Tag Archives: ghost stories

M.R. James’s Christmas Ghosts

Whistle and I'll Come to You

Format: DVD

Release date: 20 August 2012

Distributor: BFI

Disc One: Whistle and I’ll Come to You + Whistle and I’ll Come to You

UK 1968/2010

42 mins/52 mins

Disc Two: The Stalls of Barchester + A Warning to the Curious

UK 1971/1972

45 mins/50 mins

The BBC has been broadcasting Ghost Stories for Christmas for more than 50 years, but only now has the BFI seen fit to mine their mouldering archives and make the full collection of 12 stories available to the public on DVD (three of the stories were released by the BFI 10 years ago, but have long since been deleted). The occasion is the 150th birthday of Montague Rhodes James, principal contributor of source material for the BBC adaptations and often called the father of the modern ghost story. That a steadfastly Victorian bachelor academic has remained relevant for so long may seem incredible in our fast-paced information age, but taking such a view would be to underestimate the flexibility, modernity and basic effectiveness of James’s ghostly tales.

In his 1983 biography of M. R. James, Michael Cox writes: ‘Critically, the stories have always been awarded a high place, often the highest, in the English ghost story tradition, and this estimation shows no sign of falling off.’ Thirty years later, Cox’s statement has been proved true, as the latest James adaptation for the BBC was produced in 2010, and one can only assume there will be more to come.

Not all readers were instantly enthralled by James’s stories, however; his first collection, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, garnered very little attention upon its initial publication, and the reviews it did attract were decidedly lukewarm appraisals. Despite their old-fashioned settings and Victorian academics, the stories were simply too modern in their construction for Edwardian tastes (or at least the tastes of Edwardian critics – as James and many other authors have proved, critical acclaim and popular sentiment seldom collide). James won the critics over by 1911, however, with More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. A highly positive review in the Yorkshire Daily Observer noted that ‘the present mode of quasi-scientific horrid stories has not…been followed by Dr. James; he has rather reverted to the older fashion of genuine ghosts of the departed, not to speak of the black magic that forms the motive of “Casting the Runes”.’ In the space of a mere seven years, critical perception of James’s stories shifted from judging them too modern to be effective to just old-fashioned enough to rank among the best of their genre.

So what exactly did James do differently from his predecessors and contemporaries to distinguish him as a modern supernatural fiction writer despite the Victorian trappings of his stories? Principally, he brought ghosts into modern settings. James placed his stories largely in his home county of East Anglia, and not more than a few decades in the past, lending an immediate presence to his stories, and inspiring in the reader a feeling that the terror does not end once the final page has been turned. As James wrote in his preface to More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary: ‘A ghost story of which the scene is laid in the twelfth or thirteenth century may succeed in being romantic or poetical: it will never put the reader into the position of saying to himself, “If I am not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!”’

Although James used setting to forge a familiarity of place and an air of plausibility with the reader, he also positioned himself as a detached storyteller to create intellectual distance based on the folkloric oral tradition out of which his stories first arose. The stories are never written solely from the protagonists’ perspectives; instead, James sets himself up as a kind of omniscient narrator who simply relates the experiences of others, effectively capturing the atmosphere of oral tradition on the printed page. In approximating the essence of his verbal delivery at the Chitchat Society meetings and Christmas time gatherings at King’s College, Cambridge, James recreates his own charismatic persona on the page, complete with his engaging humour and exceptional powers of mimicry conveyed through his dialectal characters.

That the BBC would link adaptation of James’s stories to the Christmas season is no accident. The concept of connecting oral tradition, Christmas and ghost stories began at least as early as Shakespeare’s time, but it was popularised in the Victorian era with Dickens’s own invented tradition of printing ghost stories in the Christmas issues of his magazines. In accordance with his anachronistic persona, as well as his love of Dickens, James adopted this oral tradition, though it seemed to have died a natural death by the early 20th century. In following a seemingly antiquated tradition, James anticipated the eventual re-emergence of winter ghost-story telling. And in a strange twist of logic, those stories delivered by oral tradition are more believable because of their distance – it is difficult to assume narrative unreliability in the case of a man you have never met, especially when he plays golf (a fact that James exploited to the fullest in possibly his most celebrated story, ‘“Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”’).

All of which brings us full circle back to the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas series, transmitted via television, the medium that probably best approximates the oral tradition in contemporary popular culture. The release will consist of five discs in all, with the first two coming out on August 20 to coincide with James’s birthday month.

Disc one includes two adaptations of ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,’ filmed 40 years apart. Jonathan Miller’s 1968 version, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, is possibly the most famous James adaptation for the BBC; it is certainly the most controversial, and not only for its complete lack of golf. Miller doesn’t so much adapt James’s story as use it to explore the dangers of extreme isolation, academic arrogance and Freudian repression (lead Michael Horden’s oral fixation is just a tad too obvious to be truly thought-provoking). Despite some creepy turns and a nice visual of the supernatural ‘villain’, it would be difficult to recommend this piece to traditional James fans. But it does demonstrate that James’s stories are flexible and modern enough to address updated societal fears and concerns.

