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The Children of Green Knowe and A Traveller in Time – a tale of two novels

Among other Christmas presents I received the DVDs of The Children of Green Knowe (1986, from the novel by Lucy M. Boston [1954]) and A Traveller in Time (1978, from the novel by Alison Uttley [1939]). The two novels have been favourites of mine since I was young and I remember enjoying both adaptations immensely when they were first shown. I’ve seen Children a number of times over the years, thanks to a video transfer available on YouTube, but Traveller only finally came out on DVD in late 2015. The BBC never repeated it after its initial airing and I had been longing to see it again.

The short version of this is going to be that the tv adaptation of Children has lasted far better than the adaptation of Traveller, in part for technical reasons, in part because the adaptation of Traveller manages to highlight all of the novel’s weaknesses and none of its virtues. There is only ten years between the two tv adaptations but technically a lot apparently happened in that ten years. The Children of Green Knowe looks as fresh as ever; it’s very difficult to believe that it is thirty years old. A Traveller in Time, only eight years older, looks visually awful; in parts it seems terribly bleached, and there is occasional interference visible on the screen. This was very much a quick and dirty transfer to DVD, with very little in the way of titivation. The shifts between indoor studio scenes and outdoor scenes are often extremely awkward, and the painted backdrops of ‘outdoors’ seen through doors are quite obviously artificial. The soundtrack is also very fuzzy at times (though the poor choice of a very over-ripe orchestral version of Greensleeves as the theme tune is another matter altogether). It’s made even more awkward by a decision to update the story, moving it into ‘the present’, a decision which provided some unexpected visual distractions that I’ll return to.

book-cover-green-knoweBefore I deliver a more detailed verdict on both adaptations, I’d like to step back slightly and look at the novels again. The Children of Green Knowe, I’ve written about before, but not A Traveller in Time, though I know I’ve mentioned it in various places at various times. Oddly, what hadn’t struck me before my Christmas viewing was how similar in some ways the two novels are. Each concerns a child moving effortlessly, inexplicably, through time, becoming somehow caught up in the stories of the people they meet, in the history of the house, and also having to face up to the deaths, long since, of the people they have encountered. I tend to call these novels ‘ghost stories’ simply because that’s what I’ve always called them, but the very title of A Traveller in Time indicates it should be thought of as a story of time-slippage, though the situation in The Children of Green Knowe is made a little complicated by the awareness of the seventeenth-century Oldknow children that they are dead. Here, it is not Tolly who moves through time so much as the other children who fade in an out of Tolly’s own time.

traveller-in-time-coverAnd in each novel, the house – Green Knowe and Thackers – stands as a character (each fictional house has an actual counterpart – Hemingford Grey manor house, owned by Boston herself, and Dethick Manor farmhouse, originally owned by the Babington family, and known to Uttley in her childhood); each house is dominated by a woman, Mrs Oldknow, and Tissie/Dame Cicely Taberner, respectively, who functions as the genius loci of the place, and possibly bears some slight resemblance to an idealised version of the author in each instance. Beyond that, it would also be not unreasonable to say that Boston and Uttley themselves had a certain amount in common, given that they both seem to have had rather challenging personalities.

Both novels begin with a decision made to send the child protagonists away to the country. In Green Knowe, Toseland, or Tolly, is to spend Christmas with a great-grandmother he didn’t know he had, rather than languish at the rather dull boarding school where he normally lives, his parents being in Burma; in A Traveller in Time, the three Cameron children but Penelope in particular, have been unwell, and their mother decides to send them to an aunt in Derbyshire, to recuperate. So the first major event in each novel involves a train journey, with the protagonists moving away from all that is familiar, heading deep into the uncertainty of the countryside. Both train journeys present us with a picture of close-knit community; in both cases, the children are identified by other passengers as not being from around here, and in neither case is there a clear sense that they belong although they have a loose family connection to the area. Tolly’s first name, Toseland, is recognised as a local place-name but oddly, despite the family being known locally, there seems to be no awareness that Toseland is also a family forename. For all that he has lived in the interim setting of a boarding school (and possibly abroad himself) we are to understand Tolly Oldknow as returning to his house. Boston specifically frames his arrival as a return, and has Tolly anxiously ask if the house is partly his. Penelope’s attachment to Derbyshire is indicated first by her middle name, Taberner; it is her mother’s maiden name, and the family name of the aunt and uncle, brother and sister, with whom they will be staying. Penelope, we will also discover, is also a Taberner family name, so Penelope’s attachment is doubly emphasised by her naming. Her family name, though, is Cameron – her mother married a Scot, and I think by this we are supposed to see Penelope as both belonging but being somewhat ‘other’ too, in that a part of her belongs even further north.

So, in part, you could say that both novels are about strengthening that connection to a family place by involving the protagonists in the history of the houses they are staying in, houses which are, if you like, also ‘family’. The treatment of the two houses mark the first major point of divergence between the two stories, a divergence which I think makes The Children of Green Knowe the more successful of the two novels as a story. Boston provides Hemingford Grey/Green Knowe with a mostly fictional history, filling in what might have been lost along the way, but begins from a point of utter familiarity with the house itself (unsurprising given she bought it pretty much as a wreck and then restored it). Uttley never actually lived at Dethick/Thackers, although as a child she played with the child who did live there, and this only partial familiarity does show. The descriptions of the house are doubtless accurate but there is always the slight sense that they come from an outsider. I can’t help feeling that Uttley rather badly wanted to have lived at Dethick – I find it more than a little suggestive that when she bought a house in Beaconsfield from her royalties, she called it Thackers, although it was about as unlike Thackers or Dethick as one might possibly imagine – and that A Traveller in Time was, if you like, her attempt to write herself, as Penelope, into that history. There is an obsession with the house as artefact that isn’t present in Children in the same way. And while Tolly doesn’t have to claim his family history because it comes to him, in Traveller Penelope’s real fascination is with the Babingtons rather than her own Taberner family. (The question that is never posed is how, if this is the Babingtons’ house, does it come to belong to the Taberners now. The implication is that they reside there now as stewards of the Babington history, but a few uncomfortable questions are elided.)

The tv adaptation of Children was mostly filmed at Hemingford Grey; even if one didn’t know that one would feel a ‘rightness’ about the adaptation’s setting, inside and out, in a way that just isn’t there with the adaptation of Traveller. My sense is that the interior shots are mostly studio-based, simply because of the enormous amount of room available for the actors and crew to move around in, not forgetting those unconvincing outdoor backdrops glimpsed through open doors. Having said that, the shots of the modern-day farm interior, the kitchen at least, seem to have been filmed on location, which makes the juxtaposition all the more uncomfortable.

