“there were cobwebs—thick”

His hat was on the table, and he had a bald head. I waited a second or two looking at him rather particularly. I tell you, he had a very nasty bald head. It looked to me dry, and it looked dusty, and the streaks of hair across it were much less like hair than cobwebs. […] He turned round and let me see his face—which I hadn’t seen before. I tell you again, I’m not mistaken. Though, for one reason or another, I didn’t take in the lower part of his face, I did see the upper part; and it was perfectly dry, and the eyes were very deep-sunk; and over them, from the eyebrows to the cheek-bones there were cobwebs—thick. Now that closed me up, as they say, and I can’t tell you anything more.

This is William Garrett’s description of his strange encounter in a Cambridge library. Sent to fetch a volume for another reader, Garrett finds it already in the hands of ‘an old gentleman, perhaps a clergyman, in a—yes—in a black cloak’. When the reader returns the following day, and Garrett once again goes to fetch the book, the Tractate Middoth, the ‘clergyman’ is there once again, and it is at this point that Garrett sees his face.

To recuperate from the shock of the experience, Garrett takes himself off to Burnstow-on-Sea, where he meets Mrs Simpson, and her daughter, and the second part of the story begins to unfold. In effect, it’s a treasure hunt, based on Garrett’s realisation that Mrs Simpson’s cousin, who is hunting for a will made in her favour in order to destroy it, is the reader who asked him to fetch the fateful volume, and that the numbers which are her only clue are in fact a library classmark.

‘The Tractate Middoth’ is not, in all honesty, in the first rank of M.R. James’s ghost stories; it relies too much on the coincidence of Garrett’s meeting with the Simpsons in order to move the story along, and the ending verges on the sentimental. [I’ve noticed in reviews, a lot of people being exercised about its effectively being a chase sequence, which is true, but I am less bothered about that.] And yet, I’ve always had a soft spot for it, partly because of the title, partly because of the library setting, but mostly for the description above: ‘from the eyebrows to the cheek-bones, there were cobwebs–thick’. It is so intensely visual even while being so very economical in its description. For that reason, I wasn’t overly surprised to learn that Mark Gatiss had chosen to adapt it for the BBC, for the Christmas night ghost story slot.

Ah, the Christmas night ghost story slot. I have become uneasy about the nostalgia that pertains to so much of the BBC’s output in the 1970s but Lawrence Gordon Clark’s James adaptations remain some of the best programmes made. I rewatched them last Christmas and there is no doubt that they really have stood the test of time. ‘A Warning to the Curious’, in particular, is a fine piece of work. Lawrence Gordon Clark was respectful of the originals while bringing his own artistic vision to bear on the material – the opening shots of ‘Lost Hearts’ are a particular example of this. And of course, over all this looms Jonathan Miller’s magisterial adaptation of ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’, its influence acknowledged even in the BBC’s 2010 revisiting of the story, a travesty that not even the presence of John Hurt could redeem.

And that, perhaps, is the biggest problem in adapting James for the screen (and to a lesser extent for the radio as well). James’s fans, in common with those of other well-loved writers, have such great expectations of dramatists and directors, and such a fierce love for those 1970s productions, it is hard to break away from the influence of the past. In fairness, Neil Cross tried, but then produced something that was so tangential as to be unrecognisable. Gatiss, I felt sure, was never going to take that path. Instead, I wondered just how slavish to the original he might be.

In the end, it turned out he was perfectly willing to play a little fast and loose in terms of the setting, much as Gordon Clark would do, while leaving the basic story intact. James’s story was published in 1911, so one would have been looking at a story with either an Edwardian or late Victorian setting. Instead, Gatiss has moved it into the twentieth century – the clothing and furniture suggested something vaguely inter-war, although the brief but identifiable presence of Pearsall’s Mountains and Moorlands volume from the New Naturalists series means that, in fact it could be no earlier than 1950. The change lent nothing new to the story but then neither did it get in the way, and there was nothing in the original story that was obviously period-specific. [I now wonder if this shift was a nod to the earlier tv adaptation of 1951.]

Gatiss followed the basic storyline quite closely, with a few elisions here and there (and I do wonder why he overlooked something so wonderful as Dr Rant’s being buried upright, at a table, in a tomb, though perhaps we should be grateful he resisted that one). In the story, John Eldred, the man in search of the Tractate Middoth, visits Garrett after his experience but cuts off the younger man as he starts to tell his story. We learn of it when he is visited by his friend, George Earle. Gatiss cuts this, and wisely, I think, given he has only half an hour in which to tell his story. Eldred is already positioned as a man with something on his mind. His unwillingness to handle the book in the library suggests that he has already had an unpleasant experience; it works better for a sceptical friend to hear the story.

