Sarah Coomer, whose A Ghost Story for Christmas-inspired illustrations feature in this retrospective, discusses the 1973 episode, Lost Hearts...
Generally speaking, an academic’s lot is not a happy one in the world of M.R. James. When they’re not digging up crowns and being shoved off Martello towers by vengeful preternatural guardians, they’re blowing whistles and being driven insane by vengeful preternatural guardians. The more bookish, unworldly wise, nosy / curious his protagonists get, the more likely they are to come a cropper, in a variety of unpleasant and singularly imaginative ways. Peregrine Abney, the batshit antagonist of ‘Lost Hearts’ is in some ways James’ ultimate scholar, though his thirst for knowledge exceeds all decent boundaries, and his fate is accordingly particularly gruesome.
Unusually for James the story centres on a total innocent, our protagonist stepping blithely into a nightmare which is none of his own making. In Robin Chapman’s adaptation, the third in the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas series, originally broadcast on the rather plum date of 25th December 1973, Abney’s unwitting cousin, the recently orphaned Stephen, is a golden-haired, rosy-cheeked angelic vision of unsullied youth. Polite, intelligent and crucially both prepubescent and parentless, he is invited to stay with his distant relative Abney, an act of apparent familial altruism which turns out to be anything but.
Stephen, played by Simon Gipps Kent, an actor who was fated himself never to see his thirties, has a refreshingly realistic lack of agency as opposed to the oft-seen ass-kicking young hero – he is entirely at the mercy of the adult world he is forced to encounter so prematurely. The action of Chapman’s adaptation is contracted to less than a month, accelerating the sense of dread and giving the film an urgency rather absent in James’ original story, which takes place over the best part of a year. The month in question is October, a personal fave as a big Autumn fan, and many scenes are draped in a gloomy seasonal mizzle, the landscape obscured. Dislocated voices and music are caught on a breeze and dissolve, figures loom from the drifting mist from the very opening scenes when a boy and a girl stand on the roadside, apparently greeting him with strangely uniform waving arms, and then at a second glance are gone.
Upon his arrival at his new home, Stephen’s new guardian appears both benevolent and welcoming, if a little eccentric as elderly scholars are wont to be, taking if anything a slightly excessive interest in Stephen’s health and well-being, asking his age twice in as many minutes. Fluffy haired and bespectacled, Joseph O’Conor, who had played Mr Brownlow, another taker-in of orphans in the 1968 musical Oliver!, performs his role as Abney with a spritely, twinkle-eyed, almost comedic fervour which only makes the character’s true nature all the more abhorrent, once eventually revealed.
Stephen questions the housekeeper, the genuinely kindly but completely oblivious Mrs Bunch on whether she thinks Abney is a good man, which is maybe a hint that Stephen himself has his doubts. Her response is unequivocally positive, recalling the two children he previously took in on separate occasions, out of the goodness of his own heart, a gypsy girl and a foreign boy. The subsequent disappearances of both had been routinely investigated and then quickly dismissed as simply the kind of thing to expect with foreign types and gypsies. Mrs Bunch and Mr Parkes the butler are not bad people but their apparent shrugging acceptance of the disappearances are a shocking indication of the cheapness of life of the young, friendless and poor. We might think surely, while to lose one urchin may be regarded as at least slightly suspicious, to lose both looks positively sinister, to wildly misquote Wilde. Especially if one of them leaves their only means of income behind, Giovanni’s hurdy-gurdy which lends its eerie folksy twangling to the haunting score.
So how has this amoral practitioner of such arcane and diabolical arts got so far without ever arousing the least suspicions of his true nature? Why do they think he’s such a good Christian when the merest glance at the heathen literature strewn around his study would make the average vicar’s cassock flap with righteous apoplexy? Maybe it’s simply a reflection that the story is set in a time in which men of a certain class and social standing could pretty much get away with anything unchallenged. The sense of entitlement and superiority Abney exhibits is gobsmacking. All the other participants in his life, which is surely how he sees it, are merely there to minister to his needs. Mrs Bunch cooks his tea, Mr Parkes fetches his port and the children, of a particular age and nourished to an acceptable level of health for his diabolical requirements, provide him with the means to transcend to a higher realm of being. He is utterly, for want of a better word, heartless, and possibly the most degenerate of any character that James dredged up from the mouldering burial chamber of his imagination. He’s a classic psychopath and the worst kind of abuser to boot. Adults in any decent society have a duty of care to protect children. Abney far from keeping his young charges from harm actively seeks them out in order to further his own interests via their very destruction.
But enough psychobabble. What about the ghosts? Oh, the ghosts. I defy anyone to come up with creepier child wraiths than these two. Anyone unfamiliar with the story might be forgiven for thinking that the spectral Giovanni and Phoebe with their fixed grins and green pallor and rather too obvious lack of internal organs, popping up all over the place to scare the bejeezus out of Stephen are the threat. They are certainly terrifying. He falls from a tree when Phoebe’s face looms at him from the upper branches. They almost land him a walloping after scratching at the woodwork so violently and tearing his nightshirt to shreds with their repulsively overgrown fingernails, for which Stephen himself is blamed. But as the film progresses, the truth becomes gradually revealed, most graphically during Stephen’s ‘sleepwalking’ episode when awoken by the ghosts, he makes a grisly discovery in a disused bathroom, and Giovanni’s hurdy-gurdy falls from his arms exposing the empty cavity of his gory chest.
Divested of grinning dead kids, open rib cages and dark magic blood rituals Chapman’s adaptation, dreamily directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, could almost pass for the kind of cosy Christmas viewing I loved as a child (and still do). There are echoes of Lucy M Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe, which also features an effectively parentless young boy taken in by an elderly relative who glimpses ghosts of his new home’s past as he roams the grounds and gardens. Clark conjures visions of the bucolic childhood most of us never had as Stephen flies his kite in a meadow to the strains of Ralph Vaughan Williams until he hears the ghost children calling to him from the trees (“Hai! Hai!”) and the kite plunges as he falters in fear.
All illusions are shattered in the last moments of the drama, (ramped up from James’ original story in which Stephen stumbles upon only the aftermath of Abney’s undoing) when we see Stephen lured into Abney’s study, with monstrous irony, on the pretext of having his future told for a birthday treat. Forcibly drugged, he is saved only by the intervention of Abney’s previous victims, who finally get round to wreaking their own bloody revenge. One might wonder why they’ve waited this long, but Stephen’s birthday falls on Halloween (well, of course, it does) a date when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is traditionally at its most flimsy. But whatever it was that made the ghosts act, the final irony is that less than perfect cousin Abney would probably have got away with it if it wasn’t for those meddling dead kids.
‘Lost Hearts’ is possibly the most gruesome Aunty Beeb Christmas telly offering ever, and, a bit like Peregrine Abney, not really suitable for children, but it’s one of my favourites of the A Ghost Story for Christmas series (though *whispers* I haven’t seen them all). With its misty vistas, big house setting, imperilled boy child, terrifying ghosts, dark magic and daft retainers it’s a veritable selection box of spooky TV tropes, and in its own way as festive as a sprout sandwich washed down with a lovely spot of tawny port. Preferably the ’33.
Many of the illustrations in this retrospective are reprinted by kind permission of the author of this essay. For more of Sarah’s work, please visit her website