A ghost Story For Christmas
A View From A Hill
Screenwriter Simon Allen offers a uniquely personal perspective on the work of M.R. James and interviews Luke Watson, director of the 2005 revival episode of A Ghost Story for Christmas, A View From a Hill…
I left home at 11. Nothing quiets the rootlessness and uncertainty that such an experience sings into you.
Over Christmas 2005, I chanced upon BBC Four’s M.R. James revival ‘A View From a Hill’. It was the first time I’d heard of the author. I instantly identified with the film’s uneasy protagonist – a city-dwelling historian braving the eerie English countryside to authenticate a collection of antiquities. I recognised his bewilderment at the confidence of Squire Richards – built on the privileges of family and heritage. I saw my own struggles to escape poverty in his pride at achieving the parity of education. I understood his curiosity at the origins of the Squire’s mysterious artefacts because of the lack of provenance in my own life.
M.R. James’ stories became compelling to me because they course with a feeling that runs in my blood – a lack of faith in the rules and comforts that so many others assume reality abides by. ‘A View from a Hill’s’ unsettling study of anxiety, antiquarians and dim presences inspired me to finally get serious about trying to become a professional screenwriter. Nine years after first seeing the film, I had the great privilege of working with its director, Luke Watson. In September 2020, as the year embered into ashes, we caught up and discussed ‘A View From a Hill’s’ legacy…
Simon: ‘A View From a Hill’ will be 15 years old this Christmas – how did you come to direct it?
Luke: In 2004, BBC exec Richard Fell had the idea of rebooting the BBC’s Christmas Ghost Story tradition and entrusted producer Pier Wilkie with the adaptation of this as-yet un-filmed M.R. James story. Pier hired me to direct after an interview in which I outlined my vision to update the traditional British ghost story with a modern perspective inspired by the popular J-Horror films of the time (Dark Water (Hideo Nakata, 2002), The Grudge (Takashi Shimizu, 2002) and The Ring (Hideo Nakata, 1998)).
Simon: I was born in 1975 so didn’t learn about the BBC tradition of A Ghost Story for Christmas until I saw your film in 2005. Were you aware of the old films at all? How did it feel to be charged with bringing the tradition back?
Luke: Before I met Pier I watched all the original films I could get my hands on (this was pre-streaming and they weren’t all that easy to come across) including ‘The Signalman’, ‘A Warning to the Curious’ and ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’. I remember being particularly impressed by ‘Whistle’ which was directed by Jonathan Miller. As a ghost story it’s super-minimal, and while I admired its spareness I could also see opportunity for updating the tradition by keeping a similar tone but working harder to keep the audience on edge with more, and bigger, scares. I watched a lot of horror/ghost stories in my childhood, initially on TV, then later on VHS as it became more available, so my early influences were a mixture of BBC ghost stories, Hammer Horror and American films like Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper, 1982) and The Omen (Richard Donner, 1976). Then as an adult I watched more sophisticated horrors like The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980) and Don’t Look Now (Nicholas Roeg, 1973) which really deepened my appreciation of the genre. I think I did see some of the original series but can’t be sure because I was young and not really aware of their significance at the time, but when I came to direct ‘A View from a Hill’ I was fully aware of their cherished place in UK televisual history and the high expectations amongst original fans.
Simon: Peter Harness’ script is magnificent – so elegant and economical. Having worked with you a couple of times now, I know you like to be deeply involved in the early development of the scripts you’re going to direct!
Luke: You know me well. In this case the development happened very quickly (three weeks from green light with no script to filming) and because this was to be a BBC4 film which had tiny budgets at the time I had to grapple with the biggest creative decisions along with Pier before Peter appeared on the scene, but the upshot was there was very little interference from above – we were told to just get on with it as there really wasn’t time to check what we were doing. We were moving so fast just to be ready to film on time. I remember on my first day of pre-production I was called in to talk to Pier and the line producer Sue Smith. They had grave expressions on their faces and said they’d done a preliminary budget and were sorry to say we could only afford to hire three actors and did I think we could make that work or should we just abandon the idea? The original story, as I remember, has about ten characters in it but I wasn’t about to give up on day one and I immediately thought that with three characters you can basically tell any story, so promised them we would find a way, without having a clue as to how we would do it.
