A ghost Story For Christmas
The Ice House
With Lawrence Gordon Clark having absconded to ITV, Derek Lister took the reins for what became the final film in the original run of the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas. Jon Dear explores The Ice House…
What did John Bowen have against John Stride? Little over a year after having him die by strychnine poisoning in the Play for Today episode ‘A Photograph‘ (BBC, John Glenister, 1977), Stride once again is the doomed protagonist in this, the last of the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas films in the original run and the only one not to be directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark.
‘The Ice House‘ is almost certainly the most overlooked of those eight tales, like ‘Stigma‘ (1977) that precedes it, it’s an original story that’s set in the present day and it’s a piece that many find oblique and impenetrable. The exact nature of the threat isn’t entirely clear and it’s questionable if the story features anything that might be called a ghost. And ‘The Ice House’ contains many elements of a classic M.R. James tale. A lone male protagonist arrives at a new location and lets his curiosity get the better of him with (to all intents and purposes) fatal consequences, but’s told with a style that is familiar to readers of Robert Aickman’s ‘strange stories’ or the films of David Lynch. Eraserhead (1977) was Lynch’s most recent film at the time of broadcast and it’s not terribly likely the BBC would consider that to round off Christmas Day viewing on BBC One.
This was John Bowen’s second A Ghost Story for Christmas episode, before ‘The Ice House‘ he’d adapted M.R. James’s ‘The Treasure of About Thomas‘ (1974). In addition to ‘A Photograph’, Bowen wrote two other Play for Todays, the now missing ‘The Emergency Channel‘ (1973) and probably his most famous work, ‘Robin Redbreast’ (1970). Bowen was also a successful playwright and novelist but in between publishing A World Elsewhere (1965) and Squeak (1983), he wrote mainly for television. A common concern throughout his work are the things unsaid between people in close relationships and the isolation that results. He also likes to bring the fraudulent and the arrogant down a peg or two and examine ‘the conflict between rationality and instinct’. These are evident in both ‘Robin Redbreast‘ and ‘A Photograph‘, and also his contribution to the Dead of Night series ‘A Woman Sobbing‘ (1972), the story of a lonely housewife tormented to destruction by the sounds of a woman crying in the attic of her home.
‘The Ice House‘, like ‘Robin Redbreast‘ centres on someone arriving somewhere unfamiliar and alone. Paul (John Stride), a recently divorced man checks in at rural health spa run by brother and sister Clovis (Geoffrey Burridge) and Jessica (Elizabeth Romilly) who both speak in a stilted and precise manner, the other guests, all middle-aged or older are doleful and taciturn. One of the employees, Bob (David Beames) furtively speaks to Paul, telling him that if you stay here too long you “get a touch of the cools” and asks for his help in getting away. They’re interrupted by Clovis. Later that night we hear a scream and in the morning, Bob is nowhere to be seen. The siblings take Paul to the ice house in the spa’s grounds, where grows a plant that flowers in the most vivid red and brilliant white. The plant emits an intoxicating scent. Paul wants to know what’s inside. “There is only ice in the ice house” is the refrain. Petal shaped holes start to appear in the windows of Paul’s room and he decides to investigate the ice house.
‘The Ice House’ has an eerie atmosphere and is heavy with dread but there’s no getting away from the fact you need multiple viewings to make sense of the plot (a criticism also levelled at ‘A Photograph’) which is a shame given the ephemerality of television in the 1970s and its apparent lack of a repeat. Lawrence Gordon Clark’s absence is also felt, and while Derek Lister is an experienced television director, these are short films and something has clearly been lost. Nevertheless, there are moments within the production that are highly effective, most notably when Paul enters the ice house for the first time. Lit only by the flame of a burning letter, the scene recalls the caliginosity of Archdeacon Haynes’s nocturnal explorations in ‘The Stalls of Barchester‘ (1971) or Rev. Somerton’s journey through the tunnel in ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’ (1974). But Christmas viewing brings with it certain expectations and this highly experimental piece may have found better favour away from the seasonal trappings that better suit the tales of M.R. James and Charles Dickens. The heavy sensuality and Clovis and Jessica’s incestuous relationship may also have served to alienate viewers preferring the “pleasing terror” of James.
Plant horror is nothing new, in the original film version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, Don Siegel) and The Day of the Triffids (1963, Steve Sekely/Freddie Francis), the concept of alien plant life-destroying civilisation was used as an allegory for Communism, and it’s worth noting that Philip Kaufman’s remake of Body Snatchers would be released the same year ‘The Ice House’ was broadcast. The threat here is far more nebulous. The plants in those other films want to kill, here, the plant wants the exact opposite. The plant is sustained by the cold of the ice house and through its human-like avatars, it recruits the lonely and the lost, cultivates them at the spa and when they are ready, preserves them in the ice house.
“My brother and I do not approve of death…we will not tolerate it.”
As Paul learns the truth so his manner becomes more stilted until ultimately he is willingly led to take his place within the ice house. Knowing John Bowen’s other work gives you a better sense of what he’s doing here. Paul’s a professional who “helps people get through their lives” so likely a psychiatrist or a councillor. He talks about costs and commodity as well as the value of his profession. He believes most people’s lives are miserable and is likely including himself in that. If his recent divorce has changed his life, it doesn’t seem it’s for the better. Like many middle-class people, he values the countryside as a place of retreat, largely for its peaceful and unchanging nature, but nothing is truly unchanging. And therefore Paul decides he wants no part of an uncertain future and elects to withdraw from life, from change, from progress in the only way possible. In many ways, Bowen harks forward to films such as Annihilation (2018, Alex Garland) or Little Joe (2019, Jessica Hausner) in using the plant threat to question our humanity rather than simply replacing one external threat with another.
‘The Ice House’ deserves better than its reputation. It’s a bleak treatise on the inevitability of change and the consequences of being unable to accept the harsh realities that life can sometimes throw at you. But that’s not really what a lot of people want to watch at half eleven on Christmas night. The importance of scheduling and context can often be overlooked in drama, and it certainly works against ‘The Ice House’. So if you do plan to watch it, either again or for the first time, perhaps leave it instead for a warm summer’s evening, when the air is heavy with the scent of flowers and you wish everything could just stay like this forever…
 Interview with John Bowen, Robin Redbreast DVD (BFI DVD997, 2013).