Mark Gatiss brings us a new Ghost Story for Christmas on BBC Four. So settle in for a Christmas Eve night darker than you know
The tradition of ghost stories like The Dead Room at Christmas is based on a fundamental truth. Writer Mark Gatiss understands that there’s an essential darkness at the heart of Christmas. Or rather Christmas sits at the heart of the darkness. It’s well known that the timing of Christmas has little to do with any real date, estimated or otherwise, of the birth of Jesus. It’s even common knowledge that it basically moved in and squatted in the territory previously held by pagan festivals. Effectively as a sales pitch that you can convert to Christianity and still keep your midwinter party.
But why that celebration in the deepest part of Winter in the first place? Because humans are afraid of the dark. Afraid of the cold. Afraid of the proximity of death that both can bring. Christmas and fear go together hand in hand down the centuries because one is a distraction from the other. But no matter how many mince pies you eat, the dark is always just outside; just beyond the twinkling lights around your window.
When Dickens basically single-handedly created the modern Christmas he did it with a ghost story. And famed academic and writer MR James crafted his ghost stories to be read aloud to gathered friends at Christmas. Because he knew the truth that the Doctor himself once expressed – that fear makes companions of us all. Nothing can unite a room huddled together in the dark like the thrill of horror – not even the shared groan of a truly terrible Christmas cracker joke.
This new Ghost Story for Christmas may have built its squalid studio on the bones of MR James’ cathedrals and universities, but it’s far more than a pastiche
One of MR James most observant modern day devotees, Mark Gatiss works this understanding into his latest work. And The Dead Room works its creeping magic with the precision of a clockwork guillotine. It draws its tension slowly, up, up, up, before the climactic final slice of terror.
But, despite the direct mentions of James within the piece, or even the use of the A Ghost Story for Christmas pre-title, it would be too pat and easy to think of The Dead Room as just an MR James pastiche or homage. “Everything has to be built on something,” as Simon Callow’s old actor Aubrey Judd says here. Gatiss may have built his squalid little studio on the bones of MR James’ old gothic cathedrals. But he’s constructed entire wings of his own on to the sides.
The Dead Room is set, save one brief moment on the street outside, in the claustrophobic confines of BBC Madia Vale Studios. The studio is built on the ruins of a priory and rumoured to be haunted as a result. Though Aubrey gives that pooh-poohing that everywhere would have ghosts if that was all it took. And in the 1970s it was home to anthology horror radio show The Dead Room. Despite moving to a different studio long ago, The Dead Room and its star, Aubrey, have now been dragged back to the old stomping ground temporarily. But either the once familiar surroundings are stirring up unpleasant for Aubrey memories… Or else something has been waiting for his return for forty years…
Simon Callow is the perfect casting for our haunted lead
Aubrey is an actor of varying degrees of success. He’s held the steady gig of giving voice to tales of terror and the supernatural on The Dead Room for decades. “Causing mild disquiet since 1976,” as he himself describes it. Yet his next on screen role will be as “Dementia Man 2” (not a sequel; another actor is Dementia Man 1). Yet, in keeping with the story’s themes, his success is “built on something” too. And it’s the story’s grandest, most subtle joke, as pitch black as usually only real life makes them. Was it really as foundation for this modest career that the terrible sin of his past was committed?
As Aubrey, Simon Callow (Charles Dickens in The Unquiet Dead) is just as perfect as you’d imagine him to be. The part fits him like a glove (though it’s fair to say Callow’s enjoyed success several orders of magnitude past Judd’s). Aubrey is in some ways a monster – fussy, difficult, conceited. But he dances around the edge of cliche and never seems less than a genuine human being. He’s someone doing his level best to maintain his personal standards and dignity in the face of modern life and work.
The Sarah Jane Adventures’ Anjli Mohindra continues an adult career of playing characters that wield both sweetness and steel
Anjli Mohindra (formerly Rani in The Sarah Jane Adventures) walks a similar line with equal skill. She plays Tara, the young new producer that the old thespian is forced to get used to. And Tara could have fallen into one of two stereotypes as well. But Mohindra plays both sides against the middle, and Tara has youthful eagerness combined with toughness. When Aubrey makes jabs at her she jabs back like a rounded, believable professional. Appropriately, in these bouts about the nature of the modern world and the classic ghost story, Aubrey makes great figurative sweeps of a rhetorical broadsword, while Tara sneaks under his guard to draw blood with a verbal Stanley knife. Wonderfully, at times Aubrey seems unsure if her wounding words were deliberate or not. And Mohindra’s well judged performance lets us wonder too.
