STORIES - THE SIGNALMAN / STIGMA / THE ICE HOUSE
fourth volume of the BBC Ghost Stories that the
BFI have been diligently releasing sees the final three episodes
from the original, decade-long run, and also takes us away from
the world of MR James, with a Charles Dickens tale and two original,
modern day dramas.
1976’s The Signalman, faithfully adapted
by Andrew Davies from the Dickens story, is probably the best
of the whole series. Effectively a two-hander between Denholm
Elliott and Bernard Lloyd, it drips with atmosphere and unease,
as an unnamed traveller (Lloyd) comes across a signalman on a
remote country railway line and listens to the man’s stories
of a ghostly figure that appears at the side of the tunnel to
warn of disaster. Naturally sceptical, the traveller is nevertheless
drawn into the nervous signalman’s tales as he reveals that
the spectre has recently been appearing again, meaning that death
and tragedy is just around the corner.
Elliott dominates the story with a performance that is all nerves,
paranoia and barely contained terror, while Lloyd is solid too
as the sympathetic ear who finally realises the truth of what
he’s been told. With dialogue often lifted wholesale from
the original story, the characters have an otherworldly formality
about them, adding to the odd atmosphere. But it is the structure
of the story that makes it so effective. There’s a slow,
creeping build up of terror, from the silent opening titles (the
words ‘A Ghost Story’) appearing on screen as a stark
introduction) to the subtle, almost imperceptible music mirroring
the vibrating sound of the bell that signals the arrival of the
spectre – a spectre who is first seen as a barely visible
character in black before we see a close-up of a genuinely horrifying
face. Unlike the vengeful ghosts of James, the spectre here is
more of a warning – a warning of a fate that cannot be escaped.
series took a major change of direction in 1977, with the first
story that was both contemporary and an original work. Both Stigma
and the following year’s The Ice House
have tended to be dismissed by critics as a result, which is a
pity, because had either been part of any other horror anthology
series – Out of the Unknown, Dead
of Night – they’d probably have a much better
reputation (although it would also be more likely that the BBC
would have wiped them to record a snooker match, so let's count
Stigma, written by Clive Exton and the final
Ghost Story to be directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, is in fact
very much within a supernatural tradition that was especially
popular in the 1970s, where tales of pagan, druidic curses and
strange events involving ancient stones where surprisingly popular
on TV in shows ranging from Children of the Stones,
The Stone Tape, Quatermass and
Dr Who. In this story, a family who have recently
moved into a country cottage and are renovating it come to regret
trying to move a large stone from the middle of their garden.
Katherine (Kate Binchy) suddenly finds herself bleeding extensively,
even though she has no wounds, the blood loss getting worse as
efforts to move the heavy stone increase.
This is a slight story, but nevertheless an effective one. As
the curse settles on Katherine, the story takes on a surprisingly
visceral level of flesh and blood – Binchy spends a fair
amount of the story semi-naked and covered in blood as she tries
to find where her injury is to no avail, and the story moves steadily
towards an inevitably dark ending. There’s a strong atmosphere
of horror in this story, hitting us as it does with some of our
deepest fears about the safety and frailty of our own bodies.
There are no ghostly characters here – just the continual
blood curse, which removes it firmly from the tradition of the
series to date, but certainly doesn’t make it an inferior
get decidedly stranger in 1977’s The Ice
House, the final instalment until the 2005 revival. Written
by john Bowen, this is again a modern day story, though the events
take place in a remote country health spa that could exist in
almost any time. This is a very strange, rather unsettling story
in which Paul (John Stride), a resident at the spa, is drawn into
the bizarre world of sibling owners Jessica (Elizabeth Romilly)
and Clovis (Geoffrey Burridge) who, despite having several clients,
lavish all their attention on him.
The Ice House lives in a world of hyper reality.
The acting is mannered, every line of dialogue carefully constructed
and slightly off-centre, so that you find yourself continually
aware that whatever is happening here, it’s not ‘normal’.
There is a sense of eroticism (including a creepy moment of incestuous
passion) that pervades the story, with strange, sexual flowers
that give off a hypnotic, overwhelming scent and the hints of
seduction from both brother and sister, and moments of horror…
but had this not been a part of this series, you might not even
realise that it is a ghost story. And you’ll be
left questioning who the ghosts actually are.
In the end, this is a very daring piece of television –
you can’t imagine anything like this being made for British
TV today. It’s too strange to really work within the context
of the series, but as a single piece is a remarkable and admirable
While the first three volumes of this collection form a distinct
set, this is very much a stand-alone edition. Nevertheless, it
is just as essential and might be the most interesting of the
lot, containing the best story in the whole series and the two
neglected final stories (neither have been on DVD before and were
notably absent from the BBC4 rerun of the series a few years ago).
Fans of vintage TV supernatural drama – and, indeed, admirers
of innovate and original filmmaking – will find much to
satisfy them in this volume.
As with the third volume, the only extras here are introductions
from Clark to the first two stories.
IT NOW (UK)