One of my favorite Christmas songs is Andy Williams’ bombastic rendition of “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”. But as much as I love it, part of it never made sense to me. In the bridge section, it says:
“There’ll be parties for hosting
Marshmallows for toasting
And caroling out in the snow.”
Okay, that bit’s fine, but the next line…
“There’ll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories
Of Christmases long, long ago.”
What do scary ghost stories have to do with Christmas? They couldn’t just be referring to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, right? I mean, I never found that particularly scary. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that ghost stories, while not big in Christmas in the U.S., were and are a mainstay of the United Kingdom. In fact, it became a staple of television on Christmas night for a number of years on the BBC. In order to understand this televisual phenomenon, we first have to discuss the work of a writer named M.R. James.
Montague Rhodes James was an author, medievalist scholar, and provost of King’s College, Cambridge (1905–18), and of Eton College (1918–36). His work in these fields is still some of the most well-regarded, but his writings to amuse friends and colleagues at Christmas parties became his most known works. These were a series of short ghost stories he wrote in the early 1900s; eventually they saw publication in four volumes beginning with Ghost Stories of an Antiquary in 1904. Other volumes came out in 1911, 1919, and 1925.
These stories usually dealt with people such as himself: learned bachelors, often scholars or professors or members of the clergy (all things James knew very well); almost always, they dealt with the supernatural occurrences pertaining to the finding, stealing, or otherwise obtaining of some kind of ancient object. James also being one of the foremost authorities on antiquities wrote quite descriptively about the objects and imbued them with eeriness. The ghosts or supernatural entities were almost all malevolent in some fashion and were usually protecting the object through violence.
James’ work was first adapted to television by the BBC as a short film in 1968 as an episode of the documentary series Omnibus. This story, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, directed by Jonathan Miller, is one of the best-received adaptations still to date. It follows a Cambridge professor named James Parkin (Michael Hordern) who takes a holiday in the winter months at a seaside bed and breakfast. He’s incredibly snooty, deep in his own thoughts, and openly contemptuous of the other patrons’ discussions about the spiritual world.
Parkin finds an old whistle on the beach, buried a bit, and picks it up to study its Latin inscriptions. From there, Parkin suffers bad dreams of running on the beach from some unseen shape. Often, these appear onscreen as an amorphous cloth blowing in the wind. The dreams begin to bleed into reality and it’s clear something wants into his room, and might even be sleeping in the spare bed.
Whistle and I’ll Come to You was a surprise hit. Two years later in 1971, the producer/director Lawrence Gordon Clark got the chance to adapt another James story for broadcast on Christmas night. This led to eight straight years of this series, with the informal title A Ghost Story for Christmas. Clark himself directed seven of the eight. Five of these are other M.R. James stories’ one is a Charles Dickens story; and two are original works with a modern day setting.
The first of Clark’s adaptations is The Stalls of Barchester, which involves a learned man named Dr. Black (Clive Swift) who is looking into the diaries of the former Archdeacon of Barchester who died mysteriously some years prior. We see most of the story from the Archdeacon’s point of view, as he has taken over the position and house from his very old predecessor, who fell down the stairs at the age of 92. The younger cleric actually murdered his predecessor to take his job. Shortly thereafter, he begins to be haunted by images of a black cat and a cloaked figure, both of whom were carved into the church’s choir stalls.
This story is very creepy and set the stage nicely for the rest of the cycle, with the muted colors of early-70s BBC films. I love British horror films of the ’70s in general, and these fall right into that. All of the amazing grounds and architecture play nicely into stories of the macabre and supernatural. The Edwardian or Victorian-set entries are across the board my favorites of these, which Barchester and the next film fall into.
The 1972 Christmas ghost story was James’ A Warning to the Curious which again sees Swift play Dr. Black, this time spending a holiday at a Norfolk seaside community. An out-of-work banker and amateur archaeologist (Peter Vaughn) has come to find and dig up the lost crown of Anglia. He eventually does, but ever after seems to be pursued by a figure in a black cape running at him from far away. The presence never seems to be far away, and even after the man beseeches Dr. Black to put the crown back, the figure still chases him. We find out it is the ghost of the simpleminded groundskeeper who was hanged some 12 years prior for murdering the last man who came to dig up the crown.
