A Ghost Story for Christmas
The Stalls of Barchester
The first official episode of the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas series was an adaptation of the M.R. James’ story, The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral. Lee Broughton explores the film in detail…
Belatedly following in the wake of Jonathan Miller’s striking adaptation of M.R. James’ Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad (1968) for the BBC’s arts programme Omnibus, ‘The Stalls of Barchester’ (1971) was the first of the broadcaster’s A Ghost Story for Christmas films proper. Again based on an M. R. James short story, ‘The Stalls of Barchester’ was adapted, produced and directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark. The multi-talented Clark would go on to become the pivotal figure who would determine much of the A Ghost Story for Christmas strand’s direction and content during its original 1970s run.
In November 1932, a certain Dr. Black (Clive Swift) is busy cataloguing Barchester Cathedral’s library collection. In an effort to enliven his tedious labours, Black asks the Librarian (Will Leighton) whether the collection holds anything of interest beyond its dusty numbered volumes. The Librarian duly produces a large chest that is labelled: “the papers of the venerable Archdeacon Haynes.”
The Librarian recalls that the old Dean had opined that the box should never have been accepted by the library and had vowed that it would never be opened while he was in charge. Black is intrigued as he can recall reading Archdeacon Haynes’ (Robert Hardy) obituary in an old copy of The Gentleman’s Magazine, in which his death was described as being both unexplained and hardly becoming of a clergyman. As Black reads through Haynes’ diaries and other associated papers, a strange and seemingly supernatural explanation for the Archdeacon’s death becomes apparent.
In 1872 Haynes had acquired much in the way of respect and social standing when he was appointed to the position of Junior Deacon at Barchester Cathedral but he soon had his sights set on the loftier position of Archdeacon. However, Haynes was frustrated to discover that the elderly incumbent Archdeacon, Pulteney (Harold Bennett), enjoyed the kind of rude health that normally ensures a very long life.
Documents found in the chest lead Dr. Black to surmise that the devious and increasingly resentful Haynes went on to conspire with Pulteney’s housemaid, Jane Lee (Penny Service), with malicious intent. Indeed, an apparently engineered accident on the main staircase of the elderly cleric’s official residence leads to his death. Haynes is duly promoted but the part that he played in Pulteney’s demise results in protracted supernatural torment and bloody retribution being visited upon him.
When the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas strand is spoken about in general terms, ‘The Stalls of Barchester’ tends to get overlooked or doesn’t quite receive the kind of wholly positive assessments that it deserves. That might be because this show tells the story of a sustained and relentless haunting that takes place during the dark nights of several winters. As such, the film’s narrative chooses not to foreground one of those grand, show-stopping, once-seen-never-forgotten scenes of absolute supernatural horror that served to forever burn most of the strand’s other adaptations of period ghost stories into the memories of all who saw them. Instead, ‘The Stalls of Barchester’ opts for a slow-building and slightly more nuanced approach: the content of the numerous supernatural scenarios that are found here is quite varied and these atmospheric interludes are spread fairly evenly throughout the latter two-thirds of the film.
Some of ‘The Stalls of Barchester’s’ supernatural set pieces are relatively short in length but they still possess the power to disturb the viewer and their accumulative effect is positively unnerving. These scenarios primarily revolve around three strange carvings of a cat, Death and the Devil that are the ornamental centrepieces of the Archdeacon’s stall in the cathedral. When he replaces Pulteney, Haynes is alarmed to briefly see both the cat and Death manifested as physically present entities during different evening services at the church. Worse still, the jittery Archdeacon hears the footsteps of an unseen presence following him as he takes a lengthy walk around the cathedral alone after dark: Haynes eventually comes across the Verger (Martin Hoyle) who innocently remarks that he saw somebody stood next to the Archdeacon just moments earlier, an observation that leaves Haynes in a truly perturbed state.
Things get worse for Haynes when the cat and Death make their presence felt in his official residence. However, the most effective supernatural sequences that take place in the Archdeacon’s home might be those that do not show any physical manifestations, relying instead on excellent acting and narration, expressive lighting and well-judged sound effects. Haynes is constantly writing in his diary that he “must be firm” and we’re left in no doubt why this is: after dark, he hears activity and voices in his hallway and on the staircase where Pulteney died even though he is home alone; visitors see the cat and one night Haynes almost trips over it on the stairs; a disembodied voice asks, “May I come in?” before Haynes’ bedroom door swings open, pushed by an unseen hand and so on. While the stalls’ third carving, the Devil, never becomes physically manifest, the viewer is left in no doubt that Haynes will soon be making his acquaintance in the afterlife.
