Ghost stories are part of the Christmas tradition; while not explicitly linked to a specific religious meaning, past, present and future gain a vertiginous feel when told in the dead of winter. That tradition started long before today’s streaming, television, films or radio, and the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas package nimbly taps into the primal feels of a supernatural narrative. Back in the days of three channels, and a captive audience of ten million tuning in on a given night, these short, 45-50 minute long stories, shot on film and adapted from established classic texts, are the mother lode when it comes to festive scares.
Viewed by huge audiences at the time, the content of these Ghost Stories has become legend; this first volume has a couple of the most substantial. MR James was a writer who, like Dickens, enjoyed both the ‘cranky scholarship’ and the oral traditions of his day; a 1968 adaptation of James 1905 story Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad was originally made as part of the BBC’s Omnibus arts strand. Whistle features the voice of Paddington, Michael Horden, as Professor Parkins, a self-absorbed beachcomber who comes upon a mysterious Knights Templar whistle that summons; what?
The thing that haunts Parkins is genuinely unnerving, and Horden manages the transition from bumptious arrogance to demented horror with aplomb. This is a super-brainy Jonathan Miller joint, so there’s discussion on ‘the survival of the human personality’ and the ‘evidences of spiritualism’, but while there are a few starchy, austere patches in the 1968 storytelling, it’s easy to get carried away by feelings of dread as Parkins hisses ‘Who is it? Who is coming?”
British tv audiences adored the idea of a cerebral late night scare as part of the festive tv schedules, and the BBC were happy to oblige with writer/director Lawrence Gordon Clark providing the next three entries in the cycle. 1972’s A Warning to the Curious feels very similar to Whistle, with Peter Vaughn as a different kind of academic who unwisely attempts to take home a buried crown he finds buried in the sand. Sandwiched between them is 1971’s The Stalls of Barchester, which is a rather stuffy affair, but still offers a few moments of genuine frisson in the classic Jamesian style. Both feature Clive Swift, the husband of Hyacinth Bucket from Keeping up Appearances, with muttonchops Robert Hardy cooking with gas as the haunted lead.
The fourth entry is probably the least remembered, the genuinely disturbing and far more controversial Lost Hearts from 1973, but that one is so effective that it’ll be getting a review of its own. And there’s also commentaries, interview with the great Ramsey Campbell, plus the radically modern John Hurt 2010 remake of Whistle and I’ll Come to You, which will also get a review of its own as soon as I can pluck up the courage.
GHOST STORIES FOR CHRISTMAS VOLUME 2 is planned for release next December.
Thanks to the BFI for blu-ray access.
In Dreams are Monsters is a major two and a half month BFI UK-wide film and events season celebrating the horror genre on screen. Launched on 17 October, it continues until 31 December at BFI Southbank, BFI IMAX, UK-wide cinemas and on BFI Player.
Newly remastered by the BFI
Newly recorded audio commentaries for Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968) and A Warning to the Curious by TV historian Jon Dear
Newly recorded audio commentaries for The Stalls of Barchester and Lost Hearts by Kim Newman and Sean Hogan
Whistle and I’ll Come to You (2010, 52 mins): John Hurt stars in this 2010 interpretation of M R James’s chilling tale
Jonathan Miller and Christopher Frayling interview (2012, 3 mins)
Neil Brand reads M R James’s original story (2001, 42 mins, audio only)
Ramsey Campbell on MR James (2001, 16 mins)
Ramsey Campbell reads The Guide (2001, 27 mins)
Introductions by Lawrence Gordon Clark (2012, 33 mins total): the director of seven of the BBC’s classic A Ghost Story For Christmas episodes discusses his part in the first three instalments he directed
Ghost Stories For Christmas With Christopher Lee (2000, 60 mins total): BBC Scotland’s ‘talking-head horror’ series starring the iconic actor as an M R James-like raconteur of fireside Christmas ghost stories. Included on this release are The Stalls of Barchester and A Warning to the Curious
First pressing only Illustrated booklet with essays by Reggie Oliver, Jon Dear, Jonathan Rigby, Adam Easterbrook and Ramsey Campbell; credits and notes on the special features
RRP: £29.99 / Cat. no. BFIB1476/ 12
UK / 1968-1973 / black and white, colour / 172 minutes (+ extras) / English language, with optional subtitles for the Deaf and partial hearing / original aspect ratio 1.33:1 // 2 x BD50, 1 x BD25: 1080p/50i, 25fps, mono audio (48kHz/24-bit)
WHERE TO BUY
Order from the BFI Shop