Amazingly, it seems there are still people out there excitedly awaiting the unveiling of the festive schedules on the mainstream TV channels, as though the DVD box-set or streaming sites cease to exist on at midnight on 24 December, and for the duration of Christmas Day the only option for visual entertainment will be to watch the seasonal special of a BBC1 or ITV show nobody wants to watch the rest of the year. Even as far back as the late 80s, the one-time dominance of television to provide the masses with their yuletide viewing habits was being eroded by the gift-wrapped live comedy video, which would be shoved into the VCR instead of sitting through an over-familiar Bond movie or second-guessing which character would top themselves on the Xmas ‘Eastenders’. Television’s unchallenged power to monopolise leisure time on 25 December was broken long before the novelty of a Christmas Day terrestrial film premiere was rendered redundant by multiple means of seeing said movie months in advance of BBC1 getting hold of it. In a way, I suspect broadcasters are more aware of this than they let on, which is probably why they put so little effort into their Christmas output now than they used to; why waste time and money making festive telly people might want to watch when the people are planning their own personal schedules?
Like most unburdened by ‘family get-togethers’, I myself have the luxury of not having to take anyone else’s taste into account; I could watch ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ at 2.00 in the afternoon on Christmas Day if I wanted to. I don’t, but that’s not the point. Instead, I’ll no doubt dip into those neglected gems from the TV archive that the BBC will only trot out occasionally; indeed, what better way to feel seasonal without opting for the obvious than revisiting the fondly-recalled ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’ series that annually aired on or around Xmas Eve from 1971 to 1978? An author whose low-key spine-chillers always appear best served by the small screen, M.R. James provided this series with the stories that comprised the first five entries, beginning with ‘The Stalls of Barchester’ in 1971; with its characteristically creepy Victorian setting, the chills are masterfully achieved on a shoestring budget, and though this psychological horror starring Robert Hardy as an Archdeacon tormented by voices and glimpses of imagined spectres in the shadows was intended as a one-off, it prompted a follow-up the following Christmas and swiftly established a tradition that spanned seven years.
There’d been successful televisual attempts to illustrate James’s talent for unsettling the reader prior to the start of this series; in 1968, Jonathan Miller directed an especially nightmarish adaptation of ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ in which Michael Horden’s twitchy academic suffers uncomfortably realistic nightmares during a spell on vacation in coastal Suffolk. It followed a familiar James path of placing pompous clergymen and dons in positions of peril, confronted by the consequences of their hubris when up against supernatural forces. ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’ (as it was re-titled) made enough of an impact at the time to warrant further James adaptations, though by the time ‘The Stalls of Barchester’ appeared, television had grown out of its monochrome roots and director of all-but one of the BBC Ghost Stories, Lawrence Gordon Clark, made full use of colour location filming in East Anglia to visualise James’s written words. Perhaps the finest example of this came with his second outing, 1972’s ‘A Warning to the Curious’, in which Peter Vaughan stars as an amateur archaeologist in search of the lost crown of the Saxon kingdoms; against all odds, he discovers it, though he bargains without the presence of the crown’s guardian, an out-of-focus figure who pursues Vaughan’s character even when he is convinced enough of the trophy’s curse to return it to its burial place. It remains a uniquely eerie 50 minutes that hasn’t lost its ability to unnerve.
By the time of the third entry in the series, ‘Lost Hearts’, the annual Ghost Story was in danger of becoming as much of a Christmas tradition as the Xmas Day ‘Top of the Pops’ or ‘The Morecambe and Wise Show’ – albeit an alternative sedative to the usual festive cheer, reconnecting with a gleefully disturbing Victorian and Edwardian sensibility which had been lost in the wholesome Americanisation of the season that had become the norm by the late 20th century. 1974’s ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’ returned to recognisable M.R. James territory by featuring Michael Bryant as a smug medieval scholar looking for the lost fortune of a disgraced cleric; when he finds it, the ramifications of his avarice reduce him to a gibbering victim of his own superior attitude towards the unknown. The following year’s ‘The Ash Tree’ delves even deeper into pagan superstition, recalling the witch-hunts of the 17th century and evoking primal arachnophobia with the mutant ‘spiders’ lurking in the tree of the title. However, by 1976 the M.R. James adaptations were deemed worn-out and the series then turned to a short story by Charles Dickens, ‘The Signalman’.
