‘The Christmas tree throws a dark shadow’: Mark Gatiss on the festive horrors of The Signalman

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Tom Fordy
·11 min read
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A haunted Denholm Elliot in The Signalman - YouTube
A haunted Denholm Elliot in The Signalman - YouTube

There is a scare in The Signalman which Mark Gatiss remembers vividly from childhood. In the film — adapted from the Charles Dickens story, as part of the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas series — Denholm Elliot is haunted by the spectre of fate, a mysterious figure whose arm is raised to cover its own face, as if shielding itself from an oncoming rush of terror. 

Until, that is, the mysterious figure reveals itself. “When the spectre lowers its arm and you see its face, it’s just so ghastly,” Gatiss tells me. “It’s like a dead fish. I think my jaw dropped, like ‘I can’t bear to look at that!’”

The spectre’s image is so uniquely horrifying — an eyeless, clear-white face — that it appeared on the cover of the BFI’s (excellent) A Ghost Story for Christmas DVD box set. It also captures something that permeates the whole series: a manifestation of an inner, self-reflecting horror.

Originally broadcast between 1971 and 1978, A Ghost Story for Christmas was a peculiarly British tradition — a new tale of terror for each festive season, mostly based on the stories of MR James. In recent years, Mark Gatiss — lifelong fan, League of Gentlemen alumnus, and co-creator of the BBC’s Sherlock — has resurrected the tradition. Two of Gatiss’s films, The Dead Room and Martin’s Close, along with his 2013 documentary on MR James, will be shown on BBC Two tonight.

“There is a need in the British psyche for something like that on Christmas Eve,” Gatiss says. “We need a little chill with our Christmas cheer.”

The series took a ghostly cue from the 1968 MR James adaptation, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, directed by Jonathan Miller. The film is slyly comic but utterly unnerving — a waking nightmare in which a Cambridge professor (played by Michael Hordern) is troubled by levitating bed sheets.

It was documentary director Lawrence Gordon Clark who approached the BBC with the idea for further MR James adaptations. Clark’s father had read him MR James stories when he was a teenager. “When I wanted to move over from documentaries into more dramatic ventures,” Clark said on the DVD, “the first thing that occurred to me was that I might be able to frighten people with MR James on the television as much as my dad had done years ago at home.”

Clark took a book of MR James stories to BBC One controller Paul Fox and bookmarked The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral, which — to Clark’s amazement — Fox commissioned. “The reply I got was simply ‘Okay, how much money do you need?’” recalled Clark in 2015. “It was an extraordinary time. He allowed me a budget of £9,000 to make the film, so off I went!”

Clark adapted and directed the first two films himself. In The Stalls of Barchester, broadcast on Christmas Eve 1971, a scholar named Dr Black (Clive Swift) discovers the diary of a murderous archdeacon (Robert Hardy), whose fate is sealed by cursed wooden carvings. In the follow-up, A Warning to the Curious, shown on Christmas Eve 1972, a treasure hunter (Peter Vaughan) uncovers a magical crown — but the discovery awakens a ghostly (and persistent) guardian.  The films are both scary and sharp-witted.

The writer MR James - Wiki
The writer MR James - Wiki

“I think he has a wonderful feel for James’ creepiness and horror, and also his sense of humour, which is a huge part of it,” says Mark Gatiss about Clark. “You get some very funny stuff – and some particularly eccentric British performances from people.”

(Watching now, part of the fun is spotting stars from elsewhere pop up, including Clive Swift — now best remembered as the put-upon husband from Keeping Up Appearances — and even Mavis from Coronation Street. “It’s quite a strange moment, that,” laughs Gatiss.)

Clark recalled that by the third year, the BBC cottoned on to the idea that his films were now a Christmas staple. Certainly for Mark Gatiss, already a young fan of MR James, A Ghost Story for Christmas was a festive tradition.

“As a horror obsessed child — and adult — ghosts were always my favourite amongst the gallery of monsters,” says Gatiss. “I love Christmas and I love A Christmas Carol. The combination of things is just perfect for me.”

