Directed by: David Bell
Countries & Regions: United Kingdom
Studio: British Film Institute
Length: 100 mins
Region: Region 2
Released: 28 October 2013
Cat No: BFIVD993
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Classic Ghost Stories of MR James
Robert Powell reads a selection of ghost stories by M.R. James which have been partially dramatised. The stories comprise: ’The... Read More
We have been treated to some excellent readings on DVD recently. Julian Glover could read a telephone directory and give it dramatic heft so to hear him read a selection of English poetry spanning Beowulf to Philp Larkin on Six Centuries of Verse is something to cherish. And now, in the Classic Ghost Stories of MR James, the BFI's latest volume in their Ghost Stories for Christmas series (which is included in the expanded Ghost Stories for Christmas box set), we have Robert Powell and Michael Bryant bringing that writer's words to life.
The writer, medievalist and biblical scholar MR James used to read his ghostly tales by fire and candlelight to friends and pupils in his Cambridge rooms at Christmas. This latest volume - takes this as its cue and collects two series which treated his work in similar fashion: Classic Ghost Stories (1986) and Spine Chillers (1980).
The first, a partially dramatised series, stars Robert Powell as the wryly amused but respectful and suitably academic teller of James's tales, here expertly abridged by David Bell, who includes the crucial passages of James's texts while smoothing out his storytelling circumlocutions with an ear sympathetic to both his original intentions and to the art of stortytelling. 'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad' is an exemplary lesson in such work - within a minute we are into the heart of the story without undue damage done along the way to its telling. Powell's feel for the era and mastery of the language is evident and he holds the attention as he speaks direct to camera for minutes at a time, guiding us through the five stories with a glint in his eye, as if he is sharing a confidence with the viewer.
Perhaps surprisingly, given its origins as an offshoot of Jackanory, Spine Chillers offers a more intense storytelling experience, as a bewhiskered Michael Bryant offers a dramatic, concentrated and laden telling of the tales - his rendition of 'The Mezzotint' provides a fascinating direct comparison to Powell's version.
It's worth noting that the other films on the BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas have notable extras in the form of Christopher Lee's Ghost Stories for Christmas, which see the actor reading The Stalls of Barchester, A Warning to the Curious and Number 13 in the personage of a Cambridge don to a select group of students at Christmas. Although Lee claimed not to be playing MR James, through him we do have a valuable direct link to the original storyteller, Lee having met James when he took his scholarship exam for Eton in the early 1930s. His dark and mellifluous tones have an edge of sly mischievousness that is persuasive.
Supernatural tales told from an armchair take us back to the earliest days of BBC broadcasting when writers such as Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany and Compton Mackenzie told their tales to camera in series such as Saturday Night Stories (1948-49). The format might be simplicity itself, but in that apparent simplicity there is no place to hide, and only convincing tale-tellers, with the skill to draw us into the world of their words from the very start, succeed. And when they do, there is real pleasure to be had in listening to a tale carried by nothing more than the weight and intonation of a voice and the occasional sly gleam or twinge of consternation in the teller's eye.