On the other hand, Andy de Emmony’s 2010 adaptation, also golf-less and titled Whistle and I’ll Come to You, is just too far divorced from the James original to be effective as a ghost story. It scans more as an adaptation of the Miller version by someone who has never read the original story, so while it’s beautifully shot and lead John Hurt does all he can to evoke some sort of emotion in the viewer, the whole enterprise falls flat on its narratively nonsensical face. As a basic rule, when adapting a story called ‘“Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”’, which is about a whistle that summons a supernatural terror, it might help to have a whistle somewhere in the adaptation.

Disc two features two of Lawrence Gordon Clark’s adaptations: The Stalls of Barchester (1971), based on ‘The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral’, and A Warning to the Curious (1972), based on the story of the same name. Barchester, Clark’s first adaptation for the BBC, is one of the most faithful adaptations of James’s material, complete with Jamesian narrator Dr Black played with suitable affability and wit by Clive Swift. Dr Black crops up again in A Warning to the Curious, but the adaptation this time is less straightforward – one could say Clark’s biggest mistake was to replace James’s curious and likeable academic protagonist with a treasure-hunter prone to viciousness. Ghost stories often hinge on the reader’s ability to relate to the victim, and even if we can relate to the greedy lead’s deceptions, for the most part we’d rather not.

Despite the varying quality of the actual adaptations, the bonus materials found on both discs make their purchase worthwhile for any James enthusiast. Jonathan Miller and Christopher Frayling’s interviews about Whistle and I’ll Come to You are insightful but too short, while Ramsey Campbell’s introduction to the two adaptations, as well as his reading of his own Jamesian short story ‘The Guide’, are essential viewing (if let down slightly by their relatively poor audio quality). As he directed most of the BBC’s James adaptations, Lawrence Gordon Clark’s introductions to his two stories provide valuable insight into an admirer of James who desired to bring the stories he loved as a child to a wider contemporary audience.

Lastly, but certainly not least, disc two includes readings of ‘The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral’ and ‘A Warning to the Curious’ by Christopher Lee at his menacing best in a recreation of James’s famous ghost story readings to undergraduates at King’s College. If the adaptations let you down, these will most certainly prop you up again.

Releases to come in the run-up to the Christmas box-set will include adaptations of James’s ‘Lost Hearts’, ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’ and ‘The Ash Tree’. These are all worthwhile viewing, but one might delicately suggest the interested viewer read the original stories first for comparison and an almost guaranteed creepy delight.

Jennifer Eiss



A Screen One Special drama for Hallowe’en by Stephen Volk, starring Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Mike Smith, Craig Charles.

Ghosts no longer inhabit stately homes and rattle chains. They live in ordinary council houses like that of Mrs Pamela Early. For months she’s suffered strange noises, awful smells and bent cutlery, but is her’s really the most haunted house in Britain? BBCtv turns the cameras on the ghoulies, ghosties and things that go bump in the night.

The Radio Times billing for writer Stephen Volk’s Ghostwatch (Lesley Manning, 1992)

Such was the furore Ghostwatch caused after its first and only ever BBC broadcast on October 31, 1992 that the staff of the Radio Times was briefed never to mention the programme again.


Writer Stephen Volk had originally wanted to write a supernatural drama/investigative thriller in which a parapsychologist would be accompanied by a TV journalist as they inspect a contemporary haunted house. He originally pitched the idea as a five-part series, which was rejected until it was suggested it be produced as a 90-minute special. Volk realised that the idea could be reworked so that the investigation would unfold as a live studio broadcast. By doing this the drama would imply that the fictional events of the programme were happening in the audience’s contemporary reality and in (their) real time. However, the BBC was concerned, as Volk explained:

People needed a lot of convincing to do it. It finally got the go-ahead when Ruth [Baumgarten, the programme’s producer] persuaded them that, with so much factual reconstruction-type TV around, if they didn’t do something like this now, then someone else would do something very similar very soon. (J. Rigby, ‘Heads Must Roll: The Story of Ghostwatch’, Shivers no. 29, May 1996)

The script was developed over a period of months with the ‘final’ version being shot in the summer of 1992. Manning first filmed the long, complex ‘live’ broadcasts from the Early family home, which was then played back on the multiple TV screen walls in the faked studio for Parkinson and Gillian Bevan (playing parapsychologist Dr Lin Pascoe) to respond to. In this final part of the shooting, both writer and director encouraged Parkinson to develop the script and to ad lib questions that he would ask if it were real. During filming and post-production it was uncertain whether the programme would be broadcast:

Right up until the last minute, the transmission was threatened with being pulled due to corporate nervousness, but we made it by the skin of our teeth. When Ruth arrived from TV centre to report that the BBC phone lines were jammed, we knew we had created an effect far beyond anything we had anticipated. (S. Volk, ‘Ghostwatch Returns’, Shivers no. 101, January 2003)


The programme is a perfect pastiche, a flawless illusion of reality with a tongue-in-cheek sense of drama and narrative: combining a live studio broadcast with a phone-in and cutaways to various outside and on-location broadcasts, the first 30 minutes of Ghostwatch appear to be an actual one-off production that hopes to, in presenter Michael Parkinson’s words, ‘show for the first time irrefutable proof that ghosts really do exist’.

