Paul Childs explores The Signalman, the 1976 episode of A Ghost Story for Christmas adapted from Charles Dicken's tale, and ponders the inescapability of fate...
I grew up in one of Europe’s largest towns without a railway station; a fact that was even brought up in a 2005 episode of QI which focussed on my hometown of Corby (the “C” series, of course). As a result, I don’t really have an affinity for trains and neither am I particularly afraid of them.
I should have a fear of the railway track, instilled in me by stories of local accidents, kids playing on the line and cars making last-minute dashes across level crossings – but those things just didn’t happen where I lived. Of course, as a child of the 70s and 80s, I was accustomed to Public Information Films broadcast in the ad breaks between Trap Door, He-Man, Danger Mouse and Marmalade Atkins, but the train-related ones seemed as fictional to me as the shows they were sandwiched between. I was more afraid of putting a rug on a polished floor than I was of the dangers presented by the railway.
Even when I moved to a town with a station and began commuting to work on the train every day for ten years, they just didn’t scare me. That was until 2015 when I took on what seemed to be a fairly standard job updating an organisation’s computers from Windows XP to Windows 7.
The company who contracted me to do this work were a French firm called Alstom. They make and refit trains. You’ll probably recognise their name from either having been on one of their rolling stock or having gone through one their numerous depots on the way to Liverpool, Manchester or Glasgow among many other locations. Although I was just there to update PCs, I still had to do all the same railway awareness training as any of the engineers or track maintenance staff because some of the offices where I was required to work involved crossing tracks on fully-operational, high-speed routes.
Some of the videos I was made to watch, as an example of ‘How Not To Cross The Tracks’ were really quite traumatic – much of it was fictional, and some were even played for laughs, but the majority featured footage of real accidents and those film clips have stayed with me many years after finishing the job I was hired for.
It’s safe to say that I now have a very healthy respect for the railway. And that respect has drastically changed how I watch films. As a teenager, Stand By Me seemed like a jolly romp through the countryside with a bit of coming-of-age drama along the way. Now it’s punctuated by one scene I always watch with absolute horror – you know what I’m talking about.
Never mind the bridge scene, the majority of the second half of the movie has me shaking my head now…
Of course, this brings me to today’s A Ghost Story For Christmas; the 1976 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ The Signal-Man – a tale which was already creepy enough without the new sinister connotations picked up in the name of Health & Safety.
Dickens himself, however, learned to fear the railway through far more traumatic circumstances than me. On the 9th of June 1865, following a visit to Paris he was travelling from Folkstone back to London by locomotive. As the train passed through Headcorn station in Kent, at around 50 miles per hour, the driver saw a red emergency flag and immediately signalled to the brake car for the brakes to be applied while also reversing the engine. The combined efforts of the driver and the brakesman were only able to bring the train down to around 30 miles per hour when they reached the hazard; due to a misreading of the timetable, a section of track on the Beult viaduct near Staplehurst had been removed during engineering works.
The locomotive and several of the carriages plummeted ten feet into the Beult river. The carriage Dickens had been in only partially fell, which probably saved his life. He climbed out of a window and administered comfort and first aid to many of the injured travellers, some of whom died while he attended to them. Once help arrived he clambered back into his carriage to help his travelling companions as well as retrieve his manuscript for Our Mutual Friend.
That novel ended with a postscript which includes these words:
‘On Friday the Ninth of June in the present year, Mr and Mrs Boffin (in their manuscript dress of receiving Mr and Mrs Lammle at breakfast) were on the South-Eastern Railway with me, in a terribly destructive accident. When I had done what I could to help others, I climbed back into my carriage — nearly turned over a viaduct, and caught aslant upon the turn — to extricate the worthy couple. They were much soiled, but otherwise unhurt… I remember with devout thankfulness that I can never be much nearer parting company with my readers for ever than I was then, until there shall be written against my life, the two words with which I have this day closed this book: — THE END.’
Dickens died five years to the day after the Staplehurst accident and his son said in his eulogy that his father never fully recovered from the accident. So troubled was he by his experience that the following year he was inspired to pen The Signal-Man. The story also draws from another well-known rail accident which happened in the Clayton Tunnel near Bristol in 1861.
This wasn’t the first time Dickens was haunted by an experience, leading to creating a well-loved work. Upon staying at Rockingham Castle in Northamptonshire (and only a fifteen-minute walk across the field from the house where I grew up) he claimed to have observed a ghostly figure walking the grounds. The feeling of dread and horror this produced in him led him to create the character of Lady Dedlock and Chesney Wold, the bleak house of Bleak House. At least that’s the story they tell you on school trips to the castle (which if you live in Corby is pretty much inescapable).
What is also inescapable is the spectre haunting the titular signalman, so wonderfully played by Denholm Elliot. Unlike the ghosts of M.R. James, whose creations could probably be best avoided by following the advice “Put the thing back where you found it”, Dickens deals in a different type of phantom. Even looking at his quintessential ghost story A Christmas Carol, we see that his ghosts are not your traditional revenants of the dead or primaeval wights tasked with guarding ancient buried treasures. Dickens’ ghosts are not as concerned with things like retribution, justice or punishment as they are with making sure the inevitable comes to pass.
When Scrooge is taken on his jaunt through his life past and present, although he sees some difficult things he would rather not, it is only when presented with the Yet To Come that we see him truly scared.
And so it is with ‘The Signalman’. Elliot’s railway worker does not know that the thing he most fears is his own death. He has no idea that those words, “Hallo! Below there!” are an omen of his demise. Yet still, he fears it. And this raises an interesting question; is ‘The Signalman’ even a ghost story at all?
I’d argue that no, it is not. ‘The Signalman’ is actually a time-travel story; it’s just that the protagonist doesn’t realise he is in a science fiction tale. Arthur C Clarke’s third law states that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” H.G. Wells was almost thirty years away from finishing The Time Machine when The Signal-man was published in All Year Round magazine, and therefore anyone in the mid-nineteenth century, particularly a time that was obsessed with ghosts and spiritualism, would immediately think that a time slip or a vision of the future was more supernatural in origin than scientific.
Elliot’s performance in the film is extraordinary. His stilted, faltering delivery gives a real sense of the hesitancy of a man coming to the slow realisation that he is facing his grisly fate – however, the truth has somewhat less of an unearthly explanation. Due to a busy work schedule (in 1976 Elliot was also working on the series Clayhanger as well as the Hammer film To The Devil A Daughter) he had not found the time to learn the script by heart and therefore placed cue cards around the set to help him.
The Traveller, once again unnamed, as played by Bernard Lloyd serves as an audience surrogate – not unlike a Doctor Who companion – for the signalman to share his fears with, and by proxy, us. Although his presence is seemingly insignificant, he becomes as much a part of the events as the protagonist and his tormenter. Without Lloyd’s stiff-upper-lipped Victorian performance, ‘The Signalman’ would be a difficult watch, but he imbues the film with a much-needed air of humanity and his desperate attempts to prevent the inevitable are as heart-wrenching as watching Sarah Connor’s realisation that despite everything she’d done, nothing had changed (until James Cameron ruined the perfect self-contained time-travel story with his bombastic, enjoyable, but rule-breaking sequel).
As the Traveller dejectedly walks away from the site of his friend’s demise, we too are left wondering about the inescapability of fate.
Me, though? The most chilling thing, following my experiences, is seeing ‘The Signalman’ step up the ballast and venture onto the tracks into the gaping tunnel mouth to meet his inevitable future, which, like the train, he didn’t see coming until it hit him head-on.