - THE STALLS OF BARCHESTER, A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS, LOST HEARTS, THE TREASURE OF ABBOT THOMAS and THE ASH TREE. Charles Dickens' THE SIGNALMAN was chosen for the 1976 episode, but the final two installments were original teleplays in contemporary settings: Clive Exton's STIGMA and John Bowen's THE ICE HOUSE. The first seven entries were directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, and the transmissions under consideration here are two of the most fondly remembered and pivotal in the evolution of the series. A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS is a masterpiece and, considering it was broadcast between 11.05 and 11.55pm on Christmas Eve 1972, attracted an astonishing nine million viewers. Because of its critical and public success, all subsequent entries were shifted from General Features to the BBC's Drama department proper, and as Clark has lamented, despite larger budgets, his vision for the tales was suddenly imposed upon by screenwriters and script editors.

A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS tells of Mr Paxton (Peter Vaughan) - a clerk who has lost his job in the depression - travelling to the East Anglian coast hoping to discover a last surviving Saxon crown, one of three that were put in place to protect England from invasion. Following in the footsteps of an archaeologist who was murdered twelve years previously, Paxton boards in a hotel which only has one other guest, Dr Black (Clive Swift, playing a returning character from THE STALLS OF BARCHESTER). Increasingly haunted by a mysterious figure, which may be the ghost of William Ager whose job was to guard the relics, Paxton actually finds them then - with the aid of Dr Black - returns the crown, only to be bludgeoned to death at the point of excavation. Black leaves on a train, with the station guard opening the carriage door under the misapprehension that there was someone wishing to board the same compartment...

LOST HEARTS ghost children Giovanni and Phoebe - played by Christopher Davis and Michelle Foster - peer through windows with their Chinaman's Fingernails, drawing on the age-old fallacy that fingernails continue to grow after death.

Inspired by the bleak open beaches and isolation of Jonathan Miller's OMNIBUS adaptation of James' 'Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad,' A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS works both as a classic ghost story and as an enduring piece of drama. As David Kerekes notes in Creeping Flesh: The Horror Fantasy Film Book Volume 1, the chilling shot of a man hunched over in Paxton's hotel room predates the finale of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT by close on thirty years, and the sequence where Paxton encounters a machete-bearing farmer is an illustration of how an effectively-staged scene can win over anything effects-laden. What makes Paxton's demise all the more starling is that you feel for a man who just wants to make a name for himself, driven by hurt pride rather than by any malicious intent. Surprisingly, the biggest change from the source story is Paxton himself: far from Vaughan's down-trodden, working-class adventurer, the Paxton of the original tale - first published in 1925 - is young and scholarly. This leaves another layer to the printed story's undertones of post-WWI invasion and young lives lost.

LOST HEARTS, written by Robin Chapman, is based on one of James' earliest and less subtle tales. In fact, the writer once told his illustrator James McBryde that he "didn't care much about it," and the story was only included in his first collection at the insistence of the publisher. Stephen (Simon Gripps-Kent) is sent to live with his eccentric relative Mr Abney (Joseph O’Conor). Stephen is haunted by the spirits of two children - both orphans like himself who had briefly lived at the house - and learns that Abney dabbles in ritual sacrifice to seek immortality. The ghostly children are wondrous, swaying in unison to ethereal hurdy-gurdy music, but away from the obvious Faustian element there is a child abuse sub-text that won't go away, no matter how often Clark denies this oft-made reading. Instead, the director sees it as a children's fear of monsters and that "[their] father or mother may turn into an ogre or a witch."