Did we like it?
Amid the deafening, discordant fanfares of the insipid festive schedules, this subtle, menacing chiller was a glorious diversion into a realm thought lost to the antiquity of the 70s.
A quick history lesson
Before Christmas TV became a fetid froth of ludicrously melodramatic soaps and rundown reality shows, the ghost stories of MR James were sporadically adapted to offer a soothing antidote to the common fare. The most famous was Whistle And I’ll Come To You starring Michael Hordern as a professor who exhumes an angry voice from the grave. They all were expertly made and cared little for any fragile sensitivities of the viewer, but did so with almost no gore or violence.
What was good about it?
• The Kafkaeqsue (yes, we know James pre-dated Kafka) nature of the tale in which a stranger – Dr Fanshawe (marvelously underplayed by Mark Letheren) – arrives at the crumbling country pile of Squire Richards (Pip Torrens) who needs some artefacts valued so he can pay for the upkeep of the property.
• The manner in which the narrative is never rushed, moreover, it sometimes feels as if it’s straining at the leash, and inexorably builds towards a horrifying climax.
• Even though there are only three principal characters, each bounteously fills a role: Dr Fanshawe as the naïve soul in a strange land; Squire Richards as the tactless landowner, utterly out of touch with the world around him; and Richards’ butler Patten (David Burke), who mystifyingly stays with his master despite little pay and being treated like a dogsbody.
• While some of the devices used seem like staples of horror films, it is necessary to keep in mind that MR James pioneered many of them. So Fanshawe quivering in bed on the cement hard pillows as eerie noises whistle around him, Patten expositing as though the salty old seadog in an episode of Scooby Doo can be excused, and even venerated, as skilfully crafted nuances.
• The mundane, but beautiful, vignettes of the English countryside – frost clinging to spiders’ webs and kestrels circling hungrily over meadows – that contrast precipitously with the sinister events on Gallows Hill.
• The stark filming technique, which was faithful to the original episodes from the 60s and 70s, relying on long panning shots. It displayed a rewarding patience that had been thought to be extinct. One such scene saw Fanshawe wheel his bicycle through the woods towards Gallows Hill where the only accompanying sounds were the revolutions of the wheels and the doctor’s panting.
• The brilliant way in which the denouement was conceived. Using the magic binoculars, Fanshawe walks around the site of the ruined abbey but sees it as it once looked in its heyday. He then catches sight of a figure in black, and is eventually so scared he runs away, seemingly to safety. Then the screen turns black. The next scene starts at Fanshawe’s feet which are being dragged through the soft ground of the woods by two shadowy figures. As Richards and the search party try to locate him, Fanshawe looks up to a gallows being erected; but even then there are a couple more twists.
What was bad about it?
• If you’ve been watching the previous adaptations that BBC4 have been showing (like us, well, when we can peek out from under the bedclothes), you’ll have noticed that many of the stories follow a familiar pattern. One of the most common is the protagonist glimpsing a spectral sight which then compels them to investigate further; in Lost Hearts it’s the blue-skinned zombie gypsy children, in A View From A Hill it’s the ruined abbey in all its glory Fanshawe witnesses through the magic binoculars.
• When halfway through it was said about Gallows Hill: “They used to hang people there and leave them to be picked to bits (by the ravens)”, the conclusion of the story became much clearer.
• Although the filming techniques were largely effective, it sometimes slipped into sub-Evil Dead camera-as-the-monster style.