I've been watching the BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas recently - the 70's ones from the original run and the two that BBC4 did a few years back. The originals are some of my favourite tv for various reasons.

There's five of them - The Signalman, Warning to the Curious, Stalls of Barchester, Treasure of Abbot Thomas and Lost Hearts - that I think are as good as anything else of their type that I've ever seen. There are so many images and moments here - the bride on the train in Signalman, the ghost in the tree in Lost Hearts, the pursuing figure in Warning, the final shot in Abbot Thomas - that linger in the mind. And Clark shows such economy in storytelling. The scene between Peter Vaughan and the "boots" at the hotel - we get so much of Vaughan's character and story from a pair of old shoes and a newspaper headline. Or in Barchester, the montage showing Haynes' gathering frustration - the repeated "modest gatherings", the calls of "Young man", the performances of "Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace" - all climaxing with Robert Hardy's exasperated glance heavenwards.

There are some great performances too. Denholm Elliot's face when he says "A tunnel collision is the worst to be feared" is like a man looking into his personal hell. Michael Bryant's superiority when dealing with fraudsters is slowly chipped away as his treasure hunt goes on. Peter Vaughan's barely contained misery and desperation throughout Warning, tightly swaddled in his clothes, his pale face like some great baby forced to face a cruel world.

I think the other reason I love these five so much is the sense of place they all have. The culvert, tunnel and signal box where Denholm Elliot - and later Bernard Lloyd - are so enclosed. The cloisters and great house of Barchester where Robert Hardy lives. Most of all the village in Warning. The church, the cottage with the dog that attacks Vaughan, the wood, the beach, the hotel - when I watch it, I almost feel as if I could find my way round the place if I ever ended up there.

The two recent ones - View from a Hill and Number 13 - have their moments, but they feel like poor quality pastiches of them, trying for the same effect but largely failing. And a part of this, I think, is what they're filmed on. Te 70's episodes are on 16 mm film, while the 00's ones are on digital video. The two have avery different feel. The earlier episodes have a very visible grain, while the more recent ones have a much smoother image which means that, while edges and contrasts are sharper, gradations and variations of colour can be smoothed away and the image feels flatter. It's difficult putting this into words. From long watching of "piebald" 70's TV such as Doctor Who or Blakes 7, where location footage tended to be on film and studio on video, I can feel the difference between them almost instinctively, but explaining it is another matter.

Anyway, for me, these work far better on 16 mm. The comparative lack of sharp edges, so that one object in the background can merge gently into another matches an element of M R James' style. His ghosts tend to be different from the traditional. In many ghost stories, the ghost is visible but not tangible. James's creations are the opposite. They are seen from the corner of the eye, in brief glimpses or blending in with the background. But they have a definite physical heft to them. Their victims are left with shattered bones or hearts torn out. They are creature of slime, bone or hair.

The exception is The Signalman - the only adaptation in this series not from James. Here the ghost is a purely visual creature, its power being to lure its victim to a place where he can be destroyed by some other means. The visual style is different from other Jamesean adaptations such as Warning for the Curious and the earlier Jonathan Miller film of Whistle and I'll Come to You, which is thought to have inspired the 70's run of adaptations. In these, the victim is isolated in a sparse, flat landscape with nowhere to hide once the pursuing figure appears. In The Signalman, the victim is enclosed. The only places we see him are in the signal box or on the railway line deep in the culvert and leading to the blackness of the tunnel. Even the survivor is enclosed by the end of the story, vanishing into fog, his way no longer clear. No pursuit is needed. If the ghost waits patiently, the victim will walk to his doom.


James Brough

August 2017

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