Did we like it?
The first two of the three-part series of ghost stories set in a haunted manor house were well-acted and gripping, but crucially for such tales, we were rarely chilled – particularly when set against their obvious antecedents such as the soul-skinning MR James. The third – The Knocker – was a brilliant and sporadically terrifying story that was redolent of the classics of MR James.
What was good about it?
• Mark Gatiss spins out blackly humorous tales like a literary Rumplestiltskin, oozing chronicles of woe. This trilogy was more akin to a piquant poison slowly spreading through the body, as the scenario was economically illustrated before the drama was played out in the creepy corridors of Geap Manor
• The first story, The Wainscoating, followed a corrupt 18th century businessman Joseph Bloxham, who had encouraged his associates to invest in an overseas venture that went wrong. He is pursued by the grief-stricken wife of one of his investors who has been arrested for his debts, and who later kills himself. With the riches he made from the venture before it collapsed, he has bought and is renovating Geap Manor.
• One of the rooms is being adorned with rich wainscoting panels, and it’s there where the horror begins. In the best traditions of ghost stories – and that is one drawback with the originality – Bloxham hears something go bump in the night behind the panelling, and then later sees the spectral force as the wood is soaked in a liquid blacker than the night.
• Bloxham’s friend Noakes (the superb Julian Rhind-Tutt) rushes to his aid when he discovers that the wainscoting is hewn from the stocks where criminals were hanged, but is too late to prevent Bloxham being absorbed into the wood.
• The second, Something Old, moves on to the 1920s to a party where the wealthy but dim Felix announces his engagement to the lowborn Ruth. Sensitive that Felix’s family and friends feel he is marrying below himself, she stumbles about the party confronting Felix’s nasty former fiancée Catherine and his stoical grandmother.
• Taken from Ruth’s perspective, the horror begins long before she spies the mysterious shrouded figure who fades in and out of her vision. It is Ruth’s discomfort of mingling among a breed of people with whom she has very little in common that raises her suspicions of Felix’s fidelity, which she thinks is proved when she spies him asleep in the arms of the shrouded figure. Felix’s grandmother tells her the tale of how her sister was betrayed on her wedding night by when she found her new husband in bed with another woman and so gouged out her eyes with a knife.
• The third shifted to the modern day, where teacher Ben (Lee Ingleby), unnerved but not spooked by the stories that the curator (Mark Gatiss) proudly affixed the knocker he found in his back garden – built on the site of Geap Manor – to his front door.
• Each night he was woken by a loud knocking at 3.43am. But when he peered outside nobody was there. More eerie still was that, after locking himself out, he opened the front door only to see that his house had been transformed into Geap Manor from 200 years ago.
• This was an unsettling turn, and Ingleby superbly conveyed the bewildering odyssey. The second time, he has a little more courage and spies on Sir Roger Widdowson, his wife and the curator as they invoke a ghoulish abomination from beyond the grave. He flees in terror, remembering what the curator had said to him about how Widdowson “was prepared to go to Hell and back” to secure a male heir to Geap, and continue the lineage.
• Ben tosses the knocker into a lake but the following night, the knocking happens again. Only this time there is no portal to the past, instead he is assaulted by the abomination. After being saved by his pregnant ex-girlfriend, she goes into labour. And from this point, matters take a very diabolic turn, with a conclusion that was both horrid and gruesomely apt. And then there is a final dreadful twist.
• We hope that Mark Gatiss continues to write Christmas ghost stories, and so continue the tradition of MR James adaptations that graced the BBC schedule in the 70s (and recent festive periods, too).
What was bad about it?
• While the first two stories were pretty good, both were highly derivative of other ghost stories. This isn’t really a criticism of Gatiss’ talent for the original; after all he was partly responsible for one of the most original and brilliant comedy series of the past decade. But as a connoisseur of the horror genre, Gatiss would have been well-aware of all of these references, and it’s a little disappointing he has blithely transferred them from one chilling tale to another, losing much of the impact along the way.
• However, The Wainscoting owed a debt to Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape in the way the natural environment soaks up the trauma of the dying and spills it back into reality, while the disorientating Geap Manor was redolent of everything from Northanger Abbey to Scooby Doo.
• And the tale was not as chilling as the Stone Tape or any of the MR James stories the BBC used to adapt. Perhaps it was the claustrophobic interiors that are so homogenous and familiar to a thousand haunted house stories comparing unfavourably with the bleak outdoor vistas of Whistle And I’ll Come To You or The Stalls of Barchester.
• It was also very apparent that his persistent callous rejections of the importunities of the dead investor’s indigent wife were each a nail in his coffin, it was a chronicle of a death foretold from the opening scenes.
• Something Old also borrowed from classic horror, in this case the manner in which the shrouded figure would slither about the party, sometimes visible sometimes not; and this reminded us of the Masque of the Red Death, starring Vincent Price. While the dénouement, in which the ghost pulls back her bridal veil to reveal her empty eye sockets was not as heart-crippling as the moment in MR James’ Lost Hearts where the grinning banjo-playing gypsy boy is revealed to be bereft of a heart.
• In The Knocker, we weren’t convinced by Ben’s reasons for leaving Hannah after she became pregnant. However, as it was restricted to a half-hour duration we would rather have seen the chilling ghost we got rather than the earnest travails of dreary domesticity.