A Ghost Story for Christmas

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A Ghost Story for Christmas
The image is the title screen of the adaptation of "The Signalman". A lone traveller, wearing black Victorian travelling garments and silhouetted so that he cannot be identified treats across green fields pockmarked by molehills. He is walking towards the camera. A slightly muggy, cloudy atmosphere pervades the image. The strand title "A Ghost Story" is superimposed over this in bold, white capital letters.
Title screen of The Signalman, the 1976 adaptation. Because this was the first non-James story, the strand's title appears onscreen for the first time.
FormatGhost story, horror
Created byLawrence Gordon Clark
Country of originUnited Kingdom
No. of episodes12 (8 in the original series and 4 in the revival series.)
Running time30–50 minutes
Original channelBBC1
Picture format4:3
Original run24 December 1971 – 25 December 1978
Followed by2005 revival
Related showsWhistle and I'll Come to You (1968)
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A Ghost Story for Christmas
The image is the title screen of the adaptation of "The Signalman". A lone traveller, wearing black Victorian travelling garments and silhouetted so that he cannot be identified treats across green fields pockmarked by molehills. He is walking towards the camera. A slightly muggy, cloudy atmosphere pervades the image. The strand title "A Ghost Story" is superimposed over this in bold, white capital letters.
Title screen of The Signalman, the 1976 adaptation. Because this was the first non-James story, the strand's title appears onscreen for the first time.
FormatGhost story, horror
Created byLawrence Gordon Clark
Country of originUnited Kingdom
No. of episodes12 (8 in the original series and 4 in the revival series.)
Running time30–50 minutes
Original channelBBC1
Picture format4:3
Original run24 December 1971 – 25 December 1978
Followed by2005 revival
Related showsWhistle and I'll Come to You (1968)

A Ghost Story for Christmas is a strand of annual British short television films originally broadcast on BBC One from 1971 to 1978, and later revived in 2005 on BBC Four.[1][2] With one exception, the original instalments are directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark and the films are all shot on 16 mm colour film.[3] The remit behind the series was to provide a television adaptation of a classic ghost story referencing the oral tradition of telling supernatural tales at Christmas.[4]

Each instalment is a separate adaptation of a short story, ranging from 30 to 50 minutes in duration and each featuring well-known British actors such as Clive Swift, Robert Hardy, Peter Vaughan, Edward Petherbridge and Denholm Elliott in the title roles. The first five are adaptations of ghost stories by M. R. James, the sixth is based on a short story by Charles Dickens and the two final instalments are original screenplays by Clive Exton and John Bowen respectively.[5]

An earlier black-and-white 1968 Omnibus adaptation of M.R. James's Whistle and I'll Come to You, directed by Jonathan Miller, is often cited as an influence upon the production of the films, and is sometimes included in the canon.[1] The series was revived by BBC Four in 2005 with a new series of annual adaptations.[6]



The first five films are adaptations of stories from the four books by M. R. James published between 1904 and 1925.[7] The ghost stories of James, an English mediaeval scholar and provost of Eton College and King's College, Cambridge were originally narrated as Christmas entertainments for an audience of friends and selected students.[8][7] The sixth film, The Signalman, is an adaptation of an 1866 story by Charles Dickens published in his magazine All the Year Round. In its original context, it was one of eight stories set around the fictional Mugby Junction and its branch lines. It was inspired by the Staplehurst rail crash in June 1865, of which Dickens had been a survivor, having attended to dying fellow passengers. He subsequently suffered panic disorders and flashbacks as a result of the accident.[9] The final two stories are original screenplays: Clive Exton was an experienced television screenwriter and John Bowen was primarily known as a novelist and playwright.[10][11]


In a 1995 interview, Lawrence Gordon Clark stated that the stories "focus on suggestion. The aim, they say, is to chill rather than shock. Partly because television is not best suited to carrying off big-screen pyrotechnics, but mainly because they want to keep faith with the notion of a ghost story in its literary rather than cinematic tradition."[12] Helen Wheatley notes that the best adaptations maintain the stories' "sense of decorum and restraint ... withholding the full revelation of the supernatural until the very last moment, and centring on the suggestion of a ghostly presence rather than the horror of visceral excess and abjection."[13]