‘The Stalls of Barchester’ is a sophisticated show that appeals and pleases on a number of different levels. M.R. James’ supernatural stories were often cautionary tales of some description or other and that’s particularly true of this one. Indeed, Lawrence Gordon Clark’s adaptation of this tale plays like a cultured and folk horror-inflected variant of a shocking E. C. Comics horror story. That’s primarily because ‘The Stalls of Barchester’s’ narrative revolves around a callous crime that is driven by impatient ambition. Furthermore, a suitably gory special effect is brought into play when supernatural retribution is enacted at the film’s climax. And in the film’s coda, Dr. Black discovers that a woodcarver who was blessed with second sight – and who had a penchant for sourcing his wood from trees that possessed mystical properties – might have sealed Haynes’ fate when he performed restoration work on the Archdeacon’s stalls 200 years before Haynes’ appointment.
Interestingly, with its focus on the lives and mores of a cosseted section of Britain’s historical bourgeoisie, ‘The Stalls of Barchester’ also plays like a supernatural variant of what has become known as the heritage film. It’s a period piece whose mise-en-scene is enlivened by some superbly detailed sets and fine costuming. In addition, the film features some lovingly shot location footage that perfectly captures the commanding beauty of Norwich Cathedral (the grand church that stood in for the fictitious Barchester Cathedral) and its attendant grounds and satellite buildings.
Equally, ‘The Stalls of Barchester’ is a well-cast and well-acted show. To some extent, the characteristics of the film’s villain and his victim are telegraphed via their physical appearances. Haynes’ beady eyes and hawkish nose, his shock of black hair, his black beard and his arched bushy eyebrows lend themselves to a facial expression that falls somewhere between dour and haughty-looking. By contrast, Pulteney’s face is home to gentler features and he spends much of his time smiling benevolently. Clark’s employment of stereotypical physical features as character-defining shorthand adds to the film’s E. C. Comics horror story-like vibe at times but his efforts in this regard remain subtle and well-judged for the most part.
Haynes’ sister Letitia, who is a judgmental spinster of weak character, plays an interesting role in the proceedings. Haynes finds her easy to dominate and control but she remains brave enough to knowingly drop pointed observations and bits of idle gossip into conversations that have the potential to cause him embarrassment or worse, before awkwardly retreating inside of herself following some form of chastisement. Expertly portrayed by Thelma Barlow, Letitia has much in common with Mavis Riley, the character that Barlow would go on to play in the television soap opera Coronation Street (ITV, 1960-).
Letitia plays a pivotal role in the mildly humorous recurring scenes that Clark employs to present the passing of time and Haynes’ growing sense of resentment towards Pulteney. Letitia seems to revel in annually reminding her brother that Pulteney’s birthday is imminent and that he has been invited to the upcoming birthday celebrations. Each resultant celebration features fewer and fewer attendees as Pulteney begins to outlive his peers, much to Haynes’ barely concealed annoyance. At one point Letitia’s reference in passing to Methuselah seems designed to play upon her brother’s acute awareness of Pulteney’s increasing age.
Haynes’ diaries and other papers are neatly employed as devices that allow Clark to seamlessly switch between scenes that are set in the late 19th century and scenes that are set in 1932. In the 1932 scenes, the ever-dependable Clive Swift offers a pleasing performance as the droll academic, Dr. Black. The rational minds of Black and the cathedral’s Librarian are quick to conclude that a type of madness brought on by guilt and stress must have played a part in making Haynes imagine the supernatural phenomena that he reported in his diaries. However, the folk horror-inflected evidence that Black uncovers during the film’s coda leaves him with much food for thought. Swift’s Dr. Black is one of M. R. James’ less prickly and thus more likeable academic characters and the actor would play the good doctor again in the A Ghost Story for Christmas strand’s next production, Clark’s adaptation of James’ ‘A Warning to the Curious’ (1972).
‘The Stalls of Barchester’ remains a good-looking film that impresses at a technical level. Much of the show’s action takes place after dark and every effort was made to successfully evoke the look of period candle lighting. In some shots, Haynes is placed – and cleverly lit – at the centre of patches of extreme darkness, which accentuates both his increasingly isolated predicament and his vulnerability to supernatural assault. Indeed, the film’s exquisite lighting, its stylish cinematography and Robert Hardy’s rattled readings of Haynes’ unsettling diary entries create an atmosphere in which the Archdeacon’s feelings of fear and trepidation become progressively more palpable. Certainly, the scenes that lead up to Haynes’ demise at the hands of the supernatural entities that have tormented him for so long are something of a master class in tension building and suspense. As such, ‘The Stalls of Barchester’ remains a quite brilliantly executed ghost story that makes for perfect viewing on a dark winter’s night during the festive season.