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Ghost Stories

Chilling tales for long, dark nights

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The ghost story, first as an oral tradition and later as a literary genre, remains among the most long-lived and flexible of narrative forms, proving as popular on the small screen as at the cinema, in the theatre or on the page. The supernatural was a regular feature of classical drama - ghosts are crucial to the dramatic development of Shakespeare's Hamlet and Macbeth for instance - but the ghost story only emerged as a distinct genre in the Victorian era, with its fascinations with spiritualism.

In 1843 Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol forever tied the festive season to the genre. The dozens of TV adaptations and parodies include the musical The Merry Christmas (ITV, tx. 21/12/1955), Carry On Christmas (ITV, 24/12/1969), with Sid James as Scrooge, and Blackadder's Christmas Carol (BBC, tx. 23/12/1988), but the BBC's more faithful A Christmas Carol (tx. 24/12/1977), with Michael Hordern a near-perfect Scrooge, is probably definitive. Dickens wrote several Christmas ghost stories, and Andrew Davies' adaptation of The Signalman (BBC, tx. 22/12/1976) is one of the most frightening television works of its kind. Dickens also inspired other writers to write supernatural stories, and Leslie Magahey chose one of these, by J. Sheridan LeFanu, as the basis for his intriguing Schalcken the Painter (BBC, tx 23/12/1979).

However, the most influential writer in the genre remains Montague Rhodes James, not least because he devoted his entire fictional output to the ghost story, commenting late in life that he "never cared to try any other kind". One of the first British television adaptations of his work was Two Ghost Stories by M.R. James (BBC, tx. 14/10/1954), produced by a young Tony Richardson, with a great many others following in its wake, including four episodes of Mystery and Imagination (ITV, 1966-70) and Jonathan Miller's magnificent Whistle and I'll Come to You (BBC, tx. 7/5/1968), with Michael Hordern starring as a kind of James surrogate. The latter's success led to the Ghost Story for Christmas (BBC, 1971-78) strand, which featured five superlative adaptations of James' stories: Stalls of Barchester (tx. 24/12/1971), Warning to the Curious (tx. 24/12/1972), Lost Hearts (tx. 25/12/1973), The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (tx. 23/12/1974) and The Ash Tree (tx. 23/12/1975). Christopher Lee played James reciting his own stories in Christopher Lee's Ghost Stories for Christmas (BBC, 2000).

James established the style of the traditional ghost story, set in the recent past and full of barely-glimpsed horrors in often isolated locations, his innocent but flawed protagonists frequently coming to very sticky ends. A modern approach for the post-war, post-nuclear age was established by Nigel Kneale, who provided scientific rationales for a variety of psychic phenomena in such groundbreaking works as Quatermass and the Pit (BBC, 1958-59), the sadly unrecorded The Road (BBC, tx. 29/9/1963), in which the terrifying monsters turn out to be time-traveling flashes from the 20th century, and the magnificent The Stone Tape (BBC, tx. 25/12/1972).

Other writers who have brought a more modern sensibility and a greater seriousness to the genre include Don Taylor, whose terrifying The Exorcism (Dead of NightBBC, tx. 5/11/1972) is both a Marxist tract and an ingenious haunted house story, feminist author Fay Weldon, who has contributed such memorable plays as 'Comfortable Words' (Menace, BBC, tx. 17/5/1973) and 'Watching Me, Watching You' (Leap in the Dark, ITV, tx. 5/10/1980), and Kingsley Amis, whose sly wit is evident in 'The Ferryman' (Haunted, ITV, tx. 23/12/1974) and, especially, The Green Man (BBC, 1990), starring Albert Finney in a darkly comic fantasy set in a Hertfordshire pub.

The genre's flexibility has seen supernatural comedies prove almost as common as stories intended to frighten. Oscar Wilde set the style in The Canterville Ghost, which has been adapted several times, most memorably with David Niven (ITV, tx. 31/12/1974) and Ian Richardson (ITV, tx. 26/12/1997). The comic potential of the genre has been further explored in Nöel Coward's classic farce Blithe Spirit (ITV, 17/8/1964, starring Hattie Jacques), in the amiable supernatural private eye hybrid Randall and (Hopkirk) Deceased (ITV, 1969-70; remade BBC, 2000-01), and in such children's series as Richard Carpenter's delightful The Ghosts of Motley Hall (ITV, 1976-78) and the rather less subtle but hugely popular Rentaghost (BBC, 1976-84).

