M. R. James

WhistlingJack

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BBC FOUR: GHOST STORIES

Sunday 18 December - Friday 23 December 2005

Settle down for a series of ghost stories from Montague Rhodes James and Charles Dickens, plus other chilling films and documentaries for these dark winter nights.

Sunday 18 December

THE STORY OF THE GHOST STORY - 9.30pm-10pm

THE SIGNALMAN - 10pm-10.40pm

THE GREEN MAN: EP 1 - 10.40pm-11.35pm

M R JAMES: THE ASH TREE - 11.35pm-12.10am


Monday 19 December

THE GREEN MAN: EP 2 - 10.30pm-11.20pm

M R JAMES: LOST HEARTS - 11.20pm-midnight


Tuesday 20 December

THE PHANTOM INVENTORY - 10.20pm-10.30pm

THE GREEN MAN: EP 3 - 10.30pm-11.20pm

M R JAMES: A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS - 11.20pm-12.15am


Wednesday 21 December

FILM: THE BUNKER - 9pm-10.30pm

M R JAMES: WHISTLE AND I'LL COME TO YOU - 11.25pm-12.10am


Thursday 22 December

THE AVENGERS: THE LIVING DEAD - 7.30pm-8.20pm

LOOK AROUND YOU: GHOSTS - 8.20pm-8.30pm

THE STORY OF THE GHOST STORY - 8.30pm-9pm; 3.15am-3.45am (signed)

THE WYVERN MYSTERY - 9pm-11pm

FILM: THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE - 11.30pm-1.15am


Friday 23 December

THE STORY OF THE GHOST STORY - 7.30pm-8pm

M R JAMES: A VIEW FROM A HILL (PREMIERE) - 10.30pm-11.10pm; 2.30am-3.10am

M R JAMES: THE CORNER OF THE RETINA - 11.10pm-11.40pm


Saturday 24 December

FILM: THE GHOSTS OF BERKELEY SQUARE - 12.35am-2am (Fri night)

Discussion

[Emp edit: Adding in discussion link]
 

Mighty_Emperor

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General info:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M._R._James

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Ghosts in the machine

Vengeful spirits. Desolate landscapes. Supernatural horrors that unfold in the corner of the eye. Sarah Dempster thrills at MR James's spooky dramas

Saturday December 17, 2005
The Guardian

Christmas Eve, 1972. A shiver of anticipation detaches itself from the polyester curtains, swoops over the Parker Knoll sofa and lands, with a barely perceptible "brrr", on the nation's teak-effect television set. Earlier in the evening, said appliance had delivered a series of images that might be deemed indicative of this particular period in history: Hughie Green grinning on Opportunity Knocks! Christmas Special; the stars of popular racist sitcom Love Thy Neighbour dressed up as the Black & White Santas; "Little" Jimmy Osmond, drenched in tinsel, warbling Long-Haired Lover From Liverpool like there was no tomorrow, no God, and, indeed, no possibility of ever ending up eating boiled possum in a hammock with Anthony from Blue. But now, as the night draws in and the mood morphs from tremulous anticipation into palpable excitement, a very different kind of Yuletide transmission is crackling into life.

Its title? A Warning To The Curious - the second annual, 50-minute film to be broadcast under the BBC's A Ghost Story For Christmas banner.

The plot, in this case, involves an amateur archaeologist in bicycle clips digging up an old crown in 1920s Norfolk, a seemingly innocuous deed that holds nightmarish consequences for amateur archaeologist and bicycle clips alike. The aim, meanwhile, is to echo the Dickensian tradition of cosy Christmas ghost-story-telling, while simultaneously reducing the nerves of all concerned to the consistency of pureed rhubarb.

And does it do these things? It most certainly does. Indeed, after propelling ourselves out of the aforementioned 1972 Parker Knoll sofa and onto the fashionably uncomfortable plastic swivel chair of 2005, we can confidently state, sans charges of unwarranted nostalgic munificence, that A Warning To The Curious remains one of the most unnerving works of supernaturality ever televised.

