Mark Gatiss, riding high on the success of his work with the comedy troupe The League of Gentlemen, and writing and acting gigs on Doctor Who (2005-) and Sherlock (2010-), attempted another revival of the Ghost Story for Christmas in 2013. The BBC had broadcast a fairly terrible adaptation of M.R. James’ Oh Whistle and I’ll Come You My Lad, under the abbreviated title Whistle and I’ll Come You, but it had been shown without the Ghost Story for Christmas branding. Gatiss’ adaptation – which he also directed – was far more successful than that catastrophe though it too failed to launch a new series. Gatiss had form of course, having written the rather wonderful Crooked House (2008), a three episode, James inspired anthology film for the BBC and toyed with ghosts in his debut Doctor Who script The Unquiet Dead (2005).
Gatiss’s script cleaves close to the original text though updates it to the 1950s for no particular reason. Sacha Dhawan (from Gatiss’ making of Doctor Who drama An Adventure in Space and Time (2013)) stars as William Garrett, a young assistant at a university library who is charged with finding a tractate for an impatient visitor, John Eldred (John Castle). After a terrifying encounter with a hideously deformed and cobwebbed clergyman, his face infested with spiders, who has already accessed the tractate, Garrett takes a leave of absence and heads for the coast to recuperate. There he meets Mary Simpson (Louise Jameson) and her daughter Anne (Charlie Clemmow) who own a boarding house that he decides to stay at. He learns that the Simpsons are losing a fight with a rival heir to the estate of an eccentric clergyman named Rant and Garrett quickly realizes that the rival is Mary’s cousin, Eldred…
Gatiss manages to get a lot from one of James’ slightest stories and shows some decent chops as a director, choreographing some beautifully atmospheric scenes, none more so than Garrett’s encounter in the dust-ridden library with the hideous, ghostly form of Rant (Paul Warren). The monstrous clergyman, his deformed face partially obscured by cobwebs, his body infested with spiders, is the most unsettling ghost the series had known for a very long while. Surrounded by – and indeed the source of – the fine cloud of dust that pervades the library, irritating the nose of convivial librarian Hodgson (Roy Barraclough), he initially appears only from behind, Gatiss raising our expectations, dashing them by cutting away, then giving us the full ghastly reveal in flashback a few minutes later. Like his predecessor Lawrence Gordon Clark, Gatiss is more than willing to let his ghosts stalk in broad daylight, particularly in the climax as Rant finally catches up with Eldred in a quite forest clearing.
The story may be slight and too heavily reliant on coincidence (unless we’re supposed to believe that supernatural agencies are at work, Garrett and Simpson are brought together purely by chance, a problem inherited from the original story) but much fun is to be had from the excellent supporting cast, which includes a cameo for Sherlock’s Mrs Hudson, Una Stubbs. and brief appearances by David Ryall as Dr Rant and Eleanor Bron as his housekeeper Mrs Goundry. Gatiss was probably canny enough to just let these seasoned pros get on with it and is rewarded by fine performances all round.
Gatiss changes the original ending, which was a rare happy-ish one from James, and the film is all the better for it. It was a strange choice to adapt for television being one of James’ lesser works but Gatiss does enough to keep ghost story aficionados engaged for its commendably brief 36 minutes. The more horrific ending – which retains James’ “little dark form” which “appeared to rise out of the shadow behind the tree-trunk and from it two arms enclosing a mass of blackness came before Eldred’s face and covered his head and neck” is here enhanced by the return of the ghostly Rant.
The film was poorly received, mainly because of the slimness of the story, and failed to ignite a further revival of the venerable Ghost Story for Christmas strand. It’s a shame that Gatiss didn’t chose one of James’ meatier stories – Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book, say or even Casting the Runes, filmed as Night of the Demon (1957) and adapted for ITV by Lawrence Gordon Clark in 1979 – that may have proved more of a crowd-pleaser and ushered in a new series of annual ghostly visitations.