Shiny Shelf

SHINY ADVENT: Ghost Stories for Christmas

By Mark Clapham on 21 December 2006

A fondly remembered BBC tradition, it was always a mystery through the 1980s and 90s as to why exactly the BBC never revived ‘Ghost Stories for Christmas’, producer Lawrence Gordon Clark’s 1970s series of literary chillers. After all, everyone likes a ghost story, especially at Christmas, and the intimacy of TV is ideal for this kind of material. What better way to highlight the contrast of warm indoors and cold outside than the pleasant, vicarious chill of the supernatural?

Whatever the reason the ‘Ghost Stories’ were left off the schedules for so long, these adaptations of short stories by MR James and, in the case of ‘The Signalman’, Charles Dickens, remained a fondly remembered tradition. James’ stories are perfect BBC material, period pieces with small casts that require limited special effects. For instance in ‘A Warning To The Curious’, the protagonist is threatened by an indistinct shape and a figure in the woods, while the reverend in ‘The Stalls of Barchester’ may well be menaced by nothing more than his own guilt and a few creaky floorboards.

Since the last of the ‘Ghost Stories’ was broadcast they’ve occasionally been repeated on BBC2, and the BFI have brought them out on DVD, along with Jonathan Miller’s 1968 James adaptation ‘Whistle and I’ll Come To You’, which while not part of the ‘Ghost Stories’ series set a precedent for what was to follow.

Enter BBC4, home of all things good. Not only has the channel repeated a number of the ‘Ghost Stories’ over the last couple of Christmases, but last year they added to the canon with a new adaptation of MR James’ ‘A View From A Hill’. Like many of the other stories, a baffling incongruity hints at the revival of restless spirits from a brutal past, as a young man finds a pair of binoculars that look into the past, revealing things he may not want to see.

It’s the kind of thing BBC4 does well – a low budget, low key adaptation of a literary short story. Thankfully, director Luke Watson has the knack for exploiting the terrors of the unknown in the English countryside, and delivers the required atmosphere. If you didn’t see it last year, catch it on repeat this Christmas.

Even better, ‘A View From A Hill’ wasn’t a one-off, with an adaptation of James’ ‘Number 13’ getting its first screening this Friday. Hopefully the annual tradition is back for good, and we’ll be getting ‘Ghost Stories for Christmas’ on BBC4 for many years to come.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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