A Ghost Story for Christmas
The Stalls of Barchester
Richard Higson discusses why, of all the films in the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas series, The Stalls of Barchester is the episode he keeps returning to…
“Lord now lettest they servant sleep in peace.”
It’s not one of the famous ones. It may not even be one of the best ones – It doesn’t have the chilly bleakness of ‘A Warning to the Curious’ or the mystery-solving intrigue of ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’ – but after over fifteen years of watching The BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas, ‘The Stalls of Barchester’ is the one I keep coming back to.
It also has one very special moment in it. A tiny little thing that for me isn’t just the scariest moment in the series, but one of the most horrible visceral moments in all horror cinema. But we’ll come to that in a bit.
‘The Stalls of Barchester’ is the first one in the series, and they get the style right immediately. Gordon Clark seems to understand James very well – the ‘cranky scholarship’, as Jonathan Miller had it. The intrusion into knowledge not meant for us. A feeling of universal justice, of ageless revenge. He knows James is all about suggestion, something in the corner of your eye, something that will come for you but is ultimately unfathomable.
But for me, the thing Clark really manages to capture is James’ slight knowingness; his cool, almost arch eye on the greed and weaknesses of men that awake these terrors. A very definite sly wit is present, more so than in any other of the adaptations.
A lot of it becomes apparent in the direction – the Arch Deacon’s birthday, when every year there are fewer and fewer guests, told in exactly the same panning shot is very funny indeed. Then there’s Dr. Haynes’ morning walk past the Arch Deacon’s house, seeing him emerge with perfect punctuality every morning as the bell chimes eight. His daring to hope the worst one morning as the old man is late is fabulous. Again, it’s the same shot, repeated. Then of course there’s the shot the moment after Dr. Pulteny’s broken body is discovered by the maid – a close up of a spoon cracking a boiled egg. The director is having fun with this.
And a lot more of it is in the performance. Watch Robert Hardy’s face at the birthday – a wide warm smile on the first birthday celebration, a weary resignation to the absurdity that the old man is still alive on the second. Hardy brings a brilliant pomposity to the role, laced again with a sly wit, borne of a chronic lack of self-awareness. His admonishing of his sister for saying exactly what he is surely thinking is priceless. His nose thrust pompously high, he turns to her “I hardly think it fitting at a time like this Letitia to discuss the administrative defects of the late lamented Arch Deacon.” Pretending to be a virtuous Christian to his very core.
Dr. Haynes has confidence – in God, in the rightness of his world and his place in it – so much so that he’s become pompous and full of pride, and ultimately a man living a lie. Note the shot of him walking past the Cathedral at the start, taking the morning air, casting a satisfied eye around the place. This is a man who knows exactly who he is and his place in the world. Until he decides to break the very rules he lives by. And like all men who have abandoned their virtue for personal gain, the worse the things he does, the more pompous and self-righteous he becomes. “…Nor can I feel it to be in the worst possible taste to speculate about his possible successor.’ He pronounces to his sister.
Like James’ stories, the film handles its turn from Trolloppian ecclesiastical drama to outright horror perfectly; no simple feat as it’s so easy for the comedy to render the horror silly, and the horror to render the comedy facile and pointless.
As time goes on, and he finds himself alone in the great house, he comes to realise that something is in the house with him.’….what I can only describe as movement without sound’. He continues with his book, working late into the night. (And we can imagine what sort of book it is – a high minded, scholarly and utterly dull book, destined for the dusty unvisited corner of the library, like the county parson’s epic poem.)
It also has one of the most visceral and shudder-inducing moments in all of everything. Ever. I said I’d come back to it. Have you guessed the bit I mean? Yep, it’s that hand on the shoulder.
He’s alone in the house, has been for weeks now. Nothing but his work and the cold and fog rubbing its back upon the windowpane. His servant pads about the house as usual, and a big black cat seems to have moved in somewhere, but otherwise, the house is lonely and deafeningly silent. Winter has crept in, eroding the light, spreading darkness into the corners and unused rooms of this lonely house.
Unable to sleep deep in the night, when time seems to have stopped, he’s just stood there on the landing, not going anywhere, dazed through lack of sleep and a constant gnawing feeling of unease. There’s only moonlight through the stained glass, and the occasional creak of the old house to reassure him he’s even awake.
And then a hand – pencil-thin fingers, stretched blue skin with nails like razors – reaches out from behind him and taps him on the shoulder, almost playfully. That’s scary enough – imagine if this happened to you! For me, it’s up there with that moment in The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963) where Eleanor holds the hand of her friend in the dark, before realising she’s on the other side of the room. But what really sells it is Hardy’s reaction. He buckles under the touch, shivering like someone’s just put ice down his back, all his dignity and Christian composure gone. Every time I see it – and I’ve seen it a lot – I crumple and shiver just like Hardy. It’s a brilliant bit of horror, simple and very effective, and it feels completely real. Like all the best horror I suppose.
And then, later, at the top of the staircase again, those awful fingers scrape across his face, tearing the skin, before the hand shoves him down the stairs and his neck snaps as surely as the old man’s did.
The original story has so much in it that I imagine must have been first-hand experience for James. – The cold, echoing cathedrals, lit sporadically by guttering candles. The large rectory houses, so dark and alone as winter descends. The hard, ancient wood under his hand as he took his stall, wondering about all the hands that had felt that carved wood. The old old church around them, and its old old men. And this film captures it all perfectly. We take electric light for granted but imagine a world where candles, and sometimes gas are the only illumination – sporadic, unreliable, only slightly penetrating the thick blackness. Its no wonder people believed in ghosts.
It all points to something, just about out of reach– the old ways, the old Gods and rituals. Something just about graspable in the latter years of the 19th century, but now gone forever. Or maybe it’s just buried that little bit deeper. As Erik Chitty says in a simple line that covers so much, ‘As far as I know, the old customs have died.’ The old customs may have died, but the forces are out there, waiting in the dark, and Haynes knows it.
These films created an atmosphere the like of which we won’t see again: The old film stock, the slightly odd editing, the use of great character actors (Kudos to Eric Chitty and Ambrose Coghill, perfect in their roles). For me ‘The Stalls of Barchester’ has an extra layer – not only does it capture best James’s wintery academic feel, but it has his sly wit in spades.
And it’s a lovely touch to make Dr. Black played by Clive Swift the same character that appears in ‘A Warning To The Curious’. Imagine if he’d had a series! Dr Black Investigates!
Ah well, we can dream. Just be careful what ancient, buried things enter these dreams.