Subsequent films were adapted by other writers, with Clark still directing. In 1973, Lost Hearts would tell the story of a young orphan boy taken in by his much older cousin, an eccentric alchemist. The boy is haunted by a pair of dead, spiky-fingered children; but their presence warns of something even more sinister. The Treasure of Abbot Thomas followed in 1974, about a medieval history scholar (Michael Bryant) who follows clues in stained glass windows to uncover lost gold. In the well of a cathedral, he finds himself in the literal grip of evil. Later, he tries to make sense of the monstrous apparition. “It is a thing of slime, I think,” he mutters. “Darkness and slime.

Michael Bryant and Paul Lavers A Ghost Story For Christmas: The Treasure Of Abbot Thomas - BBC
Michael Bryant and Paul Lavers A Ghost Story For Christmas: The Treasure Of Abbot Thomas - BBC

“It’s that lovely thing, which is pure MR James, of the rational mind trying to grapple with the irrational,” says Gatiss. “It’s really chilling.”

Indeed, the character embodies a common theme in MR James’ stories: stuffy academics who are punished for their curiosities or pomposity. As Lawrence Gordon Clark described: “James loved puncturing human arrogance and rationalism.” 

Clark’s final MR James adaptation was The Ash Tree in 1975, about an aristocrat who’s haunted by his family history — and some particularly unpleasant creepy-crawlies.

Watched now, the MR James films are sumptuous, but ingrained with the passing of time — a nostalgia that’s somehow both warming and unsettling. “They’re very much what the BBC did so well,” says Gatiss. “It’s that period look. They look gorgeous. Lawrence Gordon Clark had generous amounts of time to film them. There’s something very lovely about that.”

Gatiss points to the opening of Lost Hearts: a horse-drawn carriage ride through the countryside, with gathering fog and spectral children in the distance. “They shot it at dawn, and they were lucky to have this dense fog,” says Gatiss. “It’s so atmospheric. You can tell it’s not a fog machine – there’s something about that crepuscularlight.”

The stories are set or rooted in what Gatiss calls “James Country” — inspired by James's upbringing in a remote Suffolk village. The vast expanse of countryside and coast becomes somehow frightening; it's a world in which characters are isolated by a surrounding stillness and near-silence, where a lone figure on the horizon, or the echo of footsteps around ancient architecture, is more terrifying than any number of jump scares. It is, as Gatiss describes, “intensely English”.

Simon Callow in Mark Gatiss's The Dead Room - BBC
Simon Callow in Mark Gatiss's The Dead Room - BBC

“There something of a suggestion of damp manuscripts, and churches, and getting up too early, and all that stuff which is weirdly nostalgic at the same time. They build beautifully. That's a nostalgic thing in itself because it’s a different form of storytelling. As film and TV gets faster and faster, you actually enjoy luxuriating in something just being allowed to take its own time.”

In 1976, Clark planned to make a Scandinavian-set James story, but was restricted by budget, so he turned to Charles Dickens’ The Signalman. 

In the story, a dutiful railway signalman (played with stilted, suspicious brilliance by Denholm Elliot) befriends a chap known only as ‘the traveller’ (an understated Bernard Lloyd). The traveller visits the signalman at his spooky signal box, which is located by a tunnel at the foot of a dark embankment. The signalman recounts a chilling tale: he has been haunted by a spectre, whose appearance always foreshadows some tragedy on the railway — including, ultimately, the signalman's own demise.

“Weirdly, considering James is the one associated with the whole strand, the Dickens one is probably the finest,” says Gatiss. “There’s something so glorious about the two-hander nature of it. It just comes together. It’s properly scary.”

The adaptation, by House of Cards writer Andrew Davies, uses Dickens’ original dialogue. It creates, as Clark described, “a cardboard formality” between the signalman and traveller. “It gives a better period quality than any amount of costume and design could do,” he said. 

Denholm Elliot's performance is masterful — almost ghost-like himself — helped by the fact he didn't fully know his lines and placed cue cards around the set. 

“Some of the shiftiness of his eyes and the uncertainty at the beginning comes from him desperately looking for his next cue,” said Clark.

