Studio: British Film Institute
Length: 105 mins
Region: Region 2
Released: 17 September 2012
Cat No: BFIVD962
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BBC Ghost Stories: The Signalman / Stigma / The Ice House
Triple bill of supernatural dramas adapted by the BBC. In ’The Signalman’ (1976), based on the story by Charles Dickens, Denholm Elliott... Read More
Having set the tone for the 'A Ghost Story for Christmas' series between 1971-75 with his adaptations of stories from MR James, and realising that the BBC drama department's budget wouldn't stretch to Scandinavian location filming for an adaptation of James's Number 13, Lawrence Gordon Clark turned to Dickens for his 1976 entry, The Signalman. Some elements are immediately familiar: a fog-shrouded landscape, a solitary figure on open ground, a man sleeping uneasily in his bed, but a different writer brought a different threat. Instead of MR James's victims - antiquarians and over-curious meddlers who in some way call up their own fate - Dickens' tale allied a ghost story to the impersonal, indifferent might and undeserving deaths of the industrial age. This was something of which he had first-hand experience, having survived a terrible train crash the year before he wrote it.
The story, adapted by Andrew Davies for the screen, is essentially a two-hander played out by Denholm Elliott's railway signalman - a man whose nerves are frayed to breaking point by spectral visitations that foretell tragedy on his steeply banked stretch of line - and Bernard Lloyd's visitor to whom he relates his tale. The latter's entreaties to rational thought as a means to overcome the railwayman's dread apparitions are found wanting in the face of implacable fate. 'The screams of the injured and the dying echo in a most persistent way' says the unfortunate haunted man, marked out for a calling beyond his reason or understanding: 'why me for heaven's sake, a poor signalman on this station! Why not go to somebody with credit to be believed, and power to act?'.
Finding that MR James's Swedish-set tale Count Magnus would be impossible to film on the given budget, Clark turned to a contemporary script for his Avebury-set 1977 entry, the previously unreleased Stigma, which sees an ancient blood curse seep into the present after a family asks for a fallen menhir to be removed from the garden so that they can lay a lawn. The colour red - in the family car, the daughter's fingernails, the front door, a bloody slab of beef, the cables to the electric meter - shouts its presence throughout, presaging the certain trajectory of the mother's fate as her skin weeps uncontrollably, her body and her house a conduit for ancient, unloosed forces, linking her inextricably with the place and the cycles of succession and regeneration that it claims from its inhabitants.
The final film in the 1970s incarnations of 'A Ghost Story for Christmas' was The Ice House (also previously unreleased), scripted by John Bowen (who had adapted MR James's The Treasure of Abbott Thomas for the series in 1974), who adds a subtext - satire even - on wealth and the price one pays for its isolating properties to the more familiar stylings of horror. John Stride plays the well-off man who retreats to a curious residential spa, 'a home from home' (no children - and no dogs) to take stock after being left by his wife. A place of portentous speech and stultifying formality, sparsely populated by solitary people, it reflects the character of the strange siblings - Jessica and Clovis - whose establishment it is, their bond symbolised by the vine that wreathes the mysterious ice house in the grounds. Long-term residents suffer from 'a touch of the cools', and the man's nerves begin to fray as tapped windows, broken sleep and mysteriously scored glass join his apparent hallucinations, induced by the overpowering perfume of the vine's flowers. Although he threatens to leave, it seems he knows deep down what is best for him. Jessica and Clovis certainly do.
'A Ghost Story for Christmas' was then put to be bed (for an unquiet sleep no doubt) until 2005, when it returned to the source, MR James, for his story A View from a Hill.