Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The Christmas Ghost Stories of Lawrence Gordon Clark

The Christmas Ghost Stories of Lawrence Gordon Clark is the first in the Spectral Press’ projected Spectral Screen series, and they’ve set out in fine style with a collection centring around the adaptations of M.R.James’ classic ghost stories which Lawrence Gordon Clark made for television in the 1970s. It’s the perfect time for such a volume to be published, given the recent BFI release of a box set containing all of the Ghost Stories for Christmas, hauled out from the cobwebbed vaults of the BBC at last. An introduction from Mark Gatiss provides a stamp of approval. It's a weighty mark of admiration from one who has become the semi-official curator and historian of horror and the fantastic on the BBC, and who has continued Clark’s legacy with his own James adaptation, The Tractate Middoth, in addition to producing a sensitive and insightful documentary on James’ life, work and influence. The original M.R.James stories which were the basis of the films are presented here in the order of their adaptation, and are accompanied by small but richly atmospheric black and white illustrations drawn by Nick Gucker. In addition to the five made for the BBC between 1971-5 (The Stalls of Barchester, A Warning to the Curious, Lost Hearts, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas and The Ash Tree), there is also the one that got away (Count Magnus, scripted but never produced), and the story which Clark directed and produced for ITV Playhouse in 1979, Casting the Runes.

All are introduced with comments from Lawrence Gordon Clark himself. He goes into further detail about his James films in an appendix of generous length, compiled from two interviews conducted by the book’s editor Tony Earnshaw at the Halifax Ghost Story Festival in 2010 and 2012. Earnshaw, in his foreword, expresses his admiration for Clark’s work and accounts him a friend. Clark’s commentaries and transcribed observations arise from this ground of friendship, which allows for the confidence of ease and intimacy. He is clearly aware that he is in amicable company which is fully appreciative of his achievements, and that this is his opportunity to expound in some detail upon his work; to provide a definitive artistic statement, in essence, which is what this book offers.

His introductory comments to the stories make his love of and insight into James’s fiction evident, and he is sensitive to the requirements of translating the chill sense of dread conveyed by the precisely controlled language into an analogous visual style. It was Clark who first brought the idea of producing a dramatisation of a James story to the BBC departmental head Paul Fox, suggesting The Stalls of Barchester as a perfect choice for adaptation. He made the connection between James’ festive narration of his shudder-inducing stories to his pupils around the warm fireplace in his study and the idea of a late night BBC ghost story for Christmas. The gathering around the fire metamorphosed into the settling down in front of the glowing screen. But the sense of fear and dread anticipation made pleasurable by the warm, homely surroundings remained the same.

Clark is a great admirer of James as a writer, at one point declaring that ‘he was a genius’. His knowledge of his oeuvre make this as much a work of literary criticism on his part as it is an explanation of his own methods and intentions as a film-maker. He rightly identifies James as a ‘small room’ writer, who builds up a rational and classically ordered narrative surface, often involving books or the written word in some form or another, which he then subtly and systematically undermines. There’s generally a climactic moment in the story when he uses a telling phrase to create what Clark calls the ‘Jamesian effect’; the sudden opening of an abyss within which the nature of his malevolent revenants and pitiless guardians comes into momentarily sharp and horrific focus. In The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, the damp, leather bag which the unwise treasure seeker tries to pull out of an excavated hole in the abbey wall ‘slipped forward onto my chest, and put its arms around my neck’. In A Warning to the Curious, the narrator and his companion chase after another treasure-seeker whose excavations unearth a terrible nemesis. He is in turn relentlessly pursued along the Suffolk shore by a dimly perceived figure. The two concerned acquaintances of this doomed amateur archaeologist come across two sets of footprints in the sand, the latter ‘the track of a bare foot, and one that showed more bones than flesh’. In The Stalls of Barchester, the nature of the spirit which will haunt the guilty protagonist in the dark recesses of the cathedral and in the shadowy corridors of his own home is revealed in the description of the cowled figure (cowled figure being a recurrent feature of James stories) carved in the wood of the stalls: ‘the sunken features and, horrid to relate, the rent flesh upon the cheek bones’.