The programme begins by establishing the outside broadcast at the reputedly haunted home of the Early family. Co-hosts Sarah Greene and Craig Charles are at the location with Greene allocated the role of eyewitness in the house while Charles conducts vox pops with the local residents. From then on, Ghostwatch follows the set format of countless news and investigative programmes: Parkinson interviews parapsychologist Dr Lin Pascoe (Gillian Bevan), a dialogue that is interspersed with live coverage from the house, the odd vox pop, live telephone calls monitored by Greene’s real-life husband, Mike Smith, and a counter-argument from a sceptic who offers his opinion, via satellite link, live from New York.

The first successful strategy Ghostwatch deploys is its use of Parkinson, Greene, Smith and Charles: at the time of its broadcast, these four were both familiar and popular television presenters whose presence lent authenticity and authority to the programme. This was particularly true of Parkinson who had, by 1992, become a celebrity through his regular BBC chat show, in part for his willingness to ask the questions others would not. As a consequence he was, in his own way, the voice of the people, a figure whom the audience trusted (1).

As the programme begins its investigation into the haunting, small events occur – the cameraman’s watch stops, the sound of scratching can be heard behind the walls, a damp patch appears, and then heavy clanging on the central heating pipes reverberates through the house. As frightening as these may seem, it becomes apparent that at least one of the occurrences has been faked by one of the Early family’s children, the prepubescent Susan (Michelle Wesson). As Susan claims she was made to act that way by the ghost, whom she has named Pipes, Parkinson tries to round up the show with some concluding remarks from Pascoe. Here Volk uses Parkinson’s persona to the full, as he bluntly questions a distressed Susan and then Pascoe about the hoax. His questions do not necessarily undermine the parapsychologist’s authority but imply that she has been as misled as everyone else. Yet despite Parkinson’s confrontational questioning, Pascoe is unwilling to believe the years of poltergeist activity have been a hoax and she warns, in an ominous tone, that things are only just beginning. This scene reverberates throughout the remainder of the programme for Pascoe’s sustained belief becomes so convincing that she virtually usurps Parkinson’s role as the programme’s voice of reason.

At this point, Ghostwatch shifts from what appeared to be a genuine news programme into a contemporary fictional ghost story as the subsequent dialogue and events are all clearly engineered to generate the maximum amount of tension and fear: there are repeated references to cats scratching at the walls or screaming; tension between mother and daughter and the family and the film crew mounts; lights begin to flicker; the children refuse to leave the house; a picture flies off the wall; a mirror falls and shatters, severely injuring the soundman; the seemingly spectral cats start screaming again and Susan is found to have her face covered in scratches. All are interspersed with live calls to the studio that slowly reveal the horrific truth about the house. Events take a dark turn as chaos reigns and concludes with the abduction of Susan and Greene, both seemingly assaulted and probably killed by the ghost of Pipes.

This graphic escalation of events should have been enough of an indicator to the audience that Ghostwatch was indeed fake, but such was the quality of the programme’s verisimilitude that the spectral events sustained the illusion of reality instead of breaking it. Herein lies the programme’s greatest strength: it mimics the visual language of reportage television so fluently that its fiction is, in some way, successfully incorporated into the illusion. The expected unsteady camera work, the poorly composed images as the cameraman adjusts his framing, the use of cutaways, vox pop and live calls all function to create a genuinely frightening work of fiction while simultaneously declaring it as real. It is the perfect synthesis of technical craft and concept, a true perversion of the language of television.

This sense of realism is further established by apparent mistakes: the cutting to an unprepared presenter; production crew appearing on the stage and ushered off by Parkinson; a video tape being rewound while being broadcast. These are small and seemingly insignificant moments but their inclusion serves to compound the programme’s sense of realism – the audience is aware that technical errors can occur during live broadcasts and so, to a certain extent, expects to see them. As Pipes’ manifestations gain in frequency and strength so do the technical faults to the extent that the live transmission from the house breaks down into multicoloured static and is replaced with a title card that states, ‘Normal transmission will be resumed as soon as possible’. In the context of the show’s reality these glitches take on a dreadful malevolence, functioning not just to create a heightened sense of verisimilitude but working to prove Pipes’ existence: when the programme returns to the house all is seemingly normal with Greene playing a board game with Susan and her sister until Pascoe realises that it is footage from earlier in the evening and that the ghost is well and truly in the machine.