An early outing for the now-veteran TV adaptor of classic fiction Andrew Davies, ‘The Signalman’ features Denholm Elliott as the title character who recounts a bloody train crash on the line outside his signal-box to an unnamed traveller, an event that continues to haunt him in his solitary exile from society. The fact the original story was penned a year after Dickens himself survived similar carnage on a train travelling through Staplehurst in Kent is probably no coincidence, but it certainly taps into the nightmares that remained with the author until his premature death on the fifth anniversary of the incident in 1870. The television adaptation of ‘The Signalman’ bears the same psychological tropes that opened the series with ‘The Stalls of Barchester’ five years previously, and is – along with ‘A Warning to the Curious’ and ‘The Treasure of Abbott Thomas’ – perhaps the most effectively chilling of all the entries in the series.
In 1977, the series received something of a contemporary makeover by dispensing with adaptations of classic authors and commissioning a newly-written story set in the present day, ‘Stigma’; although this tale, starring the dependable Peter Bowles, has its moments by calling upon the same pagan myths that fuelled ‘The Ash Tree’, a key element of the series is lost by relocating events to the here and now, and the trend was carried over into the following year’s ‘The Ice House’, the final Ghost Story of the 70s run. Bar the odd repeat screening, the tradition was discontinued for several decades until BBC4 decided to revive the series during the period when the channel was producing daring drama the mainstream channels had largely abandoned. 2005’s adaptation of a previously-untouched M.R. James story, ‘A View from a Hill’, managed to retain the creepiness of the 1970s adaptations as well as adding a slicker look and feel that made the revival more than merely a nostalgic rehash. It worked well enough to lead to another James adaptation the year after (‘Number 13’) and the series has continued off and on ever since. A new instalment is scheduled for this year, hot on the heels of last year’s ‘The Mezzotint’, and all (bar one) have been derived from the works of the master, M.R. James.
Post-lockdown, the ongoing ‘things can only get worse’ mood of the nation has led to an annual ‘Oh, well – let’s just enjoy Christmas’ attitude that obscures the fact that, for many, this is a time of year when detachment from one’s fellow man is intensified by an overemphasis on convivial group gatherings that not everyone is party to. The likes of ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’ serves as a much-needed antidote to such facile clichés and any addition to a series that now stretches back half-a-century is a welcome – not to say rare – contribution from mainstream broadcasters that acknowledges the needs of viewers for more than a Christmas ‘Strictly’ special to lure them away from online attractions. Long may it continue.
VICTOR LEWIS-SMITH (1957-2022)
A shadowy, near-mythical figure whose brilliantly offensive and near-the-knuckle manipulations of archive TV illuminated late-night Channel 4 back in the days when the station had balls, Victor Lewis-Smith was also renowned as a witty, sardonic journalist for publications as varied as the Daily Mirror, the Evening Standard and Private Eye. His death at the age of 65 will probably pass most people by, but his pioneering prank calls (which were unremittingly amusing, if deliciously beyond the pale) paved the way for the likes of Ali G; I particularly recall his call to Hughie Green in the late 90s, when he asked the one-time ‘Opportunity Knocks’ host if he’d ever f***ed Lena Zavaroni, which provoked laughter from Green rather than apoplexy. His call to Michael Winner was even better; if Lewis-Smith’s ‘TV Offal’ series is still available on YT, track it down; it also features the Gay Daleks. Say no more. The Winegum salutes you as a master satirist, sir.
© The Editor