That A Warning To The Curious - and, indeed, the bulk of the Ghost Story For Christmas series - ever made it to the screen is down to the powerful brain and monumental legacy of one Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936). A Cambridge scholar, linguist, medievalist, palaeographer and harrumphing boffin in excelsis, James ("MR" to his publisher and the braying colonials of the King's College muttonchop set) was responsible for some of the most distinctive ghost stories ever written - six of which would eventually be adapted into Ghost Stories For Christmas, while a seventh, the magnificently chilling Whistle And I'll Come To You, would be tailored, in 1968, for the BBC's no less boffinish Omnibus. In the 30 or so strange tales penned by James (composed, mainly, as a Yuletide wheeze to entertain his sherry-doused contemporaries), dusty academics and spluttering scholastic buffers were typically punished for their intellectual snobbery and/or excessive curiosity via a sudden, life-altering burst of unimaginable supernatural horror. Hence, the amateur archaeologist of A Warning To The Curious is pursued by a vengeful ghost armed with some sort of blunt gardening instrument. The cobwebby cleric of The Stalls Of Barchester is haunted by what may or may not be a murderous cat. And the sneering academic of The Treasure Of Abbot Thomas gets gunged by a pile of tar with arms.

Such nebulousness does not lend itself easily to TV and, pre-CGI and edit-suite technowhizzery, you'd be forgiven for suspecting A Ghost Story For Christmas - which ran until 1978 - to be wobbly bunkum of the first order. But such is the strength of James' writing, and such is the quality of the films' photography, direction and editing, that the results expose contemporaneous guff such as ITV's Thriller and Hammer House Of Horror as the shock-free style-vacuums they are. Unsurprisingly, A Ghost Story For Christmas was an instant hit.

By the arrival of A Warning To The Curious (following 1971's sublimely atmospheric The Stalls Of Barchester), the new series had already wedged a polished brogue in the door of modern tradition. And by 1973's Lost Hearts - a macabre revenge yarn that hints, bleakly, at child abuse - it was as much an inviolable indicator of the British festive experience as sprouts, grudging work bonuses, stuffing and getting depressed on Boxing Day over the sheer meaninglessness of it all. Indeed, when Noddy Holder screamed "IT'S CHRIIIIIISTMAAAS!" at the end of Merry Xmas Everybody, it's fair to assume he was not referring to the sense of euphoria one experiences when one unwraps one's third FCUK travel set. More likely, Holder was offering a heartfelt echo of the unique excitement/terror interface with which the nation, huddled expectantly around its teak-effect television set, traditionally greeted the arrival of each new Ghost Story For Christmas; a matchless appreciation that rendered the enterprise one of the most beloved - and effective - supernatural series in TV history.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of AGSFC is how little its MR James adaptations - and, in 1976's excellent The Signalman, its sole Charles Dickens' adaptation - 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.

According to award-winning horror writer and James aficionado Ramsey Campbell, this ageless quality is not merely down to the tales' period settings. It's predominately a result of James' refusal to scribble within conventional horror confines.

"James is the absolute master of the glimpse of horror, the glance of the image of something you don't quite see," explains Campbell, who cites Lost Hearts as his favourite Ghost Story ("it's genuinely gruesome").

"He had a focused desire to be as frightening as possible, which was pretty unusual at that time. There's the realisation that it's the everyday stuff we take for granted that turns out to be an instrument of the supernatural."

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Jonathan Miller's superb, 1968 adaptation of Whistle And I'll Come To You. Here, Michael Hordern's socially deficient professor is chased along a beach by what can only be described as a bedsheet making slowed-down cow noises. It was - and is - one of the most horrific scenes ever committed to film. Campbell agrees. "Most gothic and post-gothic spectres were figures dressed up in a sheet. In James' stories, the sheet has nothing underneath."

It's this sense of dislocation - in addition to the current Dr Who and Quatermass-powered drive towards archival "re-imagining" - that has encouraged BBC4 to revive A Ghost Story For Christmas after 26 years asleep, presumably, in a shoebox under Auntie's spare bed. "They're great stories," says channel executive Mark Bell. "I'd like to think we wouldn't exclusively stick to MR James either. Resurrecting the format is not really about being nostalgic," he adds. "It's about continuing a classic tradition."

Christmas week, then, will be marked in every MR James-fan's diary with a triumphant flaming skull (or at least the words "don't forget to set the video" accompanied by a polite asterisk).

For as part of a line-up that includes five James-based re-runs (including the first-ever repeat of lone, 1975 clanger The Ash Tree), a repeat of 2004 documentary Corner Of The Retina, a big bundle of distantly related ghost stories (including acclaimed 1990 mini-series The Green Man) and a new documentary The Story Of The Ghost Story, there will be a new, 40-minute adaptation of James' A View From A Hill.

It is, in every respect, a vintage AGSFC production. There are the powdery academics hamstrung by extreme social awkwardness. There is the bumbling protagonist bemused by a particular aspect of modern life (in this case, a pair of binoculars). 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 (unless you count the appearance of Watson off ITV's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which you really shouldn't.) 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.

