Over the 2013 christmas season, the BBC revived a tradition that had once been an oddly comforting British television fixture of the Seventies—the annual ghost story. Mark Gatiss, the actor/writer who had made his name through the almost deranged comedy series The League of Gentlemen and scripting duties on the reboot of Doctor Who, directed his own adaptation of a classic M.R. James short story, “The Tractate Middoth.” He also presented a lucid documentary on the author, whose first collection of supernatural tales was published in 1904. This quintessentially Victorian tradition of storytelling during the cold winter nights was perfectly suited to the shorter formats and domestic intimacy of television. But now that tighter budgets and executive timidity have become the norm in the multi-channel era, this genre has been mostly squeezed out of the picture, leaving it to the enterprising British Film Institute to reissue the BBC’s past triumphs in the things-that-go-bump-in-the-night business.

Classic Ghost Stories by M.R. James

Classic Ghost Stories of M.R. James

Although M.R. James (1862-1936) has long been regarded as the greatest of British ghost story writers, his works were not immediately felt to be suited to the moving image. James, a serious academic at Cambridge and Eton, was a Christian archaeologist, a lover of ancient manuscripts and ecclesiastical history. He was also, as one surviving colleague described him in Gatiss’s documentary, most likely a “non-practicing homosexual.” While he delighted in telling ghost stories at all-male after-dinner gatherings, James maintained that he did not believe in the supernatural. Revealingly, his tales often feature sexually repressed, solitary bachelors investigating the forgotten ephemera of the Christian and pre-Christian era, discovering secrets related to satanic or pagan practices, and through their meddling bringing about death or destruction.

This holds true of the first significant television rendering of one of James’s stories, Whistle and I’ll Come to You (68), made for the arts series Omnibus by the brilliant intellectual and sometime comedian Jonathan Miller. A hard-line atheist and scientific rationalist by temperament, Miller was fascinated by James’s principal character, a university professor (Michael Hordern). While staying in a bleak seaside village, this lonely academic discovers a strange whistle on the beach, and comes to believe he has summoned up some kind of demon, which Miller and his team visualize through a simple flapping sheet and a highly imaginative piece of sound design.

Miller’s film made such an impact that the BBC commissioned further adaptations from former documentary filmmaker Lawrence Gordon Clark, who made five in all. The Stalls of Barchester (71) and especially A Warning to the Curious (72) set the style, with fluid camerawork (on color 16mm), restrained performances, and a resistance to explicit horror conventions. As well as adapting James, Clark also made a memorable 1976 film of Charles Dickens’s The Signalman, in which Denholm Elliott plays a railway employee deeply haunted by a terrible train wreck that occurred on his watch. The tale, born out of Dickens’s own terrifying experience of a rail crash and Victorian fears of the mechanical mayhem brought on by the industrial revolution, was effectively updated to the 20th century and made potent through atmosphere and filmic legerdemain. (All of these titles are available in the BFI’s six-disc Ghost Stories for Christmas collection).

Dead of Night A Woman Sobbing

The Dead of Night: A Woman Sobbing

If the above qualities make Clark’s work seem timeless, then it is their absence that dog similar television ventures of this era. The 1977 series Supernatural (BFI, £24.99) aimed, in the words of producer Robert Muller, “to illustrate the myths and fears like vampires, werewolves, doppelgangers and ghosts,” and the episodes were structured around central characters (revealed to be either victims or perpetrators) attempting to win membership in the gentleman’s Club of the Damned by recounting their personal stories. But Muller’s series was hamstrung by its obvious studio sets, and crude lighting and video camerawork, and in this environment even well-known actors seemed to believe they had to project to an audience seated just beyond the technical crew. One of the better episodes, “Dorabella,” much influenced by J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, strongly benefits from its restrained performances and extensive location filming. Sheridan Le Fanu was also the source for a far more memorable BBC one-off, Leslie Megahey’s exquisitely disturbing Schalcken the Painter (79; BFI, £19.99), shot entirely on film and drawing from 17th-century Dutch painting for its visual language.

