Back in 1976, director Lawrence Gordon Clark had planned to adapt M.R. James’ Number 13 (from his 1904 collection Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, that had already given us the source material for Whistle and I’ll Come to You, Lost Hearts, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas and The Ash Tree), but felt that the Danish setting would be too costly to replicate so abandoned it and opted to make a version of Charles Dickens’ The Signalman instead. Following A View from a Hill the previous year, BBC Four decided to give the story another chance in 2006 and rather than be intimidated by the Scandinavian setting as Clark was, the just decided to ditch it altogether.
Oxford academic Anderson (Greg Wise) is researching the collection of a cathedral, taking a special interest in the story of the disgraced Bishop Walgrave. He’s lodging in room 12 of a local inn and initially dismisses the lack of a room 13 as mere superstition. But he soon learns of a Nicholas Francken who fraternised with witches and tried to raise the devil in a room in Walgrave’s home. And of course the inn turns out to the Walgrove’s old home and room 13, which exists but only appears at night, was where Francken practised his evil work…
Like A View from a Hill, Number 13 features that staple of any good James story, the stuffy and slightly arrogant academic, dismissive of the irrational who gets his comeuppance when confronted by the supernatural. Greg Wise is rather good in the role, his haughty exterior cracking as the forces lurking in room 13 come to the fore and challenge his every assumption about how the world works. Justin Hopper’s script deviates in many ways from James’ original, not least the hints of sexual repression that informs Anderson’s stuffy demeanour. He’s simultaneously irritated by and envious of his hedonistic businessman neighbour Jenkins (Tom Burke) who flirts shamelessly a female guest Alice (Charlotte Comer) who sneaks into Anderson’s room in a dream. Anderson is cocky enough while engaged in his work but becomes uncomfortable in female company and seems to be more concerned that the sounds coming from room 13 are those of seemingly bacchanalian excess than he is that they shouldn’t be there at all.
Also like A View from a Hill, whose producer Pier Wilkie took over as director here, Number 13 suffers rather by looking and sounding a bit too slick for its own good. It looks stunning but once again that slightly raggedy, low budget feel that the shot-on-16mm-film 70s films enjoyed is sorely missing here. The score, a rather good one by Matt Dunkley, is used sparingly but one still can’t escape the feeling that the long stretches of silence that Clark used – possibly as a result of a budget that couldn’t stretch to employing a composer – were far more effective at evoking the eeriness of the English countryside and the terrible vulnerability of the protagonists.
Sadly, neither A View from a Hill nor Number 13 were quite effective enough to click with the sorts of audiences that tuned in for the 70s episodes. In truth those kind of audiences were long gone, scattered among multiple cable channels and alternative entertainment platforms like the internet and computer games. BBC Four decided not to press on with the revival and the Christmas ghost story was quietly laid to rest once again. But like all restless spirits it wasn’t down for long. Mark Gatiss managed to summon it up again twice, once with the three-part mini-series Crooked House on BBC Four in 2008 and again with The Tractate Middoth which unashamedly bore the Ghost Story for Christmas prefix – the first time in fact that the appellation had appeared in full on screen – in 2013, with Neil Cross’ disastrous attempt to reframe Whistle and I’ll Come to You as a modern dress drama about ageing, dementia and loss sandwiched in between.
From our Department of Useless Trivia: By coincidence the executive producer of Number 13 was Richard Fell – the name of the protagonist of an earlier Ghost Story for Christmas, The Ash Tree (1975).