The fright before Christmas

Bradford-born Edward Petherbridge in Casting the Runes, made in 1979 in Leeds by Lawrence Gordon Clark
Bradford-born Edward Petherbridge in Casting the Runes, made in 1979 in Leeds by Lawrence Gordon Clark
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A revered figure among aficionados of creepy television, Lawrence Gordon Clark was responsible for a string of classic BBC adaptations of MR James. Tony Earnshaw meets the filmmaker as Halifax Ghost Story Festival prepares to welcome him to Yorkshire.

A wood-panelled study at Christmastime. Flames dancing atop a crackling fire. Comfortable chairs. A select gathering. At its heart, a sheaf of notes in his hands, the Cambridge don Montague Rhodes James quietly presents his latest eerie tale to a rapt audience. And outside the mullioned windows, all is silent in the still December dark…

MR James wrote and read his acclaimed ghost stories as festive entertainments to fellow staff and students at King’s College. Seventy years later, a young television producer sought to recreate the mood of those legendary storytelling sessions. Starting in 1971, the strand known as A Ghost Story for Christmas would eventually run for eight years. It came to define alternative seasonal programming on BBC1 at a time when it was dominated by Morecambe & Wise.

That filmmaker was Lawrence Gordon Clark and his films – six slices of gothic plus a modern finale between 1971 and 1977 – are rightly considered classics of the form. Next week they are being presented as part of this year’s edition of the Halifax Ghost Story Festival in the presence of their creator.

Now in its third year, the event is held within the Gormenghastian majesty of Dean Clough, the town’s mighty former mill complex. And with a focus on the supernatural come the denizens of that world: authors like Ramsey Campbell, genre specialist Professor Sir Christopher Frayling and Beyond the Fringe’s Jonathan Miller who in 1968 produced another memorable Jamesian adaptation, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, also playing during the weekend of November 17 and 18.

Clark was a documentary maker in his early 30s when he pitched an idea to Paul Fox, then Controller of BBC1 and later managing director of Yorkshire Television. It was for a low-budget adaptation of James’s The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral. Fox was intrigued – even more so by the bullish approach of the young filmmaker who urged him “to take a chance on me”. He did. And having given his blessing Fox let Clark and his tight team of cameraman John McGlashan, sound recordist Dick Manton, editor Roger Waugh and a handful of actors get on with it.

Now retired and living in Cornwall, 74-year-old Clark recalls: “I was desperate to do a drama and I’d always loved James because my Dad read them – and scared the pants off me – when I was very young. I would have directed anything really but it seemed to me that a ghost story for Christmas, as in the old magazines, seemed to be a really good idea.

“I was so anxious to get Barchester right that I wasn’t really thinking any more than making that really as good as I could. We had a tiny budget; no money for music, for example. The organist at Wells Cathedral did the Nunc Dimittis for me and also knocked off a few other things while he was doing that which went into our kind-of library. It was a casual [approach] – one wasn’t too hung up about copyright and things like that. It was a moment before it became too professionalised and ritualised. A very different world to today.”

The world Clark refers to is that of the BBC as it entered the 1970s. The other world he was entering was one of quiet cloisters, timeworn abbeys and churches, overgrown graveyards and ancient curses reawakened by interfering men – clerics, amateur archaeologists, academics – who meddled where others had the sense not to.

In almost all of his stories, MR James placed himself – albeit vicariously – at their cores. His travellers and explorers were older men, bachelors and those concerned with the ancient world of pre-medieval England. It was a milieu Clark knew well.

The Stalls of Barchester set the scene for the series to come. It was told in flashback via the investigations of Doctor Black (Clive Swift) who unearths documents in a library recording the scheming of the ambitious Archdeacon Haynes (Robert Hardy) who engineered the death of an elderly rival. Naturally Haynes does not profit from his plot and comes to a bad end courtesy of an avenging fury that clambers from the dark coulisses of time to enter the rational Victorian present.

The stories that followed, and their leading men – Peter Vaughan, Michael Bryant, Bradford-born Edward Petherbridge, Denholm Elliott and Peter Bowles, the latter featuring in the contemporary Stigma – occupied similar territory. These were masterpieces of the unexplained – dread tales of long-forgotten guardians that would emerge from the shadows with malevolent intent to punish the bold, the careless or the unwary.

The free hand given to Clark allowed him to make his ghost stories in his own fashion. Central to his vision was landscape and he would spend several days scouting locations.

