Directed by: Lawrence Gordon Clark
Countries & Regions: United Kingdom
Studio: British Film Institute
Length: 104 mins
Region: Region 2
Released: 17 September 2012
Cat No: BFIVD961
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BBC Ghost Stories: Lost Hearts / The Treasure of Abbot Thomas / The Ash Tree
Lawrence Gordon Clark directs this triple bill of BBC adaptations of the ghost stories by M.R. James. In ’Lost Hearts’ (1973) young... Read More
With Lawrence Gordon Clark's The Stalls of Barchester (1971) and A Warning to the Curious (1972) having proved proving popular with Christmas Eve audiences, the annual 'A Ghost Story for Christmas' attracted the attention of the BBC drama department, who took the productions under its wing, affording them its resources and polish (though not a greater budget, nor time - whereas A Warning to the Curious was shot in 18 days, the following year's Lost Hearts was only given a tight 12).
The three tales which followed between 1973-75 (all new to DVD and contained in this volume) - Lost Hearts, The Treasure of Abbott Thomas and The Ash Tree - were again all drawn from the writings of MR James, specifically his first collection, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904). Two of the tales - Lost Hearts and The Ash Tree - brought him (and the TV series) as close to the stylings of outright horror as he ever came. All the tales begin with a place, invariably a country house, into which a person's arrival awakens a curse, falls into an ancient trap, or otherwise provokes a crisis, revealing latent forces that lie uneasily in the grounds.
Lost Hearts opens with the clip and chink of a horse and carriage making its way through the November fog to the keening of a flute, as a young orphaned boy arrives at the country residence of his eccentric cousin, whose purpose of bringing him to his home is only gradually, horrifically, divined. With his jerkily eccentric gait taking its cue from Robert Wiene's figure of Dr Caligari, Joseph O'Conor fruitily essays the solitary scholar whose reading of the ancients has led him down dark ways. The title is literal; two children have gone missing. The third, his cousin, will - he hopes - grant him immortality. 'He may be an old bachelor, but he's very partial to children,' says housekeeper Mrs Bunch to young Stephen in one of scriptwriter Robin Chapman's deliciously wicked moments.
At the heart of the film - all three of them in fact - is Clark's eye for telling detail and cameraman John McGlashan's evocative photography. This is a story filmed in shadows and candlelight, firelight and moonlight, with everyday objects lent a suggestive air of the uncanny. What looks like leaf mould on a cupola is revealed as awestruck cupids, the bilious lemon yellow candles of Stephen's birthday cake have shadows that recall the unearthly incisions made in Stephen's door, while the ox-blood walls of Mr Abney's study match the colour of the missing gipsy girl's dress.
One area that the drama department took over from Clark was scriptwriting, and, despite some unnecessary overeggings, all three tales are interesting exercises in interpretative adaptation. The Treasure of Abbott Thomas is the most altered of MR James's tales, with scriptwriter John Bowen (who also wrote the final entry in the 1970s series, The Ice House) replacing the tales' German setting with an English one, adding the subplot of a fake seance, and also turning the twice reported narrative of the original story into a direct (if disavowed) treasure hunt.
It features a captivating central performance from Michael Bryant as a Reverend Master at Oriel College who, along with one of his charges, finds himself embarked upon a the trail of a hidden stash of coin. Although he denies any base motives, his true thoughts on the matter seem to have been predicted all along by the devious alchemist Abbott who set the trail for his treasure.
One of the most impressive characteristics of this adaptation is the sparing and effective use of sound, from Geoffrey Burgon's eerie opening of chant and drum to the scratch of a trowel against pitted glass or a nib against paper, or the way that characters' actions - the tap of a pen or the hammering of a lock - join with the percussive score to lead to their goal, in this case, 'a thing of darkness and slime, an unholy thing'.
The Ash Tree finds John Rudkin (Penda's Fen) turning James's material into a narrative collage that effectively and eerily interleaves past and present. As in Lost Hearts, it opens with arrival by horse, this time bringing the new squire to the manor. 'Why is the new Sir Matthew's face such a funny colour? asks a child. 'Not Sir Matthew child, Sir Richard - new squire, new man' says her mother. But the child knows better, and soon the whispering entreaties of the past impress themselves upon the new squire's mind, as visions and sounds of his uncle's uncle's time claim their place.
'The dead are dead' says Sir Richard, giving permission to exhume a witches' grave, a woman put to death by his ancestor, so he can erect a new pew. in James's original, the woman - Mistress Mothersole - has 'there will be guests at the Hall' as her last words. In Rudkin's adaptation, they are, 'mine shall inherit,' which she cries to the land after she is dragged to the gallows, 'and no sweet babes shall now mine be', she adds in the direction of the squire and his lady with child. Nor are they indeed, though whether the numerous malevolent residents of the ash tree that abuts the house needed to be anything but glimpsed as they suckle in the half-light upon the master in his bed, is a moot point - especially when allied with the shot of the witch herself, dried and leathery in a position of endless birth at the base of the tree.
Again, it's the details that make this such an effective adaptation: a broken glass and the spill of red wine that tell the crack of the noose in an earlier time, the vicar and the master walking in front of the roll of silvered waves, the scream of a woman before her hanging, as chilling as the squeal of a foxed rabbit.