Friday, 18 November 2016
‘And yet, traces of uneasiness impinge’: Lawrence Gordon Clark’s Ghost Stories for Christmas
This essay takes a look at that run of gleaming dark miniatures that Lawrence Gordon Clark made for the BBC’s ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’ series in the 1970s, beginning with The Stalls of Barchester in 1971.
It was Clark himself who suggested an MR James adaptation as suitable Christmas fare for that year. The producer agreed, Clark was given a budget and a free hand, and, as he says, left to ‘sink or swim’. The result, The Stalls of Barchester, was shot in 10 days on location for the sum of £8,000. It’s a rather ingenious piece of work that sets the tone for the adaptations which followed. Indeed, reading the original story is to realise just what a well-scripted and fittingly designed adaptation it is – truthful to the register of the story but not following it with too dogged a devotion and allowing the opportunities of a different medium to bring it to life. Clark rightly praises the contribution to his series of films made by cameraman John McGlashan and sound recordist Dick Manton, both of whom worked on all of the James adaptations up to 1975’s The Ash Tree. Nowhere are their contributions more evident than in The Stalls of Barchester. Unafraid to film in the deepest shadow, lit only by lamp or candle, McGlashan’s lighting is as low as it dare go, all the better to reinforce the solitude of the haunted Archdeacon in his large house, while layered snatches of sounds assail him from the staircase and passageways.
The quality of the production commences with the opening credits, as the focus is tightened on Clark’s new character of Dr Black, played by Clive Swift, the researcher who will discover and interpret the Archdeacon’s story. He is pictured first through an ancient flint window, then through a grand entrance to the cathedral, then a smaller gateway until he finally enters the low-ceilinged cathedral library, there to catalogue what at first seems to be a ‘profoundly uninteresting’ collection. Until, that is, the librarian shows him the chest containing the papers of the late Archdeacon Haynes, whose troubled thoughts and curious end now take over the narrative. It’s filmed from interesting angles – a conversation between Dr Black and the librarian is shown from beneath Haynes’ chest of papers, while the photography – rather like Dr Black himself in fact – focuses close on the details, the dust and the bindings of his work. Later too, on the Archdeacon’s shaking hand holding out a taper to light a final candle against the dark of his misdeed.
The Stalls of Barchester set something of a template for the films that followed. It has a strong central performance, here from Robert Hardy, whose Archdeacon’s pride and barely-concealed vanity crumble as he faces the terrors of loneliness brought on by his guilt. It also has memorable cameos in the service of the film, notably here Martin Hoyle’s creepy, servile verger, who manages to be both subservient and superior at one and the same time when talking to the Archdeacon. There is a sense of restraint in the tale’s telling which only heightens the feeling of dark, elemental forces arrayed against marked humans whose attempts to avert their fate are futile; this is backed up by telling details such as a close-up of a choirboy’s face as if he is regarding the Archdeacon with interest, having heard rumours. There are also one or two deliciously wicked cuts - such as when we move from old Archdeacon Pulteney’s lifeless, staring head at the bottom of the stairs down which he has just fatally tumbled, straight to the Archdeacon’s sister, Letitia, cracking her breakfast egg.
The following year’s James adaptation, A Warning to the Curious, in which an amateur archaeologist, Paxton, heads to the Norfolk coast, drawn by the lure of treasure in the form of a buried Anglo Saxon crown, also features the ‘irritable intelligence’ – Lawrence Gordon Clark’s words – of Clive Swift, whose character of Dr Black happens to be holidaying in the same hotel as Peter Vaughan’s archaeologist. The film was given the go-ahead the month after The Stalls of Barchester proved a success. With 18 days of filming and consequently more material to edit, it’s a looser, slightly more impressionistic film than the earlier one. It is again a very free adaptation too, in which Clark makes the protagonist a recently unemployed man, literally on his uppers – something which the sneering boots at the hotel picks up on very quickly. Peter Vaughan is excellent in the part, giving a very plausible impression of a man for whom the knocks of life have lent a resigned self-sufficiency – not that ingenuity and honourable intentions count for anything against his implacable fate. His conviction is shown through his eyes, which are eager, wary, desperate and in the end, terrified.
