A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS:

A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS

Director:  Lawrence Gordon Clark

Starring:  Peter Vaughan, Clive Swift, David Cargill

An amateur archaeologist unearths a buried treasure, but awakens dark forces.

A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS:

THE SIGNALMAN

Director:  Lawrence Gordon Clark

Starring:  Denholm Elliott, Bernard Lloyd

A man working in an isolated railway signal box is troubled by strange visions. 

Between 1971 and 1978 the BBC made and transmitted eight one-off plays, usually collectively billed under, and now commonly known by, the umbrella title A Ghost Story For Christmas. All but one was directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, a talented man whose fine work has been confined to television. Had the A Ghost Story For Christmas plays been feature films, Lawrence Gordon Clark would no doubt have had an international reputation amongst fans of the genre to rival greats like Terence Fisher and Freddie Francis.

Perhaps Clark's reputation among the cognoscenti will be cemented by the release of two of the A Ghost Story For Christmas plays, A Warning to the Curious and The Signalman, on DVD, courtesy of the BFI's Archive Television imprint?

Peter Vaughan in "A Warning to the Curious"Unlike those artisans slaving away at the Hammer factory, Clark had the benefit of some terrific source material. As well as directing, Clark adapted the first two Ghost Story plays (1971's The Stalls of Barchester and A Warning To The Curious) himself, masterfully capturing the tone of M.R. James' source stories (each a mere handful of pages long). Their pacing seems excessively languid by modern standards, but suits the material perfectly. His adaptation of A Warning To The Curious contains many typical James elements: a meek protagonist who suddenly finds himself out of his depth, confronting supernatural forces... something unworldly lurking on the periphery... an eerie sense that something is stirring that should have been left undisturbed. A Warning To The Curious is rather similar to Jonathan Miller's excellent 1968 BBC Omnibus play Oh Whistle and I'll Come To You, which has also been released by the BFI.

Picture quality on the A Warning to the Curious disc is rather disappointing, but most of the flaws can probably be attributed to the play's 16mm film origins. There's a lot of grain, the image is consistently soft, and there's a speckling of film dirt. The mono audio (at 192kbps) is more robust. Dialogue is clear, and there's only a touch of distortion evident when the score is more prominent. 

Peter Vaughan and Clive Swift in "A Warning to the Curious"The disc comes with a very nice bonus feature: an unabridged reading of James' short story, by Michael Horden (star of Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, but perhaps better known to more recent generations as the voice of Paddington Bear). This runs forty-four minutes, and is a most welcome addition to the disc. There are also skimpy text profiles of Lawrence Gordon Clark (acknowledging his genre contributions, to Stephen Gallagher's Chimera and the 1995 anthology series Chiller, amongst others) and M.R. James. Hopefully a future release might contain a more tangible contribution from the director, who must have some interesting things to say about the Ghost Story series, and about how television has evolved over the last thirty years or so.

Denholm Elliott in "The Signalman"The Signalman is a more ethereal tale, conjuring a tangible sense of isolation and impending terror. It's held together magnificently by a breathtaking performance by the late Denholm Elliott, and excellent support from Bernard Lloyd (a fine actor we see far too little of). The script, an early effort from the always reliable Andrew Davies, follows Charles Dickens' original story quite faithfully, except for one case of dramatic license which otherwise would have deflated the drama completely. Lawrence Gordon Clark is literally given less room to manoeuvre than he had in the open stretches of East Anglian countryside in A Warning to the Curious, but still manages to slowly build the tension, while keeping things interesting visually.

The print used for The Signalman is in much better shape than the one used for A Warning..., but is still rather soft and muddy. There is the usual smattering of dirt and dust present, but it never reaches distracting levels. Both The Signalman and A Warning To The Curious would benefit enormously from digital grading, as both exhibit poor colour balance. The disc comes with an audio rendition of Dickens' story, read by distinguished character actor John Nettleton.  

Bernard Lloyd in "The Signalman"Fans of the A Ghost Story For Christmas series have been campaigning for their release for years, so it's extremely gratifying that one or two are finally being released. It's a little disappointing that the BFI haven't had the courage, foresight or faith to release them as a set, since they would all have comfortably fitted on two or three discs (each one is between thirty-five and fifty minutes long), and they would have made a cracking collection! At least the relative brevity of each play is reflected by a slightly modest price point (the R.R.P. is 15.99). A Warning to the Curious' similarity to Oh Whistle and I'll Come To You is slightly regrettable, since it may deter buyers from investing in further M.R. James releases. In any case, perhaps the BFI would have been better advised to release the two A Ghost Story For Christmas plays that haven't been repeated since 1982: The Ash Tree and Stigma.

For more information about the A Ghost Story For Christmas series, visit The Mausoleum Club.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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