A Ghost Story for Christmas
The Tractate Middoth
Mark Gatiss took up the mantle of producing the first BBC A Ghost Story for Christmas for three years with an adaptation of M.R. James’ The Tractate Middoth. Paul Lewis discusses Gatiss’s 2013 effort…
‘Oh, I know ’e’s a parson, but ’e’s the very devil [….] Twisted, ’e was. Twisted. Where others ’ave a soul, ’e ’ad a corkscrew. Don’t trust ’im… in life or death.’
This is housekeeper Mrs Goundry’s (Eleanor Bron) assessment of her employer Dr Rant (David Ryall) in Mark Gatiss’ 2013 television adaptation of M.R. James’ ‘The Tractate Middoth’.
The fourth instalment in the BBC’s twenty-first-century revival of the A Ghost Story for Christmas strand, which began in 2005 with an adaptation of ‘A View from a Hill’, ‘The Tractate Middoth’ was written and directed by Mark Gatiss. In the years since The League of Gentlemen (BBC, 1999-2002/2017), Gatiss developed a public profile as a very vocal fan and advocate of the horror genre, and, particularly, British horror cinema and television. This reputation was consolidated with the 2010 three-part BBC documentary A History of Horror, which Gatiss wrote and presented. (In retrospect, the influence of British horror cinema was always evident in The League of Gentlemen – both the television version and the earlier radio series.) It seemed natural – nay, inevitable – that with this pedigree, Gatiss would become involved in the BBC’s revival of A Ghost Story for Christmas that had originated with Lawrence Gordon Clark’s celebrated 1971 adaptation of M.R. James’ ‘The Stalls of Barchester’. Subsequent to the production of ‘The Tractate Middoth’, Gatiss would go on to write and direct two further episodes of A Ghost Story for Christmas: ‘The Dead Room’ in 2018, based on an original idea by Gatiss, and in 2019, ‘Martin’s Close’, another M.R. James adaptation.
First published in the 1911 volume More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, James’ source tale is often acknowledged as one of his most plot-heavy. The narrative opens in the British Library, where John Eldred enlists a young librarian, Garrett, to locate a specific edition of the titular book, published in Amsterdam in 1707. Garrett searches for the volume but finds that it has been removed by ‘a shortish old gentleman, perhaps a clergyman, in a cloak’. Returning to Eldred, Garrett vows to procure the volume when it is returned and set it aside. However, when Garrett returns to the stacks and looks for the book, he encounters something terrifying, which causes him to collapse. Garrett speaks with his friend, George, about the strange atmosphere and ‘musty smell’ in the library, and George convinces Garrett to take a week’s break in Burnstow-on-Sea, a fictionalised version of Felixstowe, which James had already used as a location in ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’.
At Burnstow, Garrett takes a room with a widow, Mrs Simpson, and her daughter. Mrs Simpson tells Garrett of her sinister uncle, Dr Rant, a ‘horrid old man’ and sometime clergyman (‘though I’m sure I can’t imagine how he got to be one’) who demanded to be buried in a curious manner – ‘sitting at a table in his ordinary clothes, in a brick room that he’d made underground in a field near his house’ – and the subsequent rumours that the deceased Rant had ‘been seen about there in his old black cloak’. Rant, it seems, had left his considerable estate to Simpson’s cousin, none other than John Eldred, but on his deathbed informed his niece that he had made another will leaving everything to her; this alternate will, however, was concealed inside a certain specific book which Rant had donated to the British Library, which Eldred has spent 20 years trying to locate, with the intention of destroying it.
Gatiss’ adaptation of ‘The Tractate Middoth’ was the third television dramatisation of the source story by M.R. James: a US television adaptation was broadcast in 1951, as part of NBC Television’s anthology series Lights Out; a second television version was produced in 1966, as part of the first wave of adaptations in ITV’s Mystery and Imagination (ABC/Thames, 1966-70). In adapting James’ story, Gatiss moves the story forwards in time to the 1950s and seemingly condenses the period between Rant’s death and Garrett’s (Sacha Dhawan) encounter with Rant’s ghost in the library. Gatiss also adds a ‘cold open’ that sees Mary Simpson (Louise Jameson) arriving at the dying Rant’s (David Ryall) house and seeing her cousin John (John Castle) leaving in a car. The curious details of Rant’s burial are left out of the adaptation, and Gatiss also adds a new character to the story, that of Rant’s astute but blunt housekeeper Mrs Goundry (played, wonderfully, by Eleanor Bron). Gatiss also concocts an encounter with an eccentric co-passenger, played by Una Stubbs, on the train carrying Garrett to Burnstow.