The film was shot on a stretch of the Severn Valley Railway near Kidderminster, a perfectly sombre and lonely location, with a secluded signal box and black cavernous tunnel, through which — it's easy to imagine — lies some ominous fate. 

“You almost think that Dickens would have said, ‘This is where it has to be,’” says Gatiss about the location, “because it’s so perfect. The sides of the embankment are oppressive.”

(In truth, the location wasn’t entirely perfect. According to Lawrence Gordon Clark, it was located by “one of the roughest council estates in the West Midlands and a small school. So we were constantly having to fight off small children throwing rocks at us.”)

The film looks stunning too, with cinematography from Dave Whitson and a real-life fog that was so thick it delayed production. See the film's most perfect shot: Denholm Elliot standing in front of the tunnel, with smoke billowing from the abyss behind him.

Mark Gatiss - Andrew Crowley
Mark Gatiss - Andrew Crowley

As Gatiss says, the Ghost Story films are so consistent that The Signalman never feels out of place next to the MR James entries. But its inner workings are different. Originally published at Christmas 1866, the story has been linked to Dickens’ own experience as a survivor of the Staplehurst rail crash in June 1865, which killed 10 people.

“It left him with a terror of the trains,” says Gatiss. “He was on the train with his mistress and was terrified of discovery, and he had a manuscript which was nearly destroyed. There’s an amazing illustration of him giving people water out of his top hat after the crash. I think the crash really marked him. What it means for that story is very interesting. What exactly is going on there? It’s about a sort of nemesis that’s coming for the signalman — but maybe coming for Dickens as well.”

In a BFI essay on The Signalman, Matthew Sweet said: “Dickens’ story is about the ghosts in the machine of the industrial revolution.” The haunted technology story is a tradition that has continued with the likes of Poltergeist, Ringu, and this year’s Host.

“With Dickens, we're not really dealing with the supernatural, we’re dealing with fate,” said Lawrence Gordon Clark. “And the fate of the Signalman is really the fate of man in the systems that he creates, and that grind him down if used in the wrong way.”

Lawrence Gordon Clark made one final film for the series, the 1977-set Stigma, in which Kate Binchy unleashes an ancient curse that causes her to bleed profusely. It’s nasty stuff. “It’s really f-----g bleak,” laughs Gatiss. “Really bleak.”

Denholm Elliot
Denholm Elliot

The final film of the original series, The Ice House, was directed by Derek Lister. It’s another modern day story that sits apart from the others. “It’s more like a Play for Today,” says Gatiss. “It’s not very frightening, it’s just a curious thing.”

Beginning in 2005, there was a revival of MR James adaptations, including retooled adaptation of Whistle and I’ll Come to You in 2010, which starred John Hurt.

Mark Gatiss has since made three of his own entries. In 2013 he adapted and directed The Tractate Middoth, an MR James story about a lost will and testament, which appropriately captures the spirit of Clark's original films. In 2018, Gatiss wrote and directed The Dead Room, an original story inspired by an MR James essay on how to write ghost stories. It’s an experiment that asks whether the Jamesian formula works in modern day (it works beautifully). It's as much about the horror of buried memories as actual ghosts. Last year, Gatiss made Martin’s Close, a period James adaptation in which Peter Capaldi presides over a murder trial.

A new story for this year had to be postponed due to Covid — but Gatiss hopes to get it made for next Christmas. His films have restarted the Christmastime tradition. “It gives me a lovely warm glow to know that people appreciate them,” laughs Gatiss.

The question remains: why do we love a ghost story at Christmas? Gatiss wonders if it’s a “healthy scare” — a primal need in the winter months. 

“It’s almost comforting. It's like we’re together around the fire, listening to a spooky story,” says Gatiss. “The other thing is there’s something about Christmas being so relentlessly optimistic and positive – usually! – which means there’s a desire to have another side to it. For all the glitter and tinsel, the Christmas tree throws a dark shadow.” 

He realises he’s onto something there. “It’s quite good, that,” he says. “"I’m going to write that down.”

The Dead Room, Martin's Close, and The Lost Ghost Story with Mark Gatiss are on BBC Two from 10.15pm