Following several M.R. James adaptations, Lawrence Gordon Clark turned to Charles Dickens for the sixth A Ghost Story for Christmas episode. Johnny Restall explores Dickens' classic haunted tale, The Signalman...
We begin with an indistinct figure crossing deep green moorland. The words ‘A Ghost Story’ appear on screen for the first time in the series, as though they apply directly to this vague apparition. After a moment, a close-up shot seems to dispel this illusion; it is a man in early middle age, his expression thoughtful but alert, as though he is seeking something he cannot quite identify. A piercing whistle concentrates his attention, and the camera follows his gaze to a vast plume of steam advancing through the countryside to slowly unveil a distant train. In the bleak, misty landscape, it looks more like a vessel crossing a vast sea than an engine anchored to firm ground. We only see the moorings of the hard earthly tracks in the following shot, as the camera looks down into a deep railway cutting, containing a second dark figure. The title appears: The Signalman.
Made in 1976, ‘The Signalman’ is the sixth official entry in the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas series, and something of a milestone amongst the original 1970s episodes. While it echoes the previous films, it explores significantly different concerns with a subtly different approach. It is the penultimate instalment to be directed by series-founder, Lawrence Gordon Clark, the last of this vintage to have a period setting and the first to be adapted from the work of an author other than M.R. James.
The short story The Signal-man was originally published in the 1866 Christmas edition of All The Year Round by its author, Charles Dickens. In brief, the plot is as follows: an unnamed narrator meets a lonely railway signalman haunted by a mysterious spectre, whose appearances seem to foretell deaths on the line. The TV adaptation is by acclaimed screenwriter Andrew Davies (perhaps best known for his work on BBC serial adaptations such as House Of Cards (1990) and Pride and Prejudice (1995)). It is more faithful to its source than the previous James adaptations, retaining much of the original dialogue, and is a masterclass in precision and economy.
Many critics attribute the inspiration for the tale to Dickens’ own presence at the Staplehurst railway disaster in 1865. The train on which the author was travelling came off the tracks over a viaduct, with many carriages plunging over the side of the bridge, and his own carriage ending up perilously balanced over the precipice. This incident, along with the Clayton Tunnel crash of 1861, certainly contributed to contemporary fears regarding industrialisation and its capacity for disaster rather than progress. This theme is the first major difference between this and the previous tales in the series; where James’ stories typically concern medieval or older evils reactivated in the relatively modern world (with the exception of the previous year’s ‘The Ash Tree‘), in Dickens’ tale the modern world, itself, is the source of fear.
The programme’s visuals emphasise this notion, with trains traversing the landscape like ghostly visions, and dark tunnels billowing infernal smoke. The railway cutting, itself, looks bleak and unnatural, a ‘great dungeon,’ as Dickens described, ‘excluding all view but a strip of sky’ from within. The superb choice of location – on the Severn Valley Railway at Bewdley Tunnel – and the atmospheric camerawork of David Whitsun perfectly realise Dickens’ ‘barbarous, depressing and forbidding air.’ The ghost appears by the red light at the mouth of the daunting man-made tunnel, explicitly linking fear of the supernatural with the new technology, and also revealing the limitations of both – they can warn, but their warnings are vague and ultimately ineffectual, barely in control of the influence of their own powers.
Sound also serves to underline the tale’s unease with the industrialised world. As the camera lingers on the telegraph wires, a swelling electronic buzz is heard, as though the wires themselves are eldritch and possessed. This link becomes explicit when we witness the same sound accompany the Signalman ‘hearing’ the spirit ring the bell in his signal-box, unheard by Dickens’ nameless narrator, credited as ‘the Traveller’ in Davies’ adaptation. The Signalman states that he never mistakes this other sound for a man’s ring, the reassuring analogue of a struck bell replaced by this eerie new tone. The use of silence is also striking – the sparse score by Stephen Deutsch uses electronic textures and drones rather than traditional music, and several scenes involve almost soundless sequences broken only by bells, electrical tones or engine sounds, with human conversation coming a faltering second.
The environment of ‘The Signalman’ is claustrophobic and dehumanising. The Signalman, himself, sees little sun, and explains that he cannot even find relief in taking breaks outside of the cutting as he must always listen for the mechanical bell – ‘My face would be in the sun, but my mind would be down here in the dark.’ He is crushed by having, ‘so little to do, with so much depending on it,’ a life more suited to machine than man. Tellingly, in Dickens’ original story the Signalman reveals that he was a student of natural philosophy but ‘run wild,’ and ‘misused his opportunities,’ likewise, the world around him has surrendered nature to industrialisation, resulting in unnatural oppression and, indeed, carnage. When the Traveller first meets the Signalman, the latter seems almost unwilling to speak, as though his language has broken down, conveying his meaning more eloquently by look and gesture. Even as he warily opens up, Denholm Elliot’s superb performance in the title role remains tightly clenched, making great use of his naturally lugubrious features and nervous eyes, like an animal cornered in its den, beset on all sides. He cannot even trust his own senses – he sees and hears what others apparently do not.
Or does he? Davies’ screenplay deliberately amplifies the ambiguities in Dicken’s short story, particularly regarding the Traveller, subtly played by Bernard Lloyd. When the Traveller first calls the Signalman, the audience hears the same electronic burr on the soundtrack that will later be associated with the ghost. The same uncanny sound seems to draw him back down to the cutting during the finale, though he earlier claimed himself unable to hear it. The Traveller’s presence, intentionally or not, appears to precipitate the final crisis for the Signalman – and why is he present? Why is he drawn to that lonely spot? He never explains his reasons, going only so far as to say, ‘I had to know how you…’ before trailing off to explain that he is, ‘simply a man.’ He says that he has been ‘shut up within narrow limits – confined, but now I am free,’ Lloyd’s careful delivery suggesting this statement contains hidden depths. At the conclusion, he simply drifts away into the fog, as ghostly as he appeared in the opening shot. Between the Signalman’s fears and the subtler uncertainties of the Traveller, the audience is left untethered, lacking any objective witness such as Dr Black in ‘The Stalls of Barchester‘ and ‘A Warning to The Curious‘. It is perhaps the episode’s most insidious aspect – can we trust our own senses any more than the Signalman?
This brings me to the second major difference between the James and Dickens stories. In the James-based adaptations, there is little doubt about the nature and the reality of the ghosts (with the exception of Jonathan Miller’s non-canon 1968 ‘Whistle and I’ll Come To You‘). The supernatural is a definite antagonist, physically menacing the characters. ‘The Signalman’ declines such certainties. The events could, conceivably, have come to pass without any supernatural agency at all, by simple grim coincidence. The audience may see the ghost onscreen, but only through the Signalman’s tortured eyes. The haunting may only be in his imagination; the Traveller conjectures, “I wonder what you do with your mind,’ and it is clear that the Signalman is deeply troubled. Assuming the ghost is real, it may be a harbinger of doom but does not readily fit with James’ malignant spectres. It does not appear actively evil – maybe it is just an embodiment of inevitable fate. The Signalman says of his studies, ‘All the time in the world, and nothing to do with the knowledge when I have it.’ The ghost gives him knowledge of danger to come and plenty of time to act; the tragedy is that he simply cannot do so.
‘The Signalman‘ is a beautifully complex adaptation, and a wonderful short film, in its own right. Clark’s direction is assured and confident, content to move at its own pace, perfectly realising Davies’ intelligent screenplay, and anchored by exemplary performances from the two leads. It is a treat that rewards repeat viewings, and for my money, may just be the best of the series.