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This Christmas Eve the BBC showed an adaptation of a 1904 short story by M.R. James, about a group of men at Oxford University who invent a sort of primitive television. Their contraption is called “the Mezzotint” and there is a screen, upon which a moving image appears. The picture is black-and-white and there is no audio, but it has still gotten a headstart of over twenty years on John Logie Baird. Unfortunately, though, there is no electricity and no way of switching the device off when it becomes a nuisance.

It is now a venerable Christmas tradition for Tychy to be torn away from the carols to briefly pummel the nearest keyboard excoriating whatever the BBC has done this year to M.R. James. The original episodes of A Ghost Story For Christmas from the 1970s were so powerful and atmospheric and today the latest ones are so feeble. The series can be inevitably compared to an apparition that has grown ever more translucent as the decades have passed. Even before one has watched The Mezzotint, it is possible to catch most of its drift from the choices that have been made about it.

So despite the vast coalition of Modernist authors who had once written ghost stories, A Ghost Story For Christmas seems to want to maintain that the “English ghost story” was somehow James’ personal project. Aesthetically, A Ghost Story For Christmas is quickly impoverished by this single-mindedness, since James’ genius had tended to operate with quite a small toolkit of recurring characters and imagery. Picking a tale by E.F. Benson, W.F. Harvey, or Edith Wharton (there are many, many more) might refresh the series, although the unfairness here is that it has stuck with James for so long that an innovative writer now feels staid simply through overfamiliarity.

If the first mistake was to look at the Modernist ghost story and see just James, the second is to automatically assume that any Christmas ghost story should be today directed by Mark Gatiss. Although Gatiss is a talented performer and writer, his talents lie in comedy and pastiche and he has no background in horror. Why not therefore award A Ghost For Christmas to a director who takes horror seriously or who does horror for a living?

A third mistake is to try to power through one of James’ creeping stories in half an hour. A fourth is to cram the drama with dialogue (the adaptations from the 1970s communicate greatly more through imagery than with spoken explanations). With this, there comes to be a regrettable cocaine-y quality to many of the scenes in Gatiss’ show, passages of clipped, jittery, over-expressive acting in which the performers are rattling obsessively through the story. When at the climax, the ghost is finally unveiled, he seems strangely like a train that the actors have been all rushing to catch.

Even so, this adaptation is still a new window upon “The Mezzotint” and it is still valuable in where it allows light to fall in upon James’ story. For one thing, somebody who has been reading James’ fiction over a lifetime will realise that they are watching this adaptation in order to actually see the mezzotint. We will have only ever pictured the vivid image at the centre of this tale in our imaginations. Will Gatiss’ mezzotint bear any resemblance to the composition that has always floated in and out of our own minds?

Or is it an error for any adaptation of “The Mezzotint” to show the mezzotint? When watching this adaptation, you rapidly appreciate how well “The Mezzotint” would function as a stage play. In Gatiss’ show we grow interested in how differently each character reacts to the fluctuating image and perhaps we have sensed that in some speculative theatrical performance of “The Mezzotint,” it would be placed on an easel with its back to the audience.

Is the mezzotint best described? The horror of James’ story is always more psychological than visual, with the mezzotint itself remaining a plain scene in which a tiny frazzled figure drifts around the front of a house. Indeed, the horror is scotched during this adaptation when Mrs Filcher (Emma Cunniffe) recounts her dismay at beholding the mezzotint and then, anticlimactically, the silly picture drops and her revulsion sounds immediately disproportionate or implausible.

On stage, a suggestive feature of “The Mezzotint,” which is there already in Gatiss’ adaptation, would be enhanced. The human characters give the impression of coming and going within a single university building and one that increasingly mirrors the mezzotint’s own static layout. These characters all assume that they are free, contemplative agents when they are in fact unknowingly contained within a stock scene from history, just as the people dwelling inside the mezzotint are.

In the episode of A Podcast to the Curious that was dedicated to “The Mezzotint,” one of the presenters, Will Ross, had suggested that it might be an oversight that no connection had been made in James’ tale between the modern-day protagonist Mr Williams and the events behind the creation of the mezzotint. When Gatiss rampages inelegantly forward to accomplish this coup, we can see at once how badly it clunks. The house within the mezzotint is revealed to be Williams’ ancestral home and, with this, the ghost is effectively issued with a formal invitation to visit Williams (Rory Kinnear) in the present day.

As we approach the climax of this adaptation, a horror is steadily pounding. This horror is namely that Gatiss will decide to embarrassingly bolt the ghost from the Japanese horror movie The Ring (i.e. the one that crawls out of a television) onto “The Mezzotint.” He is wise enough in the end to agree not to be haunted by another franchise’s ghost, but he cannot produce any imagery striking enough to make us forget that it remains lurking nearby. Whereas James had managed without any dramatic ending, Gatiss’ own ghost erupts jazzily onto the screen in its mail-order Halloween costume. Gatiss cannot understand that James was a powerful writer precisely because he had avoided predictable effects. But it is a broader problem that one of the eerier implications of “The Mezzotint” has been here allowed to decline.

What is so disconcerting about James’ “The Mezzotint” is that there is no connection between the present-day characters and the story of the spectre Gawdy. In a cosmic mystery, a mystery of awesome and escalating proportions, a haunted artwork has tumbled down the decades to land in front of some random, bewildered spectators. If this chance mezzotint can be haunted, surely any old bit of tat can. In other words, this can happen to you, or me – the past can reach out like a tentacle and suck us into its affairs, without caring who the devil we are.