So while we were casting I wrote several treatments redrafting the story from the perspective of the three main characters – Fanshawe, Squire Richards and Patten – with plenty of embellishments along the way (I felt the financial and time restrictions gave me licence to adjust the story as I saw fit) and with a desire to push the story further into the horror genre and provide some proper, meaty scares. M.R. James stories are usually two act set-up and pay-off stories but I wanted something with a deeper resonance so opted to add an additional third act, which became the new ending. I leaned quite heavily on the original films for the tone of the drama between the characters, as well as The Servant (1963), directed by blacklisted US director Joseph Losey and written by Harold Pinter, which inspired the relationship between Squire Richards and his manservant Patten. Peter took the new story (limited to three ‘talking’ characters, because if you say anything on screen you get paid a lot more than if you have no dialogue) and wrote it into a screenplay and we continued to work together closely to refine the dialogue and set pieces.
Simon: One of the things I adore about ‘A View From a Hill’ is its look. Many of the 70s films were shot on 16mm, the prevalent format of the day. Decades later, their degraded aesthetic combined with the tight 4:3 ratio seems only to amplify that Jamesian quality of his ghosts feeling safely contained within an archaic ‘telling’ of the story then suddenly erupting into the here and now. Watching your film today, its Digibeta aesthetic has a similar effect – we initially feel safe because the film feels distant and of another time. Then when the horror still reaches us through all that it’s all the more powerful! Can you talk a little about how you approached the look and feel of the film?
Luke: That’s a very interesting interpretation. As I mentioned, our budget was tiny and I wasn’t a fan of the Digibeta look (the cameras we use these days, predominantly the Arriflex Alexa, are light years ahead in terms of image quality and ‘cinematic’ feel) but it was all we could afford, and so most of my efforts, along with the DOP Chris Goodger, were involved in counteracting the flatness and wide depth of field that was inherent in early professional video.
Simon: It feels like the picture grade on this piece was very meticulous – the original story took place in the Summer (M.R. James refers to ‘long days) but this very clearly takes place in Autumn. Was that a deliberate choice or just a practical decision borne out of when you had to shoot?
Luke: The latter, as we were given no option but to shoot in November. We shot all the exteriors in the Chilterns because they were the closest proper countryside to the BBC, which back then was still in White City. The Chilterns are a series of beautiful rolling hills, and crop up quite a lot in films and TV because they are so accessible to London. But we were blessed with a couple of beautiful autumnal days with early morning fog hanging in the air and frost clinging to the long grass – perfect for an M.R. James ghost story! The grade was done in Soho and we worked hard to make it fit the vision we had for the film. A little desaturated, with deep blacks (all the better to hide things in and give the audience a fright). I remember we needed a few visual effects to complete the film and as we had pretty much run out of money by then we ended up doing them with a different DOP who had a small effects set-up in his garden shed!
Simon: So much of James’ storytelling often turns around the presentation of ancient artefacts – if you ever get the chance to see Robert Parry in his one man M.R. James show you’ll see he brilliantly incorporates this performative conceit. The production design of your film is exquisite – from Baxter’s illustrations of the Abbey to the infamous glasses. Can you talk a little about that?
Luke: Our production designer was Stevie Herbert and I think she drew the illustrations herself. Probably the biggest influence on the design was the decision, again in that first meeting in pre-production, to move the action to the 1950s, rather than the original 1920s, because the production felt it would be easier (i.e, cheaper) to source costumes and props relating to the period. I haven’t seen Robert Parry’s one-man show but look forward to checking it out once this pandemic is finally over!
Simon: I love the way you use sound in the film. When Dr. Fanshawe arrives, everything is amplified – the bird song, the low breeze and the whisper of the leaves. It’s such a brilliant way of establishing his alienation and the fact he isn’t from the countryside. How did you develop the soundscape for the film?
Luke: Sound is underrated in films generally, but in ghost stories it’s absolutely vital. It’s the combination of sound and image that builds an atmosphere of dread, without which it’s all but impossible to instil a sense of fear in the audience and provide a platform for jump scares. Most of the sound work was done in post, where different sound effects can be laid on top of each other to create an atmosphere which manipulates how the audience feel. As you suggest, we deliberately used the accentuated sounds of the countryside to put Fanshawe, a city boy, on edge. Then, later, when he is being haunted in the woods, we mostly used sound effects to suggest he’s being followed by the hanged men. It’s an old movie adage that it’s better not to show the monster in a horror movie but to let the audience use their imagination, which is always so much scarier than anything we might be able to show on screen. The power of suggestion is what makes the horror genre so fascinating to work in.
Simon: Although ‘A View from a Hill’ stands on its own merits, I notice a number of synergies with the earlier films – especially Lawrence Gordon Clark’s seminal ‘A Warning to the Curious’. Dr. Fanshawe’s alarming encounter with The Poacher is a particular example. Was this a deliberate reference and are there any other nods to the earlier films we should look out for?
