CLASSIC GHOST STORY ADAPTATIONS FROM THE BBC: LOST HEARTS (1973), THE TREASURE OF ABBOT THOMAS (1974) AND THE ASH TREE (1975). BASED ON THE STORIES OF MONTAGUE RHODES JAMES.
STARRING SIMON GIPPS-KENT, JOSEPH O’CONOR, MICHAEL BRYANT, PAUL LAVERS, EDWARD PETHERBRIDGE AND BARBARA EWING.
REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
These three ghost stories in the BBC’s A Ghost Story For Christmas series are just gorgeous. They’re beautifully photographed and the stories are good and creepy too. As the little booklet accompanying the DVD box-set tells us so descriptively, they would have appeared on television late at night, probably the last programme before the station shut down for the night.
This was back in the days when television wasn’t a twenty-four-hour thing, remember, and you had a choice sometimes of only two, three or four channels. The viewer would have watched the programme in front of the dying embers of that day’s fire, and gone straight up to bed afterwards with the disturbing imagery from the ghost story weighing heavily upon his mind. By Jove, if that isn’t the way to do it…!
Lost Hearts tells the story of a recently orphaned boy called Stephen coming to live with his ancient aristocrat uncle/first cousin twice removed Abney, in said uncle’s fabulous stately home set in acres of rolling parkland.
Uncle Abney is, quite simply, too good to be true. He’s chuckle-y and funny and so kindly disposed towards the soon-to-be-twelve-years-old lad that we wonder in earnest what his deal is. Things –– and people –– that seem to be too good to be true often are, after all . . .
If I were Stephen, I’d be extremely worried about the well-meaning but thoroughly unnerving tales told by the housekeeper about children who were invited to stay at the house by the kindly old Mr. Abney in the past, but who then disappeared into thin air shortly afterwards. Still, the boy is powerless to act, isn’t he? What can he do in a situation like that? He’s orphaned, after all, and the older gentleman in whose home he currently resides is now his legal guardian.
The fog-wreathed landscape looks wonderful in this film. The supernatural beings are present in the narrative almost from the beginning, but they’re no less creepy for all that, the Italian hurdy-gurdy gypsy boy in particular. The music is marvellous and the graveyard scene at the end is just beautiful to look at. Apologies for the fulsome nature of my adjectives, but really, this short film is just too visually delicious to resist.
In The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, an intellectually arrogant cleric by the name of the Reverend Justin Somerton is engaged on what amounts to a secret treasure hunt, for the gold said to have been secreted away by the titular Abbot Thomas in the ancient church-slash-seat of learning where Somerton is now doing some research. It has to be kept secret because it would fatally damage Somerton’s academic reputation to be seen to be grubbing around after a handful of gold coins.
Somerton is assisted in his treasure-hunting by the aristocratic young Lord Peter Dattering, whose father is recently deceased. I love the bit where Peter invites his mentor Somerton to a séance in his home. Peter’s mother is convinced that her medium and the medium’s husband are able to contact her dear dead spouse for her, but the snobby show-off Reverend Somerton soon puts paid to the medium couple’s little scam . . .
Somerton and Peter have great fun flexing their intellectual muscles in trying to solve the puzzle left by long-deceased alchemist and suspected sorcerer, the Abbot Thomas. Imagine Somerton’s fright, though, when he realises that the mischievous, malevolent Abbot Thomas has not been trying to keep him away from his precious treasure, but has in fact been trying to lure him into a horrible, deathly trap, using the treasure as bait. The scene in the catacombs is delightfully gruesome, and I love the end bit, of which we get a satisfying bird’s-eye view. He looks down on what is hidden . . .
The Ash Tree is arguable my favourite story of the three short films. The handsome, aristocratic young Sir Richard Fell is the newest incumbent of Castringham hall, his predecessor Sir Matthew having died a strange and mysterious death.
Sir Richard straightaway begins to experience moments of possession, when he finds himself occupying the body and mind of the late Sir Matthew. But Sir Matthew lived in witch-finder times, when innocent women were hanged and drowned and burned to death after being found ‘guilty’ of so-called witchcraft.
Sir Matthew’s mind, once he has reluctantly accused a beautiful local woman, Anne Mothersole (played by Hammer actress Barbara Ewing), of witchcraft and condemned her to a horrible death by hanging, is not a comfortable place to be. Sir Richard becomes more and more discombobulated by the periods of possession. Is it only a matter of time before he suffers the same grisly fate as his unfortunate ancestor . . . ?
Sir Richard has a saucy little sexpot of a girlfriend called the Lady Augusta, by the way, who seems to be permitted an extraordinary amount of freedom for a woman of the time. Gadding about on her horse, swanning over to Paris for her wedding trousseau and daring to chide her husband-to-be over his inclusion of Henry Fielding’s The Adventures of Tom Jones in his library. A woman who reads? Heaven forfend . . .
It is sincerely to be hoped that Sir Richard beats this distinct tendency towards independence out of her once they are lawfully wed, which was the style of the time, and fills her belly with enough regularity to take her mind off gadding about and keep it where it belongs, in the nursery. Humph.
There’s an hilarious passage in the booklet which accompanies this DVD box-set, in which director Lawrence Gordon Clark tells us about how it was the ash tree in his very own garden that served as the downfall of poor Sir Richard.
Months later, the following summer, in fact, Clark was entertaining friends in his garden when a hideous spider baby, that seemingly hadn’t been boxed away with the other hairy monstrosities after filming ended, fell suddenly out of the tree into the lap of a terrified female guest. If that had been me, the speed of my departure would have put the Road-Runner to shame. Sweet suffering Jesus.
‘Mine shall inherit . . .’
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, poet, short story writer and film and book blogger. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, women’s fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:
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