After the first two adaptations by Clark, the tales were adapted by a number of playwrights and screenwriters. In most instances, the adaptations alter the original source material. For example, A Warning to the Curious frequently deviates from its literary source. The screenplay avoids the convoluted plot structure of James' original, opting for a more linear construction and reducing the number of narrators. In addition, the central character, Paxton, is changed from a young, fair-haired innocent who stumbles across the treasure, to a more menacing middle-aged character, driven to find the treasure by poverty and in full awareness of what he is doing.[8]

In The Signalman, adaptor Andrew Davies adds scenes of the traveller's nightmare-plagued nights at an inn, and re-affirms the ambiguity of the traveller-narrator by restructuring the ending and matching his facial features with those of the spectre.[9] The film also makes use of visual and aural devices. For example, the appearance of the spectre is stressed by the vibrations of a bell in the signalbox and a recurring red motif connects the signalman's memories of a train crash with the danger light attended by a ghostly figure.[9]


Lawrence Gordon Clark had made a name as a BBC documentary director during the 1960s, but The Stalls of Barchester was the first dramatic production he had directed.[14] Clark recalls in an interview for the 2012 BFI DVD release that "the BBC at that time gave you the space to fail, and generously so too. They backed you up with marvellous technicians, art departments, film departments and so forth."[15]

Unusually for a BBC television drama of the 1970s, each instalment was filmed entirely on location using 16 mm film.[14] As a result of this, cameraman John McGlashan (who filmed all of the original adaptations) was able to make use of night shoots and dark, shadowy interiors, which would not have been possible with the then-standard video-based studio interiors.[16] Of The Stalls of Barchester Clark recalls "Fox (Paul Fox, controller of BBC One) gave us a tiny budget...and we set out to do a full-blooded drama on location. Budgets were really tiny, and we shot for ten days and brought the film in for about £8000."[15]

The filming of the separate adaptations took place at a variety of locations, although East Anglia, where M.R. James set many of his stories, was the location for early instalments. The Stalls of Barchester was filmed on location at Norwich Cathedral and the surrounding close.[17] A Warning to the Curious was filmed around the North Norfolk coastline at Waxham, Happisburgh and Wells-next-the-Sea, although the original story was set in "Seaburgh" (a disguised version of Aldeburgh, Suffolk).[18][19] Later locations include the Severn Valley Railway for The Signalman and Wells Cathedral for The Treasure of Abbot Thomas.[20][21]

Episode list[edit]

With the exception of the final film, the tales were directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark and produced by Rosemary Hill. The final 1978 episode was directed by Derek Lister, after which the series was discontinued.[22]

TitleAuthorUK broadcast dateDescriptionMain cast
The Stalls of BarchesterM. R. James, adapted by Lawrence Gordon Clark24 December 1971An ambitious cleric murders an aged Archdeacon at Barchester Cathedral. However, he is soon being stalked by a sinister black cat and by a hooded figure both of whom seem to be embodiments of carvings on the cathedral's choir stalls.[5][23]Robert Hardy, Clive Swift, Thelma Barlow
A Warning to the CuriousM. R. James, adapted by Lawrence Gordon Clark24 December 1972An amateur archaeologist travels to a remote seaside town in Norfolk to search for the lost crown of Anglia, but after unearthing it is haunted by a mysterious black figure.[8]Peter Vaughan, Clive Swift
Lost HeartsM. R. James, adapted by Robin Chapman25 December 1973An orphan moves into the house of his older cousin, but is disturbed by visions of a pair of ghostly children. Is their message a warning to be fearful of his cousin's obsession with immortality?[5][23]Simon Gipps-Kent, Joseph O'Conor
The Treasure of Abbot ThomasM. R. James, adapted by John Bowen23 December 1974A respected theologian and his protégé unearth clues to find the hidden treasure of a disgraced monk in an abbey library. Should he have heeded his own advice not to go treasure hunting?[23]Michael Bryant, Paul Lavers
The Ash TreeM. R. James, adapted by David Rudkin23 December 1975An aristocrat inherits his family estate and is haunted by visions of his ancestor's role in a witchcraft trial.[24]Edward Petherbridge, Preston Lockwood
The SignalmanCharles Dickens, adapted by Andrew Davies22 December 1976A railway signalman tells a curious traveller how he is being troubled by a ghostly spectre that seems to predict calamity.[9]Denholm Elliott, Bernard Lloyd
StigmaClive Exton28 December 1977After a young couple move into a remote country house in the middle of a stone circle, workmen disturb an ancient menhir, unleashing a supernatural force.[5]Kate Binchy, Peter Bowles
The Ice HouseJohn Bowen25 December 1978Residents at a health spa begin to suspect a strange flower growing in an old ice house in the grounds may be the cause of a series of misfortunes.[5]John Stride, Geoffrey Burridge, Elizabeth Romily


