From M.R. James:
“ghost stories of an antiquary”
“A Ghost Story for Christmas”
“The Ash Tree”
Directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark
What’s it About?
Man of leisure Sir Richard (Edward Petherbridge) receives notification that his Uncle has died, bequeathing him his stately country manor and all its lands. On his return to England he immediately sets about taking stock of all legal matters concerning his new property, but during these dealings Sir Richard seems to be more than a little distracted, he hears strange noises from the ash tree outside his bedroom window.
Originally broadcast on The BBC, December 23rd, 1975, “The Ash Tree” is the 5th adaptation of an M.R. James short story as part of the renowned “A Ghost Story for Christmas” line of 16mm color shorts. “The Ash Tree,” is a short that first appeared way back in 1904 as part of a collected volume of stories by James, named, “Ghost Stories of an Antiquary.”
This short, running a scant 40 minutes, finds the privileged, stately and refined Sir Richard (Edward Petherbridge, from The Borgias and A Christmas Carol) settling into a inherited Manor as the head of estate left by his late Uncle Matthew in rural England. While his lovely Wife to be, goes off on a riding trip, Richard is left to take care of the responsibilites of being the Lord of the great property. This entails, having his people help him with the grounds, servants, estate repairs and even a ghoulish exhumation of a woman, named Mother Soul, who apparently is not buried in hallowed ground where she should be.
Richard, as well, begins to stay in a room, against the warnings of his servants, that belonged to his late Uncle Matthew. Outside the window of the room is a gnarled, large and imposing Ash Tree that Richard wonders about. He is curious as to why a tree of that type would still be standing since the roots are sure to be damaging the foundation of the large estate. He is retold the sordid history of how is Uncle Matthew had condemned a woman he knew, to death for being a witch. In proper James’ fashion and with the deft direction of Lawrence Gordon Clark, the short moves quickly along with a menacing and tight pace that tells a complete story with a bizarre and uncanny ending.
Sir Richard, it appears, while trying to handle affairs of the Manor, seems to be haunted by voices, flashbacks and realizations that connect Mother Soul, The Ash Tree (where he hears the most irregular things), a witch’s burning and the mysterious and distorted death of his Uncle. “The Ash Tree” is yet another short stunner from The BBC and from Clark, that explores themes of paganism, religious zeal, entitlement and the short lives of the sacrificed. It is subtle yet very grandiose in it’s setting, execution and has articulate panache that makes this entry a strong contender. But what works, here, is the history and tale of murder and revenge that encapsulates the story. By the end, which involves the Tree, we see Sir Richard fighting off demons that are after him, in a fight for his life with his future wife at the prestigious Manor.
This short has a killer ending that does not disappoint with a very unique and unnerving finale that is neither oblique or pedestrian. It is full of mood and gothic fear that projects a very stoic air of artistry and prestige, not only in it’s performances, but in it’s ability to chill and perpetuate dread and giddy enthusiasm for the wrap up and twisted ending that will delight fans of M.R James and the “Ghost Stories for Christmas” from The BBC. Enjoy!
“The Stalls of Barchester”
Directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark
What’s it About?
While cataloging the library of Barchester Cathedral, a scholar finds a diary detailing the events surrounding the mysterious death of an Archdeacon some 50 years earlier. The first of the BBC’s famed ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas.’
“The Stalls of Barchester,” is the first entry of The BBC’s “A Ghost Story for Christmas” line of short films based on the works of coveted gothic author, M.R. James. Based on the story, “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral,” this entry, also directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, is a more sedate affair but no less creepy and intriguing. An elderly and stately University Scholar named Dr. Black (Clive Swift), takes up cataloging literary works in the Library but appears to not be able to find anything actually of any merit or interest to process or publish. At his behest, the Librarian (Will Leighton), manages to find one last item, a storage box that contains the diary of a deceased Archdeacon named Haynes.
With a bit of a longer running time, a whopping 45 minutes, Stalls of Barchester takes some time to get around to the meat of the story often exploring a humorous side to the strange tale with Haynes’ predecessor, who appears to never want to give up the ghost in his coveted position. The yearly Birthday montage, involving a group of men, including the first Archdeacon, who is always present, is particularly funny. The story is indeed a bit more thick and one may feel as if it is lumbering with flashbacks, multiple voice overs and a bit of a stodgy pace but it has (like most of these stories) a very ghoulish payoff with a smart and sophisticated parable at it’s center.
Haynes eventually perpetuates the passing of his predecessor and when he settles in as the new Archdeacon, he sets into motion events (and entities) that haunt, tease, corrupt and dismay him. As Dr. Black and the Librarian read on, we find out that Haynes is indeed a haunted individual with not only his conscience to bear but with voices and apparitions occupying his house and mind. He furthers learns about “The Hanging Oak,” an individual named “Austin, The Twice-Born” and the strange carvings of a black cat, death and the devil on his Stall at Barchester.
What works really well in this short is how Clark achieves equity and balance between the two worlds in this short, while building suspense and dread. The academia involving Dr. Black, who is researching the mysterious diary and of course, the sublime and intangible universe that Haynes is wrapped up in, is all very astute. Following the tried and true formula that James establishes in every one of his ghost stories, “Stalls” accomplishes to feel like a very large affair that clings to the very ethereal and celestial themes that emerge as the tale unfolds.
Not to mention another whopper of an ending that is tenous, constructed well and much to Clark’s credit, is thought provoking. The dynamics, which involve us being in the worlds of Haynes and Black, simultaneously, never distracts and even while the short lacks overt scares some may be looking for, it is, in it’s brief running time, full of creepy images. There is no shortage of ghostly whispers, black cats, strange carvings and phantasmic body appendages. Stay patient and you will not be disappointed with “Stalls of Barchester,” another effective, refined and unearthly ghost story done only the way M.R. James can whip up. Enjoy!
IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN PURCHASING THE COLLECTED VOLUME OF “GHOST STORIES FOR CHRISTMAS’ FROM THE BFI AND THE BBC, CHECK OUT THE LINK HERE
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