In 1973, the cycle began being shorter, going from about 45 minutes down to a little over 30. The first of these is the supremely creepy Lost Hearts. The story follows a young orphan boy who arrives at the manor house of his elderly cousin, an eccentric scientist. The cousin seems very nice, but almost TOO concerned about the boy’s health. The house’s maid assures the boy the master is a good man, even taking in an orphan girl, and an Italian boy for a time. They each ran away unexpectedly, however. Strange. The boy begins to see ghostly images of the two children walking through the large house and grounds. Especially disturbing, he sees that their hearts have been removed. Maybe it has something to do with his cousin’s interest in alchemy…
Two more short James stories followed around Christmas of 1974 and 1975, adaptations of The Treasure of Abbot Thomas and The Ash Tree. The first is about a clergyman and his protege looking for the titular buried spoils somewhere on the abbey grounds; the second, takes place in the 1700s and finds an aristocrat inheriting a massive country estate with dark secrets. He has visions of his ancestor during a witch trial, where the man’s lover was hanged on the old Ash Tree. While neither lit my world on fire, they both have distinctly creepy visuals. The latter especially, which culminates in giant spiders with baby heads (yeah) attack attacking the hero at night.
The first non-James story is easily one of the best of the cycle. 1976’s The Signalman is an adaptation of a Charles Dickens story. Unlike James’ stories, which all deal with the ghosts of the past getting revenge on those who disturb them, this story is about the spectre of the future. Some years following a dreadful train crash in a tunnel, visions of that horrible night still plague a West Country signalman (Denholm Elliott). Particularly, the sight of a man waving his arms in front of his face.
He eventually tells his story to a traveler and he, too, begins to dream of the vision, a white-faced man without eyes. But this has more to do with the signalman having escaped the prior crash than it does with anything current. Some very effect, very spooky visuals coupled with Elliott’s wonderful performance make this a ghost story to remember.
The next two are a precipitous drop-off. 1977’s Stigma finds a woman beset with inexplicable and deadly injuries corresponding to the digging up of an old Celtic stone in her yard. 1978’s The Ice House from one-off director Derek Lister, deals with a man who finds weird things in a residential spa. Both of these took place in modern times and, truth be told, don’t hold a candle to the earlier ones. They come across much more as straight forward horror stories than the spooky ghost stories of earlier.
That ended the original cycle, but not the phenomenon of Ghost Stories for Christmas in Britain. A televised series of Christopher Lee as M.R. James himself reading various ghost stories premiered on BBC television in 2000. Four revival films adapting James’ stories aired on Christmas the next several years. These include A View from a Hill (2005); Number 13 (2006); a remount/revision of Whistle and I’ll Come to You in 2010 starring John Hurt; and The Tractate Middoth in 2013, written and directed by Mark Gatiss. That last story was followed by a documentary about M.R. James which was written and presented by Gatiss as well.
The tradition of Ghost Stories for Christmas lives on. In 2018, Gatiss wrote and directed The Dead Room, a contemporary-set original story about an aging horror radio presenter who is haunted by his past. In 2019, he returned to M.R. James with Martin’s Close, starring Peter Capaldi. I love that Gatiss has become the shepherd of the Ghost Stories for Christmas cycle and he continues that tradition to this very day.
On December 24, Gatiss’ 2021 entry, The Mezzotint, will debut on the BBC. Based on one of James’ earliest stories, the film has Rory Kinnear as a antiquary who comes into possession of a strange old etching of a manor house that changes when people aren’t looking at it. And there appears to be some kind of hideous figure on it as well. I have seen the special and it’s quite a spooky thing.
While the cycle has been particularly hard to find in North America, we are pleased to report that the good folks at BritBox have added all of the above, plus some other ghost stories, to their service as of December 20. And on Christmas Eve, The Mezzotint joins the ranks.
I would recommend: Whistle and I’ll Come to You, The Stalls of Barchester, A Warning to the Curious, Lost Hearts, and The Signalman the most, and any of the works of M.R. James, which I’ve spent the past few months reading. Any horror-loving Christmas fan will be delighted.
Originally published November 23, 2020. Updated December 20, 2021.