A Warning to the Curious
Perhaps the best-remembered of the BBC's A Ghost Story for Christmas series, Daniel McGachey explains why A Warning to the Curious still retains its ability to unsettle...
On Boxing Day in 1992, BBC2’s schedules promised A Ghost Story for Christmas with the pleasingly ominous title, ‘A Warning to the Curious’. As an eager fan of ghost stories, I tuned in hoping for a few light seasonal chills. What I got – aside from a sense of being utterly unnerved over the course of 50 minutes – was a life-changing experience.
I was passingly familiar with the works of M.R. James, though I hadn’t, as yet, linked the name with that series of televised readings by Robert Powell from some Christmases earlier, or those episodes of the Jackanory spin-off, Spine Chillers, I had enjoyed a decade before. Nor with The Night of the Demon, that highlight of a BBC2 Horror Double-Bill, or A School Story, which I’d read in an anthology while still in primary school.
But thanks to that repeat broadcast of what I was to learn had been only one of a regular series of A Ghost Story for Christmas productions, I swiftly became very familiar with the name of M.R. James. My battered Penguin Classics edition of The Collected Ghost Stories remains a constant travelling companion, despite numerous more lavish, more annotated and exhaustive collections that have taken up shelf space in the decades since I spent a pound on it. These editions nestle alongside copies of Ghosts & Scholars, the small-press magazine devoted to M.R. James, books about James, and books by other writers inspired by James’ work, in an ever-expanding Jamesian library.
My own ghost story writing began as a result of James’s influence. More specifically, it was inspired by those A Ghost Story for Christmas adaptations – my recurring antiquarian character, Dr Lawrence, drew upon Dr. Black in the early films (with a measure of Michael Bryant’s Somerton from ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’), and was named in honour of that scholarly character’s creator, Lawrence Gordon Clark, something, I’m relieved to say, the great man found flattering).
To my mind, the best films in the celebrated series are the earliest, where Gordon Clark adapted, produced and directed. 1971’s ‘The Stalls of Barchester‘ is probably the most faithful James adaptation to date, aided by the framing device of Clive Swift as the aforementioned Dr. Black, virtually a surrogate M.R. James, uncovering the papers and piecing together the clues as to how Archdeacon Haynes’ unfortunate activities awakened the vengeful forces depicted in the carvings of the cathedral stalls.
Swift’s Dr. Black returned, less as narrator and more fully involved in the unfolding drama, in the following year’s ‘A Warning to the Curious’, playing opposite Peter Vaughan as the tragic Paxton. Even though, by the time of that 1992 repeat screening both Swift and Vaughan were better known for sitcom roles – Swift as long-suffering Richard in Keeping Up Appearances, Vaughan forever associated with genial Harry Grout in Porridge – both are so believable in their roles that there was no unintended amusement to be found in their casting. In fact, Swift’s 1970s CV has some very respectable horror roles: Death Line (UK, Gary Sherman, 1972), Nigel Kneale’s Beasts (ITV, 1976), Shadows (ITV, 1975-8), and, only weeks before the first broadcast of ‘A Warning to the Curious’, he had been seen in ‘The Exorcism‘, the best remembered and most highly regarded episode of the BBC supernatural anthology series Dead of Night (1972).
Peter Vaughan was adept at menace, whether as Bill Sikes or Long John Silver, policemen or crooks, or the tyrannical patriarch in Straw Dogs (UK Sam Peckinpah, 1971). Indeed, even his comedy roles often had a menacing edge to them. Unlike the youthful, rabbity scholar of the original story, Paxton is presented as a middle-aged man attempting to regain a measure of dignity after being laid low by the Great Depression. To this end, he seeks out the legendary East Anglian crown and finds himself trapped in a nightmare. Vaughan’s performance, whether quietly humbled by his reduced status, or driven to the brink of terror by the consequences of his discovery, is all the more striking for its contrast to his more accustomed heavies.
This alteration of Paxton’s character is just one way in which Gordon Clark deviates from the original – following James less closely to the letter than he had done with ‘The Stalls of Barchester‘ while retaining the essential spirit of the story. By making Paxton a man with a grave need to improve his standing and his fortunes, rather than an academic amateur, driven by mere curiosity, his urgent desire to return his sought-after prize to its resting place appears even more stark and desperate.
