Monday, December 1, 2014

"Traces of uneasiness impinge"


Of all the celebrated BBC ghost stories, THE STALLS OF BARCHESTER remains closest to its source material.

IT is argued that Christmas supernatural fiction can be traced to the Victorian era, a time when magic lanterns and stage magicians milked the population's craving for thrills and sensation - in contrast to the stereotypical staid prudes. With technology making printing cheaper and more accessible than ever before - not to mention fascination with spiritualism and Egyptology - Charles Dickens became the architect of things snowbound and spectral. But telling scary stories while huddling around a festive fire can be traced back in several layers: Joesph Glanvill's 1681 treatise on witchcraft Sadducismus Truimphatus had harsh words for those who dismissed the existence of unearthly powers as "meer Winter Tales, or Old Wives fables," and William Shakespeare even titled his 1623 tale of magic and transformation The Winter's Tale. Looking back to the previous century, we find Christopher Marlowe using the same notion in his 1589 play The Jew of Malta: "now I remember those old women's words, "who in my wealth would tell me winter's tales, and speak of spirits and ghosts that glide by night.""

Although THE STALLS OF BARCHESTER started the BBC ghost story strand proper, a template was in place with Jonathan Miller's 1968 OMNIBUS take on M.R. James' 'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad'. Not so much a supernatural tale than an exploration of a deteriorating academic mind, this was a loose adaptation which plays like a satire on James himself. By doing so, the production dispenses with "James' original dialogue [which was] ludicrously stilted" - to quote Miller - and consequently paints a different picture to director Lawrence Gordon Clark's take on these stories. With Clark, even in weaker moments, there is always an underlying conviction to the heritage of 'The Father of the English Ghost Story'. Yet the Jamesian ghost is hardly a spirit at all, rather demonic beings determined for retribution; as Denis Meikle states in his article 'Now is the Season to be Chilly' (The Dark Side #157, Jan/Feb 2014), James' ghosts "...were the harbingers of threat - to his faith, his beliefs, his whole way of life."

Michael Bryant in THE TREASURE OF ABBOT THOMAS rivals Denholm Elliott in the 1976 GHOST STORY entry THE SIGNALMAN as the strand's outstanding performance.

THE STALLS OF BARCHESTER - based on James' 'The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral' from his 1911 collection More Ghost Stories - was also penned by Clark, and is the most ecclesiastical of all the BBC stories. Dr Black (Clive Swift) - whilst cataloguing the Barchester Cathedral library in 1932 - is shown a diary detailing the events leading up to the death of former Archdeacon Dr Haynes (Robert Hardy). The diary implies that Haynes caused the demise of his aged predecessor Pulteney (Harold Bennett) and was haunted by carvings (of the Devil, Death and a cat) made by artisan John Austin ("they say he was blessed with second sight.") Filmed entirely on location at Norwich Cathedral, the programme adheres to James' phrase "movement without sound" with its half-seen terrors and foreboding back story. Hardy gives a staunch performance as a guilt-ridden man in increasing isolation, but scratches inflicted by a spectral hand mean this is in no way an abstract haunting...

THE TREASURE OF ABBOT THOMAS - based on James' story of the same name from his first 1904 collection, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary - is a slow-burning cryptography tale; shifting its Germanic origin to Wells Cathedral, Reverend Somerton (Michael Bryant)'s arrogance cannot overshadow a thirst for treasure - which literally meets a sticky end. Somerton is the archetypal James anti-hero: a character punished for his curiosity and disrespect towards the unearthly. James' most intricate story, John Bowen's script opens it up considerably by including a young foil (Peter, played by Paul Lavers) and sly nods to the English fascination with comfort food (slab cake and grilled chops). James' experience of the rise of spiritualism in the 1890's also sees a sardonic adage, as Somerton debunks fake mediums through the power of pure intellect. Overall this is an underrated episode, but the climactic slime has all the effectiveness of X THE UNKNOWN.