Luke: I don’t think we set out to deliberately reference those films, but we were of course fans of the originals, and conscious that our film was part of a tradition, so subconsciously we were probably recycling M.R. James tropes along the way, which might explain some of the similarities.
Luke: I love Deliverance – such a powerful, disturbing film – and the effect is quite simple to achieve if you know what you want and why. In this case we shot in winter, with (fortunately for us) the sun usually low on the horizon, so we took care to shoot the supporting cast as much as possible silhouetted against the sun. As with the adage above about movies and monsters, the less you can see the more your mind fills in the gaps, and if you’re already scared those gaps can be really disturbing. In some ways when writing and directing horror I think it’s about providing a platform for your audience’s subconscious to come out and play. The really scary stuff is buried deep in our psyches. Our job is to trick the audience into letting their own monsters out, before hopefully providing them with some catharsis so they can put their them back in the box at the end and be less scared of them from then on. That’s the theory anyway!Simon: I love the way you introduced The Poacher with just enough ambiguity for us to think he may be something else. All the light thrown behind him, his face and front completely drenched in darkness. Watching it back today, it reminded me a lot of the way John Boorman shot those backwater stalkers in Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972). How did you accomplish this effect?
Simon: Gordon Clark famously shot ‘A Warning to the Curious’ in 10 days – how long was the shoot for ‘A View from a Hill’?
Luke: Also 10 days! It was super-intense and I remember every day being a race against the clock. The crew were brilliant, everyone pulled their weight, and it really felt like a labour of love for us at the time.
Simon: Pip Torrens’ Squire Richards is incredible in the film but I was particularly taken with David Burke’s performance as Patten. I worked with his son Tom Burke when I was showrunning The Musketeers (BBC, 2014-16) years later and all I could talk about was how amazing his Dad was in ‘A View From a Hill’! I think Tom got quite bored of hearing about it. I’d see those beautiful eyes just glaze over.
Luke: Tom was in the next M.R. James adaptation wasn’t he? The one after mine?
Simon: ‘Number 13‘ – yes! Playing another self-made working man like Fanshawe – and with his Dad again! They were both wonderful. I bored Tom to death talking about that too. The comedy of resentment between Torrens and Burke is so strong but there’s also a lovely undercurrent of reluctant affection. Can you talk a little about their dynamic and how it contributed to the film’s tone?
Luke: David Burke was a lovely man and for a while he was my lucky charm at BBC4, because I kept casting him in the films I did there! He had such intelligence, and presence, and combined really well with Pip in this film. As I mentioned above, I was really interested in the servant master dynamic, partly inspired by The Servant, although in this case the relationship is warmer, even though they seem to quarrel all the time! We wanted all of the characters to have a strong arc, so what we came up with for Richards and Patten was the idea that they were two men bonded by both being ‘out of time’. The modern world was coming (in the form of grammar school boy Fanshawe), the landed gentry was becoming a thing of the past, and both the squire and his servant are feeling left behind. I loved the idea that in the end we realise they are all each other has left in this world, both dependent on each other, and with the servant master relationship more of a cosplay than a real dynamic, because they are basically co-dependent equals. Pip and David got the idea immediately, and we had a lot of fun nailing their interplay in the scenes they were in. We wanted them to be like a married couple and I’m really happy with how we managed to show their antagonistic relationship (almost) hid the warmth and respect they really felt for each other.
Simon: Mark Letheren’s Dr. Fanshawe is also an outstanding performance and in many ways much more of a challenge for the actor. He doesn’t have the master-servant pyrotechnics of Squire Richards and Patten to play within.
Luke: Mark had just come off playing a cop in a show called Wire in the Blood (ITV, 2002-08) with Robson Green for a couple of series so was keen to stretch himself. I think it was producer Pier who recommended him and when we cast him I could see why. He’s a subtle, diligent actor, never showy but quietly convincing in all his roles. We talked at length about his backstory and worked on his approach, deciding on a slightly mannered performance style which I really responded to and which accentuated the strangeness of his situation, the fact he was so out of his comfort zone and suspicious of the old school wealth of Richards, and that he is slowly becoming untethered from reality as the haunted glasses exert their sinister effect on him. I may be wrong but I don’t remember the class distinction being in the original story… however as many people have previously noted almost all British films are ultimately about class, so that’s what we did! I think it provides an interesting, modern counterpoint to the gothic qualities of the story.
Simon: The standout set piece in the film is the beautiful sequence when Dr. Fanshawe uses the cursed glasses to enter the Abbey – it’s alluded to in the original story but you fully dramatised it?