Lawrence Gordon Clark had a background of documentary making and maybe it’s this eye for detail, trained to pick out telling objects in a given environment instead of trying to create one from a props department, that lends an air of credence to the film. I think of the stuffed fox, glinting with mischief that we see before Paxton enters the antique shop on his quest for maps of the area. This was all to change the following year however, when, after the success of the first two MR James adaptations, the idea of an annual ‘Ghost Story for Christmas’ attracted the attention of the BBC drama department, who took the productions under its wing, affording them its resources and polish (though not a greater budget, nor time – whereas A Warning to the Curious was shot in 18 days, the following year’s Lost Hearts was only given a tight 12).
The three tales which followed from 1973-75 were again all drawn from the writings of MR James, specifically his first collection, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904). Two of the tales – Lost Hearts and The Ash Tree – brought James (and the TV series) as close to the stylings of outright horror as he ever came. All the tales begin with a place, invariably a country house, into which a person’s arrival awakens a curse, falls into an ancient trap, or otherwise provokes a crisis, revealing latent forces that lie uneasily in the grounds.
Lost Hearts is, according to Clark, a tale ‘about the monsters that children fear’. It opens with the clip and chink of a horse and carriage making its way through Lincolnshire’s November fog to the keening of a spare and haunting flute, as a young orphaned boy arrives at the country residence of his eccentric cousin, whose purpose of bringing him to his home is only gradually, horrifically, divined. With his jerkily eccentric gait taking its cue from Robert Wiene’s figure of Dr Caligari, Joseph O’Conor fruitily essays the solitary scholar, Mr Abney, who longs for a time ‘before the mechanical sciences cast their rude shadow over the world’. His reading of the ancients has led him down dark ways. The title is literal; two children have gone missing. The third, his cousin, will – he hopes – grant him immortality. ‘He may be an old bachelor, but he’s very partial to children,’ says housekeeper Mrs Bunch to young Stephen in one of scriptwriter Robin Chapman’s wicked lines. This dark humour is a consistent theme in fact, as with Mr Abney’s airy expostulations about climbing trees being good for the circulation, or borage exhilarating the heart revealing the nature of his dark preoccupations all too well.
At the heart of the film is again Clark’s eye for telling detail and cameraman John McGlashan’s evocative photography. This is a story filmed in shadows and candlelight, firelight and moonlight, with everyday objects lent a suggestive air of the uncanny. What looks like leaf mould on a cupola is revealed as awestruck cupids, the bilious lemon yellow candles of Stephen’s birthday cake have shadows that recall the unearthly incisions made in Stephen’s door, while the ox-blood walls of Mr Abney’s study match the colour of the missing gypsy girl’s dress.
One area that the drama department took over from Clark was scriptwriting, and, despite some unnecessary over-eggings, the tales are interesting exercises in interpretative adaptation. The Treasure of Abbott Thomas is the most altered of James’s tales, with scriptwriter John Bowen replacing the tales’ German setting with an English one, adding the subplot of a fake seance, and also turning the twice reported narrative of the original story into a direct (if disavowed) treasure hunt.
It features a captivating central performance from Michael Bryant as a Reverend Master at Oriel College who, along with one of his charges, finds himself embarked upon the trail of a hidden stash of coins, though any base motives are denied. ‘The gold – if it ever existed – is likely to be very base coin by now’ he says, and for as much as he professes that he ‘is not entered into this investigation for any motive of gain or greed,’ his true thoughts on the matter seem to have been predicted all along by the devious alchemist Abbott who set the trail for his treasure.
Again, the quality is in the details; the hands of a seance seen from above, the blemish in a glass plate photograph that appears to resemble a face, a leopard slug crawling across the face of a gargoyle, the Reverend’s face, his restless eyes talking in the knowledge that he is on the right trail and computing the worth of the bag of riches that is within his grasp.
