As a Christmas treat during the 1970s, the BBC screened adaptations of the classic ghost stories of MR James, the Cambridge academic and author of some of the most spine-tingling tales in the English language. With only three of the twelve tales previously released on DVD (by the BFI in 2002, and long since deleted), the films in this brilliant series have been high on many film and TV fans' 'most wanted' DVD lists. With a subtlety and style all of their own, they have been a major influence on recent British horror films, such as The Woman in Black, and have inspired screenwriters and filmmakers such as Mark Gatiss (The League of Gentlemen, Sherlock). Most of the instalments, which were broadcast to terrified viewers in the dead of winter, were directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, who has been interviewed for new introductions on these BFI releases.
The BFI will make all twelve of the classic BBC films from A Ghost Story for Christmas series available on DVD this year, with the first two volumes – each containing a double bill of chilling tales – being released on 20th August, timed to mark the 150th anniversary of MR James' birth on 1 August 1862. The first release features Jonathan Miller's Whistle and I'll Come to You (1968), with Sir Michael Hordern, paired with the 2010 adaptation of the same chilling tale, starring John Hurt and directed by Andy de Emmony. Released alongside it is a pairing of The Stalls of Barchester (1971), starring Robert Hardy and receiving its DVD premiere, and A Warning to the Curious (1972), with Peter Vaughan, both directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark. Each set comes with numerous special features and illustrated booklets, full details on page two.
Two more volumes, the first containing Lost Hearts, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas and The Ash Tree, and the second containing The Signalman (Andrew Davies' adaptation of the Charles Dickens story) Stigma (written by Clive Exton) and The Ice House (written by John Bowen), will follow in September, while the fifth and final volume, containing the more recent instalments View from a Hill and Number 13, as well as a complete Ghost Stories for Christmas box set, will be released in October.
Whistle and I'll Come to You (Jonathan Miller, 1968)
When a sceptical professor, played with eccentric intensity in a brilliant performance by Michael Hordern, finds an old whistle on a Norfolk beach he unleashes a horrifying monster from the depths of his psyche.
Jonathan Miller's (Beyond the Fringe, The Drinking Party, Alice in Wonderland) adaptation of MR James' terrifying tale, made for BBC's Omnibus series, uses the bleak Norfolk landscape, superbly photographed by Dick Bush, to instil a sense of isolation and unease.
Whistle and I'll Come to You (Andy de Emmony, 2010)
In this recent rendering of MR James's celebrated ghost story, the legendary John Hurt plays James Parkin, a lonely retiree who has left his wife in a nursing home. Troubled by this loss, he visits their old holiday haunt, but his discovery of a mysterious ring on the beach sparks a series of ghostly encounters and disturbing nightmares which refuse to disappear in the cold light of day. Atmospheric and emotive, this modern adaptation brings a fascinating new interpretation to an endlessly creepy yarn.
- Jonathan Miller and Christopher Frayling discuss (BBC, 2012, 3 mins);
- MR James' original story, Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad, read by Neil Brand (2001, 42 mins);
- Introduction to Whistle and I'll Come to You by horror writer Ramsey Campbell (2001, 16 mins);
- Ramsey Campbell reads his own MR James inspired story 'The Guide' (2001, 27 mins).
The Stalls of Barchester (Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1971)
Whilst cataloguing the collections of Barchester Cathedral library, Dr Black (Clive Swift) stumbles across an intriguing box of papers belonging to a former Archdeacon Haynes (Robert Hardy), which has remained under lock and key since the nineteenth century. In it he discovers a hidden history of blood guilt and macabre supernatural revenge. With its superb cast and beautiful choral accompaniment by Norwich Cathedral choir, Lawrence Gordon Clark's (Harry's Game) evocative adaptation of MR James' short story sparked the BBC's popular Ghost Story for Christmas series of the 1970s.
A Warning to the Curious (Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1972)
The second of Gordon Clark's MR James adaptations features Peter Vaughan (Straw Dogs, Our Friends in the North) as a doomed amateur archaeologist who pays a terrible price for his curiosity about an ancient Saxon legend. John McGlashan's extraordinary photography imbues the wide open Norfolk coastline with an uneasy sense of dread in this chilling re-working of James' classic tale.
- Introduction to The Stalls of Barchester by Lawrence Gordon Clark (2012, 10 mins);
- Introduction to A Warning to the Curious by Lawrence Gordon Clark (2012, 12 mins);
- Ghost Stories for Christmas with Christopher Lee – 'The Stalls of Barchester by MR James' (Eleanor Yule, 2000, 30 mins): Christopher Lee recreates MR James' famous soirees, at which the antiquary would read his tales of the supernatural to eager undergraduates.
Both discs will be released on 20th August 2012 by the BFI at the RRP of £19.99.
You can read our review of the original BFI DVD release of Whistle and I'll Come to You here.