At the other end of the camera, it’s a scalpel Gatiss uses wiith the skill and precision of a surgeon. Though perhaps one not using anesthetic. Over the half hour he slices away the layers of his fiction and Aubrey’s. The Dead Room is even confident enough to present a false resolution that would have passed muster as a proper ending to a more forgiving tale.
Troubled by events, Aubrey confides to the sympathetic Tara that he’s still racked by guilt and an old shame. For in 1976 he fell in love with the twenty year old Paul, but when Paul died in a tragic swimming accident, to protect his reputation he pretended to hardly know him. Because 1976 was a world where the homosexual age of consent was still 21, and so he denied the love of his life even in death. This would be a cleansing and exorcising confession in some stories. But in this case the truth beneath is darker still.
The Dead Room provides a masterclass is the ghost story, both as lecture and practical demonstration
This setting and preoccupation is what makes The Dead Room distinct from its inspirations. Every moment of Aubrey’s time in the studio seems drawn from Mark Gatiss’ own experience of hundreds of hours in such studios. Aubrey disdains modern slice-and-dice horror in favour of the old school. And his detailed formula for a truly great ghost story is surely Gatiss’ own. But it carries a self-awareness of how old fashioned he must sound.
But there’s nothing remotely self indulgent about The Dead Room. You’ll rarely spend 28 minutes of your time in the company of a story in which not a line, or a gesture, or the framing of a shot is wasted. When Aubrey sets forth his recipe for the truly great short horror story it (the supernatural elements need to establish and then follow their own rules, it should be set within living memory but not too recently, it should practice ambiguity and restraint until the final bloody climax) it’s not just a polemic but establishing the rules by which the audience expects The Dead Room itself to play. One of the later moments of ‘mild disquiet’ comes not from anything happening in the moment itself, but our memory of Aubrey’s rules.
Every line, every shot, and every noise on the sparse soundscape builds atmosphere and dread
The early refrains of the punctuation of audio recording (“Here comes the green light”,”Where do you want go back to?”, “Is ‘redly’ a word? We’ll get letters,”) not only reflect the sometimes banal workplace behind the voices “like dark chocolate with just a hint of poison” such programs offer the viewer. They also establish the baseline of normality from which events can steadily slip away. And Aubrey’s rule about ambiguity and restraint has its pay off later when the visitations have apparently ended and Aubrey declares with relief that it his hallucinations were ‘just memories, not ghosts.’ Because that’s when we know that ambiguity is off the table. And something truly horrible must be shortly to come.
Even the story within a story, Aubrey’s latest reading Ready Player Death, is carefully made vital. We open in close up on Aubrey’s mouth as he describes the ‘gory maw’ of the story’s monster. We close on the gory maw of the very real ghost come to claim the reader. The struggles of Ready Player Death’s protagonist become reenacted in real life. And its theme of a gamer who deluded himself that his skills have equipped him to tackle the undead mirror Aubrey’s belief that decades of reading supernatural fiction have taught him the rules by which the game is played.
In one of his rare outings as a director, Gatiss is no less precise with his visuals. That early opening shot is followed by a masterful re-framing of the environment. The studio, dark and sinister and cramped, revealed instead as a large room of rising damp, florescent strip lighting and cheap office furniture. While the visions that torment Aubrey capture the disorientation and vividness of a neurological event, helping keep that vital ambiguity and restraint going a little longer despite their explicitness.
The Dead Room is a small, but perfectly cut gem of a modern ghost story
For years now Mark Gatiss has proven that he generate homages to the genres he adores with panache. But The Dead Room is not that. It’s not just an MR James style horror story, but a story about the process of loving MR James style horror story. And about the horrors of the real world – whether that be the intruding banality of Twitter or the hateful laws that made love a terrible scandal to conceal at any cost.
It is, like all the best ghost stories for Christmas, a small but perfectly cut gem.