One of the things I’ve been doing recently is seeking out old ghost stories. Many years ago, the BBC would dramatise a ghost story every Christmas. I caught one recently on BBC 4 and it grabbed my interest. You see, I’ve always had a soft spot for old school spooky stories. Because when you’ve got no money and there are certain restrictions on what you can and can’t show, then you have to be clever. You have to be smart about how you do it. And if there’s one thing that these old stories do well, it’s creating an atmosphere.
These stories were released in a short lived BFI Archive Television strand in 2002 and of course they’re now out of print and very expensive to buy. But if you can track them down, they’re definitely on torrent sites, they’re worth a gander. Here are the ones that are, were, available, plus a more modern tale which is very much in the same tradition and caused quite a stir when it went out.
Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968 Michael Horden, Ambrose Coghill, George Woodridge. Dir: Jonathan Miller.
Who says dangling white sheets can’t be scary? One of many M.R.James adaptations by the BBC, this one is filmed in moody black and white and features Michael Horden playing a pompous, blundering professor who discover a whistle in a cemetery with the inscription ‘Who is this who is coming?’. He blows the whistle and thinks little over it, until he begins to experience frightening dreams.
Although the story is not as involving as other on the list, this is by far the most memorably sinister. It’s quite startling what can be created with editing and sound. Just watch this sequence; amongst the greatest moments in British horror.
A Warning to the Curious (1972) Peter Vaughan, Clive Swift, John Kearney, David Cargill. Dir: Lawrence Gordon Clark.
In another M.R.James adaptation, an amateur archaeologist finds a legendary Saxon crown, but its last guardian is still determined to see that it stays buried. While not as spooky as the above, Lawrence Gordon Clark takes note of Jonathan Miller’s use of sound to build up the feeling of dread. While not as moody, due to its colour, jagged angles and extreme close-ups keeps the viewer on edge. The chase scene, linked to below, is justly famous; the sight of the jagged black killer galloping unstoppably across the landscape is just to sinister for comfort.
The Stone Tape (1972) Michael Bryant, Jane Asher, Michael Bates, Iain Cuthbertson. Dir: Peter Sasdy.
This one’s a full on 90 minute drama; it’s smart, but probably less frightening today than the others on this list. A group of scientists move into an old mansion, determined to work out a new recording medium to combat the Japanese. When the proposed computer room begins to show repeating ghostly phenomena, they think maybe their new medium lies within the stone walls.
It’s a great modern horror tale by Quatermass author Nigel Kneale, and if it’s not as scary as it was it keeps you interested through its running time, with Michael Bryant’s performance as an egotistical bastard a particular highlight. And once again, the use of sound is really quite terrific; I particularly like the muddy noises.
The Signal Man (1976) Denholm Elliot, Bernard Lloyd. Dir: Lawrence Gordon Clark
Denolm Elliot is a troubled signal man, who is visited by a ghostly presence whenever an accident is about to happen on his part of the line. Dickens wrote this terrific yarn after being involved in a horrific accident himself. Just watch the train approach Elliot like a bullet passing through the barrel of a gun. Just terrific.
Ghostwatch (1992) Micheal Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Craig Charles. Dir: Lesley Manning
For those of you who don’t remember, Ghostwatch was a drama about a TV show doing a live broadcast from a haunted house. It’s just that people didn’t realise it was a drama, and actually thought it was real. Why? Well because it was presented by real presenters playing themselves and it looked and sounded like the kind of cheapo live TV even that they actually did at the time.
It still has that touch of authenticity that keeps you on edge, like a mysterious lost TV clip that shows up on Youtube, although some of the performances aren’t as convincing as they might be. Still, even though it has a credulity stretching third act build-up to the end, the believability of its set up, the mindless filler, the dull studio set, and the fleeting image of the monster... it keeps you unsettled because it’s sort of believable. Just watch Parky getting possessed...
Of course, things were much more cosy on kids’ favourite, Doctor Who...