Luke: Peter and I discussed the fact that the story didn’t really have a climax. Like most M.R. James stories this was about being ‘careful what you wish for’ so I really wanted to create an emotional high for the protagonist, to act as a peak in the story and a turning point to take it all downhill from there into fear and horror. For the cautionary tale to really work I thought Fanshawe should be driven to do something he knew was illicit and dangerous (continue to use the glasses when he already knew they were cursed) because he is driven by desire and ambition, which he would later regret. And to make this hit home with the audience I felt we needed to create a moment of triumph for Fanshawe, to see him not just happy but almost delirious, before it all went south. The Abbey was the obvious place, and we decided to use the visual effect of seeing the past and recreating the ruined Abbey through the glasses literally.
As an archeologist who was fascinated by the ruined Abbeys of Britain (most of which were demolished by Henry VIII) it would have been an extraordinary career high to see one in the flesh. I think it was the brilliant editor Raimondo Aiello’s idea to transition half way through the sequence into a kind of imagined fantasy, where he walks through the Abbey without looking through the glasses. It doesn’t make literal sense, but as a viewer I don’t think you care and I think Raimondo was exactly right to suggest we just cut to the chase and experience it as a pure moment of ecstasy for the character. His cut of that sequence is outstanding in my opinion, he was a very talented editor who is sadly no longer with us, but I remember I pushed him very hard, making him cut scenes again and again until at the very end he said that’s it, no more, and I had to accept we were done, bless him.
Simon: Your film portrays the English countryside as a place of both wonder and threat. Do you think we’ve lost the Darwinian instinct that once kept our species alive – a healthy respect for and fear of the unknown?
Luke: We live increasingly in technological bubbles, in cities cut off from the natural world. So while it may seem that we are temporarily detached from those primal instincts you describe, I think they are still within us, only dormant. But like all bubbles they eventually pop, and I would argue that the terrifying rate of climate change we are witnessing will soon reassert nature’s primacy, so we better hope our instincts are intact, because we’re soon going to need them!
Simon: The cautionary philosophy of M.R. James’ stories – that there are some thresholds we should never cross – is more relevant than ever today. We’re surrounded by personalisation technology that encourages us to believe the world should be arranged for our benefit. We feel entitled to know things and see things and have things. COVID is almost a very Jamesian push back against human exploitation and intrusion. Do you feel like these stories could still resonate with new audiences or would they need to be reinterpreted?
Luke: I think in Britain we have a fascination with the past, some might say an obsession, brought about by a sense of nostalgia and regret for the lost empire. It’s why we make so many period shows and films, I think. But you could also say this obsession is a generational thing, that is most keenly felt among older generations, and is gradually becoming less relevant as other generations, including our own, come to the fore. So while I always think there will be a place for M.R. James stories in general, I think it is better to take the still-relevant themes he wrote about and interpret them in a world more recognisable to today’s audience. These ideas resonate deeply with me, as with you, and will live on as long as we continue to push the boundaries into the unknown, which you could say perhaps is the story of the human race, for better or worse.
Simon: Okay, wrapping up now. Can you tell me how it felt to have your own Ghost Story for Christmas going out over Christmas 2005? Did you watch it live?
Luke: Yes I did and as usual when watching something go out live (an experience which is getting ever rarer in the age of streaming) I am mainly anxious that we might have missed something, or that the sound level is correct, or that the grading looks good on a domestic tv. So it’s exciting, but a little nerve-wracking, although I do miss the sense of occasion when a show I’ve directed or written goes out on a streaming platform, because there’s no sense of a shared, collective experience, which when it happens is so satisfying for any storyteller.
Simon: You and I worked on our own little ghost story (episode 8 of Netflix‘s Spotless) – is it a genre you’ll return to?
Luke: I’m currently writing two ghostly TV series, so yes! First up is an original show called SHADOWS, about a haunted U.K. housing estate, which in a way is a very loose updating of the idea behind ‘A View From a Hill’, in that it involves someone seeing things through a lens which is invisible to the naked eye, although in this case the lens is in a cctv camera. The other show is called Strangers, and is an adaptation and coproduction with a Swedish production company billed as a ‘Supernatural Scandi-Noir’. I’m very excited about both projects and hope to bring them to the screen soon.
Simon: Finally, ‘A View From a Hill’ came pretty early in a career that’s seen you go on to direct huge shows. Where does it stand in your body of work?
Luke: One of my favourites, because we had such creative freedom so I really feel what ended up on the screen was what we set out to achieve, which sadly isn’t always the case. As a rule of thumb the bigger the project the less control you have, so there’s something to be said for low budget, even if the pay is lousy!
Simon: Thank you! Merry Christmas!
Luke: Merry Christmas, Simon!