Comforts of the colder kind were thin on the ground on UK television this Christmas, but if you looked carefully offerings could be found
Here’s CLARE RAMSEY’S take on three adaptations of literary chillers broadcast on British TV over the festive season
A Christmas Carol, BBC1; Martin’s Close, BBC4; Susan Hill’s Ghost Story, Channel Five
AFTER the much-criticised pre-Christmas turkey that was the BBC’s leaden and speech-preachy adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of The Worlds I can’t have been the only viewer / licence-payer with a strong sense that the corporation ‘owed us one’ for the festive season.
Its adaptation of long-time favourite ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens (think Alastair Sim, Albert Finney and, er, yes, The Muppets for three previous screen treatments) was broadcast in three one-hour long episodes on successive nights on BBC1, concluding on Christmas Eve.
Much of the opening episode was given over to dialogue between Scrooge (played by Guy Pearce) and his clerk Bob Cratchit in the appropriately gloomy chambers of the former. Notwithstanding cutaways to the purgatory of Jacob Marley, the pace seemed slow. With hindsight, this was because we were being introduced to a different, deeper and more interesting Scrooge – an apparent sufferer of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) – to whom we needed to adjust and become familiar with: a darker and more complicated character than the one-dimensional skinflint of most previous portrayals. The cruelty of this Scrooge, we were being told, was interesting. Yet that first act, including the scenes of the torment of Marley, still seemed to lag. Twenty minutes too long, perhaps – and with it the sense that this drama might be slipping into the same slow motion that befell the Beeb’s handling of Wells. (Was a drama ever more wasteful than in its handling of an actor of the ability of Robert Carlyle?)
Fortunately, episode two picked up the pace and by the third night this Scrooge was really coming good. Not just in terms of his heart and soul, but in atmosphere and visuals. By now there was real menace in the air, in place of the earlier edginess between Scrooge and Cratchit. We saw a very ugly Scrooge and Marley browbeating a businessman into selling them his mill, and, later, Scrooge walking between the hymn-singing congregants of a Welsh chapel who were in mourning after a mining disaster (precipitated by his meanness). One very fine visual showed a seemingly drowning Tiny Tim falling through both the ice of a pond and Scrooge’s ceiling. This was excellently done. Another superb visual showed looms producing not cotton goods, but money.
There was a little sermonising of the kind that nowadays seems inescapable when it comes to adaptations of classics from years past – the medium seems to have grown fond of telling (and clunkily, too, at times) rather than showing – but in a way that was much more reined-in than was the case with Wells and WoW. The sins, and they were many, of Scrooge spoke mostly for themselves.
He duly recanted. Yet there was something right (and indeed real), it seemed to this viewer at least, in the way that for all of his new-found kindness, he was not wholly forgiven, nor his deeds forgotten.
The strengths of this adaptation were the way that it made the most of its medium through some highly-striking imagery and its presentation of a character that went far beyond the usual superficialities. Cruel, cold and calculating as he certainly was, this Scrooge was, all the same, interesting company.
Sadly, no sooner had the BBC redeemed itself with Dickens, than it slipped back into negative equity with Mark Gatiss’ terribly disappointing take on M.R. James’ short story ‘Martin’s Close’, which was weak to the point of having this viewer wondering why it was even made.
The answer to that is that it’s something of a tradition for British broadcasters to screen a ‘winter tale’ at Christmas and, having written for it previously, Gatiss (left) appears to be the BBC’s writer of choice in such matters (though others, presumably, are available).
The film opened at 10 pm on BBC4 on Christmas Eve, just after ‘A Christmas Carol’ had concluded on BBC1.
To be fair, Gatiss has notable TV work to his credit. His CV includes the BBC’s cult The League of Gentlemen. Later he was co-creator and co-producer of Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, early episodes of which were highly watchable (before the show, rather regrettably, disappeared up its own sneer).
Visually and in structure, ‘Martin’s Close’ seemed to owe much to the short films made for British TV and broadcast in the 1970s of literary fiction in the supernatural line that can now be found on YouTube. These included adaptations of works by Thomas Hardy, such as ‘The Withered Arm’, and, of course, by M.R. James (left).
