Sunday, December 16, 2007


Ghost Stories for Christmas and Other Festive Television

Press the red button on your digital TV right now, and you’ll see a thrilling Doctor Who preview trailer continuously advertising this Christmas Day’s big telly event – Voyage of the Damned, complete with more spooky angels, disaster movie style and added Kylie. And there’s plenty more to look forward to if you enjoy stories of the uncanny or fantastic, particularly with another season of Christmas ghost stories running this week on BBC4. A fine old Yuletide tradition and mostly taken from the works of M.R. James, tune in to know more about, well, things we’re not meant to know.

M.R. James and Other Christmas Spine-Chillers

The BBC made most of their Christmas ghost stories as annual events in the 1970s, but over the past few years BBC4 has been doing its best to exhume the tradition, showing selections from the past and even making a couple of new adaptations in the last couple of years. Tonight’s offering is one of them, starting at 10.40 and first shown in just 2005. A View From a Hill is one of the less gruesome adaptations, but centres on one of the more eerie ideas – a ruined abbey that can still be seen in its prime if viewed (almost literally) through dead men’s eyes. A young academic turns up to catalogue an Edwardian Squire’s collection but is led astray by the local sights, even if they’re no longer there; you’re probably with me in guessing that he shouldn’t go wandering about on Gallows Hill… It’s quite an effective little piece, beautifully filmed and with an excellent cast, including daunting ex-Watson David Burke as the brooding old butler and Pip Torrens as Squire Richards, a similarly stiff but less dutiful Edwardian role to his fine headmaster in this year’s outstanding Doctor Who (which, in turn, you can see again across tonight and Tuesday on BBC3).

A View From a Hill has many of the typical M.R. James elements: in these stories, you’ll more likely than not find a repressed academic obsessed with making a discovery coming to an old and probably rural setting where he discovers some ancient horror that doesn’t take kindly to his enquiry. With Mr James a former top man at Cambridge and Eton, I can’t help thinking that the attitude that ‘there are things we’re not meant to know’ and that sternly punishes asking questions may be better-suited to a writer of ghost stories than an academic. Fortunately, this season is telling us nothing of his professorial duties, sticking instead to putting chills up the spine. Oddly, the two of this week’s treats that I find least involving are the first-made and the most recent: 1968’s Whistle and I’ll Come To You (much-lauded, but with an uneven tone from the meanderings of Michael Hordern); and last year’s Number 13, in which an ecclesiastical researcher stays in an hotel almost as unfortunate as the one I was in during the Summer. Though he has other things than a hen party with an unlocked connecting door to worry about in the next room.

Amongst many splendid character actors who’ve appeared in my favourite series and in the Christmas tales, incidentally, one guest star who featured in two of the M.R. James ghost stories – the same guest star, and apparently the same character, though as the tales are many years apart there must be something rather rum and uncanny in his apparently reassuring appearance – who’ll be turning up in Christmas Day’s Doctor Who. I’ll leave you to spot who, though to narrow it down he’s been in a terribly good Doctor Who before now, and isn’t Kylie.

One of the more entertaining for someone brought up steeped in as much religion as I was is the tale of ambition, murder and madness in the Church of England – though at least there’s no homophobia, so they had it easy – in The Stalls of Barchester, showing tomorrow, Monday the 17th, at 11.40pm. Robert Hardy’s great fun, as is Young Mr Grace, though it’s slightly weakened by a framing device that means you relax at the end. There’s no such comforting final moment in The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (10pm, Wednesday the 19th), which has a definite Gothic feel and in which the bad old world quite definitely wins. This has for my money the nastiest of the ghosts or monsters on offer, and a nicely ambiguous role for young Paul Lavers that might just be involved in sealing the fate of the protagonist.

They don’t appear to be showing perhaps the best of these tales this time, the Norfolk legend with the title that sums up so much of M.R. James – A Warning to the Curious – which is a particular shame, as BBC4 had previously shown it with a new introduction by Ruth Rendell where she was almost as forbidding as the story. I wonder, however, if they’ll be repeating some of their other introductions recorded a year or three ago; if so, will we finally get to see the introduction to Lost Hearts (10pm, Thursday the 20th), or will they stick on an intro for a completely different story, as they managed last time? It’s worth a look, whoever prefaces it, though it has a very different tone from most of M.R. James’ work, perhaps the most disturbing to modern eyes, with the academic a particularly nasty villain and the ‘innocent’ role found quite elsewhere (and, as ever, losing a little of their innocence).

