A Ghost Story for Christmas (BBC 1970s onwards)


White Lodge
Jul 10, 2022
For many years, A Ghost Story for Christmas was a strand on the BBC. These are creepy adaptations of - initially - MR James ghost stories and are played straight - no postmodern crap, winking at the audience. The overture to the series was a black-and-white 1968 adaptation for the BBC's Omnibus strand of James's 'Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad', starring Michael Hordern and directed by Jonathan Miller, the great British theatre and opera director. Subsequently, documentary filmmaker Lawrence Gordon Clark started adapting the films with 1971's 'The Stalls of Barchester', showing over the Christmas period that year. There were four subsequent, sublimely creepy, MR James adaptations each Christmas, followed by a superb adaptation of Charles Dickens's 'The Signalman', adapted by Andrew Davies, in 1976. The next two years' films, original stories set in the then-contemporary late 1970s, were rather iffy and killed the series. They look very dated now too, unlike the period dramas. The Omnibus strand came back into the picture and made a brilliant 1979 adaptation of J Sheridan Le Fanu's 'Schalcken, the Painter', over the Christmas period, though. In the 2000s, there were a couple more adaptations and in recent years, there has been a revival overseen by the writer/actor/director Mark Gatiss, but they're very lacking and under-budgeted.

The DVDs of the Ghost Stories for Christmas have been among the BFI's top sellers, in spite of the - at times - extremely ropey picture and sound quality. The films were generally shot on 16mm, but the DVDs look to be taken from very old telecines of prints. The great news is that Whistle and I'll Come to You (both the 1968 version and a 2010 native-HD adaptation starring John Hurt) along with The Stalls of Barchester, A Warning to the Curious and Lost Hearts are being released on Blu-ray in the next fortnight as Ghost Stories for Christmas Volume 1. Judging by clips released on YouTube, the quality is a massive step up with new HD scans, presumably scanned from the original camera negative.

Schalcken, the Painter is already available on Blu-ray and well worth picking up. The director of Schalcken, Leslie Megahey, was a huge Walerian Borowczyk fan and was particularly inspired by Borowczyk's film Blanche. Visually, it's also inspired by the Delft School painters, of which the real life Schalcken was a member, unsurprisingly. The quality is a bit rough, but it was shot in low and natural light on 16mm, so it was never going to look pristine.

The modern BBC Ghost Stories, beginning a few years ago, are... not great, but I appreciate the effort to make them. Ridiculously - having seen the popularity of the BFI releases and the efforts to release the old films on Blu-ray - the BBC has decided to release the modern, shot-natively-in-HD, films on DVD only as 'Ghost Stories'!!

Nevertheless, this is a fabulous, eclectic bunch of creepy tales and I heartily recommend them as something to enjoy over the upcoming festive season. The latest announced BBC Ghost Story, due to go out this Christmas, is Count Magnus.
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Bureau HQ
Apr 12, 2022
Great news, and I heartily second the recommendations!

Whistle and I'll Come to You (original 1968 version) and Schalcken the Painter are absolute masterpieces. Two or so years ago, on Dugpa, I was going to post Schalcken the Painter, which was on YouTube at the time, and recommend it to all Lynch fans, but it was unceremoniously removed by YT, and I don’t think that I ever mentioned it. I would now like to encourage everyone to see it, along with the aforementioned Whistle and I'll Come to You (again, the 1968 version).

The Signalman and The Stalls of Barchester are also quite excellent, and some of the other installments are perfectly worthwhile. I think I’ve watched all of the earlier entries, and even most of the modern ones. It’s shameful that they’ve vandalized the title of the series, but these are overall gladdening developments.


White Lodge
Jul 10, 2022
It’s shameful that they’ve vandalized the title of the series, but these are overall gladdening developments.
Yes, it gets very confusing, because variants of the title have also applied to a variety of BBC televised readings of the stories: some by Christopher Lee and, in another era, by Robert Powell. The Christopher Lee series is called 'Ghost Stories for Christmas' and subtitled 'with Christopher Lee'.

To muddy the waters further, there are some Lee and Powell readings available on various the BFI DVD releases of A Ghost Story for Christmas among the extra features. The announced Blu-ray extra features include some Christopher Lee performances. Hopefully subsequent releases will include all the past DVD extras, plus some other goodies. I'll likely buy a replacement Blu-ray case with more capacity so I can put the DVDs in the same case as the Blu-rays.

My favourite is probably Count Albert's Scrapbook. It's very sinister (the hooded figure is reminiscent of the Dweller on the Threshold) and the ending, which isn't in James's story, positively drips with evil.

I've been wanting to try my hand at an adaptation of a James story myself. I had wanted to do Number 13. Unfortunately The BBC beat me to it. That said, I'm not a fan of the adaptation. I miss the Danish setting.

The current films just look flat and cheap. They also wink at the audience; in the case of Martin's Close, they go fully postmodern, ripping the pee out of the story. It's also an issue to portray Judge Jeffreys humorously in my part of the UK. He's regarded as the British equivalent of someone like Reinhard Heydrich to people who know their history in Wales and the West of England.

I feel that if the BBC were to stump up a bit of money, relaunch the series and get some name British writers and directors on board - my suggestion in the past was to get Clive Barker to adapt a story and Bernard Rose to direct it - they could get some decent international sales to make back the money. Another year get someone like Neil Marshall.