The second major difference between the two novels lies in the protagonists themselves. In Green Knowe, Tolly is seven years old. Alec Christie was twelve when he played Tolly in the tv series, and I’d place the character he played as being about nine or ten. Either way, in both novel and series, he is a very active child, exploring, investigating, asking questions, eager for encounters with the other children living in the house, eager for stories about them. As Mrs Oldknow comments, he’s ready for anything. He is, if you like, coming into his birthright, finding out who and what he is. He might start as an outsider but he is very quickly subsumed into the house and his history.


The central theme of the novel is celebratory restoration. Tolly’s arrival at Green Knowe sets in train a process of rejuvenation. While his great-grandmother is aware of the existence of the children it is Tolly’s open desire to engage with the children, not to mention his hunger for stories about them, that initiates a series of discoveries – the key to the children’s toy chest, Linnet’s bracelet previously lost in the shrubbery – as well as a series of curious experiences, such as the encounter with Toby’s horse, Feste, and, at last, the lifting of the curse laid on the topiary man, Green Noah, by the mother of the gipsy horse thief. We might suppose that the encounters with the children are simply the imaginings of a very lonely little boy stuck with an elderly relation, except that Mrs Oldknow matter-of-factly confirms his experiences. She might be humouring him, of course, except that Boggis, as much a genius loci as Mrs Oldknow, also knows all the stories, and can add one or two of his own. By doing so, either Boggis is engaged in some sort of unholy conspiracy with Mrs Oldknow, or he acts as a confirming second party. This is all very real if you are part of the family, and Boggises have been associated with the house probably for as long as Oldknows. For the most part the novel is remarkably unthreatening. Tolly is being inducted into the history of his family, and the house where it lives, the house that by implication will one day be his. The Children of Green Knowe is an introduction to his inheritance, tangible and intangible.

By contrast, A Traveller in Time is an account of that which has been lost and can never be regained. It begins as nostalgia – Penelope is clearly writing as an adult, describing childhood experiences; among others, she notes how, when offered a treat, she chose to rummage through the old things in a family chest – but somehow ends as mourning the loss of old ways. We are, I think, supposed to see Penelope as being a little old-fashioned even in her own time. But if Tolly is part of the presiding family in his house, Penelope Taberner Cameron is very different. She is much more passive, an observer but not a participant, and I think this is in part because she is a Boggis rather than an Oldknow, so to speak. Aunt Tissie is aware of the continuing presence of the Babingtons at Thackers – ‘the secret of Thackers’ – but this is something that is not discussed. And, of course, the job of Taberners is to keep secrets. As a Taberner, Penelope can never be a participant, only a guardian. The novel may try to account for this by representing her as a sickly, solitary child, as ‘fey, but the fact is that the linear inevitability of history precludes her doing anything other than witness the beginning of the downfall of the Babington family. She can tell Francis (and in the novel, Anthony) what is going to happen but insofar as either of them believes her, neither of them can do anything to prevent it happening. And this is the biggest problem with the novel as novel. Even though Penelope is ‘family’, she must remain an outsider, because she is a Taberner and not a Babington. The history being played out before her is not her history, although her family has witnessed it and participated in it.


One of the enduring difficulties of the novel is how to account for Penelope’s presence at Thackers, how to excuse her comings and going, her strange clothes, the fact that unlike most girls of that time, she can read and write, but that unlike her aunt, she has not the remotest idea how to do anything practical, such as identifying herbs. Her position at Thackers is constructed in such a way that she is constantly privileged and her odd behaviour excused; she rides out with Francis Babington, waits on his mother and step-grandmother, but works in the kitchen too. And to round this off, Francis falls in love with her, and she with him. It is the perfect teenage relationship.


This is not to say that A Traveller in Time does not have a story but it always comes back to what cannot be done. Anthony has lost his heart to Mary, Queen of Scots, and is plotting to rescue her while she is at Wingfield. An old tunnel between Wingfield and Thackers is to be reopened and the Queen is to be brought along it to Thackers and hence onward to freedom. The plot, though, will be discovered, though at this stage Babington will not be implicated, and a handy fall of snow will conceal the digging at Thackers. But while this may be the story, it is not the plot, not least because Penelope already knows what will happen. There is a sub-plot in the novel, when Arabella, the Babingtons’ jealous cousin, suspecting Penelope of being a spy, imprisons her underground in an abandoned tunnel, from which she is rescued by Jude, the mute farm boy. He is believed to be ‘touched’ but seems to be more fully aware of Penelope’s nature than everyone else. But even this sub-plot only comes to the fore quite late in the novel and while it is given more prominence in the adaptation (complete with Arabella roasting the wax figure of Penelope that she’s made), it’s not really what the novel is all about.

According to Denis Judd’s biography of Alison Uttley, Alison Uttley: Spinner of Tales, the novel was originally rejected by her publisher and had to be reworked, though he provides no detail as to what this involved. He does, though refer to Uttley describing it as the ‘darling of my heart’, and sees Uttley as having written herself into the novel as Penelope, unsurprisingly. However, he seems to regard the novel as being rather more successful in its construction than I do. If Alison Uttley does have one great theme as a writer, it is her childhood in rural Derbyshire, at Castle Top Farm. Her love of the countryside, and of rural ways, is reflected in much of her output, from The Country Child (1931), through the myriad Little Grey Rabbit books, to A Traveller in Time. By far the most successful parts of the novel are the descriptions of country life – if we assume that the novel is originally set in the late 1920s and early 1930s, or maybe even earlier given that the voice of Penelope Taberner Cameron is that of an adult or near-adult, recalling a time when she was a child, we can assume that Uttley is drawing on her memories of her own childhood. Indeed, a comparison with The Country Child show that many of the scenes, customs and events described in that resurface in A Traveller in Time, where they are often used to establish a continuity between the Elizabethan period and the novel’s present day. By far the best passages in The Country Child, which is anyway fictionalised autobiography, are the descriptions of farm life and the evocations of the natural world, the things that Uttley knew well, and the same is true in A Traveller in Time as Uttley’s instincts as a storyteller override her attempt to tell a different story.

