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Terrorvision: A Ghost Story for Christmas in the 1970s

  Christmas, it's a time for goodwill to all men (and women), a season of giving, of celebrating the good things in life as the nights have drawn in, and of course, of getting well and truly spooked. Writer M.R. James knew this, and penned a variety of short horror stories (not that he would term them "horror") to be read to his university students at the most festive time of the year, rendering them synonymous with Yuletide, and indeed many a big screen chiller to come, from Black Christmas to Krampus and beyond. As far as the small screen went, though it was not a Christmas broadcast, all-round genius Jonathan Miller had adapted James' O Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad in 1968 for an episode of BBC arts programme Omnibus, to great acclaim. This gave producer Lawrence Gordon Clark a bright idea, and three years later his run of eight stories were broadcast every Christmas from 1971 to 1978.

First up was another James story, as he was the most popular author for the series: The Stalls of Barchester. The BBC in the seventies prided itself on its reputation for period pieces, adapting every classic book they could get their hands on to much acclaim, and that sense of a job well done was seen throughout this opening instalment. Robert Hardy was our star, a Church of England Archdeacon who may or may not have helped his elderly predecessor to his grave by sabotaging a stair rod at his home, all so he could assume his mantle. Ah, but the stalls of the cathedral have been carved by a "twice born" carpenter, and we find out why the Archdeacon has been cursed for his crime in the coda, where researcher Clive Swift goes through his papers ("I must be firm!") and discovers the reason for the visions of a black cat and a skeletal monk made apparitions from their usual home in the sacred building.

The mood was set, then: isolate some gentleman character and put him through a terrible ordeal of the supernatural, and nowhere was that more exquisitely creepy than in 1972's A Warning to the Curious, one of the all-time great titles for one of the greatest examples of that seventies strain of what is now called folk horror ever produced in Britain. The plot is similar to Miller's O Whistle and I'll Come to You, with an archaeologist (the ever-reliable Peter Vaughn) seeking the third, ancient Seaburg Crown which is supposed to protect East Anglia from invasion. He has heard of a tradition of protecting its location (and we have a taste of that in the introduction), but that threat does not put him off, naturally, to his peril. The sequences of Vaughn in the middle of the shoreline forest at night contain such unnerving atmosphere that they have rarely been bettered, and with Swift returning in the same role as before, even his character is not let off the hook.

Lost Hearts was 1973's entry, and for some the scariest of the lot, especially if creepy kids set you on edge. The tragically shortlived Simon Gipps-Kent was the hero, for once not some lonely academic in a James tale but a young orphan; his far older cousin (Joseph O'Conor) was more in the academic mould, he was certainly eccentric after a fashion, and once the boy is sent to live with him in his rambling country pile it seems as though the child may be cushioned from his personal tragedy. But no such luck, for he keeps seeing visions of a young boy and girl, laughing and playing around the grounds, no ordinary kids for they have grey-blue pallor and long, sharp fingernails, never speaking, simply giggling. This was different in that the man of learning was evil rather than led astray by his greed: O'Conor yearns for immortality, and is willing to perform terrible acts to secure it, so he may be an amusing old buffer, but by the end you see the true horror rests with him.

In 1974, more James with The Treasure of Abbott Thomas, another of his stories related to the clergy, or at least with clergymen leading them. Michael Bryant starred as the reverend in question, two years after his role in another Christmas chiller, Nigel Kneale's The Stone Tape, though he was somewhat more restrained here - until the finale. The premise was that the titular treasure was found to be buried around the cathedral grounds, as promised in a series of cryptic clues he and his younger assistant Paul Lavers decipher, and despite the reverend denying his interest in anything but intellectual and not driven by greed, he lapses in his own standards. There was an admittedly slow build-up to this one, but the conclusion when it came was memorably disgusting, weirdly reminiscent of fifties B-movie The Blob, and the very last shot was authentically alarming no matter that it left the audience in an unnerving limbo.