BBC Four revisited the series at Christmas 2004, and in 2005 began to produce new adaptations of M. R. James stories, broadcast along with repeats of episodes from the original 1970s series.[23] BBC Two premiered a new adaptation by Neil Cross of M.R. James' Oh, Whistle and I'll come to You, My Lad on Christmas Eve 2010.[25] Mark Gatiss's adaptation of The Tractate Middoth was broadcast on BBC Two on Christmas Day 2013, the first time the title "A Ghost Story for Christmas" was explicitly shown on screen. This was followed by a documentary M.R. James: Ghost Writer about the author's life and the films his work inspired.[26]

TitleAuthorUK broadcast dateDescriptionMain cast
A View from a HillM. R. James, adapted by Peter Harness23 December 2005A historian has a disturbing experience after borrowing a pair of binoculars belonging to an outcast archaeologist and venturing up a notorious landmark.[6][23]Mark Letheren, Pip Torrens, David Burke
Number 13M. R. James, adapted by Justin Hopper22 December 2006An academic researcher repudiates local superstitions surrounding a devilish house in a cathedral city. However, repeated visions and noises during the night suggest he may be proved wrong.[23]Greg Wise, Paul Freeman, David Burke
Whistle and I'll Come to YouM.R. James, adapted by Neil Cross24 December 2010Leaving his ill and ageing wife in a care home, a retired astronomer revisits one of their old coastal haunts, but after discovering a ring on the beach is soon haunted himself.[25]John Hurt, Gemma Jones, Leslie Sharp
The Tractate MiddothM.R. James, adapted by Mark Gatiss25 December 2013A young librarian receives a request for an obscure Hebrew book from a sinister gentleman, unaware of its contents.[27]Sacha Dhawan, John Castle, Louise Jameson, Una Stubbs

Critical reception[edit]

Critical reception differs between the films, but several, such as The Signalman are regarded as classic television ghost stories.[28] Sarah Dempster, writing in The Guardian in 2005 noted that "Perhaps the most surprising aspect ... is how little its adaptations ... have dated. They may boast the odd signifier of cheap 1970s telly — outlandish regional vowels, inappropriate eyeliner, a surfeit of depressed oboes — but lurking within their hushed cloisters and glum expanses of deserted coastland is a timelessness at odds with virtually everything written, or broadcast, before or since.[29]

The production values have received particular praise. Helen Wheatley writes that, "the series was shot on film on location, with much attention paid to the minutiae of period detail; as such it might be seen to visually prefigure the filmic stylishness and traditions of later literary adaptations such as Brideshead Revisited and The Jewel in the Crown." However, she notes that unlike those adaptations, the sinister tone of the period pieces could lend itself the label of a "feel bad" heritage television drama.[30]

"Denholm (Elliot) was so wonderful in that role, like a tightly coiled spring. There was such tension in the character: he was always only a step away from insanity."

