A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS - THE ASH TREE (1975)
A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS - THE SIGNALMAN (1976)
Jolting nudity in THE ASH TREE, an extraordinary tale reminiscent of WITCHFINDER GENERAL.
THESE BBC ghost stories - both directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark - hit the ground running with their ambience of dying curses, bleak moorlands and impending doom. THE ASH TREE - from M.R. James' 1904 collection Ghost Stories of an Antiquary - tells of eighteenth-century nobleman Sir Richard Fell (Edward Petherbridge), who inherits a stately home dominated by an old Ash tree. The seat has been cursed since the day his ancestor Sir Matthew (played in flashback by Petherbridge) condemned Mistress Mothersole (Barbara Ewing) to death for witchcraft. More a tale of resurrection and an exploration in the aching loss of fertility, writer David Rudkin energises James' prose by discarding the original set of narrators in favour of a singular descent into madness, and also emphasises sexual awareness with Fell's free-spirited muse Lady Augusta (Lalla Ward). The species of Ash has inspired numerous cultural myths: in British folklore it is said that ill children could be cured by passing through the cleft of the tree; here it is a vessel that acts on the sorceress' battle cry ("Mine shall inherit"), as its branches unleash grotesque spider-babies into Sir Richard's bedroom.
Based on a Charles Dickens' short story first published in the 1866 Christmas edition of All the Year Round, THE SIGNALMAN was greatly infused with the writer's own involvement with the Staplehurst rail crash of June 1865. The most critically acclaimed of all the BBC ghost stories, Andrew Davies' script creates a strong sense of foreboding, where the phantom is a time displacement which portends the death of a signal operator (Denholm Elliott). Very much the embodiment of the Victorian innocent, the signalman tells his story to a traveller (Bernard Lloyd) who initially scoffs at the premonitions. If James' ghosts aim to infiltrate and scar, Dickens' spectre is one that personifies overwhelming fate; the systems and technology that man creates also can suffocate and lead to unfathomable dread to come (such as the railways leading to Auschwitz, for example).
The fleeting appearance of THE SIGNALMAN's open-mouthed phantom mimics the railway tunnel and forewarns the terror to come.
If the signal operater is a tortured soul, the mystery of the traveller adds more spice to the story. Taking a cue from Dickens' original text, Davies' line "I've been confined but now I am free" leads the viewer to surmise if the character is referring to his working background, a spell in prison, or even he has escaped a stifling marriage; as David Kerekes states in Creeping Flesh Volume 1, "maybe there is something in the latter, given that Charles Dickens wrote The Signal-Man following his own escape from a bad train wreck ... in the company of his mistress." The television adaptation is at times so ambiguous and in limbo it adds to its surreal vacuum; even the inn where the traveller is staying is shrouded in fog, and no other guests are present. Lloyd's role may well be "the straight man," but by the end his face takes on the attitude of the phantom, perhaps signifying that the traveller himself is a visitation and harbinger of death.