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DVD Review: ‘Ghost Stories from the BBC’ Vol. 3 & 4 (BFI release)

★★★★★

The BFI follow up their release earlier this year of Volumes 1 and 2 in the classic BBC Christmas Ghost Story series with six more blood chilling tales for cold winter nights, produced by Rosemary Hill and directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark and Derek Lister. As well as three stories from the master of Victorian menace M. R. James, another period tale is included this time by Charles Dickens, as well as contemporary frighteners from Clive Exton and John Bowen.

The strangest thing about the series, which became a popular fixture of Christmas television during the late 1970s, is that none of the stories are set during the festive period – or indeed winter for that matter. Though Yuletide has become a popular time for the recounting of uncanny tales, generally by the light of a flickering fire, the stories chosen by the BBC take place throughout the year proving that supernatural entities are no respecters of the boundaries or restrictions their human conjurers usually try to place upon them.

This disregard for the familiar rules generally associated with the ghost story is also highlighted here by the juxtaposition of period tales with those in more unexpected contemporary settings. James’ Lost Hearts (1973) features Simon Gipps-Kent as an orphan who falls victim to the designs of an evil guardian, whilst The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (1974) sees Michael Bryant as a minister whose greed is his downfall. Also included is The Ash Tree (1975), starring Edward Petherbridge in a tale of eighteenth-century witchcraft and mayhem and Dickens’ The Signalman (1976), with Denholm Elliott as a railway worker haunted by ghostly happenings on a little-used branch line.

However it’s the normality of the surroundings in the two remaining works that really chills the bones. In Exton’s Stigma (1972) a bewildered woman (Kate Binchy) is beset by an inexplicable ailment after an ancient stone is disturbed in the back garden of her new home, whilst Bowen’s The Ice House (1968) stars John Stride as a reluctant guest at a sinister health-farm. It’s the precise modernity of both aforementioned stories that make them arguably the most disturbing amongst this sextet of horrors.

With a host of special DVD extras, including filmed introductions by Clark whose anecdotes add extra frisson to the collection, and illustrated booklets featuring specially commissioned essays by luminaries like writer Ramsey Campbell and broadcaster Matthew Sweet, these new BBC releases deserve pride of place on the shelves of any true devotee of the macabre. Positively ghoulish.

Cleaver Patterson