“A Warning to the Curious was originally set in Aldburgh in Suffolk,” recalls Clark “but I found the tidal expanses of Holkham in Norfolk more conducive to the threat from wide open spaces that the story demands.” When he discovered the vestiges of a barrow in the pine-topped sand dunes that fringe the coastline there he knew that he’d found the ideal place to shoot his film. He adapted his script accordingly and filmed in late February and March of 1971. “It was consistently cold, clear weather with a slight winter haze which gave exactly the right depth and sense of mystery to the limitless vistas of the sands at Holkham Gap.”

Clark was as assiduous in selecting backdrops for his films. For The Treasure of Abbot Thomas in 1973 he settled on Wells Cathedral in Somerset where he had “a slight blip”.

“I went to see the Dean and he gave me a very frosty reception. I said ‘It’s a ghost story, MR James, and he said ‘We had a gentleman called Pasolini here last year and I very nearly lost my job.’ Pasolini had filmed, I think, The Canterbury Tales but he’d certainly put an orgy of unnatural sex in the cloisters. So John Bowen, the writer, had to do the script before the Dean would let us do it.

“The script is an organic, growing thing that comes out of the accidences of location filmmaking. Film is a very different medium from books and the important thing, if you can, is to let the camera create the tension. Dialogue is kind of a sophisticated sound effect and shouldn’t really tell the story.”

Clark’s films never ran to a prescribed time. Instead he crafted them to the requirements of James’s stories. His attitude is that of the aficionado. An Oxbridge graduate himself, he would have been perfectly at home in one of James’s Christmas gatherings.

“The films used to go out on Christmas Eve, quite late, after a band called The Spinners. They’re very good folk singers but, God, I hated ‘em! They went on too long and I could imagine the audience leaving. So because there was nothing on after us we could be what we wanted. And that’s great.”

He describes James as “a small room writer” and is firmly of the view that his tales work better for the small screen. “Most ghost stories – or most of the ones I know in the English canon – aren’t that long and James certainly was a master of the short story. If you’re dealing with tension and fear you expand at your peril.”

The James/Clark partnership that began on December 24, 1971, took root each Christmas with stories such as A Warning to the Curious (amateur archaeologist awakens a murderous guardian), The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (a rationalist’s view is changed by the supernatural) and The Ash Tree (a family is cursed by a witch). A Dickens adaptation, The Signalman, was produced in 1976 after which the strand took a journey into the modern world. The golden age was over. Clark moved to Yorkshire Television in 1979 and enjoyed a long tenure in Leeds. Perhaps his most famous credit was 1982’s Harry’s Game, starring Ray Lonnen as an undercover agent in Ulster and with a haunting theme song by Clannad.

But in a career that saw him making action dramas with Rob Lowe and historical adventures about Captain Cook it was the ghost stories that continued to attract him. In the mid-‘90s he produced Chiller for YTV. It was a project that took five years of campaigning before it was commissioned. Only five episodes were made. Today Clark still recalls his BBC days with warmth.

“People always talk about audiences. A Warning to the Curious got nine million after half past ten at night. There are really stupid ideas about popularism [and] dumbing down. All that Latin in Abbot Thomas gives it a resonance and adds to the atmosphere and the feel of the movie. I’m jolly lucky I never directed a cinema film because there’s enough pressure latterly to dumb down in big television films.”

So what was the secret of Clark’s success with his evocative little vignettes? Nothing like them has been produced since as evidenced by the British Film Institute’s decision to release the stories in a DVD box set. Clark smiles.

“It’s very black humour, isn’t it? James in a way is a bit like Hitchcock: he’s a bit of an old fraud. He really enjoys frightening people and I’m quite not sure if he 
believes it or not. That’s how he wants you to go.

“Hitchcock and James are quite close but quite different. Hitchcock has this thing called a McGuffin, which is an object. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as people want to kill each other for it and that’s what generates the chases and the tension in most of his films. In James the McGuffins are very frightening in themselves. They’re the whistle you blow that summons up the storm or the monster from the darkness, the parchment scroll, the rune that you pass, the awful wood.

“The crown in A Warning to the Curious defends the east coast of England from invasion. Well how many awful invasions have swept across the east coast of England? So it reverberates with history and how deep history is, I think. And that’s where he’s so potent.”

Halifax Ghost Story Festival, Dean Clough,November 17 & 18. For tickets go to