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Every Halloween and Christmas, we like to dust off the old BBC A Ghost Story for Christmas DVD set. It's true they're meant for Christmas, but we like to keep things spooky for the entire fourth quarter of the year.
The good news is that BritBox is bringing the entire collection, including this year's latest, to their platform this December.
Why Ghost Stories…at Christmas?
In the UK, it's a long-standing tradition to tell ghost stories at Christmas. There are conflicting opinions on exactly how the tradition started and how long it's been going, but it's often believed to have links with pre-Christian solstice festivals that viewed mid-winter as a time when the veil between the living and dead is at its thinnest.
For hundreds of years, people told ghost stories around winter fires until Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans came along and effectively threw a giant wet blanket on all the gruesome, decadent Christmas fun. Cromwell even went so far as to ban Christmas carols. Still, like a ghost in a Christmas story, the holiday would come back from the dead.
In the nineteenth century, businesses were looking for a new commercial holiday, and Christmas cards were invented. In 1843, Charles Dickens published his Christmas classic, A Christmas Carol. He'd later go on to write more Christmas tales like The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life, and The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain, though they were never quite as successful.
Other ghost storytellers of the Victorian, Edwardian, and subsequent eras would include E.F. Benson, Algernon Blackwood, A.M. Burrage, and J.H. Riddell.
The King of English Ghost Stories: M.R. James
The most celebrated aside from Dickens, though, is M.R. James. The Cambridge scholar wrote extensively on the medieval era, with much of his work still respected today – but it's his enormous collection of ghost stories that most people know him for.
Many of his ghost stories were specifically written to serve as Christmas Eve entertainment, and they combine good storytelling, accurate history, and a sort of “more of the same, but different” formula that lets you know what you're getting when you sit down to enjoy an M.R. James story.
His stories often include:
- A lovely, often ancient town in England, France, Denmark, or Sweden. Abbeys, universities, seaside towns, and large country houses are common settings.
- A reserved, rather plain gentleman-scholar as protagonist – often a bit naive
- An old book or object that unlocks something supernatural
In his foreward to the anthology Ghosts and Marvels, he said:
Two ingredients most valuable in the concocting of a ghost story are, to me, the atmosphere and the nicely managed crescendo… Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.
He also wrote:
If any of [my stories] succeed in causing their readers to feel pleasantly uncomfortable when walking along a solitary road at nightfall, or sitting over a dying fire in the small hours, my purpose in writing them will have been attained.
Sound like your kind of thing? If it does, A Ghost Story for Christmas will surely delight.
What is A Ghost Story for Christmas?
Following in the tradition, the BBC created A Ghost Story for Christmas back in the 1970s, producing a new ghost story each year at Christmas time. The first five were based on the stories of M.R. James, with the 6th based on a short story by Charles Dickens. Two more were original screenplays by Clive Exton and John Bowen (Bowen later worked with David Cook to create Hetty Wainthropp Investigates).
In 2005, the series was revived, first with additional adaptations of M.R. James works, and later with original productions by Neil Cross and Mark Gatiss.
BritBox Premiere: A Ghost Story for Christmas
Until now, it's been a bit of a pain to track down all the films of A Ghost Story for Christmas. A couple have been available for streaming rental, and a couple more are on ad-supported streaming services like Tubi, but most were only on a UK DVD release that requires a region-free DVD player to watch (in the US, anyway).
On December 20th, BritBox is bringing us the full collection of the BBC's A Ghost Story for Christmas Specials + a few extras for added creepiness. Before, they were worth the effort to watch – but it's wonderful to know we'll be able to re-watch them all this year without dragging out the DVDs. Even the ones that feel a bit dated are well worth the watch – perhaps even moreso because the older footage lends to the creepiness.
Below, we've included photos and descriptions for the titles coming on December 20th.
A Ghost Story for Christmas: Original Run (1971 to 1978)
The Stalls of Barchester – 1971 – Robert Hardy (All Creatures Great & Small) and Clive Swift (Keeping Up Appearances) star in this tale of a cleric who murders an elderly archdeacon at Barchester Cathedral. Afterwards, he's stalked by a hooded figure and an ominous black cat, which seem to be embodiments of the carvings on the cathedral's walls.
A Warning to the Curious – 1972 – Peter Vaughan (Porridge, Game of Thrones) and Clive Swift (Keeping Up Appearances) star in this film about an amateur archaeologist who travels to a coastal town in Norfolk in hopes of finding the lost crown of Anglia. Legend says there are three lost crowns in total, and that they protect the country from invasion. After he digs up the crown, the archaeologist is stalked by a mysterious figure.
Lost Hearts – 1973 – Like the previous two, this is another story based on the M.R. James story of the same name. When an orphan moves in with his older cousin, he's disturbed by strange visions of ghostly children. His cousin is a reclusive alchemist obsessed with the idea of becoming immortal. The young boy isn't sure, but he thinks the visions may be a warning to be wary of his cousin's efforts.
The Treasure of Abbot Thomas – 1974 – Medieval history scholar Reverend Justin Somerton and his protégé uncover clues about the hidden treasure of a disgraced monk. Though not present in M.R. James' original story, the protégé character allows for the smooth introduction of many important plot details.