Lawrence Gordon Clark[28]

The Signalman is perhaps the most critically acclaimed. Simon Farquhar suggests that the film is the first evidence of Andrew Davies' gift as an adaptor of literary fiction: "despite an extremely arduous shoot, Davies and Clarke's fog-wreathed, flame-crackling masterpiece manages something the production team could never have imagined: it's better than the book."[28] Dave Rolinson notes that while "the adaptation inevitably misses Dickens' nuanced and often unsettling prose ... it achieves comparably skilful effects through visual language and sound, heightening theme and supernatural mood ... The production heightens the story's crucial features of repetition and foreshadowing."[9]

Sergio Angelini writes about A Warning to the Curious: "Of Clark's many adaptations of James' stories, this is perhaps the most varied in its use of landscape and the most visually arresting in its attempt to create an otherworldly atmosphere ... Using long lenses to flatten the scenery and make the ghost indistinct in the background, John McGlashan's fine cinematography brilliantly conveys the ageless, ritualistic determinism of Ager's pursuit and signposts the inevitability of Paxton's demise."[8] He is less appreciative of The Ash Tree, noting that the literal adaptation of the story's ending loses the atmosphere of earlier instalments: "While the creatures are certainly grotesque and threatening, compared with some of the other adaptations of the series, The Ash Tree does lose some power through this lack of ambiguity. The result overall remains satisfyingly unsettling, however, thanks also to Petherbridge's restrained, psychologically acute performance.[24]

The adaptations have been an influence on the work of writer Mark Gatiss. Interviewed in 2008, Gatiss recalled that Lost Hearts is his favourite adaptation because it is the one that frightened him as a child.[31] He also noted, "I absolutely love The Treasure of Abbot Thomas. The moment when Michael Bryant has found the treasure and ... is obviously losing his wits. He just says, rationally, It is a thing of slime, I think. Darkness and slime .... There's also the fantastic scene where he thinks he's got away with it by putting the treasure back. The doctor is heading up the drive, and he can't quite see him in the sunlight. Then it pauses to that amazing crane shot ... Very spooky.[31]

The reception of the two later instalments, Stigma and The Ice House, was decidedly critical, with most reviewers noting that switching to original stories instead of adaptations was "misjudged". David Kerekes writes that The Ice House is almost "totally forgotten".[32] Wheatley has commented that they heralded a divergence from the stage-inspired horror of the 1940s and 1950s to a more modern Gothic horror based in the present day, losing in the process the "aesthetic of restraint" evident in the original adaptations.[13]

The BBC Four revival beginning in 2005 with A View from a Hill was greeted warmly by Sarah Dempster, who noted that the programme was, "in every respect, a vintage Ghost Story for Christmas production. There are the powdery academics hamstrung by extreme social awkwardness. There is the bumbling protagonist bemused by a particular aspect of modern life. There are stunning, panoramic shots of a specific area of the British landscape (here, a heavily autumnal Suffolk). There is the determined lack of celebrity pizzazz. There is tweed. And there is, crucially, a single moment of heart-stopping, corner-of-the-eye horror that suggests life, for one powdery academic at least, will never be the same again."[29]

Related works[edit]

Clark directed another M. R. James story Casting The Runes for Yorkshire Television's Playhouse, first broadcast on ITV on 24 April 1979. Adapted by Clive Exton, it re-imagined the events of James' story taking place in a contemporary television studio.[33] Meanwhile, for Christmas 1979 the BBC produced a 70-minute-long adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu's gothic tale Schalcken The Painter directed and adapted by Leslie Megahey.[34] Like the earlier Whistle and I'll Come to You, the production was listed as part of the long-running BBC arts strand Omnibus.[35] Before Clark's films came under the remit of the BBC Drama department, they had commissioned a Christmas play from Nigel Kneale for which the writer penned an original ghost story, The Stone Tape, broadcast on Christmas Day 1972. With its modern setting, this is not considered part of the Ghost Story for Christmas strand [36] and was originally intended as an episode of the anthology Dead of Night.

