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DVD Review: ‘Ghost Stories from the BBC’

★★★★★

During the 1970s, no Christmas television was complete without the BBC’s famous series A Ghost Story for Christmas. All twelve tales of uncanny occurrences, set in dark and lonely places by some of the most accomplished manipulators of fiction, are to be rereleased by the BFI before the end of the year. Getting the series off to a cracking start are three by master of the Victorian supernatural M. R. James – as unsettling today as when they were first published by the prolific Cambridge don.

The inaugural Ghost Stories from the BBC volumes contain 1971’s The Stalls of Barchester, directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, and stars Robert Hardy as a clergyman who has second thoughts about inheriting the position of a rural Archdeacon after the previous incumbent dies mysteriously. This is coupled with another of the three directed by Clark, 1972’s A Warning to the Curious, featuring Peter Vaughan – of Straw Dogs (1971) notoriety – as a treasure hunter who finds more than he bargains for on a bleak stretch of the Norfolk coast.

The second volume compromises of two versions of one of James’ most famous stories, Whistle and I’ll Come To You. Clark’s 1968 interpretation with Michael Horden and its 2010 variant by writer Neil Cross and director Andy de Emmony and starring John Hurt, tell of a man haunted by a vengeful spirit after making a strange discovery whilst holidaying by the sea. Both contain what must rank as some of the most disturbing images ever seen on television.

Extras on this latest BFI release include contributions by experts Jonathan Miller, Christopher Frayling and horror writer Ramsey Campbell, who introduces Whistle and I’ll Come to You as well as reading from his own James inspired story, The Guide. However, the highlight has got to be Clark’s introductions to the stories he directed, where he gives fascinating insights into how he came up with his classic adaptations and persuaded the BBC to back him. These, along with two episodes of the evocative series Ghost Stories for Christmas with Christopher Lee – where that master of the macabre re-enacted James’ original Christmas Eve gatherings – add an extra frisson to an already chilling DVD collection.

Ghost Stories from the BBC’s late August release may seem incongruous for ghost story purists – apparently it coincides with the 150th anniversary of James’ birth. However, these faultless tales are guaranteed to chill your marrow on even the balmiest of British summer evenings.

Cleaver Patterson