The cowled figure - The Treasure of Abbot Thomas
Clark translates these Jamesian effects into instants of visual terror, moments of awful insight. The cowled, bony-clawed figure on the stairs in The Stalls of Barchester, the the pale, bloodless face glimpsed in free-rolling torchlight in A Warning to the Curious, the abrupt, purposeful approach of a monkishly robed towards the helpless protagonist in The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, the gaunt and pallid, long-nailed children raking the windowpane with their long-fingernails in Lost Hearts, and the scuttling balls of darkness plopping onto the bedroom floor in The Ash Tree (these latter grotesque emanations from James’ arachnophobic nightmares).

The Val Lewton night walk - Isle of the Dead
Clark reveals how important it was for him to tell the stories visually, with a minimum of dialogue. The Stalls of Barchester benefited from its retrospectively revealed narrative, allowing for expository readings which echoed James’ telling of the tale from the protagonist’s progressively desperate diaristic viewpoint. A Warning to the Curious was envisaged in terms of a silent film, the silences of the wide-open landscape creating their own portentous sense of inherent, threatening presence. Clark cites Hitchcock as a primary influence in this respect, and like Hitch, he produced his own storyboards so that he the sequences to be shot each day were ready-mapped out in his head. As Tony Earnshaw points out in his introduction, these are genuinely cinematic films rather than TV plays. Earnshaw’s comparison to the films produced by Val Lewton in the 1940s points to the heady blend of highly literate writing and exquisite visual style (readily evident in the silent ‘night-walk’ sequences which were a feature of Lewton pictures). Jacques Tourneur, who directed Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie and The Leopard Man, the first three of the classic Lewton horror films, went on to make the only feature length adaptation of a M.R.James story, The Night of the Demon (1957), which freely drew on the story Casting the Runes.

Threat in open spaces - Casting the Runes
Clark expresses his admiration for that film, although he feels that it includes a certain amount of padding to puff it out to feature length. He made his own version, set in the modern day, for ITV Playhouse in 1979. He confesses in the Earnshaw interview to being ‘rather ashamed of it’. But he really has no need to. There are some fine scenes, even if others, in which he experiments with video techniques, struggles with unsympathetic studio set ups, and is saddled with an over-literal and unconvincing variant on James’ revolting arachnoid beasts (whose inadequacies are cruelly exposed under the bright lighting) are less successful. The hexed film, in which a message of impending death is inserted without any evidence of splicing, anticipates the cursed videotape of Ring; the same idea a technological step ahead. The most effective scenes take place in a wintry, snow-dusted farm field, framed by the dark stone arch of the railway bridge which acts as an ominous gateway to its open space (which at the same time has the feeling of being enclosed and imprisoning). A silhouetted, statuesque figure in the middle of the field strikes a predatory pose, like a poised cathedral gargoyle. In the blinking of an eye, it is instantly present at the mouth of the bridge’s tunnel. It’s a terrifying moment (ably enhanced by disconcerting electronic sound), and strongly brings to mind the weeping angels from Dr Who. It’s an example of what Clark refers to as ‘threat from wide open spaces’; from the nemesis which is dimly visible in the far or middle distance, but which is nevertheless inescapable, no matter how far or fast you run. This is certainly true of the unfortunate Paxton in A Warning to the Curious, who runs with all the swiftness that fear affords across the flat expanses of the Sussex shore in an attempt to evade his relentless revenant pursuer, who never seems to slow or tire.

