A Ghost Story for Christmas
The Treasure of Abbot Thomas
The Treasure of Abbot Thomas was the first of two A Ghost Story for Christmas episodes to be adapted (or written as an original tale) by celebrated writer, John Bowen. Conrad Kurtz looks back at the 1974 episode…
One of the most successful of the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas series and also one of the most intriguing and terrifying.
First screened in 1974, ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas‘ features another of M.R. James’ brilliant tales, brought to life by a fine cast headed this time by Michael Bryant who brings to life the part of The Reverend Justin Somerton.
The story begins with Justin attending a séance with a young friend, Peter, Lord Dattering whose father has recently died and whose mother is seeking comfort through a series of seances to contact him. However, Peter suspects fraud and enlists Justin’s aid.
Justin is researching an ancient volume that tells of a hidden treasure left behind by a 15th-century alchemist called Abbot Thomas who supposedly concealed a large amount of gold somewhere in the monastery where Justin is employed in his research.
He agrees to attend the séance and, as expected, exposes it as a fraud. His scepticism of “all forms of higher silliness” as he calls it, is important because it establishes his thoughts and ideas on the supernatural which he will face in more tangible forms later on.
Peter now also becomes obsessed with helping to find the hidden treasure and comes to the conclusion that the clue to its location is in a stained glass window in the nearby Gravely church.
The discovery of clues and the detective work that lead to the location of the treasure is fascinatingly portrayed and, as the two men get closer to their prize, the tension mounts.
So too do the unsettling and potentially supernatural incidents. Peter, a devotee of early photography, takes a series of shots of the stained glass window that reveal more details. The two men finally locate what they believe is the source of the gold. It is a culvert in the monastery grounds. Somewhere in that underground tunnel, behind a stone marked with seven “eyes”, they come to believe the treasure rests.
With the discovery of the gold’s source, we now move into full-on horror territory. The dark, subterranean passageway, the fear of the two men balanced against their excitement at what they might discover and the growing obsessiveness particularly of Justin. The atmosphere, already carefully built up, now moves to another level.
The array of hidden clues and cryptograms needed to discover the treasure is riveting and draws the viewer in as surely as it does the two characters who become obsessed with finding answers. What they also find is a warning.
Abbot Thomas supposedly set a guardian to watch over the treasure. What form this guardian takes or what it might be doesn’t deter Justin and he sets off one night to uncover the hidden gold.
What he discovers is a nightmare.
Counting his steps along the culvert, he finds the stone with seven “eyes” and removes it. From behind that stone, slime erupts and also the fearful laughter of the guardian that echoes frighteningly inside the culvert.
Terrified, Justin flees back to his room, only to discover that the thing guarding the treasure has pursued him.
When Peter goes to visit his friend he’s told by a maid busily scrubbing the slime from the steps and floor “he hasn’t been out for two days and he won’t let no one in.” When Peter finally manages to get inside his friend’s room and speak with him Justin tells him “it is a thing of slime, I think.” To make matters worse, the ‘treasure’ is, in fact, just worthless pieces of lead and other base metal. It would appear that Abbot Thomas wasn’t a particularly successful alchemist.
Justin asks Peter to put the coins back thinking the attacks will cease. The younger man does as he’s asked and next time we see Justin he is in a wheelchair in the expansive garden of the Dattering’s large country house, recuperating from his ordeal. He’s awaiting a call from the doctor but it isn’t the doctor who finally arrives but a cowled figure who we are left to believe is the guardian, seeking final vengeance.
The final long shot, looking down on Justin the way the gargoyles looked down upon the culvert at the monastery, shows the guardian approaching him fast and purposefully. Then there is a sudden, final cut to the credits.
It is possible to look at Justin’s obsession with the gold and subsequent persecution by the guardian as a projection of his fevered imagination but anyone who watches ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’ for the first time will be convinced that the supernatural is firmly to blame for the unfolding events.
As dramatised by John Bowen and directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, it’s one of the best of the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas series. Tense, in places terrifying and, as one came to expect of these Yuletide presentations, beautifully acted. It is a great adaptation of the M.R. James story, keeping the central ideas but making it tighter and more visual. Needless to say, it retains James’s own fascination for cryptograms and word puzzles (the actual deciphering of the images and words in the stained glass windows goes on much longer and at greater detail in the story) and draws the viewer into the characters increasingly obsessive hunt for the treasure.
It is no surprise to find that this particular episode was the inspiration for the novel Renegades by Shaun Hutson which also uses the idea of a stained glass window and a secret left behind hundreds of years earlier. To say that Hutson’s writing style is more savage than that of James is something of an understatement but it’s easy to see why he was drawn to this wonderful adaptation.
Director Lawrence Gordon Clark also directed the other BBC M.R. James adaptations ‘The Stalls of Barchester‘ (1971), ‘A Warning to the Curious‘ (1972), ‘Lost Hearts‘ (1973) and ‘The Ash Tree‘ (1975) so we should have known we were in good hands from the beginning.
He was also responsible for a haunting adaptation of Charles Dickens’ ‘The Signalman‘ for the BBC in 1976.
The BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas became a minor institution in houses up and down the country during the ’70s as families gathered around their TV sets to be terrified and haunted just as the festivities kicked off. Shown on Christmas Eve night, and usually close to midnight, they always attracted large audiences. With stories like ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’, it wasn’t hard to see why.
The ghost story remains popular and it was never more so than as envisioned by this excellent BBC annual treat. It still raises the hairs on the back of the neck to this day and you can’t wish for higher praise.
Let’s raise a glass to Abbot Thomas. And his treasure.