It’s not the elisions that are a problem but the embellishments. Dust, its presence, its smell, plays an important part in the story as an indicator of the presence of Dr Gant, the man who sets the story in motion by hiding the will written in favour of his niece, Mrs Simpson, in a place where her cousin, John Eldred, can find it, but not her. In the story, James relies heavily on mentions of the smell of dust but, given this is tv, who could resist the thought of dust motes dancing in the light passed through stained-glass windows. But such dust! Not delicate grains caught in sunlight. This was DUST, great fluffy clouds of it, not so much fragments of skin as sheets of it. It reminded me of nothing so much as a description I once heard of asbestos waste floating in the streets around an asbestos factory. It was impossible to overlook the point being made.

And in case we missed that, there were also the spiders. Now, in the story, James mentions spiders only once, right at the end, after Eldred has died. At the spot where he died, Garrett discovers a mass of cobwebs and several spiders. In the drama, though, spiders appear several times – a design in a stained-glass window, a close-focus shot of spiders in a web on a window frame, crawling across the cobwebbed head itself, and, at the end, creeping across the floor of Bretfield Hall, after Mrs Simpson and her family, soon to include Garrett himself, take possession.

Small niggles, perhaps, but symptomatic of an unnecessary telegraphing of story points, a concern that the viewer shouldn’t miss anything. One might view the presence of the Nellie Deanish servant in a similar way; delightful as it always is to see Eleanor Bron on screen, her character apparently existed only to ram the point home that Dr Gant was a bad ’un: ‘where other people had a soul, he had a corkscrew’. And if we missed that, the camera lingered on his teeth, rather as it lingered on the lower part of the apparition’s face (an excellent prosthetic job, but not actually necessary). Too much, too much, as Mole said to Ratty in a completely different story, yet there is a sense of Gatiss’s Ratty fussing anxiously, trying to make sure that we as viewers have the very best story experience we can, just like in the good old days.

Having said that, there were also moments when one wondered what on earth was going through the writer’s mind. In the original story, as he boards the train for his rest cure, Garrett is startled by the sight of a clergyman in a cloak, echoing his original encounter. It is at this point he first encounters Mrs and Miss Simpson, who offer him smelling salts to counter the shock, and then offer him a place to stay. The tv adaptation, however, features an interminable few minutes of passengers, most prominently Una Stubbs, chatting away about this and that, before a scene as Stubbs’s character fumbles for her ticket while Garrett, feeling increasingly ill, notices the clergyman’s figure. There seems to be an element of social commentary coming into play: Stubbs’ character has been expressing distaste for the way in which young people travel abroad when they could stay at home more cheaply, and so on, but it is one of the most gratuitous additions to the story, as though inserted simply to give ‘Mrs Hudson’ a part.

As to the ending – James was a man who liked things neat and tidy closed ending. There were invariably explanations, not always complete within the story but sufficient to ensure that the reader was satisfied. On occasion one was left with a hint of after-effects: such an example would be Parkins’ ongoing nervousness of billowing clothing, etc. in ‘Oh Whistle’. But the revenant was usually satisfied and went away. Not so, here, where, Gant’s housekeeper having assured Mrs Simpson that she would need to watch out for him, in life and in death, the viewer is already primed to anticipate something extra, and it comes as less of a surprise than Gatiss might suppose to see dust and spiders come in through the door of Bretfield Hall, and a shadow fall across it. In fact, it echoes Gordon Clark’s ending for ‘A Warning to the Curious’ but whereas in that instance it seemed to work, here it just seemed very twentieth-century, very tiresome, and so very unnecessary.

And yet, these are minor cavils with what was on the whole a successful production, certainly one scary enough that Paul Kincaid said he felt hair rising on the back of his neck, and insisted we sleep with a light on that night.

And yet, and yet, when I say ‘successful’, what do I actually mean? Successful, undoubtedly, when it comes to recreating the mood of those old productions (and had I time for a closer analysis, I suspect I could point out a lot more in terms of visual resonances with those old productions) but I find myself whether it is possible to break free of the nostalgia mode. I praise ‘The Tractate Middoth’ for its fidelity to the original, for its fidelity to the mood of the 1970s, but what in it is original to 2013? It may be that James’s stories resist major reworking – the topics alone tie his writing so tightly in time it is difficult to bring it much further forward than circa 1950 – but Lawrence Gordon Clark’s work in the 1970s seem to have bound tv adaptations even more tightly in time, and Gatiss’s unabashed nostalgia finishes off the job.

Which is not to say that I don’t enjoy a good period production as much as the next person, and I did enjoy this very much, but neither can I overlook the fact that Gatiss is part of that group of writers and directors who grew up in the 1970s and who reach back to that time for their inspiration, with varying degrees of success. Their influence seems to permeate so much of the BBC’s output at present (Dr Who, the rebooted Sherlock and so forth) and I find myself wondering if this is entirely healthy.

Over at [feuilleton], John Coulthart also has some thoughts on the Gatiss adaptation of The Tractate Middoth.

I should also draw your attention to A Podcast to the Curious (hat tip to Fred Kiesche for drawing my attention to its existence), and in particular, to episode 11, on The Tractate Middoth.