Another change is the expansion of a scene in the antique shop where Paxton discovers the clue to the treasure. Gordon Clark brings in a shopkeeper, complete with ‘Susan’, his doll, and a discussion of the origins of the rhyme, ‘London Bridge is Falling Down‘. The shopkeeper is played in a distractedly eccentric fashion by Roger Milner, who would re-appear in the following year’s ‘Lost Hearts‘ as a vicar, lending an almost repertory feel to the series – as does the inclusion of David Pugh’s railway porter, the actor having played Haynes’ servant in ‘The Stalls of Barchester‘, before going on to appear as a shepherd in ‘The Ash-Tree‘. While the antique shop sequence may seem like a creepy aside to add to Paxton’s unease, the talk of virgin sacrifices interred in bridges serves to cement the core idea of the film’s haunting, that of guardian spirits being tethered to particular locations.
The guarded spot – the mound in the woods – is splendidly eerie in its isolation, and the film ties the fates of those foolish enough to ignore the warnings, to the mound itself, through a prologue depicting the fate of one of Paxton’s predecessors, Paxton’s discovery of a smashed-in skull within the soil, and in his own fate. Instead of depicting the original tale’s dispatch of the unfortunate treasure seeker on Seaburgh’s beach – thankfully unseen, given the post-mortem description of the damage wrought in his final moments – Gordon Clark prefers to show the fatal pursuit through the woods in a series of disjointed shots, a dark form glimpsed through branches and between tree trunks, and the fleeing Paxton gripped by panic.
The scenes of pursuit owe a debt to the beach chase in Jonathan Miller’s ‘Whistle and I’ll Come To You‘ (BBC, 1968), a production that Gordon Clark much admired. His own aim was to make ‘A Warning to the Curious‘ a virtually silent film in its key scenes, so it’s no surprise that he keeps the climactic action on screen. One advantage of working from his own adapted script was the ability to rewrite and rework his screenplay to suit his locations, and these locations – those broad, flat stretches of land or sea – underline the solitariness of Paxton in a vast, empty realm.
Instead of James’ own model for Seaburgh – Aldeburgh – Gordon Clark found those lonely vistas, as well as a promising-looking mound among pines, at Holkham in Norfolk, and filming commenced there in February 1972, less than two months after ‘The Stalls of Barchester‘ had been broadcast to some acclaim. This out-of-season shooting lends the otherwise sunny proceedings a chill air, and the photography of John McGlashan, coupled with Dick Manton’s sound – the cameraman and sound recordist both being vital members of the repertory company on these productions – captures the beautiful eeriness of it all. The simplest of sounds, from a train whistle to the sea breeze, seem ominous, and a ragged breath in the darkness of an invaded hotel room – as close as possible, I would imagine, to James’ description of a ‘lungless laugh’ – raises the hackles even before the audience sees what it is that crouches on the floor.
With ‘The Stalls of Barchester‘, Lawrence Gordon Clark swiftly displayed his ability to move from documentary film making to crafting atmospheric drama and established a style, which would become a tradition that others have sought, time and again, to revive and to replicate. ‘A Warning to the Curious‘ matched the initial success of ‘The Stalls of Barchester’ and built upon it, considerably. It was, perhaps, a pity that Gordon Clark chose to send Dr. Black off to an uncertain fate, although the portents of that fate make for a memorable exit and provide a suitably worrying note upon which to end the production. It was also a pity that behind the scenes changes meant that Gordon Clark no longer adapted subsequent M.R. James tales (at least not for television; in 2013 his stage adaptation of ‘Lost Hearts‘ was directed by his daughter, Lucy, and he has recently adapted ‘Casting the Runes‘ as the script for a graphic novel that relocates Karswell to 1930s Germany). Not, however, that the James’ adaptations, which followed are in any way poor – far from it, they’re excellent – but there’s a little something extra to those first outings that set them apart as my personal favourites.
‘A Warning to the Curious‘ remains one of the most haunting pieces of television I’ve seen, and despite having watched it numerous times since that Boxing Day encounter in 1992, I’m still nervous when watching after dark, while I’m alone in the house. or at least hoping I’m alone.