Tuesday, 5 February 2008

A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS

In 1971, the BBC had begun screening 'A Ghost Story For Christmas', with M.R. James' THE STALLS OF BARCHESTER CATHEDRAL setting the ball rolling nicely. Directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, BARCHESTER made for a pleasing start to a series that would run for 8 years, and contained adaptations of other James classics including LOST HEARTS and THE ASH TREE. In 1972, Clarke returned with his take on A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS, which proved to be a more satisfying production than his earlier effort. Here, Peter Vaughan takes the role of Paxton; an antiquarian who arrives at a small Norfolk coastal town with one clear aim in mind. His mission concerns an ancient Norfolk legend which tells of the three royal crowns of Anglia which were buried in three different locations.. The story goes that so long as at least one of the crowns remains buried, no foreign army would ever invade. Now, only one crown remains and Paxton aims to discover it's whereabouts and retrieve it, hoping to at last make a name for himself in the world of archaelogical discoveries.
Befriended by doctor staying at the same hotel (played by Clive Swift), Paxton embarks on a perilous expedition, while ghosts from the past haunt his every step.

While Vaughan and Swift both turn in sympathetic performances, the real stars of this production are the photography and the air of unease created by Clark. The beautiful north Norfolk locale would otherwise provide an idyllic setting, but here, the normally serene beachs are transformed into a washed-out, eerie landscape where you can fully believe it possible for the dead to walk. Clark's direction is wonderfully ecnonomical and imaginitive here, punctuating a fear-filled 50 minutes with interior and exterior scenes of menace as ghostly figures appear and reappear with disconcerting regularity, while Paxton glances fearfully over his shoulder wondering whether this journey of discovery may turn out to be his last.

The Region 2 DVD, available on the splendid BFI label, was a most welcome addition to store shelves, though I'm sure that many punters would have appreciated a double-bill with the inclusion of another tale from this BBC series. The DVD also includes a 43 minute reading of James' story by Michael Hordern, who delivers a beautiful rendering of this classic tale. I've always believed that the stories of M.R. James work best in printed form, but these BBC ghost stories demonstrate that it was eminently possible to create spooky TV adaptations that would hit the spot for an audience used to looking long and hard for good old fashioned ghostly tales.

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