Every Christmas from 1971 to 1975, Lawrence Gordon Clark had directed an adaptation of a M.R. James short story. While James certainly had plenty more stories – an exhaustive collection published to mark his 150th anniversary this year runs to 600 pages – Clark and his producer Rosemary Hill had come to the end of the stories they thought they could do justice to within a BBC budget. (“Count Magnus” was one of those considered, and a script had been written, but the cost of location shooting in Sweden was prohibitive.) So they went further back in time for their source.
No other writer has shaped our view of Christmas more than Charles Dickens, particularly in his five Christmas stories, each a novella of around 30,000 words, of which by far the best known is A Christmas Carol. That may contain ghosts, but I'd argue that it's a highly influential work of fantasy rather than horror, a story of healing and consolation rather than of disturbance. However the short story “The Signal-man” (another title repunctuated for television) is undoubtedly horror, partly inspired by a dreadful train crash at Staplehurst in Kent which Dickens survived. It was a genuine ghost story for Christmas, being published in the seasonal edition of Dickens's periodical All the Year Round in 1866. Incidentally, The Signalman is the first of two of the 70s films to begin with the words “A Ghost Story” before the title card comes up.
The adaptation was by Andrew Davies. He had been writing for TV since 1967, and while he has written distinguished original work, he became ubiquitous from the 1980s onwards as a regular writer of literary adaptations and The Signalman was an early example of this. It is mostly a two-hander between two unnamed characters, a traveller (Bernard Lloyd) and the signalman of the title (Denholm Elliott). As they sit in a lonely signalbox on the railway line, the signalman tells a disturbing story... Davies uses much of Dickens's own dialogue, and the restricted setting (filmed just outside Kidderminster) and the two lead performances add to the intensity of the story. David Whitson took over as cameraman from John McGlashan who had photographed the previous five Ghost Stories, and his work is up to the same standard.
Many people reckon The Signalman to be the very best of the 1970s Ghost Stories for Christmas, and it's hard to disagree.
In 1977, Lawrence Gordon Clark left BBC employment to become a freelance director, but he was invited back to the Corporation to direct one more “Ghost Story” (which words appear on screen before the main title). This time, the story was an original, Stigma, written by Clive Exton. We're in the present day, and Katharine (Kate Binchy) and her daughter Verity (Maxine Gordon) are moving into a house in the countryside, near a stone circle (actually Avebury). Two workmen try to shift a large rock in the garden. When it is moved, a strange wind blows. And then, soon after, Katharine begins to bleed...
Stigma, like the following year's The Ice House, sits rather oddly against the historical ghost stories adapted from James and Dickens that had preceded it. It may be set in the present day, but Stigma does draw on some classic horror motifs, and the denouement refers back to that of The Ash Tree in particular. Stigma deals in full-on body horror: it's easily the most visually graphic of the series, and Clark maintains the tension until the bleak ending.
M.R. James had little time for “romance” and women in his stories are distinctly secondary figures. Stigma is the only one of the ghost stories on these DVDs to have a female lead. The story centres on two women – three actually, but you'll have to watch the story to find out who the third one is. Second-billed Peter Bowles, playing Katharine's husband Peter, does not appear until halfway through and his role remains secondary. Binchy gives a harrowing performance. If maybe a little too much of a straight-line story with some clumsy exposition near the end, Stigma is brutally effective.
Clark did not wish to make another modern-day ghost story, and Stigma was his last contribution to the series of Ghost Stories for Christmas. In a prolofic career as a television director, his best-known work includes the thriller serial Harry's Game. He returned to horror with the miniseries Chimera and a couple of episodes of the 1995 anthology series Chiller. He also returned to M.R. James for a 1979 version of Casting the Runes, made for ITV.
The Ice House (34:13)
The final entry in the series was directed by Derek Lister from an original script by John Bowen, who had earlier adapted The Treasure of Abbot Thomas. It concerns Paul (John Stride), who is staying at a health spa after his wife had left him. The spa is run by a brother and sister, Jessica (Elizabeth Romilly) and Clovis (Geoffrey Burridge) and all seems well. But what is the secret of the ice house in the grounds?
The Ice House does not have the “Ghost Story” prefix that appears on screen before the title cards of The Signalman and Stigma as indeed, while it is certainly a macabre story, nothing supernatural occurs in it. It's a very odd drama, full of very stylised dialogue (even more so than the period-speak of the James and Dickens adaptations) and performances, obliquely told. It could possibly take more than one viewing to appreciate its subtleties, which is some demand for a short film which has only been shown on television once, at a time before video recorders were widespread. Now at least, with this DVD, you have that opportunity. The Ice House is a curiosity, and a mannered and intriguing one, but it certainly sits oddly with the supernatural tales which preceded it. Lister's direction is plainer than Clark's had been, though he does pull off a fine scene where Paul investigates the mysterious ice house for the first time. The rich production design is the work of Roger Murray-Leach, who had done some excellent work for Doctor Who and Blake's 7 around the same time.
No doubt sensing that the annual Christmas ghost story had run its course, the BBC discontinued the series after The Ice House.
The fourth volume in the BFI's Ghost Story series is a dual-layered DVD encoded for Region 2 only. There will also be a boxset of all five discs. For affiliate links for the boxset go here. Stigma earns this DVD, and the boxset, its 15 certificate. The Ice House is a 12 and The Signalman a PG.
The Signalman was previously released on DVD by the BFI in 2003, and that disc was reviewed for this site by Eamonn McCusker here.
All three films were shot on 16mm film and have been transferred to DVD in their correct ratios of 1.33:1 without anamorphic enhancement. They do look very good, though all display some minor print damage such as spots and speckles.
The soundtracks are in the original mono, which is clear and well-balanced. There are no subtitles for the hard-of-hearing on this single DVD, though the boxset discs will contain them.
The only on-disc extras are Clark's optional introductions to the two stories he directed, which run 10:41 and 8:45 respectively. As with his introductions to the six earlier stories, these contain spoilers, so watch them after you have seen the films. Interviewed by Dick Fiddy, Clark talks about the making of both The Signalman and Stigma and the developments in his career which led him to leave the BBC and finally the series he had created. Paul Fox, who had agreed for Clark to make The Stalls of Barchester back in 1971, had by then left the BBC for Yorkshire Television and it was for Fox and that company that Clark went on to make Harry's Game.
The booklet contains essays on the three films by Matthew Sweet on The Signalman (spoiler warning), Helen Wheatley on Stigma and Alex Davidson on The Ice House. Simon Farquhar also discusses The Signalman and the booklet contains the usual stills and credits for the films and DVDs. The reading of “The Signal-man” by John Nettleton that was included on the 2003 DVD has not been retained on this new edition.