Directors: Jonathan Miller, Lawrence Gordon Clark, Andy de Emmony
Starring: Michael Hordern, Robert Hardy, Clive Swift, Peter Vaughn, Joseph O’Connor, John Hurt
Year: 1968, 1971-1973, 2010
Duration: 172 mins
BBFC Certification: 12
There is a long held tradition of the BBC producing “event TV” for the Christmas season, be it classics that I grew up with such as The Chronicles of Narnia or The Box of Delights, to more modern takes like His Dark Materials, currently showing its third and final series. One famous BBC tradition that ran through the 1970’s was the Ghost Stories for Christmas series, one off adaptations predominantly of stories by British author M.R. James directed largely by Lawrence Gordon Clark, these horror shorts aired on Christmas Eve from 1971 – 1978 with the occasional modern revival of the format. The BFI are collecting these into two volumes on Blu-Ray, with this being the first and volume two due out in December 2023. For fans of the series and those interested in the horror genre as a whole, this first volume presents several excellent stories with a wealth of features to accompany them.
Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968) – dir. Jonathan Miller
While not officially a part of the Ghost Stories for Christmas banner, this adaptation of M.R. James’ ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ is often cited as an influence on the series. It’s clear to see why, with this tight and creepy film clearly making significant impact on British audiences in the late 60’s.
Michael Hordern plays a university professor taking a golfing holiday who uncovers a strange whistle and is pursued by an unseen force which haunts his nightmares. Using audio to create unease in a similar fashion to Robert Wise’s The Haunting in 1963, Whistle and I’ll Come to You manages to successfully blend the mundane, the philosophical and the surreal into a genuinely creepy story.
The decision by writer/director Jonathan Miller to trim most of the narrative elements of the original short to purely focus on the experience by Hordens character, however, does remove some of the agency of the tale, rendering the resulting film more of a mood than a story. It’s a particularly effective mood, though, and a bone-a-fide horror classic.
Whistle and I’ll Come to You (2010) – dir. Andy de Emmony
This updated adaptation from 2010 stars John Hurt in the lead and is a far looser take on the original short. Adding a wraparound element to the story which eventually plays into a narrative twist, it adds a sense of melancholy to the philosophical musings on life and death.
While the audio design is still strong and the modern production values add a sense of polish to the scares this version of the tale ultimately suffers by trying to lend meaning to the random nature of the narrative presented in the original. Still, the visual of Hurt’s character being pursued across a deserted beach by a seemingly unmoving figure in white is a haunting image, one that builds on Doctor Who’s Weeping Angels while simultaneously predicting the elevated horror of It Follows.
The Stalls of Barchester (1971) – dir. Lawrence Gordon Clark
A somewhat more deliciously dark and gothic tale, The Stalls of Barchester is the first official Ghost Stories for Christmas tale. Robert Hardy stars as the moody Arch-Deacon of Barchester Cathedral in the late 1800’s who slowly loses his sanity after the mysterious death of his predecessor leads him to be haunted by mysterious sounds and presences, while a scholar played by Clive “Keeping Up Appearances” Swift researches the mysterious occurrences surrounding this descent into madness in the 1930’s.
Again relying on audio rather than visuals to drive its scares, The Stalls of Barchester builds an effective creeping sense of dread, madness and guilt which places the work of James firmly alongside gothic greats like Poe and Lovecraft, and while there is a brilliant shock towards the climax, the ending is ultimately a little too ambiguous for its own good.
Still, the film is terrific to look at with lovely dark shadows and candle light, with the Arch-Deadon’s house and the Cathedral slowly becoming well drawn characters within the narrative.
A Warning To The Curious (1972) – dir. Lawrence Gordon Clark
Another tale which shows M.R. James’ love of cursed objects as McGuffin’s, A Warning To The Curious is a fabulous folk horror tale filmed around the Norfolk Coast. Peter Vaughn stars as an amateur archaeologist in search of an ancient crown, while Clive Swift is back as Dr Black from The Stalls of Barchester.
With echoes of Whistle and I’ll Come to You, A Warning To The Curious is where the series really finds its feet and director Lawrence Gordon Clark makes some fantastic use of the wide open Norfolk beaches. Refreshingly largely filmed during the day there is a very palpable sense of terror, again with a pursuing, unseen dread, which leads this to easily be one of the most satisfying stories in this set.
Lost Hearts (1973) – dir. Lawrence Gordon Clark
Lawrence Gordon Clark returns to the Gothic creepiness with a tale of ghost children in an old house that initially invokes similar feelings to Henry James’ The Turning of the Screw but ultimately becomes something darker and more sinister, exuding an air of unease from the outset.
While being the shortest of the stories, it’s also the tightest and is ultimately a more grotesque tale than those which came before, featuring a certain ghoulishness to the visuals, and is one of the easier stories to revisit in this box set.
- Newly remastered by the BFI and presented in High Definition (Limited Edition)
- Newly recorded audio commentaries for Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968) and A Warning to the Curious by TV historian Jon Dear
- Newly recorded audio commentaries for The Stalls of Barchester and Lost Hearts by Kim Newman and Sean Hogan
- Whistle and I’ll Come to You (2010, 52 mins): John Hurt stars in this 2010 interpretation of MR James’s chilling tale
- Jonathan Miller and Christopher Frayling interview (2012, 3 mins)
- Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad: Neil Brand reads MR James’s original story (2001, 42 mins, audio only)
- Ramsey Campbell on MR James (2001, 16 mins)
- Ramsey Campbell reads The Guide (2001, 27 mins)
- Introductions by Lawrence Gordon Clark (2012, 33 mins total): the director of seven of the BBC’s classic A Ghost Story For Christmas episodes discusses his part in the first three instalments he directed
- Ghost Stories For Christmas with Christopher Lee (2000, 60 mins total): BBC Scotland’s ‘talking-head horror’ series starring the iconic actor as an MR James-like raconteur of fireside Christmas ghost stories. Included on this release are The Stalls of Barchester and A Warning to the Curious
A fabulous set for fans of the series and for those who are interested in discovering these classic, chilling tales, the BFI have packed this box set full of excellent features for collectors to pore over. The inclusion of the 2010 version of Whistle and I’ll Come to You is a particular treat when paired with the original, as is an audio recording of the original short, however it’s a shame we don’t get readings of the original stories that the other films were based on.
The new commentaries and existing introductions are also great value, providing insight into the adaptations and their production, while the Christopher Lee starring feature from 2000 is a fun experience. Add to that the lovely crisp transfer of all of the films onto Blu-Ray and you get a box-set that’s well worth picking up.
Overall a great set and certainly one that bodes well for the 2023 release of volume 2.