BBC Four presents a new nerve jangling Ghost Story for Christmas from the minds of M.R. James and Mark Gatiss
In the 1970s, the BBC began its tradition of A Ghost Story for Christmas. Spooky tales, usually but not always adapted from the short stories of M.R. James, broadcast late at night at Christmas time. That tradition has continued, on and off, ever since. And this year’s Ghost Story for Christmas is another James adaptation, Martin’s Close. This time adapted and directed by Mark Gatiss, horror aficionado, Doctor Who writer, and co-creator of the BBC’s versions of Sherlock and Dracula. Having written his own original Ghost Story for Christmas last year, The Dead Room, and adapted James’ The Tractate Middoth in 2013, his one day adapting M.R. James again always seemed as inevitable as it is welcome. And what could be better than involving Peter Capaldi too?
And M.R. James has an obvious appeal as a source. After all, he’s a figure who casts a long shadow over Christmas. A medieval scholar at Cambridge, he started a tradition of assembling his friends at Christmas for the reading aloud of a new ghost story he had written as his present to them. The apparently paradoxical connection between Christmas and the telling of tales of horror is far older than James, of course. But it was his short stories, ultimately collected in book form, that’s set the template ever since.
John Martin (Wilf Scolding) is on trial for his life. (George Martin in the original, but then James was writing before the Beatles and Game of Thrones.) He’s a wealthy and connected young gentleman accused of the murder of one Ann Clark. A murder made all the more despicable by the fact that Ann, as the prosecutor (Peter Capaldi in a harassed looking wig) describes her, “was one to whom Providence had not given the full use of her intellects.”
When a murdered woman returns to haunt a small town, it’s the terror of the local squire that raises suspicions
The prosecution case is a sordid tale of a man teasing a woman with severe learning disabilities with false affection. But all the while mocking her behind her back to the other townspeople. And then, when she continues to cling to him after he tires of his game, of murder and a body unceremoniously dumped in a pond.
But, of course, Martin’s Close is a Ghost Story for Christmas, so that’s only the beginning. We follow Martin’s unusual behaviour in the days after Ann’s disappearance, as events unfold in flashbacks told by the witnesses and prosecutor. Although the trial itself is a flashback in a cozy fireside chat with a man who has uncovered the transcript. The contrast between Simon Williams’ avuncular, pleasantly scandalized story telling, and Peter Capaldi’s grave and lantern eyed presentation of the tale, doesn’t quite work. But neither does it detract too much from the story being told.
Martin’s changed manner and worry following Ann’s disappearance is seen as suspicious enough by the locals. But the witnesses who take to the stand also report other strange goings on. Such as the dark night, when the missing Ann apparently returns to the local inn, looking for admittance. Yet Martin dissolves into uncontrolled terror at the sound. And then, of course, she is let in…
Mark Gatiss crafts an intelligent and sensitive adaption
The original story of Martin’s Close leaves it ambiguous as to whether the haunting is real. Martin’s evidence is that the hauntings described by the witnesses simply never happened. While his shifty anxiety could simply be a regular guilty conscience. So is Martin an innocent man framed with a made up ghost story? A murderer tortured by his own guilt and the sound of the wind? Or a man whose guilt is forced out into the open for all to see by the vengeful spirit of his victim?
Gatiss smartly recreates much of the wonderful original dialogue from the story word for word. But, with equal canniness, he also makes the horror more visceral and explicit. Meanwhile, he also bashes the structure into a slightly more traditional Jamesian shape. While the short story lacks a real sense of climax, a new invention by Gatiss amends that, as the fleeting glimpses and hints lead up to a blood curdling revelation. He also uses the limited number of settings and characters to make the most out of the obviously reduced budgets since the move to BBC Four.
Martin’s Close forms perfect viewing to watch with the lights off as Christmas Eve turns to darkest Chirstmas night
Martin’s Close has never been adapted before, while some of his others have been dramatized more than once. That’s possibly because it’s one of his minor stories, which doesn’t quite fit the usual template, and is a little less gentle in its horror. Typically, a James story will feature a modern protagonist whose greed for knowledge causes him to delve too deeply into things better left alone. And a slumbering horror that he awakes to his peril. Martin’s Close does have its modern character, true, but unusually, his role is to simply uncover the mysterious past of the odd little field called Martin’s Close and relate it to us. Those looking for that sense of the past invading the present will be disappointed, then.
But it does give us a rare element for a James story. Typically his victims are either the innocently curious, or those who commit some minor sin of hubris or pride, only to suffer the full weight of supernatural vengeance. But, almost uniquely, here we’re definitely rooting for the ghost.
Mark Gatiss’ adaptation probably won’t do much to change Martin’s Close’s status as a lesser M.R. James story. And it’s similarly unlikely to be held up as one of the truly great Ghost Stories for Christmas. But it’s a perfectly formed tale of murder, terror and justice, anchored on Peter Capaldi’s performance as the grim, burning eyed laywer, and Wilf Scolding’s sweaty, vexed, accused. It’s the perfect fuel to chill your heart this Christmas Eve.
Martin’s Close is on BBC Four at 10pm on Christmas Eve