GHOST STORIES: CLASSIC ADAPTATIONS FROM THE BBC: THE STALLS OF BARCHESTER (1971) AND A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS (1972). BASED ON STORIES BY MONTAGUE RHODES JAMES. PRODUCED AND DIRECTED BY LAWRENCE GORDON CLARK.
REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
‘No diggin’ ‘ere…!’
British film and television in the late ’60s and early ’70s is the best in the world. You can’t beat it. These two offerings are so exquisitely atmospheric and of their time that I literally feel like I’m walking through a door to the past when I watch them. I’m not always happy about stepping back into the present either, when the credits start rolling…!
A mere review couldn’t hope to capture or encapsulate their ghostly essence in a thousand words, but I can certainly try to transit some of my enthusiasm for these two immaculate adaptations of some of the spookiest stories in literature.
In THE STALLS OF BARCHESTER, the marvellous Clive Swift (the long-suffering Richard Bucket from sitcom KEEPING UP APPEARANCES, about a snobbish, upwardly mobile social climbing housewife) plays a tweed-suited academic called Dr. Black. He has come to Barchester Cathedral in the 1930s to catalogue the library there. He finds it a dreadfully dreary task on the whole, until fate puts in his way a locked box of papers…
The box contains the private papers and diary of the now-deceased Archdeacon Haynes, who was the head cleric at the cathedral in the 1870s. This fellow Haynes, brilliantly played by an almost unrecognisably young Robert Hardy (Siegfried Farnon from ALL CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL), has waited an aggravatingly long time to attain his cherished position of Archdeacon.
The previous incumbent, a Dr. Pulteney, insisted on living pretty much as long as Methuselah, and doubtless would be living still had not a sudden shocking accident catapulted the good doctor into heaven and this chap Haynes into his place.
Haynes, a joyless, austere and rather pompous fellow not untypical of his Victorian contemporaries, takes up residence in the house where his ancient predecessor recently died a violent death.
When his sister Letitia, played by Thelma Barlow (Mavis Wilton from Rita’s newsagents in CORONATION STREET), joins him in the Archdeacon’s residence in the summer months, his stay in the creepy old house that comes with the job is bearable enough. But when Letitia decamps to warmer climes in the winter and Haynes is left alone with the shadows and strange sounds that surround him nightly in the old house, he becomes slowly unhinged…
He hears people around him constantly, voices and comings and goings, especially on the stairs or in the hall outside his study, but when he steels himself to look, there is nothing to be either seen or heard in the darkness without.
He also senses the presence of a large cat, but his manservant assures him that no such animal resides in the house. Who or what is trying to drive the sombre Archdeacon Haynes out of his mind, and, perhaps more interesting a thought, why…? What has he done to deserve it?
The strangely obscene carvings in the magnificent old cathedral have their part to play in this very gothic mystery, as does their creator, John Austin, dubbed ‘The Twice-Born’ by the superstitious natives, and also a stretch of visually beautiful woodland containing the stump of what was once known locally as ‘the hanging tree.’
There’s some rather gorgeous choir-singing in the cathedral, and a few genuinely scary moments in the house that relies on candles for its light, as electricity hasn’t yet been invented. Can Dr. Black get to the bottom of the mystery of Archdeacon Haynes, and will it be fit for publication in the cathedral library’s catalogue, even if he does…?
A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS is, if possible, even more beautiful to look at and atmospheric than THE STALLS OF BARCHESTER. Peter Vaughan (VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, STRAW DOGS, PORRIDGE, THE REMAINS OF THE DAY) plays a disillusioned, middle-aged amateur archaeologist called Paxton, who has recently been made redundant from his job as a clerk. With nothing to lose, he travels in the winter-time to the fictional seaside town of Seaburgh on the coast of Suffolk, to do a little independent sleuthing into a matter that interests him greatly.
Local legend in the place where he has come to has it that, long ago, three Anglo-Saxon crowns were buried in different locations along the East Anglian coast to keep foreign marauders from invading Britain. Only one crown remains unfound, and the natives believe that it is still guarded by the last member of the family that has always guarded the buried treasure, one William Ager.
The fact that William Ager, a ‘solitary’ who died years ago of the consumption appears to be no impediment to his carrying out of his sworn duty … guarding the crown and, thereby, defending the realm, England’s green and pleasant land.
When Paxton finds the third crown after a telling conversation with a beautiful woman in a wild and ramshackle country garden, he feels from the moment he uncovers it that he is ‘never alone, not for a minute.’
Who stalks the unfortunate amateur archaeologist with evil intent, and who accompanies him wherever he goes, though no companion is ever visible to his own eyes or those of others? The feeling of dread is palpable all the way through this marvellously atmospheric piece of television.
Haunting flute solos throughout and the discordant scraping of violins towards the end of the piece contribute greatly to the atmospherics. Ditto the fabulous sweeping shots of a bleak coastline in winter, deserted beaches and silent woods. Clive Swift plays another Dr. Black here, this time a knickerbockered academic who comes to the desolate windswept seaside town to paint and escape his wife.
There’s a stunning scene in the village cemetery in which the local vicar points out to Paxton the resting place of the consumptive William Ager. Steam train aficionados will delight in the sight of the valiant machines used by kind permission of the North Norfolk Railway Company, and the twist in the tale will leave you reeling.
This and THE STALLS OF BARCHESTER both became highly popular Christmas viewing in the early ‘Seventies, sparking off a series of similar ghostly festive pieces. A ghost story for Christmas, what could be more perfect? Take a trip back in time and enjoy these two gems. And thank your spooky stars for the spectral imagination of M.R. James…
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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