Simon Moore reviews Ghost Stories: Classic Adaptations from the BBC – Volume 2…
The Stalls of Barchester, 1971.
Directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark.
Starring Clive Swift, Will Leighton, Robert Hardy, Thelma Barlow and Harold Bennett.
A Warning to the Curious, 1972.
Directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark.
Starring Peter Vaughan, Clive Swift, Julian Herrington, John Kearney, David Cargill and George Benson.
There was an annual series in the ‘70s, called A Ghost Story for Christmas. The Stalls of Barchester really deserves a re-screening in its original slot , just before midnight on Christmas Eve. It’s a tale of dark thoughts and darker deeds, so if at all possible (or bearable), turn out all the lights in the house to put yourself in a suitably jittery state of mind.
In 1932, a library cataloguer, Dr Black (Clive Swift) delves into the mystery of a priest’s mysterious death some 50 years before. Hidden amongst the dull volumes of Barchester Cathedral’s library lies an old chest. Curious and bored to tears, the doctor takes a peek inside, where a diary documents the rise and protracted fall of Archdeacon Haynes (Robert Hardy).
Haynes immediately strikes us as ambitious and zealous, the kind of determined man in his prime that the church used to be able to attract, long long ago. He doesn’t quite fit in though; he’s headstrong and impatient. His predecessor as Archdeacon died a sudden and violent death, immediately raising our suspicions but nobody else’s. He’s an upstanding man of God; the idea of malice aforethought doesn’t even register to these people. A careless maid is blamed. The matter is forgotten. Archdeacon Haynes seems to have got away with murder.
He settles into the pace of a priest’s life; evensongs by candlelight, the pressure of long silences in the dark of the cloisters. Slowly, ever so slowly, over a period of some years, the seeds of guilt grow in Haynes’ mind. “I must be firm!” he writes again and again in his diary. And if he won’t bend, then it’s only a matter of time before he breaks.
Old properties always creak and groan with the winds of winter, but now Haynes is hearing whispers. Voices. Footfalls in the hallway of an empty house. A cat nearly causes him to fall down the very stairs that broke the old archdeacon’s bones. He asks about it. There hasn’t been a cat in the vicarage for many, many years.
This is all wearing him down to a husk, and finding out that the stalls were carved by the self-proclaimed psychic Twice-Born Austin doesn’t exactly help his ailing sanity. Carvings of death’s heads and cats arched in terror loom over him in the dead of night; he thinks of the stories surrounding the local woodland, where bones were buried in the roots of trees and puppets hung on the branches for the favours of pagan gods.
Director Lawrence Gordon Clark has a certain talent for arousing fear, not in what we can see, but what we cannot see. He plays with flickering shadows and candlelight, ensuring that Haynes’ demons linger at the edges of perception, playing on the power of what the mind conjures up for itself.
Aside from the central performances from Swift and Hardy, the acting can be a little variable. A more formidable ensemble can be found in the second feature, A Warning to the Curious. In the 1930s Depression, Paxton (Peter Vaughan), a clerk made redundant sets out for Suffolk, where he hopes to find the lost Anglian crown, rumoured to be buried in a sleepy little town called Seaburg. So long as one of the three crowns buried by the Saxon Kings of old remains underground, England shall never be invaded… so the legend goes. And as a brief and brutal opening scene shows, this last crown is not left unguarded. Somebody believes in that legend.
Clark’s execution of sinister atmosphere alone sets this apart from everything else here. He doesn’t need the dark, not when the desolate Suffolk landscape provides such a beautifully bleak void. Out here on the sands, the sea and the sky on the horizon merge into one. Wherever Paxton goes in search of the crown, he finds the name of William Ager closely tied to it.
Our eager archeologist uses his initiative; he follows the trail to where Ager spent his every waking hour, where the crown must be. He ventures there after dark, his face lit up with the thrill of discovery, paired with a terrible apprehension. Clark puts us in the ditch with him, digging fast and digging deep, always looking over his shoulder, waiting for a figure to approach.
He takes the crown from its hillside resting place, making for the train back to Seaburg. It’s daylight now, figure in black can be glimpsed on the horizon, cloak flying out as if running at great speed. Paxton runs, sensing what is chasing him. Then he looks again, and it isn’t there. At least, he can’t see it.
A Warning to the Curious holds up considerably well for a TV movie of its time. Clark reveals a remarkable instinct for tense pacing, leading us in a 50 minute crescendo of shots edited closer and closer together, easing up into longer takes only to trick us into feeling safe and sound in a hotel room or an enclosed train compartment, just when the ghost of Ager makes its terrible presence known.
As masterful as Clark’s direction proves, Peter Vaughan’s lead performance cannot go unsung here. For all his character’s faults of greed and avarice, Vaughan lends Paxton an earthy, unaffected manner that earns our sympathy, and later, our pity. A younger man in this role might have seemed more arrogant, less desperate than this man with the quick little eyes.
This release also boasts another version of these ghost stories at Christmas, a more sedate affair featuring the one and only Christopher Lee. In a wintry King’s College library setting, Lee plays M.R. James in his latter years, reading ‘The Stalls of Barchester’ and ‘A Warning to the Curious’ aloud for the students.
Surrounded by candles and the creak of book leather, they listen rapt, hanging on his every booming word. It’s a nice idea, but it might be better suited to radio than television, offering little visual stimulation from reader or audience. Lee’s voice is an unparalleled pleasure to listen to, but do not be fooled, this is 15-20 minutes of him in a chair, reading a book. Stick with the main features. You won’t see ghost stories of this quality outside of another Susan Hill adaptation.
Simon Moore is a budding screenwriter, passionate about films both current and classic. He has a strong comedy leaning with an inexplicable affection for 80s montages and movies that you can’t quite work out on the first viewing.