A Ghost Story for Christmas, BBC, Elliot Levey, Fisayo Akinade, Ghost Story, Ghosts, Ghostwatch, Ghostwatch by Stephen Volk, Horror, James Holmes, Jessica Temple, Judge Jeffreys, Literary criticism, M.R. James, Mark Gatiss, Martin's Close by Mark Gatiss, Peter Capaldi, Sara Crowe, Simon Williams, TV Review, Wilf Scolding
“A Ghost Story for Christmas” is not merely a minor subgenre of the BBC’s drama output. It is in fact the epicentre of an ongoing crisis in the corporation’s whole scheme of values. The original programmes, which had included “A Warning to the Curious” (1972) and “The Signalman” (1977), had been stylish, atmospheric, and scary. In this, they appear so different from the BBC’s modern Christmas ghost stories that, when you remember them, it is as if they are all somehow French or Dutch. Then, in 1992, disaster had struck the BBC. And this was a peculiar, paradoxical sort of disaster because it had commenced as a triumph, one of the funniest and most ambitious pieces of television that the BBC has ever made.
“Ghostwatch” was a horror mockumentary, though it was not, as was later claimed, a sincerely devious hoax. It supposedly comprised a “Noel’s House Party” style live broadcast from a member of the public’s council house, with the trusted veteran broadcaster Michael Parkinson hosting and coordinating everything back in the studio. The house, needless to say, was haunted and soon everything was. The proceedings deteriorated into mayhem as the ghost possessed the BBC apparatus and then beamed itself through television sets into homes up and down the country.
In 1992, the public were unprepared for such an experiment and planting it within mainstream television was especially audacious. You will have no doubt heard the rather tall and somewhat wild tales about the range of reactions amongst the show’s viewers. People soiled themselves and their hair turned grey overnight. Some women were so startled that their vaginas spontaneously prolapsed, transforming them into men. An entire generation of small children, who had been allowed to watch the show after the watershed by inattentive parents, would contract post-traumatic stress disorder. The phenomenon of tremulous “snowflake” students is conceivably just the psychological damage done from being exposed to “Ghostwatch.”
Thereafter, the BBC’s decision was firm. Sure, it could continue to broadcast ghost stories and they could generally come in whatever variety the programme’s makers liked. They could be modern, Victorian, set in the North, interesting, boring, with a complicated frame narrative, or raising awareness about some fashionable issue such as dementia. But they couldn’t be frightening. Because packed within the muscle memory of the BBC was now an aversion to horror that ran all the way back to its “Ghostwatch” scar tissue. The very unconscious fabric of the BBC remembered that time when the tabloids had been scandalised, questions had been asked in parliament, and the peace of the corporation’s executives had been unpleasantly disturbed.
Mark Gatiss’ “Martin’s Close,” the BBC’s latest Christmas ghost story, is characteristically haunted more by “Ghostwatch” than it is inspired by M.R. James, the writer of the original Edwardian story. “Martin’s Close” was first published in 1911 and it lies within the central rather than the outer belt of the Jamesian canon. Gatiss is a talented showman and comedian, but his “Martin’s Close” confirms the inability of one such as he, or else one in his circumstances, to simply breeze their way into horror.
There is potentially a very frightening drama somewhere within “Martin’s Close.” Behind the immediate bustle of the story, with its ghostly to-ing and fro-ing, lies the sinister mystery of the relationship between the carefree young Squire George Martin and the “natural” maid-of-all-work Ann Clark. Was the squire perversely attracted to this mentally afflicted and apparently toad-like servant? Did he get her pregnant? Or did she, in constantly following him around, discover some secret about him that impelled him to murder her? Or did someone else kill her, for an entirely different reason, and is she still haunting the squire only due to her misplaced affection, perhaps without even realising that she is dead and that he is on trial for her murder? The latter interpretation is my personal favourite.
The pair’s story is so disquieting because, given the facts that are rattled off during the squire’s trial, we cannot access the reality of the relationship between them or of the context in which she could have been murdered. The mystery glitters fascinatingly like quartz. It is unfortunate, therefore, that Gatiss’ drama does not pursue the inner mystery, instead being content to pause at the ghostly decorations that fringe the tale.
Wilf Scolding delivers the squire – now “John” rather than George Martin – in an unvarying note of melodramatic dismay. Ann Clark (Jessica Temple) does not realistically suffer from any condition such as autism or Down syndrome. One might cruelly theorise that James had regarded a mentally afflicted woman as being just another woman but with a layer of frivolous detail missing. Nonetheless, there is an opportunity within “Martin’s Close” to kit out Ann Clark with some individuality or with the motives and needs of a real sufferer. Building up the drama from this basis could have considerably enhanced or deepened it. Gatiss clearly didn’t know where introducing such realism would lead him, however, and there was probably a fear within the corporation’s bureaucracy about how it would land amongst hypersensitive modern viewers. With this, additional risk-aversion was piled on top of the existing avoidance of horror.
“Martin’s Close” tries to compensate for its low-key Ann Clark by switching William, originally a child witness at Martin’s trial, for a black slave (Fisayo Akinade). This only causes us to question whether the sneering Judge Jeffreys (Elliot Levey) would have really accepted a slave’s or a black man’s testimony as evidence with so little comment. The slave’s presence at the trial feels anachronistic, not necessarily because it was impossible, but more because it is ham-fistedly appeasing a contemporary anxiety about so much of our pre-modern history being white.
The show has two great actors at its disposal, but they are not unleashed upon the central puzzle of the relationship between Squire Martin and Ann Clark. Peter Capaldi plays Dolben, a prosecutor who we never glimpse outside of the role that he is himself performing in court. Simon Williams plays a silver-haired frame-narrator who bears a niggling resemblance to Michael Aspel, the host of the 1990s paranormal magazine programme “Strange But True?”
This production is as cheap as a pack of cards. Indeed, the lack of special effects makes it look meagre even by the standards of the 1970s Christmas ghost stories. It has half an hour to tell its story in, which is to give up on creating and dwelling within any atmosphere from the outset. Many directors would have had enormous fun interpreting the scene in which Ann Clark’s ghost frolicsomely erupts from a tavern chest. Gatiss skips over it, largely because he wants to unveil the ghost at the end of the story, in a conventional televisual climax. The squire is never shown on the scaffold presumably because this would offend somebody or break some cultural regulation. The trouble is that simply plonking the ghost in full view as a conclusion – with Ann Clark tittering in a mail-order zombie costume – is far less unusual and nervy than the tavern scene, when she moves at such weird speed that she is both witnessed and unidentifiable.
The BBC’s Christmas ghost story today remains a frustratingly empty cultural event. As with people watching their children singing carols, we now all automatically troop out to see it with scant hopes for the quality. Yet “Martin’s Close,” with its cringing inoffensiveness and its evasion of the horror as a top-down corporate ethic, manages to become hugely offensive. How can they expect to get away with taking one of this country’s most influential horror writers and making his work look so petty and undistinguished? Had James written with the same constraints upon his creative freedom in 1911, then there wouldn’t be such a responsibility to get his stories right today.