-----------------
· The Story Of The Ghost Story, Sun, 9.30pm, BBC4. The MR James season runs Sun-Fri, BBC4

See here for the run down:
www.forteantimes.com/forum/viewtopic.ph ... 831#593831
 

Timble2

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I wish they'd repeat the semi-dramatised readings that they did with Christopher Lee a few years back. And show them on a channel I could actually watch.
 

Hot_Cross_Nun

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I read the above with increasing excitement....

And discover it's on BBC BLOODY 4!!! :evil:

Gaah! We still can't get Freeview where I live.

I loved the old "Ghost Story For Christmas" and remarked to Him Indoors just the other day how I wished they'd resurrect it.

BBC bloody, sodding 4!!!
 

Pietro_Mercurios

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Hot_Cross_Nun said:
I read the above with increasing excitement....

And discover it's on BBC BLOODY 4!!! :evil:

...
I know! :D Let's take BBC 1 & 2's budget and output... and spread it over two more channels, that nobody can get!

Great idea! Now pass me the mirror, I want to chop some more nose candy!
 

Spookdaddy

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Hot_Cross_Nun said:
Gaah! We still can't get Freeview where I live...BBC bloody, sodding 4!!!

Same here! Someone obviously decided that hillbillies wouldn't want an edjicational channel. Fortunately I've got a friend who is going to try and record it for me.

I've got Whistle and I'll Come to You (Wednesday Dec 21 at 23.25)on a BFI DVD. Brilliant stuff. No CGI - no problem. All you've got to do to scare the bejesus out of people is wave a sheet at them in the right manner - works for me!
 

OneWingedBird

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What was the late 80s programme where a series of M R James stories were read Jackanory style? I can rememer that scaring the absolute sh*t out of me...

The one with the Wailing Well (IMO James at his most disturbing) was one of them, and so was the one with the brass engraving that changes to tell a story.
 

escargot

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I am old enough to remember the GSFC the first time around, as a young teenager. Fantastic. Was already a big M.R. James fan too.

The bit where he's in the pulpit, and idly places his hand on a small carved figure, and it turns and scowls at him... :shock:
 

CodenameThrow

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I absolutely adore MR James and am heartbroken that I'll be in a house with no freeview when they screen the new adaptation. If anyone finds out if it comes out on DVD, please let us know.

James's stories for me epitomise everything that is good about the written word. they are so ridiculously evocative, perfectly chilling, wonderfully plotted and absolutely terrifying. Count Magnus is my absolute favourite, most specifically for this passage:

"Arrived at Belchamp St Paul, he was fortunate enough to find a decent furnished lodging, and for the next twenty-four hours he lived, comparatively speaking, in peace. His last notes were written on this day. They are too disjointed and ejaculatory to be given here in full, but the substance of them is clear enough. He is expecting a visit from his pursuers--how or when he knows not--and his constant cry is 'What has he done?' and 'Is there no hope?' Doctors, he knows, would call him mad, policemen would laugh at him. The parson is away. What can he do but lock his door and cry to God?"

The story is genuinely horrifying.

Some of his stories are so taut and so beautifully, simply amazing that I am actually becoming very emotional as I write this. He was an incredible writer.
 

Spookdaddy

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The scene brought to mind when I think of MR James scariest moments is the one in Lost Hearts where the young protagonist looks through the glazed window in a disused bathroom's door and sees "something" in the tub.
 

CodenameThrow

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and so was the one with the brass engraving that changes to tell a story.

The Mezzotint? Astonishing story. What I love so much abut James is the horrible nature of the ghosts. In Wailing Well it's four hopping skeletons wearing Victorian clothes, two men and two women, and I seem to remember one of them is in a bonnet. In The Mezzotint it's another gaunt, skeletal figure wrapped in a robe with a huge cross on the back. His monsters are all bony-fingered, slimy, smelling of the grave and driven by weird, evil hunger.
 

Boulters_Canary1

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BlackRiverFalls said:
What was the late 80s programme where a series of M R James stories were read Jackanory style? I can rememer that scaring the absolute sh*t out of me...

The one with the Wailing Well (IMO James at his most disturbing) was one of them, and so was the one with the brass engraving that changes to tell a story.

Robert Powell, iirc, playing the man himself reading his stories in a Cambridge study.

I think it was just called 'Ghost Stories' or 'M R James' Ghost Stories'

There was:

The Ash Tree
Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad
Wailing Well
(James wrote that for his local scout troop, to be told round the campfire on their annual trip to Dorset)
The Treasure of Abbot Thomas

and a few others which I forget.
 

Spookdaddy

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Hardcore MR James fans are probably already aware of this site. I subscribed to the magazine for about a year - interesting articles but most of the fiction was a bit naff - too derivative and predictable in the main but, in fairness, I suppose that would be unavoidable in a periodical dedicated to one particular author.
 