In reality, there is, indeed, a Tractate Middot(h), the tenth of eleven tractates within the Seder Kodashim. It describes the architecture and measurements of the Second Temple, which stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and was constructed following the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in the sixth century BC. The nature of the real Middoth is largely immaterial to the story, however, other than an offhand comment about the book being written in Hebrew. In James’ story, and Gatiss’ television dramatisation, the Tractate Middoth simply serves as an obscure text with a name that hints at the esoteric.
Gatiss’ script shows a deft ear for dialogue, and particularly the speech patterns of different social classes; much of ‘The Tractate Middoth’ involves – in fact, revolves around – conversations by characters whose very different social backgrounds are indexed by their manners of speech. Mary and John’s plummy Received Pronunciation is offset by the coarseness of their uncle Dr Rant’s language, which, with its compacted vowels suggests a very different background to that of his niece and nephew – perhaps a motivator for his bitter treatment of them. ‘Pair of prize beauties’, Rant tells John and Mary, ‘Sitting there like crows, waiting to peck me eyes out […] and stick yer fat fingers into me pockets’. Likewise, Garrett and George’s precise RP is offset by the more rustic speech of Mr Hodgson (Roy Barraclough), a senior employee of the library.
Mrs Goundry, too, speaks with a pronounced regional accent: ‘You came quick’, she says to Mary in the ‘cold open’, adding that ‘’is [Rant’s] “elevens” are up’. ‘I beg your pardon’, a confused Mary responds. ‘Flesh on back of ’is neck, standing out like the number “11”. That’s the mark of death’, Goundry asserts. This use of language is present in James’ source story, in which – as in many of his other stories – James used non-standard English in order to suggest a working-class background, indexed through dialect, for the characters of Hodgson and Rant: for example, Hodgson pronounces ‘constitution’ as ‘constitootion’, and ‘secretary’ as ‘seckerty’. Of course, James’ stories were mostly written in order to be read aloud and Gatiss’ script is, therefore, true to form in terms of its attempt to capture the texture of regional speech and to contrast it with the RP of the more privileged characters.
Where, in James’ tale, Simpson’s quest to find Rant’s revised will is rendered sympathetically through the story she tells Garrett of her husband, who had died in poverty, in the early part of Gatiss’ adaptation, he includes a brief conversation between Mary and the plain-speaking Goundry (the new character) that leads the viewer to question Mary’s motives. ‘’E [Rant] won’t last the night. That’s my opinion’, Goundry tells Mary, ‘I expect you ’ad expectations… of moving in ’ere when the master’s gone’. Mary’s flustered reaction suggests that Goundry’s supposition has more than a vein of truth to it.
In James’ story, Garrett tries to describe, to George, what he saw in the library that caused him to collapse. The clergyman ‘had a very nasty bald head. It looked to me dry, and it looked dusty, and the streaks of hair across it were much less like hair than cobwebs [….] Though, for one reason or another I didn’t take in the lower part of his face, I did see the upper part; and it was perfectly dry, and the eyes were very deep-sunk; and over them, from the eyebrows to the cheek-bone, there were cobwebs – thick’. Gatiss’ adaptation articulates this through a superb prosthetic effect: the desiccated face of Rant’s corpse, the skin petrified and covered in hair, the eye-sockets nothing more than gaping holes, its rotten lips drawn back to expose the teeth. Spiders crawl across it. When Garrett encounters this… thing for the first time, Gatiss cuts away so we don’t see it in its entirety. Instead, we are presented with a montage of elaborate carvings in the cornice pieces and supports of the library – silent witnesses to the terror. The audience only sees Rant’s face when Garrett re-experiences this moment as a flashback. It is something so dreadful that it causes Garrett to collapse and, eventually, leads to Eldred’s death. The musty atmosphere that accompanies Rant’s ghoulish presence is suggested throughout the adaptation by a simple photographic effect: beams of natural light, falling through windows, which capture particles of dust suspended in the air.