Clark was particularly adept at finding atmospheric locations which were the perfect analogue for the settings of James’ stories. He would search for them himself, viewing them as fundamental to the substance of the film. Those in A Warning to the Curious were a particularly inspired choice on his part. Holkham on the Norfolk coast proved a wonderful stand-in for James’ Aldeburgh setting. The discovery of the remains of an old barrow disguised by a stand of pines rising at the far point of the shoreline’s curve was an example of the kind of serendipity which location filming allowed for. The autumn mists and fogs in Lost Hearts, which are so beautifully shot, are a great example of working with the prevailing conditions. Tight schedules meant that there was no question of waiting around for the weather to clear. With an eye open to the possibilities of the moment, however, unplanned but magical shots such as these could be incorporated. Clark welcomed such possibilities, and moulded the details of the story around them. That’s why his films are imbued with such a powerful sense of place.

He was also open to the mercurial moods of the English weather. Each film is in a sense a seasonal tone poem. A Warning to the Curious and Casting the Runes are both wintry, whereas Lost Hearts is autumnal and The Ash Tree summery and fecund (hideously so in the end). Clark also captures the contrasts between the daylit world and the hours of darkness, building a sense of impending dread as the evening shadows lengthen. There are some lovely shots of the bulbous, orange winter sun as it nears the horizon in A Warning to the Curious and Lost Hearts. But he also frames James’ terrors in broad daylight, when they become all the more palpably real, no longer half-glimpsed extensions of the deeper shadows.

Cornish seascapes - The Ash Tree
The Ash Tree was filmed in Cornwall, partly outside Clark’s own home at Bokelly, which happened to have an overgrown ash tree in its gardens; and partly at the Elizabethan house at Prideaux Place near Padstow. There are some lovely scenes of Edward Petherbridge’s character Sir Richard riding along the clifftops, the sea shimmering below. The stark, granite tors of Bodmin Moor are also used to great effect, providing an externalised landscape which perfectly embodies the acts of pitiless human barbarity, disguised beneath a cloak of moral authority, which culminate on its slopes.

Psychological landscapes - the Cornish moors in The Ash Tree
My own slight point of disagreement with Lawrence Gordon Clark’s view of his own work concerns his difficulties with the direction of David Rudkin’s script for The Ash Tree. He felt that Rudkin was too forgiving of Mrs Mothersole, the vengeful witch in the story, whose curse spans generations. James’ ghosts and demons, he felt, were ‘actively evil’, and should evoke nothing but terror and revulsion. The child revenants in Lost Hearts are an exception, their revenge rightful and redemptive. Rudkin’s interpretation of James’ tale of witchcraft focuses on the way in which the spirit is warped and twisted, malevolent impulses forming through subjection to the violent and perverse judgements of ruling powers which have their own dark and hidden motivations. Rudkin and Clark are certainly approaching James from differing perspectives. Clark is the classicist, who wants to bring him to the screen in a pure visual translation of the prose. Rudkin looks beneath the surface, trying to uncover what creates the spirit of evil, and what subconscious feelings James might be exploring. His adaptation of The Ash Tree dovetails with the concerns of his plays and TV dramas, making this a notable example of a balanced collaboration between writer and director.

Clark was in some ways a classic auteur when it came to the Christmas ghost stories. He certainly sees the director as the principal creative force in the making of a film. This might be in close partnership with the writer, but he doesn’t see the script as sacrosanct. The director must be able to adapt to circumstances (including those thrown up by the fortunes and hazards of location shooting) as the filming progresses, he feels, and this may very well involve altering the script extensively. For the first two films (The Stalls of Barchester and A Warning to the Curious), he was director, producer and writer, left to his own devices to prove his worth. He was, to an extent, a victim of his success. The great popularity of A Warning to the Curious ensured that the Christmas ghost stories would be continued. For the next, Lost Hearts, the BBC drama department insisted on becoming involved so that things could be done ‘properly’. This meant bringing in separate producers and scriptwriters, with the differences of artistic perspective which such divisions were bound to entail. Nevertheless, Clark managed, through a mixture of diplomatic tact and clearsighted persuasiveness, to maintain the tone of restrained unease and the strong sense of place which he had established in the first two films; to carry on doing things his way, by and large.

