A Ghost Story for Christmas

The BBC has a long tradition of televised ghost stories at Christmas time, often involving M.R. James adaptations. Mark Gatiss has happily revived the idea this year with his version of The Tractate Middoth.

But here’s one from the ’70s, (heyday of this activity) made by commercial television, and it’s at least as good as the Lawrence Gordon Clarke movies the Beeb were turning out, while running about a third of the length. James is such an economical writer and most of his stories so simple that it’s no squeeze at all, and in fact the film feel’s leisurely. But the sting in the tale is powerful — it even gets away with depending on special effects, which work precisely because they’re so unexpected after the low-key exposition. It feels like the film itself has been invaded by another reality.

Interesting to see a maze played for terror before THE SHINING. Our director, Tony Scull, who, like his film, has existed without leaving any trace upon the IMDb, exploits the ragged and decaying hedgerows so he can film through them and get what we call Sid Furie shots, where the camera seems to be spying on the actor, implying some sinister presence. Sadly, this stops him from doing what Kubrick did, moving the camera through the maze giving us the subjective impression of being lost and enclosed. True, he wouldn’t have had access to a yet-to-be-invented steadicam, but hand-held could work just as well — wobble and lurch can add to our nervousness.

But he scores at the end, particularly when the credits start to rise before the VO has finished wrapping up the plot — this sounds like it could be messy, but it’s beautifully effective, capturing attitude of the uncaring universe as embodied by the TV schedule — we have to move on, and we can’t worry too much if some poor chap has just had his nerves shredded. And how are your nerves? Feel any urge to look behind you and check that no malefic presence has materialized through the floorboards while you were intent on your screen?

BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas (Expanded six disc set) PAL ONLY

STOP PRESS: we’re told that this short is an extra on this DVD: Casting the Runes [1979] [DVD] Maybe if a few of you click through and buy it I’ll feel less guilty about inadvertently pirating something that was commercially available! The main feature is a TV adaptation of the same MR James story that became NIGHT OF THE DEMON…


16 Responses to “A Ghost Story for Christmas”

  1. Excellent! Interesting it’s missing from databases – it was well worth remembering. The FX were almost surreal until the last look.

  2. The effects artist, David Speed IS listed, and he worked on Superman and Morons from Outer Space (“Die before you see this film,” wrote Jonathan Romney, but the effects are good). No doubt he worked on tons of other stuff uncredited.

  3. Anthony Nield Says:

    Tony Scull’s credits (as listed on the BFI’s SIFT database) likely explain his absence on the IMDb: religion-themed quiz shows; schools programmes (which is how Mr. Humphreys aired) and, latterly, training videos for businesses and corporations.

    If anyone wishes to own Mr. Humphreys on DVD, incidentally, then they can find it on Network’s Casting the Runes disc. (That’s the 1979 adaptation, which Lawrence Gordon Clark made for ITV.)

  4. Thanks for the info. I feel a bit guilty now for uploading something that was on the market. Maybe the link I’ve added will help them sell a few units. (Buy it, people!)

    I do recall some creepy stuff in the “for schools and colleges” scheduling. There was one about a boy who wanders into a sea cave and finds that the words echoing back to him are being rewritten: he yells “I – am – a – boy!” and it comes back “I – am – a – AAH!”

    Scared the crap out of me, and I’ve always wanted to find out what the hell that was and why it was broadcast.

  5. David Boxwell Says:


  6. It was my great pleasure to sit down to breakfast opposite Peggy Cummins in Lyon, even though I wasn’t sure it was her until afterwards.

  7. Anthony Nield Says:

    Digging a little deeper, it appears that Mr. Humphreys formed part of an episode of Music Scene. According to the BFI database this was an educational series aimed at 14- to 16-year-olds which screened during the mid-seventies. Going by the title, I think it’s safe to assume that Mr. Humphries was included in the ‘Music for Films and a Ghost Story’ episode.

  8. It was my great pleasure to meet Ken Adam a few years back Curse of (Night of) the Demon was his first film as production designer.

  9. Apparently the whole Music Scene episode is included on the DVD.

    I like how Ken Adam pronounces “comp-yooder” and think Peter Sellers must have based a little of Dr Strangelove on that.

  10. Well after all he designed “Dr. Strangelove.” And he did it so perfectly that when Regan became president he asked to see The War Room — expecting to be taken to a real place that looked exactly like Ken Adams’ set.

    Ken found that wildly amusing.

  11. The narrator’s voice for ‘Mr Humphreys’ has that perfect MR Jamesian tone – dry, detached, and subtly tongue-in-cheek.

  12. Yeah, it seems sympathetic but it isn’t, really.

    Sellers always claimed he based Straneglove’s voice on the set photographer, Weegee. The wheedle is also a bit like Kubrick. But Ken would’ve been a help for the accent.

  13. Thomas Schuttenhelm Says:

    At the risk of resounding in a dormant space: does anyone have a contact for Tony Scull? I’ve been desperately seeking a copy of the documentary he made about Michael Tippett. I’ve contacted Tippett’s publisher and various musicians who appear in the documentary but no one seems to have a copy of it. Any help would be greatly appreciated. Sincerely, Thomas Schuttenhelm

  14. I’m afraid I can’t help you, but I’ll keep an eye out.

  15. Thomas Schuttenhelm Says:

    Thank you!

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