Horror fan Mark Gatiss revives a spooky tradition for Christmas on BBC4
Christmas is a time for cheer. As every fan of the macabre knows, though, it’s also a time for fear — in other words, a marrow-chilling ghost story.
The practice of sitting around a roaring fireplace at Christmastime, spinning spooky tales of strange apparitions, mysterious happenings and chilling portents of death and doom, is an old, seasonal tradition.
Who knows why this should be? Maybe it’s because at Christmas, when our thoughts turn to the past and to those we’ve lost, the veil between this world and the realm of the supernatural seems flimsier than ever.
Or perhaps it’s because a good, scary story is the perfect antidote to the forced commercial jollity pumping relentlessly from the TV at this time of year.
Then again, it could just be that ghost stories are bloody good fun... although not too bloody. The best ones rely on atmosphere and a slow-building sense of dread, rather than lashings of blood and guts.
The most famous Christmas tale of all, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, is a ghost story — albeit it one with a happy ending and an uplifting message about redemption.
But Dickens wrote 20 other less benign ghost stories, the best known being The Signalman, which were eventually collected in a single volume that’s never been out of print.
But the literary ghost story reached the peak of perfection in the early 20th century in the hands of Cambridge scholar MR James, who began writing ghost stories as an
annual Christmas treat for his friends and students, who’d gather in his study to listen to them.
James’s stories were the main source for the BBC’s famous Ghost Stories for Christmas strand of short films. A new one, shot on 16mm film and usually between 30 and 50 minutes long, appeared every Christmas from 1971 to 1978 and was revived, intermittently, between 2005 to 2013.
The most recent was The Tractate Middoth, adapted by Mark Gatiss, a lifelong fan of ghost stories. The absurdly talented Gatiss has resurrected the tradition this year with an original chiller of his own, The Dead Room, which goes out on BBC4 on Christmas Eve. It’s a contemporary tale starring Simon Callow as Aubrey Judd, a flamboyant actor of the old school.
Judd, whose career has faded, scrapes a living playing bit parts on TV and reading tales of terror on a radio anthology show called The Dead Room.
He doesn’t believe in ghosts, until spooky things, seemingly linked to a dark incident from his past, start happening in the darkened radio studio.
As someone with the same taste for terror as Gatiss, a brand new Christmas ghost story from the BBC is the perfect television gift and the programme I’ll be looking forward to most this year.
It’s often forgotten that the man who deserves credit for initiating what became a Christmas TV tradition is Jonathan Miller. In 1968, Miller wrote and directed Whistle and I’ll Come to You, a 42-minute film adaptation of MR James’s story Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad, that was shown as part of the Omnibus arts strand.
Shot in black and white (which made it even eerier), it stars Michael Hordern as an eccentric academic who comes across an old whistle at the beach, blows it and is then haunted by a disturbing figure.
It was a radical departure for Omnibus, which up to then was associated with documentaries, and a hugely influential piece of TV drama.
It led directly to the brilliant 1970s run of Ghost Stories for Christmas, which included five of James’s stories and an adaptation of Dickens’s The Signalman, all of them directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark.
These six were undoubtedly the best of the batch, although the 2005 modern-day remake of Whistle and I’ll Come to You, while quite different to the original, is also excellent.
If anyone can recapture the spirit of these chilling classics this Christmas, it’s Mark Gatiss.
The Dead Room i son BBC4 on Christmas Eve at 10pm