The disparity between the two stories is reflected in the two tv adaptations. Although both stay close to the original novels, A Traveller in Time has inevitably been abbreviated to remove the long, lingering descriptions of farm life, meaning that there is very little meat for the adaptor to work with. The adaptation of The Children of Green Knowe is visually gorgeous (perhaps unsurprisingly, given most of it seems to have been filmed at Hemingford Grey). The opening sequence, as Tolly travels deeper into a flooded landscape, swapping train for taxi, taxi for the taxi-driver’s back (reminding us of St Christopher, who plays an important part later in the story) and then piggyback for Boggis’s boat is utterly magical. And that is the point. This is supposed to be a magical story and the adaptation captures that. Which is not to say that it is not at times remarkably atmospheric, and sometimes a little scary. The sequence where Tolly sits on a book so that Linnet cannot read it and she invisibly drags it across the floor is disturbingly effective, as is Tolly’s ill-fated trip across the garden in the dark, when Green Knowe is walking, though for my money, the best, most unnerving sequence is when Tolly is wandering around the upper storey of the stables, searching for the children he can always hear in the next room but can never quite locate. In odd places it also visually reminds me of Lawrence Gordon Clark’s adaptation of M.R. James’ ‘Lost Hearts’ (1973), when young Stephen (coincidentally played by Simon Gipps-Kent) is wandering in the grounds of Aswarby Hall and hears children’s voices.

Strangely enough, A Traveller in Time also reminds me strongly of ‘Lost Hearts’, and that’s probably a lot less of a coincidence given that there is only five years between the two. While the novel seems to be warm and sunny, the tv version is bleak, misty, grey, and altogether lacking in joy. I’m not sure where they filmed the outdoor shots but they seem to have gone looking for the most unprepossessing fields they could manage, while the railway station was not exactly a gateway to adventure. Even the shots purportedly in the farmhouse garden look less than magical, and the shots of Wingfield are grim in the extreme. One can only assume that the programme makers were in some way trying to emulate Gordon Clark, even though it was utterly inappropriate to the story. There was indeed one sequence when Penelope was riding with her uncle in the land rover and looked out to see Jude scaring birds in the field which might as well have come from ‘Lost Hearts’. I suppose all this might be argued as tying in with the rather more furtive nature of Penelope’s experience but it seemed to be a strange artistic decision.

I noted earlier that the story had been updated for a modern audience, although the visual clues were maddeningly vague at times. Mostly, one had to rely on what Penelope was wearing as a guide, given the farm, the farm vehicles, and the Taberners themselves were of course behind the times. And here is the problem. In the original story, set maybe in the 1920s or early 1930s, Penelope would be dressed in clothes which, if outlandish by Elizabethan standards, could at least be excused as ‘London fashion’. 1970s Penelope by comparison would one moment be in jeans, boots and a smock top like any normal teenager of that time, and the next wearing something oddly formal or out of time, because of course she was about to move back in time. There was a quilted dressing-gown which was very frequently brought into play because it could pass muster as some sort of over-dress that wasn’t too un-Elizabethan. Also, a cloak that no self-respecting teenager of that period would have been seen dead in.

In conclusion, I have to admit that despite my fond recollections of it, I am disappointed in the tv version of A Traveller in Time. I’m glad to have seen it again, and to have it to hand for reference, but the novel, for all its faults, wins hands down. The series is awkwardly put together, emphasising the novel’s flaws, and just can’t seem to find a story for itself. I wonder now if the production team was struggling to present it as a softer version of the old ghost stories, but simply couldn’t find the right register for it. By contrast, the tv adaptation of The Children of Green Knowe, despite its own occasional moments of clunkiness (we’ll draw a veil over the business of the walking tree) is joyful and magical, capturing the spirit of the novel very effectively. It’s a lovely thing to look at. Watching it will, I think, become a Christmas tradition, rather like rewatching The Box of Delights. There is the same sense of craftsmanship about it.

Reading The Mammoth Book of Haunted House Stories and Shadows in the Attic

An elderly review, from Vector sometime in 2001.

Peter Haining, ed. – The Mammoth Book of Haunted House Stories
Robinson, 2000

Neil Wilson – Shadows in the Attic: A Guide to British Supernatural Fiction 1820-1950
The British Library, 2000

Over the years, all manner of fictional places and objects, from canals to Buick cars, have been portrayed as haunted, and yet the most powerful, the most resonant image in supernatural writing is still that of the haunted house, As Peter Haining shows in this anthology (bafflingly hailed as ‘the first major anthology of the best tales about haunted houses,’ as though the world is flooded with minor ones) the haunted house comes in all shapes and sizes, from the classic ivy-clad country seat to dingy town apartments, from opulent stately homes to the meanest of tumble-down cottages, with perhaps a village pub or two thrown in for good measure.

And here I encounter a difficulty with this anthology. Some haunted house stories are more haunted than others, if you follow my meaning. Every ghost story has to be set somewhere, but the very fact of it being set in a house, as opposed to a railway carriage or on board shop, doesn’t necessarily make it a story about a haunted house. It is, I admit, a very fine distinction, but in a number of stories in this collection, the setting is almost incidental, and I would include here examples such as M. R. James’ much-anthologised ‘Lost Hearts’, a fine story but it could be set practically anywhere … the focus of the action is the ghosts, not their setting. Much the same might be said of Hugh Walpole’s otherwise delightful ‘A Little Ghost’ in its generic country house, or Penelope Lively’s ‘Uninvited Ghosts’ and several other stories in this anthology.

You’ll see what I mean if you contrast them with stories such as Sheridan Le Fanu’s magnificent ‘Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House’, Charlotte Riddell’s ‘The Old House in Vauxhall Walk’ or, to take a more recent example, Ramsey Campbell’s atmospheric ‘Napier Court’. In stories like these, the house is a character, is often the character, setting the tone and pace of the story. Even Bulwer-Lytton’s relentlessly turgid ‘The Haunted and the Haunters’, when stripped of its overwhelming desire to examine the philosophical mechanics of a haunting, is dominated by the menace of the otherwise highly desirable residence at 50 Berkeley Square.

