Why can’t the poor old BBC make ghost stories anymore? In 1968, Jonathan Miller directed an eerie, nerve-wracking adaptation of MR James’ “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You My Lad,” (1904) for BBC television. Between 1971 and 1978, the BBC’s “A Ghost Story for Christmas,” with all but one directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, reliably ripped viewers out of Christmas and transported them to a bleak, dire place: the shivery Norfolk coastline of “A Warning to the Curious” (1972) or the lonely signal box from “The Signalman” (1976). These films are today treasured as classics.
But the BBC seems to have lately lost the knack. Maybe the institution had more authority back in the seventies, and so when they decided to intimidate their viewers, it was genuinely more frightening. There have been four Christmas ghost stories since 2005, all of them adaptations of James’ tales, but they only ever evoke nostalgia for the heyday of the genre. Each time we watch these films dutifully and each time they seem worthy and welcome and in the end disappointing. Neil Cross’ “Whistle and I’ll Come to You” (2010), although reviled by longstanding fans of “A Ghost Story for Christmas,” was, paradoxically, probably the best. Its awareness-raising, on-message storyline about dementia had no place within a Jamesian story, but at least there was something standalone about this adaptation. The others were ghostly only in the sense that they were bloodless pastiches.
The abuse which Cross received in 2010 has led this year’s director, Mark Gatiss, to cower timidly within James’ shadow and not venture out a toe. In the documentary which follows “The Tractate Middoth,” Gatiss appears as a dedicated student of James, or as one who is faithfully translating his fiction into television. There is nary a slip twixt cup and lip. The reference to Stewart Granger shows that this adaptation must be set in the 1940s or 50s, but it has a generic Edwardian feel, as if Downton has been hired out for the afternoon. There is otherwise no original detail and when you take out MR James, all that remains is pith. “The Tractate Middoth” is at least only thirty-five minutes long, avoiding the anguish which comes from trying to stretch one of James’ anecdotal yarns into an hour of television.
Gatiss should get some acclaim for tackling “The Tractate Middoth,” of which it is now a truism to joke is a terrifying adventure set mostly in a library; but this story is in fact handicapped more by its laborious plot than by its setting, and by a romantic storyline which is rare within James’ writing largely for the reason that he must have known it ran counter to his official duties. Unlike with the seventies adaptations, the predatory spectre is virtually civilised, in gunning for the side of the good and whimsically helping to restore his niece to her rightful heritage.
We cannot lean upon David Ryall’s Doctor Rant for support because it is not apparent what he is supposed to represent. He seems a rum old figure, setting fanciful practical jokes for his gormless offspring, and sounding merry rather than evil when exulting over them. Since the impoverishment which awaits Mary Simpson (Louise Jameson) after losing her inheritance is to sink into the depths of the middle class, the results of Rant’s actions are to create inconvenience rather than misery. Any tragedy is fundamentally petty; Mr Garrett (Sacha Dhawan), the knight in shining armour, is a polite, helpful chap who is always smiling, like an employee in an ASDA advert. Were this made in 1975, he would look haunted and desperate.
The BBC presumably did not wish to capture the ghosts-and-scholars audience for only half an hour, and so the subsequent documentary detains them further, although it does feel odd to be regaled with tributes to James’ asexuality on Christmas Day. It is actually a great documentary; both well made and made with an evident respect for James’ writing. I disagreed with it profoundly, I’m obliged to add, but cordially. Gatiss describes James as a “Victorian” (he was a modernist), but James did this himself. He continually refers to James by his first name, which any true Victorian would consider an impertinence. There is the depressing tendency which one finds within every BBC documentary produced over the last ten years about any writer or artist to assume that the work can be explained by the life, when the general point of art is to… you know, escape your circumstances.
More problematically, Sheridan Le Fanu is not mentioned once, even though James openly lifted the formula of the “Jamesian” ghost story from Le Fanu’s writing. Medieval lore may flavour James’ ghost stories, as Gatiss rightly explores, but the basic ingredients are drawn from Le Fanu’s “ideas and devices.” It is unclear whether the enduring refusal to credit Le Fanu as the creator of the “English ghost story” is a conspiracy hatched amongst James’ fans or within English literary criticism more broadly. If Gatiss’ documentary dwells upon the iconic representation of the English countryside found throughout James’ ghost stories, it is undeniably vexing to concede that we owe yet another achievement of English literature to an Irishman.
For the average BBC viewer, “MR James: Ghost Writer” was no doubt a superb documentary, but for fans of James’ fiction, its solid research reflects the reality that standards of his criticism have been raised considerably higher in recent years. Out of all the ways in which literary criticism has been enriched by the internet, Jamesian scholarship has witnessed one of the more exhilarating with Will Ross and Mike Taylor’s “A Podcast to the Curious.” One senses that each podcast involves the same research as a postgraduate dissertation, and yet the format is innovative and the podcasts are a lot more fun to listen to than they have any right to be. Modern criticism usually explains great works of literature in the same way that an anatomist unveils a dissected corpse with the words, “behold, your girlfriend,” but these podcasts find as much life and mystery in James’ stories as they take from them. Some may tremble at the chill wind blowing through the ivory tower, but “A Podcast to the Curious” expresses an amateurish enthusiasm of which James himself would have readily approved.