Repeats of the original series on BBC Four at Christmas 2007 included The Haunted Airman, a new adaptation of Dennis Wheatley's novel The Haunting of Toby Jugg by Chris Durlacher, although this film was originally screened on 31 October 2006.[37] For Christmas 2008, an original three-part ghost story by Mark Gatiss entitled Crooked House was produced instead, with the writer citing the original 1970s adaptations as a key influence.[31] A different James's ghost story was broadcast by the BBC for 2009; Henry James's 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw was adapted as a feature-length drama by Sandy Welch and broadcast on BBC One on 30 December.[38]

TitleAuthorUK broadcast dateDescriptionMain cast
Whistle and I'll Come to YouM. R. James, adapted by Jonathan Miller7 May 1968An eccentric professor finds a whistle carved from bone in a graveyard while on holiday in Norfolk. After blowing the whistle, he is troubled by terrible visions.[39]Michael Hordern
The Stone TapeNigel Kneale25 December 1972An electronics company looking for a new recording medium discover that ghosts in their research building could inspire the new format they were after.[36]Michael Bryant, Jane Asher, Ian Cuthbertson.
Casting the RunesM. R. James, adapted by Clive Exton24 April 1979 (on ITV)After a television series lampoons a famous demonologist, its producer and cast soon find themselves threatened by mysterious, malevolent forces.[33]Jan Francis, Bernard Gallagher, Joanna Dunham
Schalcken The PainterJ. Sheridan Le Fanu, adapted by Leslie Megahey23 December 1979Schalcken the painter sees his one true love, Rose, wedded by contract for a sum of money to a man who may or may not be a demon. When she escapes and returns home, she is pursued by her demon lover.[34][35]Jeremy Clyde, Maurice Denham, Cheryl Kennedy
The Haunted AirmanDennis Wheatley, adapted by Chris Durlacher15 December 2007 (originally premiered 31 October 2006)An injured RAF Flight Lieutenant suffers from repeated horrific nightmares while recuperating at a remote mansion in Wales. However, he begins to suspect his psychiatrist or aunt may be responsible.[37]Robert Pattinson, Julian Sands, Rachael Stirling
Crooked HouseMark Gatiss22 December 2008 – 24 December 2008Three linked episodes tell the story of the ghostly secrets of Geap Manor, a recently demolished Tudor mansion in both the past and present.[31]Lee Ingleby, Mark Gatiss, Philip Jackson
The Turn of the ScrewHenry James, adapted by Sandy Welch30 December 2009A governess, incarcerated in a mental asylum, tells a doctor of the possession of her two pupils by a former governess and her lover.[38]Michelle Dockery, Sue Johnston, Dan Stevens


The BFI released the complete set of Ghost Story for Christmas films plus related works such as both versions of Whistle and I'll Come to You on Region 2 DVD in 2012, in five volumes as well as a box set, in celebration of the 150th anniversary of M.R. James's birth.[40] The following year, an expanded boxset featuring Robert Powell and Michael Bryant narrating M.R. James' in the series Classic Ghost Stories (1986) and Spine Chillers (1980) respectively.[41]

A Warning to the Curious, The Signalman and Miller's Whistle and I'll Come to You were released as individual VHS cassettes and Region 2 DVDs by the British Film Institute in 2002 and 2003.[39][42] However, no further editions were released and these are out of print. A number of the adaptations were made available in Region 4 format in Australia in 2011 and The Signalman is included as an extra on the Region 1 American DVD release of the 1995 BBC production of Hard Times. For Christmas 2011, the BFI featured the complete 1970s films in their Mediatheque centres.[43]