There is also a faint air of desperation about Haining’s categorisation of the stories in this book, neatly divided up as they are into unnecessary sections such as ‘Shadowy Corners: Accounts of Restless Spirits’ or ‘Psychic Phenomena: Signs from the Other Side’ (as though the earlier ghost stories weren’t?). Ignore this and concentrate on the stories themselves. Even constrained by a dubious theme, as he clearly was, and also missing out a number of perhaps more appropriate stories Haining has nevertheless assembled a collection which includes some of the finest writers the genre ever saw (L.P. Hartley, W.F. Harvey, Mary Eleanor Freeman) as well as some unusual modern examples from the likes of Ian Watson and William F. Nolan, and provides some genuinely thrilling and spooky moments.

The ghost story was a distinct genre phenomenon, probably reaching its peak during the early part of the twentieth century. Nowadays, we most often remember M.R. James’ stories but he was a prodigious talent among many gifted writers. Neil Wilson’s Shadows in the Attic attempts to catalogue these authors and their output in what turns out to be a monumental (and extremely expensive) work but one that’s informative rather than useful. The bibliographical nature of this work means that while it is an excellent tool for establishing an author’s output, it’s much less helpful if you want to discover what may be currently available. Clues exist in the notes, pointing the reader towards the output of, in particular, the Ash-Tree Press, Sarob Press and Tartarus Press, all of which are republishing many hard-to-find volumes or else producing collected editions of popular authors, but these references are incidental and not always thorough. (This uncertainty extends to the addresses included in Sources Consulted, at least one of which is now defunct.) Having said that, for the devoted scholar of ghost stories, this is surely an essential volume. Each entry includes a brief biography and a listing of the first publication of all known stories by each author, with full bibliographical references and their British Library call number, and an indication of their contents. The bibliography also provides a useful introduction to the subject.

Whistle …

I meant to write about this at the time the episode appeared but never got round to it. So, belatedly, and just for the record, I am reviewing the 31st October 2014 episode of Doctors.

It’s called ‘Whistle …’ It was broadcast at Hallowe’en. I’m a great admirer of the work of M.R. James. You can see where this commentary is coming from.

The question is, as someone I talked to at the time noted, how do you smuggle a story by M.R. James into an episode of a soap opera? The answer is that you remove a character from their normal milieu – in this instance, Dr Al Haskey is off for a beer-drinking weekend with his friend the Rev. James Montague, known to his friends as Monty (Montague Rhodes James was called ‘Monty’ by his friends.)

As I’m not a regular viewer of Doctors, I don’t know much about Al Haskey, but he’s large, a messy dresser, with ‘social awkwardness’ written all over him. He seems to interact well enough with his colleagues, though in a ‘man child with decided opinions’ sort of way. Those opinions – in this instance, about the supernatural, ghosts, life beyond death – will lie at the heart of this episode. And there is a woman who says goodbye to him when he sets off but I can’t quite figure out their relationship. There is clearly affection tempered with a sort of amused mothering exasperation (and no, please don’t tell me; I don’t need to know, honest). And something oddly apprehensive about them, as though he doesn’t do this kind of thing that often, as though he might get lost in the world.

They both glance up at the trees, him as he gets into the car, her as he drives away. The trees, I’m here to tell you are ash trees. Those who know their James canon will recognise the significance of this. Those who don’t, won’t, but trust me, it’s the first indicator that the makers of this programme are very familiar with the James oeuvre.

We’re then treated to a shot of a woman  making up a couple of beds, laying especial emphasis on the bed linen – anyone familiar with the story of ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, my Lad’ will immediately recognise this foreshadowing reference. And then we see Al arriving at a small country pub, the Globe, with a really rather strange inn sign – a dancing skeleton playing on a pipe.

It’s not a very welcoming sort of pub. Al manages to put his foot in it every which way. The locals stop talking as he walks in (odd if they take overnight guests), the landlord is forbidding, and the barmaid seems to be expecting something of him, but what is not clear. (I’m reminded here of endless horror stories where the stranger’s function is either to rescue the maiden, or to impregnate her and bring fresh blood to the local gene pool.) Others, like the elderly man sitting in the corner, are watchful. The booking has been mixed up so Al and Monty are sharing a room, and then, to top it off, Monty rings up to say he’s going to be delayed.

There is a sense already that Al doesn’t really like being on his own, among strangers. You might be thinking of Jonathan Miller’s adaptation of ‘Oh Whistle’ and his portrayal of Professor Parkin as a social maladept. It’s not so pronounced in this, or at any rate my sense is that Al is a talker, who runs into difficulties when people don’t understand his jokes and references, which can be obscure or offensive if you don’t know where he’s coming from – there’s still a flavour of clever adolescent college kid about him – whereas Parkin was unable to communicate even if he wanted to. (And this in itself is at variance with James’s original story, in which Parkin is only too articulate and decided in his views – which is why he seems to clash so often with his colleagues.) Nonetheless, there are links between the two plays.

In his room, Al is bothered by the tapping of tree branches against the window. You get to guess what kind of tree it is (see ‘The Ash Tree’). He’s clearly unsettled by Monty’s absence but determined to make the best of it. Given he’s not a solitary person, there’s probably a sense of relief when the old man – the Colonel, it turns out (and another reference to ‘Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad’ – strikes up a conversation. In the course of this, we learn from the barmaid that the Templar preceptory, the reason Monty wanted to be in Hordernwick, is haunted. In the original story, the place is Burnstow (based on Felixstowe), but this name again signals a homage to the Miller adaptation as Professor Parkin was memorably played by Michael Hordern. ‘You’ll know’, she says enigmatically, when Al suggests that ghosts are nothing more than natural sounds – insomniac mice, he suggests.

Then, back in his room – more trees tapping on windows – during the course of a telephone conversation with Monty, during which Monty reveals he can’t get there at all. Al’s laptop seems to malfunction. Instead of a document we see a picture which will turn out to be of the old Templar preceptory, and something dark suddenly looming into the screen. It reminds me very much of the Nigel Kneale adaptation of The Woman in Black, and the terrifying moment when the Woman appears at the bottom of Arthur Kipps’ bed and leans in closer and closer (this is still the single most terrifying moment I can think of in modern tv ghost story adaptations). On the other hand, this also seems to me to indirectly reference both ‘The Mezzotint’ and ‘The Haunted Dolls House’, with their use of other framing media to tell a story, quite apart from being a literal ghost in the machine.

After lunch, and still at a loose end, Al takes himself off to visit the tiny brewery, the reason for his visit to this place, only to find it closed. Eventually, he finds himself in the vicinity of the ruined church, pretty much the only thing left for him to see. To me, it is as though everyone and everything is conspiring to get him to that place. He has to go there. It’s spooky – there is a strong wind soughing through the ash trees. As he turns to leave, he trips over something, digs it out of the ground with his pen knife, and then discards it. He also, accidentally, discards his mobile.