Clark is never less than generous in his acknowledgment of the contributions of his collaborators. He expresses huge gratitude to Paul Fox, the BBC head who gave him the chance to direct, write and produce the first James adaptation (following on from Jonathan Miller’s highly individualistic take on Whistle and I’ll Come to You made for Omnibus in 1968). This was taking a chance on Fox’s part, given that Clark was at the time a documentary maker, wholly untested when it came to the very different discipline of creating a work of fiction. Clark is scathing, in his own understated yet unalloyed fashion, about the post-Birt managerial bureaucracies and production committees at the BBC. He makes it clear that there would now be no possibility of someone like him being allowed to make that first film with such creative leeway. Nor would the BBC provide the long-term investment to develop the talents of film-makers and technicians, such that they would have the confidence to put themselves forward for such a project. Creative freedom and experiment is no longer a priority, he laments. There is now too much interference from ‘bottle washers’.

The doomed seeker - Peter Vaughan in A Warning to the Curious
Clark is fulsome in his praise for John McGlashan, his cinematographer on the five BBC James adaptations. He holds him up as a vital collaborator, to the extent of effectively being the co-creator of the particular ambience of the films. He also points to the key contribution made by the sound recorder Dick Marton, who captured in uncanny close-up those small noises which are amplified in the dark hours into sounds pregnant with obscure terror. He also pays tribute to his casts, in particular Robert Hardy in The Stalls of Barchester, Peter Vaughan in A Warning to the Curious, who brings such sympathy and pathos to his character, and Michael Bryant in The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, who so memorably portrays the withering of his character’s rational certainties. Clark sees them as having perfectly embodied the isolated, guilt-ridden or arrogantly hubristic Jamesian protagonist. He comes across as a generous collaborator, even if he does hold out for the director’s ultimate word on creative matters. He delights in the unique contributions which others can make, and encourages them to bring their own particular talents to bear on the production. It is this quality which undoubtedly allowed him to continue to make the films which he wanted to, even after he’d had to cede the complete control which he’d initially enjoyed. He maintained a very good working relationship with his producer, Rosemary Hill, despite some basic differences in approach. In short, Clark appears to be a perfect gentleman, the polar opposite of legendarily tyrannical directors who command from a lofty height.

The malice of inanimate objects - Robert Hardy in The Stalls of Barchester
Further appendices provide us with a bibliography and biographical sketch of M.R.James, a Lawrence Gordon Clark filmography and a summary of his awards. I was intrigued to learn of the four James tales not included in the Collected Ghost Stories. The title of one of these, The Malice of Inanimate Objects, neatly encapsulates one of the key attributes of his fiction. I was also surprised to discover that there had been a TV adaptation of The Tractate Middoth prior to Mark Gatiss’ recent version; and that this one was made for US television (James seeming such a peculiarly English writer) as a 1952 episode of the Lights Out series, featuring Leslie Nielsen as the young librarian who grows to regret his eagerness to help out. The filmography demonstrates Clark’s range and versatility as a director. He turned his hand to comic action and detection (Minder and Pie in the Sky), costume drama (Flambards), the political thriller (winning awards for Harry’s Game), historical romance (Jamaica Inn) and medical drama (Casualty). There were more excursions into the fantastic, too. Although it received a mixed reaction, I think the elegiac, downbeat Quatermass series which he directed in 1979 was a fine piece of work. Once more he demonstrated his facility for finding perfect locations and capturing their inherent spirit. He evoked both a palpable sense of urban decay and social degeneration in the London scenes, and the latent magic with which the ancient downland landscapes of southern England is charged.

The bookish investigator - The Stalls of Barchester
It’s wonderful that this book offers Lawrence Gordon Clark the space to give such a full and in depth account of his lovingly crafted screen renditions of M.R.James’ subtly suggestive supernatural terrors. Through the juxtaposition of his artistic self-analyses with his observations on James’ fiction, and with the inclusion of the original tales themselves, this becomes a celebration of two masters of the venerable English ghost story tradition.

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