The BBC has a long tradition of bringing the tales of M R James to the screen. Most famous, of course, are the dramatic adaptations in the GHOST STORIES FOR CHRISTMAS series, which is also available from the BFI. After that came to an end, and prior to its modern-day revival with A VIEW FROM A HILL and NUMBER 13, enthusiasts for television presentations of Mr James’ work had to make do with the somewhat simpler (and infinitely cheaper) approach of employing an actor to read stories straight to camera. Christopher Lee did the honours in 2000, while Robert Lloyd-Parry has scored considerable success in the last couple of years with his live recitations of famous James tales via his Nunkie theatre company. The disc under review here, however, collects five short story readings recorded by Robert Powell in 1986.
Seeing as James’ stories were written with the intention of being read aloud to an audience at Christmas time, this format actually works very well indeed. Powell’s style is midway between Lloyd-Parry’s rumpled academic and Christopher Lee’s Etonian authoritarian, and means that even if you've experienced the other two, you're depriving yourself of some prime ghost story telling if you miss these.
We’re in a cosy Victorian study. Powell alternates between wearing a schoolmaster’s gown and a velvet smoking jacket between the stories, and his splendid delivery and the surroundings make for a lovely way to spend a winter’s evening, either in 13 minute bites, or the whole 71 minutes in one go.
Five stories are presented. Some have a little bit of dramatic re-enactment to embellish Powell’s storytelling, but thankfully they aren’t too intrusive. In THE MEZZOTINT we get to see the picture change (always an audience pleaser) and in THE ASH TREE we get to see the spiders. Unfortunately they look like rather charming cuddly glove puppets compared with the weird screeching things of David Rudkin’s 1975 adaptation, but the bit where one "plops on the floor" is bizarrely unnerving. The other well known story is OH WHISTLE & I’LL COME TO YOU MY LAD, but it’s the other two stories in the series - WAILING WELL and THE ROSE GARDEN - that may prove of greater interest, simply because they haven’t received as much attention from stage and screen as the others.
For extras we have three M R James readings by Michael Bryant from the SPINE CHILLERS TV series. SPINE CHILLERS was a conscious attempt to introduce children to quality horror stories back in 1980. It was produced by the same unit that made JACKANORY, the long running early afternoon television programme that consisted simply of a famous actor reading stories to screen for children. It was hugely popular, ran for years, and if you weren’t a child of the 1970s you won’t be able to appreciate just how marvellous it was. SPINE CHILLERS deserved huge kudos for trying to introduce kids to M R James and The Pan Book of Horror Stories (Michael Joseph’s THE YELLOW CAT from Pan No.3 was among the stories presented). On this disc we get THE MEZZOTINT, A SCHOOL STORY, and THE DIARY OF MR POINTER, adapted to make them a bit more child-friendly, but not patronisingly so. Needless to say, SPINE CHILLERS was axed after numerous complaints from parents, while it is hoped that their kids all went out and increased horror books sales - I know I certainly did.
A fine and worthwhile addition to the collection of any enthusiast for James adaptations, the disc will also be of interest to fans of Amicus anthology horror films, who get the opportunity to see stories read both by Robert ASYLUM Powell and Michael TORTURE GARDEN Bryant. Delicious, simple storytelling of the highest calibre.
CLASSIC GHOST STORIES is being released on Region 2 DVD on 28th October 2013. It’s also being made available as part of the BFI’s expanded GHOST STORIES FOR CHRISTMAS BOX SET, to be released on the same date. The set will contain all 12 episodes of GHOST STORIES FOR CHRISTMAS, three instalments of the Christopher Lee series, and all the above. Lovely