Back at the hotel, he falls into conversation with the Colonel again while the barmaid hovers around. The strange atmosphere is really palpable now. The barmaid seems to be expecting something to happen; the same ‘locals’ have been in the bar for hours now, and one has the sense that the Colonel is orchestrating something. But what? The Colonel tells Al how the Templars who had lived in Hordernwick had returned to their mother church in France, only to be executed. The Colonel would have it that their spirits then returned to Hordernwick. Al the arch rationalist refuses to believe in the survival of the spirit beyond the death of the body.

Having realised he’s lost his phone, Al retraces his steps, notices the piece of metal again and this time picks it up and takes it with him. Back at the hotel, in his room, he keeps looking at the other bed but then turns his attention to the metal object. He cleans it up, finds it’s a whistle (a very clean and modern-looking whistle, I have to say), reads the writing – Quis est iste qui venit … Who Is This Who Is Coming? – and like so many before him, blows the whistle. In the original, it is the window that suddenly blows open but here it is the door (the most recent previous adaptation makes rather more play of the door in the story).

There’s a fleeting shot of a running figure out near the church and then we cut to the bar, where a thoroughly unnerved Al is having a late-night drink when the Colonel appears. Now he tells Al a story from his soldiering days, about the young soldiers trying to whistle up dust devils, and a soldier vanishing. Overhead, there’s a thump and when the two men go upstairs, they find the covers on the spare bed disturbed. The Colonel also sees the whistle and is concerned as to whether Al blew it. He tells Al that the Templars sold the whistles to pilgrims. To blow on one would be to summon assistance, the inference being that Al has also summoned something …

Rather like the original Parkins, Al then has a series of dreams in which he is being from the church by a figure swathed in grey cloth, like grave wrappings. This sequence is particularly interesting as it quite clearly brings together not only the original adaptation of Oh Whistle, in which the hapless Parkin dreams of being pursued by something cloth-like but indefinable, but also the 1970s adaptation of ‘A Warning to the Curious’, in which Paxton is pursued by what we are supposed to believe is William Ager. Even now, I can never quite untangle the two stories in my mind, and although the two adaptations are quite different, there is a certain similarity about the spectres that haunt them. And this version of Whistle seems very much to partake of the aesthetic of ‘A Warning’ with the church mound in the trees reminiscent of the barrow among the trees on the headland.

As to the ghost in this version, there is nothing left to the imagination at all. There’s little in the way of special effects. The ghost is mostly very solid, clearly someone swathed in a grey bed cover but it’s done incredibly well. The very solidity of the ghost becomes a virtue. The spectre is smack in the middle of the screen, very clearly visible, not at all imagined, particularly when it is at Al’s throat in the bedroom. There’s no face of crumpled linen, as per the story, but neither is there a disappointing dancing sheet, as per the Miller adaptation, just this figure rising up from the other bed. There is nothing psychological about this spectre at all. It’s real, and it’s chasing Al. And it is absolutely terrifying.

We know of course how this is going to end, and the Colonel is along in good time to rescue Al. The interesting thing is next day, when Al wakes up, to find that everything has changed. The landlord looks different, the bar maid looks different, while the Colonel, who also looks slightly different, shows no signs of recognising Al at all. Outside, even the pub sign is different. At which point we seem to have moved once again from a Jamesian milieu to something closer to other 1970s adaptations of ghost stories, or a particularly second-rate horror film.

There is no denying it was a bit of a hodge-podge of references in places but it was good fun at the same time. I caught an interview online (now alas taken down) with the episode’s director, in which he acknowledged the influence of Lawrence Gordon Clark’s seminal adaptations of M.R. James’s ghost stories for the BBC, including ‘A Warning to the Curious’. There was also a very interesting clip showing how the production team devised the ‘ghost’. Constrained by a very limited budget for special effects, it was, as I said earlier, mostly a man in a grey cloak, but while I was thinking about Clark’s tv ghosts, the production team was thinking ‘what’s the scariest thing any of us has ever seen? Ah yes, the Dementors in Harry Potter’. Though having looked at illustrations of the Dementors online (look, I got bored going to the annual Harry Potter film about three films in, so I haven’t seen them), I have to disagree.

I did also wonder what the Doctors audience would have made of this episode, but apparently the show has a history of doing this kind of thing, so it’s by no means unusual. However, it has not tempted me to start watching the series, just in case.

Things I read on the internet – week ending 10/1/2014

The usual bizarre mix of books, archaeology and the London underground.

Previously unknown letters by Mary Shelley discovered in Essex archive – the mention of Edward Trelawny should also interest people

Interesting piece by John Sutherland on how M.R.James took over Christmas

Fictional London Underground stations

Orson Welles interviews H.G. Wells – I may have posted this before but its wondrousness does not fade.

Adam Roberts discusses the Award Season 2014, and articulates some of my current reservations.

Adam is also currently reading his way through the entire Famous Five series by Enid Blyton. It is hilarious, not necessarily in a good way. I had a complete hardback set of these when I was a child. You may well ask what my parents were thinking.

And while we’re about it, Patrick Barkham extols the virtues of Brendon Chase by B.B. I remember reading this as a child and loathing it. Looking at it as an adult, I can see precisely why I did. While it was quite possible to ‘read’ myself into some ‘boys’ books, and I very often did, this simply resisted all efforts. (Also, I suspect I generally didn’t get along with B.B as I remember reading and disliking The Little Grey Men stories.)

Radio 4 Extra has been running a lovely series of programmes by or about Charles Chilton, who died a year ago at the age of 95. Best known to sf fans for Journey into Space, this particular programme is a delightful half-hour reminiscence by members of the original cast and Chilton himself. (I’d also recommend Chilton’s two autobiographical programmes and The Long, Long Trail.)

Illuminating piece by Martin Lewis about reviewing a book he didn’t like, by an author he does like, with genuinely classy comment by said author.

Aficionadoes of Children of the Stones will find these early maps of Stonehenge to be of interest. They were made by William Stukeley, an eighteenth-century vicar who believed stone circles were made by druids. Stukeley was of course entirely wrong but he nonetheless can arguably be called the father of British archaeology.

“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.



