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Ash Tree, The (1975)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Ash Tree, The (1975)
For A Ghost Story for Christmas, BBC, tx. 23/12/1975, colour, 32 mins
DirectorLawrence Gordon Clark
Production CompanyBBC
ProducerRosemary Hill
AdaptationDavid Rudkin
Original storyM.R. James

Cast: Edward Petherbridge (Sir Richard Fell); Lucy Griffiths (Mrs Chiddock); Lalla Ward (Lady Augusta); David Pugh (herdsman); Preston Lockwood (Dr Croome); Barbara Ewing (Anne Mothersole)

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Sir Richard inherits the family estate and, after taking possession, finds himself overwhelmed with visions of his great uncle's role in the hanging of a woman suspected of witchcraft.

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At 32 minutes, The Ash Tree is both the briefest and probably the densest of the M.R. James adaptations made for the A Ghost Story at Christmas (BBC, 1971-78) strand. Sir Richard, the new Squire of Castringham (based on Livermere, Suffolk), is presented as young, ambitious and lusty - he hangs nude pictures in Castringham Hall, which he is having remodelled, while his fiancée mocks his reading of the ancient Greek war strategist Polyaenus and Henry Fielding's notorious romp The History of Tom Jones. The ash tree (fraxinus excelsior), sacred to the druids, is just outside his great uncle's old room, and soon Sir Richard finds his energy sapped as he is haunted by visions of his ancestor.

The pull into the past is subtle and gradual - first there are silhouetted figures entreating Sir Matthew while Sir Richard sits in his study (both are played by Edward Petherbridge); later Sir Richard begins, unknowingly, to repeat words and phrases previously used by his great uncle, before we finally start cutting directly into the flashbacks.

In expanding the original short story (the writing credit reads 'A television version by David Rudkin'), the main addition is the clear suggestion of some sort of attraction between Sir Matthew and Anne Mothersole, the voluptuous witch. Thus, as presented here, her revenge on Sir Matthew's family line is also borne of thwarted desire and passion. While this serves to provide some additional texture by way of psychological motivation, it emphasises that Sir Matthew seems to have acted correctly (given the laws and ways of the time), as she clearly is a witch with supernatural powers.

The supernatural elements of the story are presented surprisingly directly in this production, although the witch turning into a hare is limited just to black and white nature footage. The climax however, despite the BBC's typically parsimonious budget, is dominated by special effects. In the creepy finale, Sir Richard is overrun with creatures emanating from the tree, resembling giant grey-haired spiders with expressive eyes and large mouths (James apparently really hated spiders). This part of the original story is translated surprisingly literally, perhaps even too much so. While the creatures are certainly grotesque and threatening, compared with some of the other adaptations of the series, The Ash Tree does lose some power through this lack of ambiguity. The result overall remains satisfyingly unsettling, however, thanks also to Petherbridge's restrained, psychologically acute performance.

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. The new squire (2:31)
2. Anne Mothersole (4:11)
3. Sir Matthew's death (2:48)
Warning to the Curious, A (1972)
Whistle and I'll Come To You (1968)
Ghost Stories