The recent interest in the BBC’s Ghost Story for Christmas series has been a thing of mixed blessings, as is often the case when nostalgia fuels a reappraisal. On the one hand aficionados such as myself no longer have to hoard and swap rare tapes or video files now that the BFI has made all the films available on DVD; the interest in those films, and in similar works, has had the additional benefit of resurrecting related TV dramas and series such as Dead of Night (1972), and Leslie Megahey’s exceptional Schalcken the Painter (1979).
On the debit side, the revival of the series in 2005 has been a patchy affair, with results ranging from the very good (A View from a Hill), to the not-so-bad (Number 13), to the disgracefully bad (the 2010 adaptation of Whistle and I’ll Come to You). All these dramas continue the tradition of adapting stories by MR James, a writer whose work is now the first choice for any future stories in the series, and whose oeuvre overshadows that of other possible candidates for adaptation. Whether this last development is a good or bad one depends on your view of James’s fiction.
Sacha Dhawan among the dusty tomes.
This year we had a new James adaptation, The Tractate Middoth, written and directed by Mark Gatiss, followed by an hour-long documentary about MR James which Gatiss presented. Gatiss and his League of Gentlemen colleagues have been vocal in their enthusiasm for the British film and television ghost story, and for its literary antecedents: last year the team contributed a commentary track to the recent reissue of Blood on Satan’s Claw; League writer Jeremy Dyson has an essay in the BFI’s DVD/BR release of The Innocents; Reece Shearsmith has recorded several readings of Robert Aickman’s superb short stories; Dyson directed, and Gatiss acted in, The Cicerones (aka The Guides, 2002), an adaptation of an Aickman story. The latter was well-intentioned but a short running time combined with a very literal transcription of Aickman’s ambiguities made for a disappointing end result. The Cicerones made me apprehensive for what we might see with The Tractate Middoth but I’m pleased to report that all concerns were unfounded: Gatiss’s film is not only the best MR James adaptation since The Ash Tree (1975) but is the best film in this series since The Signalman in 1976. (Although Schalcken the Painter was screened during Christmas 1979 it wasn’t intended as a continuation of the Christmas ghost stories.) This bodes well for the future of the series, and confirms the importance of having a writer and director with a sympathy for the material.
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The British television tradition of screening a ghost story at Christmas was filled in 1989 with Nigel Kneale’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel The Woman in Black. This isn’t one of the best contributions to the annual ghost drama but at 100 minutes it’s one of the longest, and it has its supporters, some of whom value it above the recent Hammer film production. Seeing as I’d re-watched Nigel Kneale’s major film and TV works earlier this year I thought I’d give The Woman in Black another look. It was better than I remembered although it still left me feeling unsatisfied.
I’ve not read Susan Hill’s book so can’t say how it compares to the television version in any detail. (Wikipedia has a spoiler-heavy list of the differences.) I did see Stephen Mallatratt’s play in 1988, however, the first adaptation of the book which has since become one of London’s most popular theatre productions. The play conjures an effective sense of dread but relies a little too much on loud noises to shock the audience at crucial moments. This is a cheap trick in bad horror films (Wes Craven does it a lot), and it’s just as cheap a trick on a stage. Nigel Kneale may have altered Hill’s story to a degree which apparently displeased her but he didn’t resort to any Craven tricks.
The BBC’s Christmas ghost stories have tended to be MR James stories, and The Woman in Black is very much a James pastiche which no doubt helped make it attractive to ITV. All the James hallmarks are there: a man of letters (solicitor rather than a scholar) visiting an isolated part of the English countryside; a lonely house; fearful locals; mysterious deaths; documentary evidence that requires examination; a haunting.
Adrian Rawlins is the young solicitor, Arthur Kidd, given the task of putting the estate of a dead woman in order. Rawlins would have been fine in a smaller role but he wasn’t a good choice for a central character, not when Kidd is on screen every minute of the running time. Far better is the always excellent Bernard Hepton as a genial landowner, a very different role to his sinister Fisher in Robin Redbreast. There’s a lot of solid period detail—Kneale’s dialogue fixes the date at around 1925—and the writing and direction manages to avoid insulting the intelligence. In place of the usual voiceover reading of letters we have Kidd listening to a succession of recording cylinders, an unlikely thing for an elderly woman to be using but it does give the film a connection back to Van Helsing’s device in Dracula. There’s even a surreptitious reference to Kneale’s “stone tape” theory when Kidd says that the ghostly sounds he keeps hearing are like a recording of a terrible event. Director Herbert Wise does some clever hide-and-seek business with the spectral woman, only fumbling things near the end when he makes the mistake of trying to imitate Jack Clayton’s The Innocents. So why does this version still remain unsatisfying?
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Nigel Kneale created reality TV without realising it. Comedian Mark Gatiss recalls his turbulent relationship with the ‘TV colossus’ who died this week.
When Big Brother began on Channel 4 in 2000, I took a principled stand against it. “Don’t they know what they’re doing?” I screamed at the TV. “It’s The Year of the Sex Olympics! Nigel Kneale was right!”
In 1968’s The Year of the Sex Olympics, Kneale, a pioneering writer of TV drama who died this week, ingeniously predicted the future of lowest-common-denominator TV. The programme kept a slavering audience pacified with such blackly funny concepts as The Hungry/Angry Show (in which senile old men throw food at one another), the titular Olympics, and the ultimate programme, in which a family are marooned on an island and then watched on camera, 24 hours a day. Yesterday’s satire is today’s reality. Or today’s reality TV.
A few years ago I tried to persuade The South Bank Show to devote an edition to Kneale, only to be told he wasn’t a “big enough figure”. This was doubly dispiriting, not only because, to anyone interested in TV drama, Kneale is a colossus, but because it seemed to confirm all the writer’s gloomy predictions regarding the future of broadcasting. Couldn’t the medium celebrate one of its giants?