Finally, there’s The Signalman (11.05, Thursday the 20th), from a story by Charles Dickens and one of the first television adaptations by Andrew Davies. It pits a rational man against a haunted man, played by Denholm Elliott, who’s breaking under the strain of a repeated ghostly warning on the railway line on which he works. It’s a compelling adaptation of the Doctor’s favourite ghost story (as he gushed to Charles Dickens in The Unquiet Dead, another splendid little ghost story for Christmas albeit shown in April), and one which appropriately might be said to involve an element of time travel…

The Martians and Us and Mentioning the War

While most of the ghost stories were first shown on the BBC’s terrestrial channels and have found a new home on BBC4, The Martians and Us was a short documentary series for BBC4 last year that’s now coming to BBC2. Many readers may find themselves sitting slumped on the sofa at 11.20pm on Tuesday the 18th after Newsnight’s no doubt inadequate coverage of the exciting new Liberal Democrat Leader, but the programme following Newsnight is worth staying awake for – and worth tuning in again for at the same time on the next two nights. It’s a short history of science fiction, with an emphasis on British sci-fi and grouping stories by three overarching themes rather than sticking to a strict chronology. This means that stories are often shoehorned into artificial categories, but it’s entertaining enough and provides some interesting sketches from H.G. Wells to Doctor Who. The first part, From Apes To Aliens, deals with evolution and ‘biological’ sci-fi, then Trouble In Paradise focuses on utopia and dystopia, with a rather good definition of the two from Margaret Atwood (whose dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale was on BBC7 just the other week), and finally apocalyptic visions in The End of the World As We Know It. The last is probably the weakest of the three, feeling the most forced in its categories and, peculiarly, being the only one without any clips from Doctor Who – despite about a quarter of the old series and half of the new being driven by apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic storylines.

Meanwhile, two rather different styles of television based on the Second World War are to be found on weekday afternoons on BBC1 and at 10am and 5pm on UKTV History; despite it eclipsing King Arthur as our national myth, both these views of the War deal with occupied Europe and Britain’s part is more peripheral. The series consigned to a backwater digital channel is Secret Army, one of the finest dramas the BBC have ever produced, and gripping from its opening titles on. At present, UKTV History is repeating Secret Army’s second series, which has more of a continuing story than the first and particularly shows more of the human side to ruthless Gestapo officer Kessler, though it’s less white-knuckle tense in its individual episodes than the show’s first year. If you saw the episode Weekend, shown last week, even if you’d never seen Secret Army before you may have found the works of art pursued both by the Gestapo and the underground Lifeline run from a restaurant strangely familiar. Yes, this is the series that inspired ’Allo ’Allo, and while Weekend did not specifically feature a “fallen Madonna with big boobies,” you get the general idea. ’Allo ’Allo is, of course, the show that’s getting the ‘mainstream’ repeats, and though it’s intermittently amusing, I’d go for the drama any day.

Fans of our beloved Labour Party and their beloved President Bush may wish to shriek ‘Godwin’s Law!’ at me now for quoting the charming Sturmbannführer Kessler’s explanation of the need for balancing security over liberty, over dinner with his mistress last week:
“I’m concerned with the maintenance of law and order. When one is dealing with terrorists, one has to secure information by means of the most effective interrogation techniques available. These are men of violence, Mademoiselle, who will stop at nothing. They don’t use kid gloves, and nor can we. Information – that’s the most important weapon we have. Information. And my job is obtaining it, that’s all. Every government fighting terrorism faces this problem… And always will, I expect.”
And Back to Doctor Who

Do enjoy the Voyage of the Damned preview trailer; we were terribly glad to find it, having been disappointed not to see it when we went to the cinema last week. The other disappointment with our The Golden Compass experience was the film snapping in half during a scene with Derek Jacobi, and then depriving us of the beginning of the next one with Nicole Kidman. It was an outrage! You know we only went to see the villains, and we were particularly fond of The Pope of Evil with his sinister councillors (I must be the only person to cheer Edward de Souza, without him even getting a line) and a woman who appeared to have been fashioned entirely from gold. Speaking of which, you might notice a couple of Goldfinger touches about the new spooky angels, so we’re looking forward to finding out more about them on Christmas Day, and not before. No sooner does the Doctor clap eyes on another blonde, though, than he’s knocking years off his age again – it’s that Russell T Davies ‘straight agenda’ at work, you mark my words! That’s obviously why he was so adoring of Doctor Peter last month, too. No sign of the new song in it, either, ‘The Stowaway’ (aka ‘Fairytale of New New York’), but we have that on CD… If you miss the trailer, by the way, look out on the red button / Freeview Channel 301; I suspect it’ll be back later in the week. I can hardly believe there are fewer than ten days to go until Doctor Who!

Oh, yes, and Christmas.

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That trailer does look good....

But talking of ghost stories at Xmas Alex, did you ever get to see Nigel Kneale's "The Stone Tape"?
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