sat 20/07/2024

DVD: Ghost Stories: Classic Adaptations From the BBC | reviews, news & interviews

DVD: Ghost Stories: Classic Adaptations From the BBC

DVD: Ghost Stories: Classic Adaptations From the BBC

Superbly rendered films of M R James's spectral tales return to haunt us

Haunted: Michael Hordern as a sceptic undone in 'Whistle and I'll Come to You' (1968)BFI/BBC

In 1979, my father stayed in a railway hotel in a Wiltshire town on the eve of a family fiftieth wedding anniversary party. During the middle of the night, the heavy bedside table in his locked room apparently threw itself five or six feet from the bed, landing on its side, without waking him. A rationalist, skeptical of psychic phenomena, he never was able to explain the incident. The only logical explanation is that he moved the table while sleepwalking.

But there are, perhaps, more things in heaven and earth…

M.R. James (1862–1936, below), the Cambridge University and Eton medieval scholar and eminence, put it another way: “These things exist, but we don’t know the rules.” That is a rule of sorts for the chilling events that unfold in the 12 celebrated BBC adaptations of James’s magisterial ghost stories that – joy of joys – are being released by the BFI in five individual volumes and a box set. It is usually the lot of the dry Jamesian male protagonists in these tales, who, not realizing paranormal experiences may flow from the psyche, willfully unleash demons that drive them mad and sometimes kill them.

The collection begins with the two discs released this week. Jonathan Miller’s 1968 Whistle and I’ll Come to You is paired with the 2010 version written by Neil Cross. The Stalls of Barchester (1971) is paired with A Warning to the Curious (1972), both written and directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, who was responsible for the 1970s Ghost Story for Christmas drama programme featuring mostly stories by James.

Miller's Whistle is a masterpiece of setting and performance. Atmospherically shot in black and white, it stars Michael Hordern as a smugly rationalist Cambridge archaeologist who,  rooting around a Suffolk coastal graveyard, bags a medieval whistle engraved with the words QUIS EST ISTE QUI VENIT (“Who is this who comes?”) and is subsequently tormented by an apparition. The ghost is the manifestation of his hubristic denial of the spirit world and a harbinger of his mental decay. Hordern is at his mumbling, bumbling best, the film itself quietly terrifying.

In Cross’s Whistle, John Hurt is an astronomer who contends that his dementia-afflicted wife (Gemma Jones) no longer has a soul because, as he bitterly proclaims, the body rots. Vacationing by a Devon shore having regretfully left her in a rest home, he finds a gold ring – a touch too Tolkienesque – inscribed with the same Latin legend translated by Hordern’s prof. Though Cross and director Andy de Emmony too readily explicate the source of a ghost that appears on the beach, it’s an accomplished alternative version. Hurt is to the mortified manner born.

The ghosts in The Stalls of Barchester and A Warning to the Curious are not psychic manifestations but the real medieval deal. In 1932, a Barchester Cathedral library cataloguer, Dr. Black (Clive Swift), a character created by Clark, pores over the diary of a Victorian archdeacon, the increasingly paranoid Dr. Haynes (Robert Hardy). As revealed in the extended flashblack, Haynes murdered his aged predecessor and was then harrowed by the demonic 14th-century carvings in the archdeacon’s cathedral stall. Darkly lit, making expressive use of camera angles, and drenched in lore, the piece demonstrates Clark’s mastery of Gothic tropes. 

Again played by the precise, understated Swift, Dr. Black shows up in a small role in A Warning to the Curious, about an amateur archaeologist, Paxton (a dour Peter Vaughan), who sets about finding an Anglo-Saxon crown with alleged magical properties. Buried in a copse near the Norfolk coast, it is murderously protected by a ghost – a lumpen ambassador for a village that resents outsiders. Despite the alliance he forges with Black (Swift, pictured on the right, with Vaughan), Paxton is a lonely, materialistic loser, “so totally without connections,” James wrote, whose fate answers to both a mythic curse and the existential aridity of his life. It was one of the gloomiest of Clark’s James films, its creeping mood of dread far more troubling than, say, the graphic thrills presented in Hammer’s horror movies.

On the Whistle disc, Miller and Christopher Frayling discuss Hordern’s performance; Neil Brand reads James’s story and Ramsey Campbell offers a Freudian interpretation of it, also reading one of his own Jamesian tales (both pieces were included on the deleted 2001 release). Clark introduces both Barchester and A Warning, and in two of BBC Scotland’s 2000 Ghost Stories for Christmas, Christopher Lee, who met James in 1935, portrays him in his Cambridge study reading the stories to his undergraduates. Watch them before bedtime, then dive under the duvet.

Below: an excerpt from Whistle and I'll Come to You (1968)

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters