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Warning to the Curious, A (1972)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Warning to the Curious, A (1972)
For A Ghost Story for Christmas, BBC tx 24/12/1972, colour, 50 mins
Directed byLawrence Gordon Clark
Production CompanyBBC
Produced byLawrence Gordon Clark
Adapted byLawrence Gordon Clark
Original storyM.R. James
PhotographyJohn McGlashan

Cast: Peter Vaughan (Mr Paxton); Clive Swift (Dr. Black); Julian Herrington (Archaeologist); John Kearney (Ager); David Cargill (Boots); George Benson (Vicar)

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An amateur archaeologist goes to a remote Norfolk town to search for the lost crown of Anglia, but at every turn he finds his movements tracked by a mysterious stranger dressed in black.

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M.R. James was, at one time, assistant in archaeology at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and he used his expertise for the background to 'A Warning to the Curious', one of his final ghost stories. More specifically, he turned to folklore surrounding the three Saxon crowns of East Anglia as the basis for his tale, which he set in the fictional 'Seaburg', a thinly disguised version of the coastal town of Aldeburgh in Suffolk.

Reading the original short story takes about as much time as watching the 1972 BBC version by Lawrence Gordon Clark, but in fact the latter frequently deviates from its literary source. James' narrative structure is convoluted, containing at one point a flashback within a flashback within a flashback within yet another flashback. The adaptation sensibly goes against this telescoping technique that, like a Chinese box effect, keeps the story and characters at several removes from the reader. Clark opts for a more linear construction, reducing the number of narrators while at the same time making the central character considerably more complex. In the story, Paxton is a young, fair-haired innocent who has no idea what he has stumbled upon. By the casting of the menacing middle-aged character actor Peter Vaughan, Paxton immediately assumes a furtive and neurotic personality. This also helps to make the downbeat finale more palatable and less cruel, since it becomes more about Paxton's hubris and less arbitrary and nihilistic in its depiction of a supernatural force guarding an ancient treasure.

Of Clark's many adaptations of James' stories, this is perhaps the most varied in its use of landscape and the most visually arresting in its attempt to create an otherworldly atmosphere. This is particularly notable in the drama's best set-pieces, Paxton's flight from Ager's ghost after taking the crown from its burial place and his return there at the climax. Using long lenses to flatten the scenery and make the ghost indistinct in the background, John McGlashan's fine cinematography brilliantly conveys the ageless, ritualistic determinism of Ager's pursuit and signposts the inevitability of Paxton's demise. This is also changed considerably from James' original so as to bring the story full circle, renewing Paxton's pursuit by Ager's ghost and bringing him back to the burial ground he desecrated. Clark also adds a final twist, suggesting that Dr Black may also be subject to the wrath of Ager's ghost.

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. 'No digging here' (3:17)
2. Looking for William Ager (4:08)
3. Pursuit (2:59)
4. The crown (3:10)
Ash Tree, The (1975)
Vaughan, Peter (1923-)
Ghost Stories