1975 was the last of the original James adaptations, The Ash Tree, as the next three would be derived from other authors, though he would be returned to when the BBC revived the concept in the twenty-first century. This time there was guilt on the menu, as the newest squire in this estate, Edward Petherbridge, has arrived to take over from his predecessor with some ideas about how to run things, starting with a new north wing for the local church. Trouble is, there is a body buried there which really should not be moved if he wants a comfortable night's sleep, and in the past a witch has been executed who may be returning from the grave to exert her revenge on the nobleman's family. Again, a slow build up to this one, penned by famously complex Penda's Fen and Artemis 81 scribe David Rudkin, but nobody who saw the ending forgot it with a plague of what can best be described as spider babies emerging from the titular tree.

Charles Dickens was the choice of the 1976 effort, a James story was planned but proved costly therefore since The Signalman really only needed two actors for the most part, it was picked as a replacement. And what a choice it was: something about the British railways seems to attract ghosts, fictional and… otherwise, so one of the greatest of writers and his railway tale would have been obvious for seasonal frights. For that reason, although it is not a James work, this is often picked as the best of the series, especially among train buffs, but as it is wonderfully acted by Denholm Elliott as the title character and Bernard Lloyd as the traveller interested in making his acquaintance, there is quality all over. Script written by soon-to-be hot property Andrew Davies, its account of a terrible portent on the line next to a tunnel where Elliott's signal box sits is richly atmospheric, almost beating A Warning to the Curious, and its revelation is keenly felt.

Clark's last time at the helm in this series was a radical change from those fusty middle-aged men in wood-panelled halls, as it took a female protagonist as its focus, here Kate Binchy as a wife (to Peter Bowles) and mother (to teenage Maxine Gordon) who is abruptly possessed by an ancient force when workmen try to move a large stone from the family's new house in the country. Though termed "A Ghost Story" in the opening credits, it was not really, for we have little idea of what has taken over Binchy and caused her to bleed profusely (gallons of claret in this one), it could be an evil spirit or a demon. Written as an original by Clive Exton, it was so explicit (with much nudity as well as the blood) that it was declined a repeat, and became the most obscure of the line, though it offered much to think on, be that desecrating the land or menstrual symbolism equalling approaching death. After this, Clark was off to ITV for a while, though he did return to the Beeb.

All good things must come to an end, so without him to guide the series, it concluded in 1978 with writer John Bowen's The Ice House, which again, though billed as a ghost yarn was even less of one than its immediate predecessor. In fact, so oblique was it in its storytelling that you can imagine homes up and down the land that Christmas echoing with the sound of viewers going "Huh?!", detailing as it did middle-aged John Stride's visit to a health spa to take a break from his divorce, only to get mixed up with the sibling owners (Elizabeth Romilly and Geoffrey Burridge) who may or may not be preserving residents in ice to stop them dying. Quite what that had to do with other people suffering "the cools" (low temperature) or a rare vine that may be able to move by itself was anyone's guess, and though it was a modern variation on James' lonely males, its refusal to explain anything in nothing less than the most metaphorical terms was intriguing but lacking.

In 1979, Clark tried to keep his ghost stories going with ITV's version of James' Casting of the Runes (best known as the classic fifties horror movie Night of the Demon), but that went out months before Christmas and did not lead to a series; he would go on to a long career, but rarely made the impact as an individual as his tales of terror would. After a long gap, long enough to generate nostalgia for the seventies favourites, the BBC returned to A Ghost Story for Christmas with more James adaptations in the twenty-first century, including a remake of O Whistle and I'll Come to You starring John Hurt. That was a disappointment as the basic plot was meddled with unnecessarily, but versions of Number 13 and The Tractate Middoth were pleasing enough on a low budget, and superfan Mark Gatiss returned to James with Martin's Close in 2019, the same year as his Dracula miniseries, making him the natural successor to Clark's endeavours to keep the seasonal horror alive (or... undead). Overall, that tradition was rarely as well crafted as those seventies gems, and no wonder their cult following has been so influential. You would like to think M.R. James would be proud.
Author: Graeme Clark.

 

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