For those who have never read it, M.R. James’s Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad

‘Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad’, is now available on DVD, as is the Jonathan Miller version, ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’, and the other M.R.James productions from the 1970s. In my humble opinion they stand up very well after all these years. (Both adaptations are currently available on YouTube but I shan’t link as they vanish and reappear with monotonous regularity, as do the Robert Powell readings of M.R. James’s stories, and I’m tired of refreshing links. Have a look around and see what you can find.)

And lastly, Robert Burns’ poem:  Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad

Quis Est Iste Qui Venit

Who Is This Who Is Coming? 

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without ghost stories, and 2010 was no exception. BBC’s Radio 7 broadcast a series of ghost stories from Walter de la Mare, interspersed with a set of rather weak parodies of ghost stories by M.R. James (meant, I assume, for the aficionados who know the originals rather than the casual listener, and all the more tiresome for that). Meanwhile, BBC2, harking back to its own tradition of adapting James’s stories for the festive season, offered a new version of ‘Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad’, called ‘Whistle and I’ll Come To You’, written by Neil Cross, directed by Andy de Emmony, and featuring John Hurt.

I wondered why we suddenly needed a new version of the story, and how this new version could possibly improve on Jonathan Miller’s 1968 adaptation, also called ‘Whistle And I’ll Come To You’, which is still one of the two or three finest adaptations of James’s stories ever produced (up there with ‘A Warning to the Curious’ and ‘Lost Hearts’, both broadcast by the BBC in the early seventies). Matters were not helped when I noticed Alison Graham’s preview in Radio Times: ‘Silly me. Here was I thinking that the whistle in the title was the essential component in the best ghost story ever written’, nor by A N Wilson’s revealing, in the review on Radio 3’s Nightwaves on 22nd December, that the protagonist dies at the end of the film, when confronted by his wife’s spectre, something that certainly didn’t happen in either Miller’s version or James’s original.

In which case, I should begin by revisiting James’s story, which follows the fortunes of Parkins, Professor of Ontography at Cambridge, who travels to Burnstow for a golfing holiday. At a colleague’s request, he also undertakes to look at the site of a possible Templar preceptory and while doing so, he discovers a whistle concealed in a wall. The first odd event occurs as Parkins returns to the hotel. A glance behind him:

showed him a prospect of company on his walk, in the shape of a rather indistinct personage, who seemed to be making great efforts to catch up with him, but made little, if any, progress. I mean that there was an appearance of running about his movements, but that the distance between him and Parkins did not seem materially to lessen. So, at least, Parkins thought, and decided that he almost certainly did not know him, and that it would be absurd to wait until he came up. For all that, company, he began to think, would really be very welcome on that lonely shore, if only you could choose your companion. In his unenlightened days he had read of meetings in such places which even now would hardly bear thinking of.

Parkins cleans the whistle and discovers the inscriptions on it, the longer one of which reads ‘Quis est iste qui venit’. “It ought to mean, ‘Who is this who is coming?’ Well, the best way to find out is evidently to whistle for him,” which Parkins duly does. The result is striking. As James put it:

He saw quite clearly for a moment a vision of a wide, dark expanse at night, with a fresh wind blowing, and in the midst a lonely figure – how employed, he could not tell. Perhaps he would have seen more had not the picture been broken by the sudden surge of a gust of wind against his casement, so sudden that it made him look up, just in time to see the white glint of a sea-bird’s wing somewhere outside the dark panes. […]

‘But what is this? Goodness! what force the wind can get up in a few minutes! What a tremendous gust! There! I knew that window-fastening was no use! Ah! I thought so – both candles out. It’s enough to tear the room to pieces.’

The first thing was to get the window shut. While you might count twenty Parkins was struggling with the small casement, and felt almost as if he were pushing back a sturdy burglar, so strong was the pressure. It slackened all at once and the window banged to and latched itself. Now to relight the candles and see what damage, if any, had been done. No, nothing seemed amiss; no glass even was broken in the casement.

Subsequently, Parkins dreams of someone being chased along the beach by ‘a figure in pale, fluttering draperies, ill-defined’ while a local boy sees a similar figure apparently waving to him from Parkins’ bedroom window. The story culminates in the figure attacking Parkins in his room, having used the sheets of the spare bed to give itself substance. ‘[W]what he chiefly remembers about it is a horrible, an intensely horrible, face of crumpled linen’. Parkins is rescued by Colonel Wilson who, having heard Parkins’ original story and seen the whistle, has clearly been expecting trouble.

James’s ghost stories, for all their inventiveness in terms of individual hauntings, follow familiar patterns. The ignorant or unwary meddle with the supernatural at their peril, and either meet with or narrowly dodge an unpleasant death. Alternatively, an ancient wrong must either be righted or at any rate be recognised for what it was. Often, there is also a mystery to be solved. ‘Oh, Whistle,’ falls into the first category, in that Parkins is engaging with something he simply doesn’t understand. This is made apparent in a number of ways, not the least of which is Parkins’ guileless decision to blow the whistle, presumably in a spirit of enquiry which fits with his position as a Cambridge academic, and indeed as Professor of Ontography, concerned as he is with describing the nature and essence of things. What is not clear is how this process of description might relate to matters of belief. Is it possible to describe something in which you refuse to believe?

Among Parkins’ most vehemently expressed convictions is a fervent disavowal of the existence of spirits, an irony not lost on the reader in the light of what is to come. His views stand in sharp contrast to those of the Colonel, who comments on the strength of the wind the previous night: ‘In my old home we should have said someone had been whistling for it’ and goes on to say ‘my experience is, mind you, that there’s generally something at the bottom of what these country-folk hold to, and have held to for generations.’ However, I think it is worth going back to that part of the story describing Parkins’ journey back to the hotel after finding the whistle, and that brief reference to his ‘unenlightened days’. That, his loud rejection of the supernatural and his discomfort with the Colonel’s stout Protestantism and complex views on the local vicar’s ‘Papist’ practices suggests that Parkins’ philosophy is as much of an atheistical bent as it is rationalist. His rejection of superstition, most immediately embodied in his refusal to accept the Colonel’s belief in the possibility of whistling up a wind, makes him vulnerable when dealing with the whistle.

I’d also suggest that what has been brought back into play for Parkins is the world of the imagination. When the wind first answers the summons of the whistle:

Quickly as it had risen, the wind did not fall at once. On it went, moaning and rushing past the house, at times rising to a cry so desolate that, as Parkins disinterestedly said, it might have made fanciful people feel quite uncomfortable; even the unimaginative, he thought after a quarter of an hour, might be happier without it.