Possibly Gatiss’ project – he was both writer and director – was doomed from the start. ‘Martin’s Close’ is not one of James’ strongest stories.
(Continued next column)
The film’s most obvious flaw, in terms of it being a production for television was its confinement in large part to a rather small room.
In the same slot on Christmas Eve in 2018, Gatiss gave us ‘The Dead Room’ – a passable but not especially good ghost story, which was set in a radio studio. Much of ‘Martin’s Close’ took place in a judge’s court. The lack of action or striking imagery on the screen suggested that a radio adaptation, if absolutely necessary, might have been a better option.
Presiding over the case of the murder of a village woman of limited intelligence in the 17th century, Gatiss scripted a somewhat unexpectedly camp Judge Jeffreys. Elliot Levey’s performance as the notorious ‘hanging judge’ was probably the highlight of a very lacklustre affair (which at times seemed closer to a weak Carry On than a winter chiller). Perhaps that was the intent? The air of self-mockery extended to a red-trousered host, with matching wine, who ‘framed’ the story in a rather silly way. In the story itself, a peasant in an inn seemed to have strayed from the set of a 1970s sketch show.
Former ‘Dr Who’ Peter Capaldi’s part as a cadaverous attorney was notable mainly for the absurdity of his wig (left), which looked like a drey that a squirrel had abandoned.
This reviewer felt very much as if intruding on some kind of private joke.
If Wells’ WoW was a turkey of the fat and flightless kind, Gatiss (who, I repeat, has served us well in the past) gave us a large helping of ham.
We know what Mark Gatiss can do. Perhaps a new writer for next Christmas Eve, please BBC?
Meanwhile Boxing Night (December 26) on Channel Five (possibly not normally a ‘go-to’ channel for TV drama), provided a rabbit-out-of-the-hat in the form of an adaptation of Susan Hill’s story The Small Hand. This transferred to the screen as the rather tackily-titled ‘Susan’s Hill Ghost Story’ in an adaptation written by her partner Barbara Machin.
The drama told the story of an awkward ‘bromance’ between middle-aged siblings Adam and Hugo, going back to their trouble relationship’s shock origins.
The tropes were fairly familiar ones for followers of fiction about hauntings: a dealer in antiquarian books, a creepy country house, laughter in corridors, a body in the bath, a lake (with two bodies in it, eventually) and a ghostly child up to no good. In one way or another, the likes of Henry James, Kipling, Stephen King (and many others) have all been here.
We encountered the usual devices of banging doors, people pouncing from the back seats of cars and characters frightening one another inadvertently by way of some sudden disturbance. But real scares were lacking.
The sub-plot of Adam hooking-up again with his re-partnered ex-wife (or perhaps ex-girlfriend… it was less than clear) seemed almost entirely surplus to proceedings. At times the story felt crowded with less-than-necessary characters. A couple of the parts seemed superfluous – fine in a novel, but in the tighter space of a TV drama they rather got in the way.
And that anyone should want to remain in the big old house after three distressing deaths rather stretched credulity.
The commercial breaks – noticeable after their absence from the earlier broadcasts by the BBC – put a drag on the pace, but, eventually, the tension rose to good effect and a fairly strong final twenty minutes.
One passage that worked well was a sword fight near the end in which the adult Adam was set upon by the ghostly boy from his childhood.
Star Douglas Henshall didn’t have much to play with in terms of a script, but this viewer found his performance watchable. Possibly Henshall, best-known for Scotland-set detective drama Shetland, ‘saved’ the whole thing.
There was, perhaps inevitably, a final twist in the tale – the reincarnation of the child at the centre of the haunting. But the scenes before – of Henshall’s Adam stepping into the lake – were, this viewer felt, rather moving.
Over all this season, for those who were prepared to stick with him, Guy Pearce’s Scrooge won out – and by some distance.
Credit: photo of Mark Gatiss by Gage Skidmore, Wikipedia Creative Commons