The programme ends in almost apocalyptic fashion, perverted by Pipes into a séance of sorts: a wind blows through the studio, the overhead lights flicker then explode as the ghost of Pipes briefly manifests in the gantry, plunging the studio into darkness. Parkinson can still be heard, mumbling as he stumbles around the studio. The transmission returns and he approaches a camera, reading a nursery rhyme from the autocue, his voice slipping into the possessed drawl of Pipes.


In the weeks leading up to the broadcast, the BBC apparently became concerned that the audience would not be able to distinguish the precisely faked ‘reality’ from actual events and began to make efforts to ensure that the programme was defined as a drama: the aforementioned Radio Times bill described the show as ‘A Screen One Special drama’ while the actual broadcast had the Screen One ident tagged on at the start of the broadcast and the show itself had a full end credit sequence to further imply the fictional nature of the programme. Yet, for all these clear signifiers of the programme’s constructed nature, a significant number of viewers believed the programme was actually happening, there and then, before their eyes: according to a number of articles written about Ghostwatch, the BBC switchboard received approximately 30,000 calls of complaint during the programme’s broadcast. Ghostwatch‘s greatest asset, the central conceit of a perfect false reality, became its downfall. As Volk has commented:

Such is the power, we now know, of the visual language of live TV… None of us had any idea that people’s innate trust in that Crimewatch, 999, Newsnight style could possibly override their common sense and rationality. But it did. (S. Volk, ‘Ghostwatch’, Fortean Times, no. 166, January 2003)

The subsequent public uproar (2) has been well documented (3) so indicative examples need only brief reiteration here:

‘It’s disgusting – the BBC is making a joke of this’, said Peter Jackson of Hove. ‘It’s wrong to show this as if it were true in documentary style’, said Mrs Valerie McVey, Maidstone, Kent, while John Turvey, Euston, North London, stated ‘I was terrified. They really had me fooled by the phone-in and I was in a right state when they showed the girl covered in blood and disfigured.’ (Rigby)

Within these and the many other complaints perhaps lies the truth of the public’s response to Ghostwatch: they were frightened by what they saw because they were misled by the manner in which the fiction was presented to them. As Volk has commented:

The complaints all boiled down to the fact that the viewers hadn’t been told what it was going to be; they weren’t angry at the programme itself, so much as at the BBC for not telling them what it was about. It was perceived as duplicity on the part of the BBC – whom the viewers trust with their lives. (Rigby)

Through its accurate but fictional depiction of a live broadcast and the consequential response of its audience, Ghostwatch raised a single but very significant question: if a programme can be faked to the extent that it deluded a significant number of people, then what else has been faked and what else will be faked? This disturbing proposition was compounded by its transmission on the BBC, the broadcaster whom the British public rely upon for unbiased and sensitive reporting, for seeking out the truth and reporting it with honesty and integrity. Volk has suggested that it is the most significant subtext Ghostwatch offers:

OK, it was a ghost story but it was also about how much we trust what the media tells us. If you put someone on screen and call them Dr Bloggs and they tell you a load of cobblers, then you believe it. But it could be anyone! We don’t really think about the editorial judgments that go into everything, even factual things. My biggest disappointment was that, in all the ‘it shouldn’t be allowed’ furore, no thought was given to what we’d been trying to do. (Rigby)

James Rose

1 In his discussion of the programme, Volk has commented upon the believability of Michael Parkinson, stating: ‘One friend of mine, whom I’d told the week before that I had a drama on TV at 9.30 the following Saturday, phoned to tell me that she totally believed it was happening for real. I said, “But I told you I’d written it!” “Yes, I know,” she said, “but as soon as I saw Michael Parkinson I thought you must have got it wrong!”‘ (Volk, 2003)

2 The public’s response to Ghostwatch varied considerably: one complaint received by the BBC was a request for financial reimbursement for a man who had soiled his trousers, in fear, while watching the programme; schools apparently cancelled their lessons on Monday morning to discuss the programme with frightened children; the British Medical Journal cited Ghostwatch as the first television programme to cause post-traumatic stress disorder in children (4 February 1994); and in a much more serious manner, the programme was blamed for the suicide of Martin Denham, yet at the inquest into this death, the coroner did not once mention the programme or the possible effect it had had upon Denham.

3 The public’s reaction to Ghostwatch is recorded and evaluated in Panic Attacks: Media Manipulation and Mass Delusion by Robert E. Bartholomew & Hilary Evans (Sutton Publishing, 2004) and Media Studies: Texts, Production & Context by Dr Paul Long and Tim Wall (Longman, 2009).