There is something so studied about Parkins’ ‘disinterestedly’ saying something, when juxtaposed with the ‘fanciful’ and ‘even the unimaginative’ as to suggest that Parkins ‘unenlightened’ self is being consciously suppressed by his intellectual training, with inevitable consequences. The Colonel recognises this when he observes that the creature’s ‘one power was that of frightening’ and that it could probably have done little else. But what effect might such a fright have on the suppressed imagination? Parkins’ nerves are said to have suffered: ‘he cannot even now see a surplice hanging on a door quite unmoved, and the spectacle of a scarecrow in a field late on a winter afternoon has cost him more than one sleepless night.’ These are surely the responses of a man whose imagination suppressed for so long is now in overdrive as a result of his encounter As the narrator drily remarks, ‘the Professor’s views on certain points are less clear cut than they used to be’. The whistle can be thrown into the sea and the bed sheet that transformed itself into a figure can be burned but this in no way alters the fact of their having existed and been witnessed by Parkins. As a result his perception of the world must inevitably have altered; at what cost to his intellectual practice, we never learn.

James’s narrator described Parkins as young, neat, and precise in speech’ but also as being ‘something of an old woman – rather henlike, perhaps, in his little ways; totally destitute, alas! of the sense of humour, but at the same time dauntless and sincere in his convictions, and a man deserving of the greatest respect’, and the reader has a sense that for all his foibles, Parkins is a social creature and his colleagues and acquaintances appear to like the man. Jonathan Miller’s take on Parkins, now Parkin, is rather different. While his production substantially follows James’s original story, Miller is not interested in simply replicating the account of an unwary academic’s brush with the supernatural. Parkin is no longer an over-earnest but generally collegial figure. Instead, he has become a solitary, anxious man, staying in a hotel filled with long, silent, empty corridors; eating lonely meals in a deserted dining room, spending his days tramping along an equally deserted beach. Michael Hordern invests Parkin with the neurotic tics of a man who does not engage much with others, instead humming and muttering his way through his days, accompanied by a soundtrack of slight noises hugely amplified. He is, classically, a man who lives almost entirely in his own mind, his contacts with other people limited to stilted encounters with the hotel staff. There is one conversation, with the Colonel, about the possibility of an afterlife; yet even this the observer comes to in medias res, with no clue how it was originally initiated. Like his Jamesian predecessor, Parkin does not believe in such and rejects the Colonel’s arguments that there might be things that he, Parkin, cannot account for through logical explanations. We must assume that the need to explain is fundamental to the Professor’s life, and his inability to find an explanation for what happens to him is in its turn essential to Miller’s production. Parkin’s encounter with the sheeted figure creates a fatal undermining of his philosophy, and our final view of Parkin is of a figure who has retreated to an infantile state, sucking his thumb, repeating ‘No’, as if this can dispel the evidence of his own eyes.

The BBC’s 2010 production seems to owe more to Miller’s version than to James’s, not least in visual terms. We find the same empty hotel, the same long corridors; the broad, empty beach, the same small noises dominating the soundtrack. Here is also the same sense of isolation and of silence. In this production, however, Parkin’s experience in the hotel is mirrored by that of his wife in the care home to which he commits her at the story’s opening. In the home, which is as unhomely as you might care to imagine, there are endless doors, endless glass walls, endless rows of chairs, all of them occupied by silent, unresponsive women in identical white shifts. Is this how a distressed Parkin sees it or is it really as institutional as represented? The environment appears to be entirely stripped of warmth, and although the nurse (there is only one) appears to be sympathetic, she also seems disturbingly eager to remove Parkin from the scene, urging him to relax and take a holiday. The camera almost always observes Parkin’s interactions with his wife from a distance, through a window, through a doorway, placing the viewer in the position of a watcher, as though checking up on him, as though he cannot quite be trusted to be alone with her. (In the Nightwaves review of this production, Philip Dodd and A N Wilson kept returning to the close-ups of John Hurt’s face – which, lined and wrinkled as it is, seemed to me to stand in for the face of crumpled linen that will never appear in this version of the story – but never posed the question I felt to be most pertinent: at any given moment, through whose eyes are we watching?)

The introduction of a wife already indicates that Neil Cross’s script has moved sharply away from the original story. James Parkin is no longer a philosopher but an astronomer, although he holds equally trenchant views on the possibilities of the survival of life beyond death. In this instance, though, what most preoccupies him is not the absence of anything beyond death but the horror of absence in life. Parkin’s wife, Alice, obviously provides the focus for this concern, although the nature of her condition is not made clear; she is pale, still, always staring straight ahead, and almost entirely unresponsive to events around her. She speaks only once, to utter a few nonsensical half-sentences, and on another occasion, after Parkin has spoken to her, we see her wringing her hands as they lie in her lap. She is physically present but her body has outlasted her personality. For a man who lives by the intellect, this is clearly a devastating position to be in, but Parkin must, as he notes, reject the idea of the ghost in the machine. Matter rots, after all, but what happens when the issue is not death but disconnection?

We are given to understand that Parkin has been devoted to his wife but there is no indication of why he has suddenly relinquished her to the care home. He seems to have no family, no friends, no outside interest. Without her, he is utterly lost. What she thought of him, we can have no idea. There is the argument that an outsider can never properly understand the nature of a couple’s relationship, but the outsider can always surmise, and was observed on Nightwaves, the viewer inevitably fills in the gaps. One might suggest that Parkin’s apparent uxoriousness has somehow crushed his wife’s personality. A dream sequence which occurs after Parkin’s first overtly supernatural experience suggests that there is some unspoken tragedy in the couple’s lives. We see Parkin’s wife holding a posy, like Mary in a painting of the Annunciation, followed by her cradling an invisible something in her arms. The porcelain head of a doll explodes from within. The drama’s opening, as it focuses on the photos on the mantel-piece, does not show any family portraits. We are almost obliged to assume that Mrs Parkin has experienced at least one miscarriage and that the couple have been unable to have children. Whether Parkin blames her for this or not is not certain.

