Classic Ghost Stories by M R James (1986) BFI DVD review

mrjamesbfi1Classic Ghost Stories by M R James (1986)

DVD Release Date:* 28 Oct 2013

UK distribution – BFI   – 100 minutes

Featuring: Robert Powell, Michael Bryant.

Before I begin the review of the content of the next DVD sent to me by the BFI, I have something of a confession to make about the actor appearing in it (Yes, once again I unashamedly talk about my personal past… and yes, it involves a relationship). My first true love type individual (who of course shall remain nameless) was very much into me too  – which is always a good thing in regard to relationships, otherwise the Judge tends to take a rather negative view of things…. Anyhoo,  She was also well and truly into a certain actor called Robert Powell whom it is safe to say that she doted upon – so much so that once I could swear that she uttered his name while we were, well, you know. Though I know that she cared for me deeply, if the end of the world had wiped out the rest of humanity except for the three of us she and Mr Powell would have walked off into the sunset together fast than I could have said ‘Jesus of Nazareth’

Of course I am well and truly past the raging paranoia and slight discomfort that I used to feel whenever old Bob happened to be on screen, and she-who-will-remain-nameless and I have long gone our separate ways. So I can now be completely impartial when considering any works featuring………..him.

The tradition of storytelling by one individual to an enthralled audience is probably as old as humanity itself. The ability to create an exciting and living imaginary universe out of nothing but ones own words and making people WANT to listen is something of a gift that I don’t think that I have – it takes a special person to hold and enthral an intimate audience. The ghost stories of M R James were often performed by James himself to his students at Cambridge during the Christmas holidays and by all accounts he was a gifted orator within this intimate atmosphere.

mrjamesbfi2It was television (arguably more successfully than radio) that managed to convey authentically this intimacy of James’ own readings when the much sought-after seasonal slot was given over to a his works in *Classic Ghost Stories *in Christmas 1986.

The presentation for the story is cunningly simple, featuring Robert Powell (him) as the storyteller, resplendent in a master’s robe within his college study. The storytelling is predominantly direct to camera with only the briefest of dramatisation and artwork to break up the prose. It is in this cosy setting that the ‘Professor’ tells his five terrifying tales, all clearly inspired by M R James’ legendary readings of his own works.

In *The Mezzotint *a haunted picture slowly reveals the terrors of what has gone before but only while there is no around looking at it, whilst *The Ash-Tree* tells of the execution of a witch and the dreadful curse she places on the Fell family – but beware all arachnophobics of this particular episode! *Wailing Well* involves a troop of scouts who find that curiosity can be fatal, and *Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad* concerns itself with an academic who gets more than he bargained for after he finds an enchanted whistle. Finally, in *The Rose Garden*, disturbing visions upset Mrs Ansthruthers’ gardening plans.

mrjamesbfi3To a modern day audience, the notion of an actor speaking direct to camera for approximately 15 minutes per story may sound dry and simplistic – but this would be a mistake of huge proportions. Powell is a consummate storyteller with his distinctive and soothing voice perfectly embodying a feel for the phrasing and tone of James’s Writing.
If possessing a hypnotising voice wasn’t enough, his delivery is often accompanied a subtle wry grin or noticeable glint in the eye when appropriate. I know I’m not the first person to say this, but the man can act.

Each of the stories may be just 15 minutes or so in length, but they feel much longer than that – and I mean that in a positive way. There is no convoluted introductions or padded out explanations – we are simply thrust headlong into the story, I say ‘we’, because the skill of Powell reading the stories just as James would have done in the halls of Cambridge, means that we feel he is talking to us, and only us. The nature of this type of storytelling on television when performed as skilfully as this means that we are carried along the tidal waves of each story’s building tension.

mrjamesbfi4If that wasn’t enough, the DVD also features three episodes of  the series *Spine Chiller (1980).

The series was described at the time as ‘storytelling for older children’, its origins being found as an off-shoot of the children’s programme, *Jackanory*. Spine chillers features Michael Bryant reading three more James stories (Including another version of *The Mezzotint*) for our delectation.

Once again the power of the episodes rely heavily on the the ability of the actor to tell a story  – perhaps more so in this series as the use of any dramatisation or illustration has been completely stripped away. However like Robert Powell, Bryant’s delivery is note and pitch perfect perfectly conveying the complexities of emotion an tension for each of the stories.

There have been numerous adaptations of M R James’s ghost stories but both series here perfectly show that even in this 21st century multi-digital world, there is a place straightforward and intimate storytelling. Watching this DVD, essentially experiencing someone talk through the camera to me, has been one of the most enjoyable horror experiences I’ve had for some time.


*DVD information and Special Features*

   – The video master information for the *Classic Ghost Stories* were
   made available by the BBC to the BFI and are presented in their 1.33:1
   aspect ratio, in accordance with their original broadcast.
   – The episodes from the *Spine Chillers* were transferred from the
   original 16mm archive element by BBC studios and post production. Standard
   Definition video masters were made available to the BFI by the BBC. All
   episodes are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
   – Spine Chillers: *The Mezzotint*, *A School Story* and *The Diary of Mr
   Poynter* (1980, 36 min in total): acclaimed actor Michael Bryant reads
   three of M R James’ stories adapted for the BBC’s Spine Chillers series –
   produced by Classic Ghost Stories producer Anglea Beeching and the team
   behind the BBC children’s series Jackanory.
   – Fully illustrated booklet with a newly commissioned essay by BFI TV
   Curator Lisa Kerrigan.

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Stuart Anderson

About Stuart Anderson

I can trace my love of horror back to my first experiences of the genre when I was about 9 years old and allowed to say up and watch one of the Universal classics (The son of Frankenstein). Since then I've had an obsession not only with the classic Universal horror, but also Hammer horror and a variety of sub-genres such as slasher and zombie films etc. The current independent horror and sci-fi movie scene is fascinating - so much so I decided 6 months ago to write my own blog (The Fifth Dimension) which full of lovely reviews and interviews. The links to the fb page & blog is

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