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Signalman, The (1976)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Signalman, The (1976)
For A Ghost Story for Christmas, BBC, tx. 22/12/1976, colour, 38 mins
DirectorLawrence Gordon Clark
Production CompanyBBC
Producer Rosemary Hill
ScriptAndrew Davies
Based on a story byCharles Dickens
CameraDavid Whitson
MusicStephen Deutsch

Cast: Denholm Elliott (the signalman); Bernard Lloyd (the traveller); Reginald Jessup (the engine driver); Carina Wyeth (the bride)

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A ghostly figure warns an isolated signalman to expect imminent danger. Its previous warnings pre-empted deaths on the line...

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The Signalman elegantly couples two distinctive ghost story traditions: those of Charles Dickens and the fascinating BBC strand A Ghost Story for Christmas. Although marking a departure from the strand's usual policy of adapting stories by M.R. James, this is a memorably atmospheric production which expertly serves Dickens' story about a signalman struggling with premonitory visions.

Published in 1866 in the Dickens-edited magazine All the Year Round, the original was one of eight stories set around Mugby Junction and its branch lines, in a framework which allowed Dickens and others to employ diverse styles and genres. Just as the story is now often reprinted as a standalone ghost story, the adaptation lacks the Mugby stories' framing devices (for instance, previous stories provide more information on this story's unnamed narrator). However, the Mugby stories' overarching themes and imagery are retained, including the depersonalising effects of industrialisation; comparisons between the characteristics of people and trains which enhance a metaphorical concern with communication (here, the signalman's struggles to interpret various signals); and the simultaneously liberating and pre-determined nature of railway journeys.

The adaptation inevitably misses Dickens' nuanced and often unsettling prose, but it achieves comparably skilful effects through visual language and sound, heightening theme and supernatural mood. For instance, communication is stressed by the vibrations of a bell and visual parallels between train tracks and telegraph wires; the figurative confinement of the signalman by fate and responsibility is emphasised by design, shadow imagery and half-lit compositions; the recurring red colour motif ominously connects the signalman's memories of a train crash with the danger light attended by a ghostly figure. These combine with Dickens' pivotal repetition of the cry 'Halloah below there' and its accompanying gesture.

The production heightens the story's crucial features of repetition and foreshadowing. For instance, adapter Andrew Davies adds scenes of the traveller's nightmare-plagued nights at an inn, elaborates upon a woman's death and reaffirms the ambiguity of the traveller/narrator by restructuring the ending and paralleling his facial features with those of the spectre. Furthermore, a flashback to a tunnel collision foregrounds the original's traumatic origins: Dickens was a victim of a train crash in June 1865 and attended to dying fellow passengers. He subsequently suffered panic disorders and flashbacks, types of mental relapse which are echoed by the evocative and foreboding relapses in The Signalman, providing both story and adaptation with a further psychological frisson.

Dave Rolinson

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Video Clips
1. 'Halloah below there' (3:03)
2. Patterns in the fire (1:59)
3. Rational means (3:54)
4. Clear the way (4:04)
Davies, Andrew (1936-)
Elliott, Denholm (1922-1992)
Dickens on Film
Dickens on Television
Ghost Stories
TV Literary Adaptation