Of the three surviving episodes of Dead of Night (72; BFI, £19.99), the standout is “The Exorcism,” written and directed by Don Taylor. The action takes place almost entirely in one studio set—a country cottage—and while it has a theatrical quality (it went on to become a stage play, with some success), the nuanced acting and the theme of urban sophisticates confronted with a guilty inheritance make for tense viewing. By Taylor’s own admission, the subject was really more political than supernatural, with the exploitation and murder of previous occupants revealed as the cause of such shocking moments as a wine tasting of blood and one of the company (Anna Cropper) becoming possessed by a spirit. Cropper also features in John Bowen’s outstanding BBC play Robin Redbreast (70; BFI, £19.99) as a television employee who moves to a country village and finds herself singled out for impregnation as part of an old pagan ritual. In fact, the conceit of “folk horror,” in which repressed rural myths would surface with unreasonable force, became a regular fixture in television’s excursions into the supernatural, particularly in the work of Bowen (who also scripted a Dead of Night episode, “A Woman Sobbing,” as well as two ghost stories directed by Clark) and David Rudkin, who adapted James’s The Ash Tree (75) just after writing the BBC’s powerful Penda’s Fen (74), directed by Alan Clarke and as yet unavailable on DVD.

Exploring a mysterious Britain of the past that remains present through indelible monuments or recurring rituals also yielded material for creative work on the big screen, most notably The Wicker Man (72), in which director Robin Hardy and scriptwriter Anthony Schaffer invent a beguiling modern-day pagan community on a Scottish island. But while television could never be as explicit or violent, similar manifestations of “folk horror” could even be found in series aimed at children. Two of the most outstanding were The Owl Service (69; Network, £9.18) and Children of the Stones (77; Network, £8.40). The former, unusually well-shot on color film on location, tells of local legends invading the lives of teenagers on vacation in Wales. The latter focuses on a
scientific enquiry into the stone circles of Avebury, where the local villagers appear to have formed a cult under the troubling influence of the strange monoliths.

Robin Redbreast

Robin Redbreast

Arguably the greatest progenitor of such imaginary conflicts between the rational modern and the threatening ancient world was fantasy writer Nigel Kneale, who had made his mark at the BBC in the Fifties with the Quatermass series and The Stone Tape (73; 101 Films, £19.99). His one-off ITV drama Murrain (75) was the compelling tale of an old woman victimized as a witch by a rural community, and once again an urban outsider attempting to calm the locals proves unable to resolve the conflict or explain the ambiguity of the situation. This drama led to the series Beasts (76; Network, £19.99, includes Murrain), which works at its best when the threats are unseen or only vaguely glimpsed, as in “Baby” (a strange mummified creature found in the wall of a country home appears to come to life) or “During Barty’s Party,” in which poison-resistant rats terrorize a couple living in rural isolation.

And what now of that tradition’s greatest exponent? Clark gave up on his series of James adaptations because (he says) the BBC considered his plans for a film of Count Magnus too expensive, but he did make a version of Casting the Runes (Network, £6.00) for ITV in 1979. It’s a fair stab at a contemporary rendering of the story, whose villain is clearly based on the infamous occultist Aleister Crowley. But it lacks the poetry of Clark’s BBC films (the awkward melange of video and 16mm doesn’t help) and is nowhere near as chilling as the classic big-screen adaptation of James’s story, Jacques Tourneur’s 1957 Night of the Demon. The BBC did eventually return to making films based on James with two reasonably effective adaptations of A View from the Hill (05) and Number 13 (06), but veered well off the path with another stab at Whistle and I’ll Come to You (10). This time the makers committed the unforgiveable sin of turning James’s story into a psychological drama, with the hero visited by a ghost who is none other than his demented wife newly resident in a care home. Now where’s the essential ambiguity or atavistic terror in that?