Although Halloween is the time of year that is popularly associated with ghost stories, it should not be forgotten that traditionally Christmas is every bit as appropriate a time for telling tales of the supernatural. Over the years, dozens of newspapers and magazines have echoed the words of the editor of Eve magazine addressing his readers in 1921: ‘Ghosts prosper at Christmas time: they like the long evenings when the fire is low and the house hushed for the night. After you have sat up late reading or talking about them they love to hear your heart beating and hammering as you steal upstairs to bed in the dark…’. It was the master of the ghost story genre, M R James, who arguably enshrined the traditional of the festive spine chiller, although others had contributed to this before him, most notably Charles Dickens and J S Le Fanu. At the dawn of the 20th century, James was telling ghost stories to friends at Christmas gatherings in the shadowy, candle-lit gloom of his rooms at King’s College, Cambridge. It is therefore fitting that, many years later, the works of James inspired a BBC series, A Ghost Story for Christmas,whose remit was to provide a television adaptation of a classic ghost story referencing the oral tradition of telling supernatural tales at Christmas.
Each instalment of A Ghost Story for Christmas, which was broadcast between 1968 and 1978, was a separate adaptation of a short story, ranging from 30 to 50 minutes in duration and each featuring well-known British actors of the time such as Clive Swift, Robert Hardy, Peter Vaughan, Edward Petherbridge and Denholm Elliott in the title roles. The first five were adaptations of short stories by M R James, the sixth was based on Charles Dickens’ The Signalman and the two final instalments were original screenplays (though no less effective than their illustrious forebears for not being literary adaptations). Very much in common with each of the stories that they were based upon, the great virtue of the television adaptations was that they focused on suggestion, aiming to chill rather than shock. Although this goal was perhaps necessitated by the times (the pyrotechnics of today being unavailable to producers in the 1970s), it nevertheless proved a masterstroke and the series was a critical and commercial success. The striking thing about this series is that, because of the high production values and impeccable acting, it appears to have dated little. The sinister, unsettling tone of the pieces is every bit as evident today as it was forty years ago – perhaps an indication of the timelessness of horror based on mood, atmosphere and suggestion rather than cheap shocks and special effects.
As a mark of how successful and influential the Ghost Stories for Christmas series was, it continues to inspire and be referenced by writers, actors and producers to this day. The man behind the darkly humorous ‘horror comedy’ The League of Gentleman, Mark Gatiss, has cited the series as one of his early influences. Although the series tailed off after 1978, mainly for budgetary reasons, it was never forgotten and, encouragingly, has made an unofficial comeback in recent years. This began, appropriately enough, with two adaptations of classic M R James short stories which were broadcast at Christmas in 2005 and 2006. Since then the BBC has continued the tradition of the spooky Christmas tale, intermittently, with adaptations of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, a brilliant original three-part ghost story by Mark Gatiss entitled Crooked House, and (rather less successfully) a modern update of one of James stories. I for one hope that this tradition continues for a long time to come (and I have a feeling that M R James would approve as well!). I’ll leave you with an M R James story so festive and chilling that it has been adapted and broadcast at Christmas by the BBC not once but twice – Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ (click to read!).