A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS FROM THE BBC: THE SIGNALMAN (1976), STIGMA (1977) AND THE ICE HOUSE (1978). STARRING DENHOLM ELLIOTT, BERNARD LLOYD, KATE BINCHY, PETER BOWLES, JOHN STRIDE, GEOFFREY BURRIDGE AND ELIZABETH ROMILLY.
REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
The Signalman was based on a short story by England’s greatest novelist, Charles Dickens. It was penned the year after he almost died in an horrific train accident that killed ten of his fellow passengers and injured forty others. To the end of his days, the notion of train travel gave him nightmares, and no wonder.
Denholm Elliott does a superb job as the titular Signalman, who performs his train-related duties from a signal-box on a remote part of the line. His job is safety; ensuring the safety of the passengers and crew that pass by him daily, in the screeching steam trains that belch out the thick black smoke for which the Industrial Revolution was infamous.
I’m not sure what he does exactly. He doesn’t seem to be raising or lowering any barriers, or opening or closing any gates. His job involves telegraph wires, bells and flashing red warning lights. He sits in his lonely booth night after night, studying mathematics in front of his little fire to keep his mind from atrophying, with ne’er a living soul for company.
Until now, that is. A well-dressed gentleman known to us only as the Traveller, descends by a precarious dirt path to the Signalman’s booth, telling that same man that he was ‘drawn there,’ somehow. The lonely Signalman seizes on the opportunity to tell his congenial companion about a disturbing spectre that’s been haunting both him and this isolated little stretch of railway line for the past year or so…
I’ll tell you something for nothing. That there spectre causes at least one of the terrible accidents to which we are privy. I’m not at all convinced that he’s a good spirit, put it like that. The scenes where the Traveller strides briskly to his lodgings at night are gorgeous and so atmospheric. The whole short piece is steeped in atmosphere and a sense of slow-building, impending dread, with fabulous bleak scenery and the most unnerving sounds also. No wonder the poor Signalman feels like he’s going out of his mind…
STIGMA is a chilling folk horror that sees Katharine and Peter, an affluent, middle-aged couple with a surly teenaged daughter called Verity, moving to the countryside from, presumably, the city. A couple of workmen are already out in their garden, trying to remove an enormous stone from the ground because it’ll very much be in the way of Dad’s proposed new lawn.
Personally, I think that anything that size should be left well enough alone, as obviously it’s been put there for a reason. It has; it is, in fact, a menhir or a standing stone associated with a human sacrifice, in this case the sacrifice of a woman thought to be a witch. From the moment the workmen manage to raise the massive stone and its pitiful secret is revealed, Katharine’s life and maybe Verity’s too is in grave- excuse the pun- danger…
It’s pretty scary to find out near the end just how many standing stones there are in the area, and therefore just how many women were sacrificed as suspected witches back in the bad old times, which are not as far back as we might think. The whole landscape is dotted with these eerie structures. How many funeral pyres were lit back in the day, and how many times was the air rent with the hideous screams of the dying as they suffered in life the very torments of the damned…? It’s enough to give you the willies.
Anyway, here’s my little claim to fame. I met the lead actress, Kate Binchy, cousin of the late great Irish writer Maeve Binchy, several years ago in an Irish doctor’s surgery. We had a chat about how she’d once played Fr. Stone’s mother in the hilarious episode of clerical sitcom FATHER TED entitled ENTERTAINING FR. STONE.
She signed an autograph for me and I was thrilled with myself. At that time, I was unaware that, as a younger woman, she’d starred in STIGMA- and had whipped her bosoms out for that same part, as well!- but, what with me being Irish, her FATHER TED credentials were more than exciting enough on their own for me.
THE ICE HOUSE is a very strange piece of work. I still haven’t even figured it out myself. A middle-aged man called Paul comes to stay at a very exclusive spa in an isolated part of the English countryside after his marriage breaks down. The spa is run by a sinister- and incestuous!- brother and sister called Jessica and Clovis.
They lavish attention upon Paul day and night. They wait on him hand and foot, they are never far away if he wants anything and they seem to have made his happiness and comfort their number one priority. He enjoys the saunas, massages and facials the spa offers, although he can’t help noticing when a staff member disappears suddenly, and that his disappearance seems somehow tied up with the little building in the wooded grounds called the ice house…
This is indeed a strange but very sexy and sensuous instalment of the Ghost Story for Christmas series. The heavy, erotic perfume from the red and white vines that climb and clamber up the ice house walls reaches Paul through the phallic-shaped cut-outs in his bedroom window, and the sister in red and the brother in white are so obviously lovers, even if we hadn’t already seen them kiss, that an aura of heady, forbidden sexuality pervades the whole piece. Oh, and what exactly are those two inbred weirdos hiding in that ice house? Don’t you know? ‘There is only ice in the ice house…’ Yeah, right, sister. And I’m Mother Teresa of Calcutta…
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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