GNC

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Anyone see A View from a Hill last night then? Not bad at all, really in the spirit of the 1970s ones flavoured with a bit of Japanese horror, a spot of The Evil Dead and a French Connection last few seconds. Let's hope they do it again next year.
 

Stormkhan

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I remember a most excellent tv version of The Stalls of Barchester starring Roberty Hardy and peter Sallis. 'Kin brilliant but hard to find.
 

escargot

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Is that this one, you reckon?

escargot1 said:
The bit where he's in the pulpit, and idly places his hand on a small carved figure, and it turns and scowls at him... :shock:
 

Stormkhan

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Thasserbugger!

And when the academic seeks out the old Druid grove where the wood came from. He knows he's being watched but no one (including the viewers) can see it. Paranoia, big time!
 

Ravenstone

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Bugger! I missed it!

Is there anymore coming up? Just in case I get notifications for this thread and get a chance to catch them?
 

Mighty_Emperor

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Also anyone know if they are planning on releasing this on DVD?

If the Xmas showings were a success it certainly might be in there interest...
 

WhistlingJack

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MR James: A View From a Hill

Fri 17 Feb

BBC Four: 23:00 - 23:40

BBC FOUR revives the seventies TV 'Ghost Story for Christmas' tradition with a new MR James adaptation, the tale of an archaeologist who uncovers a gruesome local legend.
 

Spookdaddy

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A friend recorded this for me first time around - a fact I'd forgotten until I read WhistlingJack's post so I only got around to watching it last night.

I thought A View From a Hill fitted the brief really well. Plenty of atmosphere and silence and noises off - lovely stuff. I thought the scene in the bathroom was almost poetic - albeit in a dark and dreadful way. Reminiscent of Whistle and I'll Come to You in some ways, which, as I think this is the best of the adaptations, is a good thing. I think James might have approved.

Does anyone know if there are any audio collections of James stories? Given their popularity and as they were written to be read aloud I would have thought they were a gift to audio producers. I've got Lost Hearts on a CSA collection of short stories and there is a recording of Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You on the BFI DVD of the Miller adaptation - which, quite frankly I think is spoilt by the reader. Nothing wrong with his voice per se - it just doesn't suit the material. Penguin Audiobooks did a couple of very good collections of ghost stories but no James on there at all - I assume its a copyright thing.

Incidentally the Penguin collection includes a fantastic reading by Nigel Davenport of Le Fanu's An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street which illustrates perfectly how a good reader can turn what is, although admittedly a classic, a slightly old-fashioned tale into something which could scare you witless under the right circumstances. (First time I worked in Dublin I stayed on Aungier Street - I did occasionally wonder, sherried up at two in the a.m, if the old judge might be glaring out of a window at me on my way home).

(While I'm on a tangent). There's also a recording of Mrs Lunt by Hugh Walpole. The homosexual angst thing re ghost stories has, I think been overdone but Mrs Lunt seems to me to be a perfect example of where such an interpretation is justified. Worth digging out a copy if you're interested in ghost story related lit-crit.
 

Hogarth999

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Spookdaddy said:
Does anyone know if there are any audio collections of James stories? Given their popularity and as they were written to be read aloud I would have thought they were a gift to audio producers.

Some years ago in the UK, there were three sets of tapes (two tapes per set) with M R James stories brilliantly read by the excellent (now sadly deceased) Sir Michael Hordern. They were published by Argo but are now out of print. :(

Seems a heck of a pity that these aren't now available on CD, MP3, etc.

Unless anyone knows otherwise?

They really were extremely good (IMHO). :)
 

Spookdaddy

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Hogarth999 said:
...M R James stories brilliantly read by the excellent (now sadly deceased) Sir Michael Hordern. They were published by Argo but are now out of print. :(

James, Hordern, Argo - three names which suggest pure class. Oh arse, that's my wish-list just extended by several items. Yet more hours spent searching through dusty boxes of old-vinyl in the murky depths of falling-down second-hand bookshops!
 

Hogarth999

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Spookdaddy said:
Hogarth999 said:
...M R James stories brilliantly read by the excellent (now sadly deceased) Sir Michael Hordern. They were published by Argo but are now out of print. :(

James, Hordern, Argo - three names which suggest pure class. Oh arse, that's my wish-list just extended by several items. Yet more hours spent searching through dusty boxes of old-vinyl in the murky depths of falling-down second-hand bookshops!

Yes, it's a major pain.

Do Argo still exist?

Perhaps someone else has re-released them, maybe even on CD or in MP3 format?
 
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