Since the end of the 1960s, the BBC has made sporadic forays into the supernatural world of M R James, most notably in the Ghost Story for Christmas series that ran through the Seventies and has subsequently been revived for various one-off adaptations (the latest – and by far the worst – coming a few years ago courtesy of Mark Gatiss). Less well known – and much more unlikely to be revived, given the attitudes of both producers and programmers these days – are the various spoken word renditions of James’ stories. The last such series, fronted by Christopher Lee, was shown in 2000 and featured four stories – you can find episodes of this scattered across the BFI’s Ghost Stories for Christmas DVD collection. This release effectively completes that collection – the Gatiss films excepted – and in fact makes up the final disc of the expanded box set edition. If you haven’t already bought the Ghost Stories for Christmas series, that box set is a must-have; if you already own them, this new release is an impressive supplement.
The bulk of the disc features a 1986 series featuring Robert Powell reading James’ stories. There’s no series title – each episode is simply named according to the story being read. The format sees Powell as the narrator in a cosy study, giving a dramatic reading of the short story in question, each enhanced by atmospheric music and brief dramatisations. These are probably most effective in The Mezzotint, where the picture of the title is shown as it mysteriously alters over a couple of days to show the story of ghostly child abduction.
The other stories included are The Ash Tree, Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad (both already adapted for the Ghost Stories for Christmas series), The Wailing Well and The Rose Garden. The first three are potent, creepy ghost stories that even now have the power to unsettle, while the latter two are somewhat less effective. But regardless of the strength of the story, Powell does a fine job of bringing a sense of drama and horror to his readings.
The dramatic inserts are, thankfully, limited and don’t upset the balance of the story – there’s no dialogue to interrupt the flow of the story, for instance, and no important points are left to the visuals. In fact, depending on how you choose to consume these stories, you can easily ignore them entirely – these readings work just as well as audio books, should you choose to disregard the visuals.
Also included in this collection are the three M R James stories from 1980 series Spine Chillers. This was, at the time, sold as a spooky version of the long running children’s storytelling show Jackanory, aimed at older kids and broadcast at 6pm. These 11 minute versions of James’ stories are rather more abridged than the Classic Ghost Stories versions, for both running time and family friendly reasons – gone are some of the more grisly descriptions as well as discussions of smoking, drinking and licentiousness. These edits don’t really harm the stories if you are unfamiliar with them. Read by Michael Bryant, in a setting that is a rather more basic and less gothic version of the study that Powell narrated from, these tales come without illustration, unlike Jackanory, which was filled with pictures – presumably it was thought that actually showing the horrors under discussion would be a step too far for a children’s TV show. Even so, The Mazzotint, A School Study and The Diary of Mr Poynter remain effectively creepy stories, even when edited.
This collection doesn’t quite complete the BBC ghost story collection from the BFI – there are still 16 more Spine Chillers episodes and one missing Christopher Lee story. Perhaps we will see them in a future release. But this disc does make an excellent addition to the previously released Ghost Story for Christmas series as well as an entertaining stand-alone piece. If you want a way to introduce youngsters to classic supernatural literature, this is a great entry point, and if you enjoy a good ghost story, well told, you will find much to enjoy here.