Ash to Ashes

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One of the best things about the BBC’s old Ghost Stories for Christmas is how they don’t all fit a pattern. MR James was the default choice, but The Signalman, from a Charles Dickens story, is one of the best. That one has a couple of beautiful eerie images but depends largely for effect upon Denholm Elliott’s magnificent performance of Dickens’ largely unedited dialogue. The finest James adaptation, on the other hand, Whistle and I’ll Come To You, by Jonathan Miller, almost dispenses with coherent dialogue entirely, in favour of vague mutterings by Michael Hordern which run under nearly every scene.

I was inspired to visit The Ash Tree when my friend Danny Carr commented on how unexpectedly Roegian it was. And this is true — in converting yet another James story to the screen, the series’ regular director, Lawrence Gordon Clark hewed closely to the text, necessitating some unconventional cinematic language — overlaid dialogue from unseen peasants, flashbacks, dreams, quite a bit of narrative fragmentation.

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Adding interest is the fact that the piece is set in a distant time period — two, in fact, and that it hinges upon witchcraft rather than ghosts. Plus the torture, nudity (only Leslie Megahey’s explicitly necrophile Schalken the Painter tops it) and the rather Cronenbergian monsters make it quite unlike anything else in the series. Plus it features Lalla Ward, which places it somewhere between VAMPIRE CIRCUS and Doctor Who, which seems about right — supernatural vengeance against sadistic puritans on the one hand, puppetshow monsters on the other. The elfin Lalla’s career was so unrelentingly psychotronic — no wonder she ran for comfort into the rational arms of Professor Richard Dawkins.

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6 Responses to “Ash to Ashes”

  1. Agree with all you say here. It is a wonderful BBC strange disturbing thing that they seemed to produce pretty regularly in the 70s (maybe because the BBC took more risks then, maybe because the 70s were so strange & disturbing)

    Typical director that you are though, I don’t think you’re giving enough credit to the writer, David Rudkin, who wrote several other startling pieces of television: Penda’s Fen, Artemis 81 (you do the dots) & White Lady. With it’s focus on religion, the past & the landscape it feels very Rudkin-ian. A merging of 2 distinctive authors

  2. You’re right — and I hadn’t even recognized the name, despite making note of it after Penda’s Fen.

    One thing that makes me slightly uncomfortable is stories with both witches and witch-hunters (like the recent The Witch). I feel those two items belong in different realities. After all, the witch-hunters never found any witches, they just persecuted innocent women.

    This one is less worryingly conservative than, say, Cry of the Banshee or Blood on Satan’s Claw, though, since it’s clear that the witch only does evil as a result of the evil that’s done to her. Still. I feel we’re on the wrong side of history.

  3. The witches weren’t always innocent, actually, nor were they always women. Completely ineffective, no doubt, in the cases where they did try to practise witchcraft, but the intent – justified or not – was sometimes there.

  4. There were attempts at folk magic and herbal remedies, I have no doubt. Maybe some hexing, but that’s hard to be sure of given the number of false confessions extracted under torture…

  5. There are lots of movies out there with skeptics out to bust fake psychics and mediums who turn out to be (often without knowing it themselves) the real thing. What about witch hunters? Somebody who’s spent 10 or 15 years prosecuting and burning witches who are in fact mere blasphemers or heretics or schizophrenics, finally coming up against an actual coven of real witches capable of real black magic? Does this movie exist yet, and can I steam it somewhere tonight?

  6. Jeff, David and I came up with an outline for a similar film, except our real witches (Dream casting – Barbara Steele and some other young up and comer. Possibly Hanna Stanbridge from the film what we partially wrote, Let Us Prey) are the heroines.

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