One of the most impressive characteristics of this adaptation is the sparing and effective use of sound, from Geoffrey Burgon’s eerie opening of chant and drum to the scratch of a trowel against pitted glass or a nib against paper, or the way that the character’s actions – the tap of a pen or the hammering of a lock – join with the percussive score to lead the characters to their goal, in this case, ‘a thing of darkness and slime, an unholy thing’. The nature of this ‘thing’ deserves a word. The original story features one of James’s most strangely unsettling creations – a dampish leather bag that, in the darkness of a well, puts its arms around the seeker’s neck and crawls over his face with the cold stench of mould and the ooze of coal black slime. It is the difference between what can be filmed and what can only be imagined and felt, and here, James’s imagination trumps any attempted depiction or substitution.
The Ash Tree finds John Rudkin (writer of Penda’s Fen) turning James’s material into a narrative collage that effectively and eerily interleaves past and present. As in Lost Hearts, it opens with a horse, this time bringing the new squire to the manor. The servants are lined up to greet the arrival. ‘Why is the new Sir Matthew’s face such a funny colour?’ asks a child. ‘Not Sir Matthew child, Sir Richard – new squire, new man,’ says her mother. But the child knows better, and soon the whispering insistence and entreaties of the past impress themselves upon the squire’s mind, as visions and sounds of his uncle’s uncle’s time come to claim their place. All is not well at Castringham; there is sickness among the beasts on the farm; it is a place where the master’s children remain unborn, hence the skewed line of inheritance. When Sir Richard declares himself ‘a pestilent innovator’ (the words taken from the original story), the local vicar becomes sombre: ‘please God not,’ he says.
‘The dead are dead’ says Sir Richard, giving permission to exhume a witches’ grave, a woman put to death by his ancestor, so he can erect a new pew. in James’s original, the woman – Mistress Mothersole – has ‘There will be guests at the Hall’ as her last words. In Rudkin’s adaptation, they are, ‘Mine shall inherit,’ which she cries to the land after she is dragged to the gallows, ‘and no sweet babes shall now mine be’, she adds in the direction of the squire and his lady with child. Nor are they indeed, though whether the numerous malevolent residents of the ash tree that abuts the house needed to be anything but glimpsed as they suckle in the half-light upon the master in his bed, is a moot point - especially when allied with the shot of the witch herself, dried and leathery in a position of endless birth at the base of the tree.
Details that linger: a broken glass and the spill of red wine that tell the crack of the noose in an earlier time, the vicar and the master walking in front of the roll of silvered waves, the scream of a woman before her hanging, as chilling as the squeal of a foxed rabbit.
There was one more period adaptation before the series was brought into the present day with contemporary scripts, namely The Signalman. Realising that the BBC drama department’s budget wouldn’t stretch to Scandinavian location filming for an adaptation of James’s Number 13, Clark turned to Dickens for his 1976 entry. Some elements are immediately familiar: a fog-shrouded landscape, a solitary figure on open ground, a man sleeping uneasily in his bed, but a different writer brought a different threat. Instead of MR James’s victims – antiquarians and over-curious meddlers who in some way call up their own fate – Dickens’ tale allied a ghost story to the impersonal, indifferent might and undeserving deaths of the industrial age. This was something of which he had first-hand experience, having survived a terrible train crash the year before he wrote it.
The story, adapted by Andrew Davies for the screen, is essentially a two-hander played out by Denholm Elliott’s railway signalman – a man whose nerves are frayed to breaking point by spectral visitations that foretell tragedy on his steeply banked stretch of line – and Bernard Lloyd’s visitor to whom he relates his tale. The latter’s entreaties to rational thought as a means to overcome the railwayman’s dread apparitions are found wanting in the face of fate. ‘The screams of the injured and the dying echo in a most persistent way’ says the unfortunate haunted man, marked out for a calling beyond his reason or understanding: ‘why me for heaven’s sake, a poor signalman on this station! Why not go to somebody with credit to be believed, and power to act?’. No answer is forthcoming except for the shriek of a train’s whistle as it enters the tunnel on his stretch of line.