Many popular children's series have explored the boundaries of the supernatural, from the highly original fantasy The Owl Service (ITV, 1969-70) to the more traditional The Clifton House Mystery (ITV, 1978). Other examples include Emily's Ghost (Channel 4, tx. 9/4/1994), the adaptation of Terry Pratchett's Johnny and the Dead (ITV, 1995) and the sitcom My Dead Dad (Channel 4, 1992). Supernatural sitcoms aimed at adults include the popular Jewish-mother-from-the-grave series So Haunt Me (BBC, 1992-94), and Mulberry (BBC, 1992-93), with Karl Howman eventually revealed as an apprentice grim reaper sent to bring an aging lady back with him.

But the most common home for ghostly tales on television have been anthology series, among them Saturday-Night Stories (BBC, 1948-49), with Algernon Blackwood reading his own work, Late Night Horror (BBC, 1968) and Playhouse: The Mind Beyond (BBC, 1976). Late Night Story (BBC, 1978), had tales read by Tom Baker, while Siren Spirits (BBC, 1994) collected stories by women from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. Attempts at traditional episodic television formats have usually failed, a case in point being Haunted (ITV, 1967-68; 1974), starring Patrick Mower, which had its original run curtailed. Recent attempts include Stephen Volk's superior Afterlife (ITV, 2005), starring Lesley Sharp as a troubled clairvoyant.

Volk's Ghostwatch (BBC, tx. 31/10/1992), like The Stone Tape, is a traditional haunted house story given a technological twist (it masquerades as a live broadcast), and is one of the few feature-length ghosts stories that is able to sustain its running time (another is Kneale's The Woman in Black, ITV, tx. 24/12/1989) and which has proved to be remarkably prescient in the light of the popular 'reality' cable series Most Haunted (Living TV, 2002- ).

The genre has returned to its roots recently, with such efforts as the Doctor Who (BBC, 1963-89; 2005- ) episode, 'The Unquiet Dead' (tx. 9/4/2005), featuring Simon Callow as Charles Dickens investigating ghostly activities at Christmas, while the BBC has also revived its Ghost Story at Christmas strand with a new adaptation of an M.R. James story, A View from the Hill (BBC4, tx. 23/12/2005).

Sergio Angelini

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Ash Tree, The (1975)

Ash Tree, The (1975)

M.R. James adaptation about a great-uncle's sinister testimony

Thumbnail image of Bideshi (1994)

Bideshi (1994)

Short film about a dying Bengali man's prophetic vision

Thumbnail image of Blue Boy, The (1994)

Blue Boy, The (1994)

Scottish ghost story about a hotel haunted by a drowned child

Thumbnail image of Christmas Carol, A (1977)

Christmas Carol, A (1977)

Michael Hordern stars as Scrooge in this BBC Dickens adaptation

Thumbnail image of Exorcism, The (1972)

Exorcism, The (1972)

Ghost story with a political edge

Thumbnail image of Ghostwatch (1992)

Ghostwatch (1992)

Fascinating pseudo-documentary investigating a haunted house

Thumbnail image of Late Night Story (1978-79)

Late Night Story (1978-79)

Tom Baker reads a series of eerie tales

Thumbnail image of Owl Service, The (1969-70)

Owl Service, The (1969-70)

In Wales, two teenagers meet a local boy and become involved in a mystery

Thumbnail image of Quatermass and the Pit (1958-59)

Quatermass and the Pit (1958-59)

The scientist hero confronts an ancient alien evil

Thumbnail image of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) (1969-70)

Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) (1969-70)

Private eye duo with a difference: one of them's a ghost

Thumbnail image of Schalcken the Painter (1979)

Schalcken the Painter (1979)

Supernatural drama based on a story by Sheridan Le Fanu

Thumbnail image of Signalman, The (1976)

Signalman, The (1976)

Charles Dickens adaptation set in a haunted railway station

Thumbnail image of Stone Tape, The (1972)

Stone Tape, The (1972)

Chilling sci-fi ghost story written by Nigel Kneale

Thumbnail image of Warning to the Curious, A (1972)

Warning to the Curious, A (1972)

Creepy M.R. James story about hidden treasure and a ghostly guardian

Thumbnail image of Whistle and I'll Come To You (1968)

Whistle and I'll Come To You (1968)

Jonathan Miller's truly creepy version of M.R. James' ghost story

Thumbnail image of Woman in Black, The (1989)

Woman in Black, The (1989)

Susan Hill ghost story about a lawyer witnessing strange apparitions

Related Collections

Related People and Organisations

Thumbnail image of Kneale, Nigel (1922-2006)

Kneale, Nigel (1922-2006)