  1. ^ a b Angelini, Sergio, Ghost Stories at the BFI's Screenonline. Retrieved 2010-7-7.
  2. ^ Cooke, 126.
  3. ^ Knott, J.A. (2004). "Review: A Warning to the Curious". zetaminor.com. Retrieved 2010-07-07. 
  4. ^ Wheatley, 47.
  5. ^ a b c d e Brockhurst, Colin. "A Ghost Story for Christmas". phantomframe.co.uk. Retrieved 2009-02-10. 
  6. ^ a b A View from the Hill at BBC Online. Retrieved 2010-7-7.
  7. ^ a b Pfaff, Richard W., "Montague Rhodes James", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Online Edition). Oxford University Press. September 2004. [1]. Retrieved 2010-08-15.
  8. ^ a b c d Angelini, Sergio, A Warning to the Curious at the BFI's Screenonline. Retrieved 2010-7-7.
  9. ^ a b c d e Rolinson, Dave, The Signalman at the BFI's Screenonline. Retrieved 2010-7-7.
  10. ^ "Obituary: Clive Exton". The Times. 22 August 2007. Retrieved 2007-08-22. 
  11. ^ "John Bowen". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 22 August 2007. Retrieved 2010-08-22. 
  12. ^ Wheatley, 51.
  13. ^ a b Wheatley, 55.
  14. ^ a b Rigby, Jonathan, "Traces of Uneasiness: Lawrence Gordon Clark and The Stalls of Barchester" in The M.R. James Collection, BFI 2012 (BFIVD965)
  15. ^ a b Gordon Clark, Lawrence, interview for The M.R. James Collection. London: BFI Publishing. 2012. 
  16. ^ Kerekes, 15.
  17. ^ "The Stalls of Barchester". British Film Institute Database. Retrieved 2010-08-22. 
  18. ^ Burton, Nigel (22 August 2007). "A Warning to the Curious in Aldeburgh, Suffolk: East Anglia's Ghost Trail". worldtravelblog.co.uk. Archived from the original on 4 September 2010. Retrieved 2010-08-22. 
  19. ^ Fisher, Mark (15 April 2007). "Bleak and Solemn ...". abstractdynamics.org. Archived from the original on 20 August 2010. Retrieved 2010-08-22. 
  20. ^ "Great Western (SVR) Association". gw-svr-a.org.uk. Retrieved 2010-08-22. 
  21. ^ "Filmed in Shropshire". shropshiretourism.co.uk. Retrieved 2010-08-22. 
  22. ^ Wheatley, 54–55.
  23. ^ a b c d e f "Ghost Stories for 2007". BBC Online. December 2007. Retrieved 2010-07-07. 
  24. ^ a b Angelini, Sergio, The Ash Tree at the BFI's Screenonline. Retrieved 2010-7-7.
  25. ^ a b Whistle and I'll come to You at BBC Online. Retrieved 2010-12-24.
  26. ^ Stewart, Helen (23 December 2013). "M.R. James and the tradition of Christmas ghost stories". BBC Arts and Culture. Retrieved 2013-12-27. 
  27. ^ Cast announced for Mark Gatiss’s directorial debut, The Tractate Middoth, on BBC Two, BBC Media Centre press release 20 November 2013
  28. ^ a b c Farquhar, Simon (2009). "Review: The Signalman". BBC Online. Retrieved 2010-08-22. 
  29. ^ a b Dempster, Sarah "Ghosts in the Machine" The Guardian, 17 December 2005
  30. ^ Wheatley, 49.
  31. ^ a b c d Hussey, Bill (18 December 2008). "Interview with Mark Gatiss: Part One". Horror Reanimated. Archived from the original on 22 December 2008. Retrieved 2008-12-30. 
  32. ^ Kerekes, 10.
  33. ^ a b Casting the Runes at the British Film Institute Database. Retrieved 2010-7-7.
  34. ^ a b Schalcken The Painter at the Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2010-7-7.
  35. ^ a b Angelini, Sergio Schalcken The Painter at the BFI's Screenonline. Retrieved 2010-7-8.
  36. ^ a b Angelini, Sergio, The Stone Tape at the BFI's Screenonline. Retrieved 2012-12-31.
  37. ^ a b The Haunted Airman at BBC Online. Retrieved 2010-7-7.
  38. ^ a b The Turn of the Screw at BBC Online. Retrieved 2011-09-24.
  39. ^ a b Duguid, Mark, Whistle and I'll Come to You at the BFI's Screenonline. Retrieved 2010-7-7.
  40. ^ BFI press release, Retrieved 2012-5-18
  41. ^ BFI releases, retrieved 2014-1-21
  42. ^ McCusker, Eamonn, "A Warning to the Curious - DVD review". thedigitalfix.co.uk. May 2003. Retrieved 2010-08-23
  43. ^ A Ghost Story for Christmas Retrieved 2012-5-18

External links[edit]