There is one curious moment when he finally leaves her at the care home. As he departs, Parkin says, ‘Call me if you need me’, not as crass as it might sound if one accepts he continues the pretence that she is alive, but he then leans close to her ear and whispers or, more accurately, quavers ‘Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad’. We might assume this refers to James’s story, in the light of what is to come, but we should also remember that James got his title from a poem by Robert Burns, in which a girl exhorts her lover to pretend that he is not interested in her if he sees her outside, and to visit her covertly, to ‘come as ye were na comin’ to me’. That Parkin seems to be singing the words suggests that this refers to Burns rather than James. What it means is another matter; is Parkin commenting on his wife’s indifference to him, or is he simply saying that he is, as always, at her disposal? Is that a threat or a promise?

I think we are supposed to assume guilt on Parkin’s part for committing his wife to the home, and to read his concern as love. Perhaps this explains his attempt to reclaim something of their life together by revisiting some of the places they went as a couple, a refusal to let go. Thus Parkin finds himself staying in an empty out-of-season hotel, with corridors and stairs that seem to go on forever; walking along a deserted beach, past huge white chalk sea stacks, their weathered organic forms foreshadowing the white figure he encounters on the beach Whatever I might feel about the storytelling in this drama, it is impossible to deny the power of some of the images.

Then Parkin finds the wedding ring buried in a grass tussock – on Nightwaves Dodd and Wilson helpfully point out that this is suggestive of relationships as though the point might be lost on the viewer. Strangely, when Parkin cuts the ring free it proves to have something engraved on the inside – Quis est iste qui venit – and it is this which provides one of the few solid connections with James’s original story. And here I cannot decide whether it is a weak attempt to acknowledge the original, a showy piece of prop-dressing or a genuine attempt to say something about the nature of relationships. In many respects, this drama’s haunting is cruder than anything that appears in either the original story or indeed Miller’s production, and some of it makes little sense. James was always most rigorous in the working out of a haunting; everything happened for a reason and would, in due course, be explained, although on occasion ‘explanation’ is left to the reader, presented with a series of facts which could be construed a certain way, the implication being that this was precisely what James required. Similarly, while Miller takes a more psychological approach to Parkin’s experience, he remains faithful to James’s storyline, although for reasons that are quite obvious he edits out one particular manifestation because it would require Parkin to interact too much with other people.

But in the 2010 version we are presented with curious scratching noises, maybe a rat in the wall (although, in fairness, one might note that the noises are similar to the much more appropriate sound of the rattling windows in Miller’s version). There is a bedside lamp which switches itself off when Parkin is asleep (and this preoccupation with the light can be clearly linked to Miller’s similar framing of Parkin in bed at night, with the light pull to one side). The viewer’s attention is also directed to a particularly unaesthetic white porcelain bust of a woman in the room which appears to alter its position of its own volition, although this is not directly commented on, and indeed seems to be an almost entirely unnecessary piece of business, except insofar as it is presumably meant to resonate with the whiteness of the figure on the beach and Mrs Parkin’s seemingly intrinsic paleness. That, on his final night in the hotel, Parkin locks the bust away in a cupboard indicates that we are supposed to invest it with significance, but what kind of significance remains unexamined.

More shockingly, and this is a genuine and memorable moment of horror that would, I think, have appealed to James himself, given how corporeal some of his hauntings were, someone comes to the door of Parkin’s room, turns the door handle and shakes the door violently, attempting to gain admittance. During this, the visitor’s feet are visible in the light streaming under the door. Afterwards, when Parkin sleeps, he experiences the dreams I mentioned earlier. Only on the following day does Parkin discover that he was in fact alone in the hotel that night, and he subsequently seems to have decided that his wife is calling him home. Yet, for his last night in the hotel he prepares his room as though for a siege, stuffing a pillow under the door to obscure the light, drawing the curtains tight and, as noted, shutting the hideous bust in a cupboard, before getting into bed.

After this, events unfold in short order. The pillow is sucked out from under the door into the corridor, another rather good moment of drama, then the fingers of a small pair of hands appear briefly, trying to work their way through the gap under the door, and the next thing we see is Parkin’s wife, spectral, still in a white shift, clawing her way up the bed, all the while telling Parkin that ‘I am still here’. A small coup de theatre perhaps, but I was reminded very strongly of the extended shot in the TV adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, where the Woman comes to Kidd as he lies ill in bed, and her face fills the screen as she looms over him for many seconds. It’s still the best and most frightening thing about an otherwise rather indifferent production. However, here, while Gemma Jones crawling up the bed is presumably supposed to play into the scurrying noises that have disturbed Parkin, it just seems somehow cheap, a feeling strengthened when those noises are finally shown to be an inept piece of foreshadowing: the movement of the now dead Parkin’s dangling arm drags his fingernails along the floor. The cause of Parkin’s death is not stated. One might, I suppose, look to others of James’s stories for clues; in ‘Lost Hearts’, Mr Abney is clawed to death by the ghostly revenants of his earlier victims, their fingernails having continued to grow in death, but I’m not sure this is really the answer, for this is not the end. The camera returns to Parkin’s wife who suddenly seems to have come to life. A tear slides down her face, she gets up from her chair and is gone. Has she caused Parkin’s death? Does this provide her with a release of some sort? We are, I think, supposed to meditate upon the nature of death-in-life, of the fate of the mind trapped in the body, unable to communicate, but I am not clear whether this drama is suggesting that the trapped mind can exact a distant revenge, confounding everything that the victim once believed in, killing him by confronting him with that which he cannot intellectually accept.

At the end, though, I still don’t quite see the point of this ‘adaptation’. Its relationship to the M.R.James story is so slight as to be inconsequential, so it’s hardly an updating, and one almost wonders why the writer and director retained such connections as they did. There is clearly a stronger link between this and Miller’s production in visual terms (which, oddly enough, Dodd and Wilson never remarked on) but it still has little to do with it in terms of story content. Wilson can mutter as much as he likes about Sebald’s Rings of Saturn and the character’s constant perambulations (this also comes from Miller’s production) and make comments about the East Anglian setting (there are no chalk cliffs in Norfolk, and indeed the outdoor filming took place in Kingsgate Bay in North Kent) but he comes nearest the truth when he commented that nothing connects. Having said that, he did also observe that it is not a ghost story. Not, perhaps, in the classical Jamesian sense but I’d argue that there is enough of the supernatural as well as the psychological about it to give the viewer pause for thought. However, at the same time, it seems to be playing into that irritating late-1970s vogue for explaining away hauntings as externalised psychological experiences, something I’m not convinced the BBC has ever quite got over when it comes to dealing with ghost stories.