The Ash Tree – 1975 – The Ash Tree is the final M.R. James tale from the original 1970s run of the series, and it tells the story of an aristocrat who inherits his family estate and finds himself tormented by visions of an ancestor who participated in a witchcraft trial.
The Signalman – 1976 – Based on The Signal-Man by Charles Dickens, this adaptation was written by someone whose name will surely be familiar to many British TV fans – Andrew Davies (Pride & Prejudice, House of Cards, Sanditon). In this one, a railway signalman tells of an apparition that's been haunting him with warnings of danger that only he can hear.
If you ever watched the Doctor Who episode “The Unquiet Dead” from 2005, you might remember the Doctor telling Dickens he likes “the one with the ghost”. Dickens thinks he means A Christmas Carol, and he clarifies that The Signal-Man is what he meant.
Stigma – 1977 – Stigma was the first of the stories to be written specifically for the series (by Clive Exton), and it was also the first to be set in the year it was made. British TV fans will likely recognise Peter Bowles (To the Manor Born, Executive Stress) in the role of Peter. Kate Binchy, Maxine Gordon, Jon Laurimore, and Christopher Blake also starred alongside him.
This one is less of a classic Christmas ghost story than the ones before it, but it's still an intriguing and fun little film. It follows a family that has just moved to the countryside…near an ancient stone circle (the “Indian burial grounds” of British TV and film). When some workmen try to move a stone in their garden, an ancient curse is unleashed.
The Ice House – 1978 – This is the last of the A Ghost Story for Christmas films from the 1970s, and it was another original story – this time, by John Bowen (Hetty Wainthropp Investigates). In this one, a man called Paul has left his wife and moved to a health spa in an old country house. As strange things begin to happen around him, he begins to suspect a mysterious flower growing in an old ice house on the premises.
A Ghost Story for Christmas: Revival (2005 to present)
A View from a Hill – 2005 – Going back to its roots, the first film in the revived series is an M.R. James classic adapted by Peter Harness (Doctor Who, McMafia). The story unfolds around a historian who's been asked to catalogue and value an archaeological collection at an old country house.
The historian, Dr. Fanshawe, waits for his ride at the railway station, only to eventually give up and ride a bicycle. Along the way, his binoculars are broken. When he goes out walking later, he borrows a pair from the owner of the house, only to have a disturbing experience while using them.
Number 13 – 2006 – Based on an M.R. James story by the same name, this one stars Greg Wise (Sense & Sensibility) as an academic staying in room 12 of an old hotel in a cathedral town. He notices the room numbers jump from 12 to 14…until one night when room 13 mysteriously appears.
C.B. Strike fans will enjoy seeing Tom Burke acting alongside his father, David Burke (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes).
Whistle and I'll Come to You – 2010 – This adaptation of M.R. James' “Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad” was written by Neil Cross (Luther) and stars John Hurt (Harry Potter films), Gemma Jones (Bridget Jones series, Gentleman Jack), and Leslie Sharp (Scott & Bailey).
The adaptation removes one of the key elements of the original story (a whistle that, when blown, unleashes an evil supernatural force), instead following a retired astronomer who goes on holiday after leaving his wife in a care home. She has an advanced case of dementia, and he takes a break to visit one of their favourite coastal towns during the off-season.
When he finds a wedding ring in the sand, he picks it up – only to find himself being followed by a seemingly motionless figure in white.
The Tractate Middoth – 2013 – This M.R. James adaptation marks the first one of several by Mark Gatiss (Sherlock, Doctor Who). In it, a library employee looks for a Mishnaic tractate for a library patron called John Eldred. As he's searching, he meets a mysterious clergyman who is also curious about the book.
The clergyman smells of mould and is covered in cobwebs, and this gives the poor librarian such a shock that he faints – deciding soon after to recover at the seaside. Unfortunately, his time by the sea doesn't help him escape the riddle. Instead, he learns there's a connection between the book and the owners of the boarding house he's staying in.
The Dead Room – 2018 – Simon Callow (Chance in a Million, The Rebel) stars in this film about a veteran radio presenter who realises his past isn't as “over and done with” as he might have believes. Fans of A Fine Romance will enjoy seeing Susan Penhaligon in the role of Joan.
Martin's Close – 2019 – This adaptation of M.R. James' story of the same name includes Peter Capaldi (Doctor Who). The story follows the trial of a man accused of murdering a young woman who may have been seen after her death.
The Mezzotint – 2021 – Rory Kinnear will star in this adaptation of this M.R. James tale about a university art museum curator who receives a mezzotint that changes each time he looks at it. This new adaptation completed filming in February, and will premiere for Christmas this year.
Other Ghostly Tales Premiering in December on BritBox
In addition to the titles above, five other ghostly programmes will be coming to the platform on December 20th. They are:
The Small Hand: A Ghost Story – 2019 – After a visit with a client, an antiquarian book dealer takes a wrong turn and finds himself at a decaying Edwardian manor house. Curious, he decides to investigate – but as he approaches, he feels the cold sensation of a child taking his hand (though no child is actually there).
The Blue Boy – 1994 – Emma Thompson and Adrian Dunbar star in this film about a couple who head off to a hotel in rural Scotland to work on their relationship. While there, they learn of a young boy who drowned in the nearby loch, and Marie (Thompson) begins seeing his image in the water.
Midwinter of the Spirit – 2015 – This creepy drama follows a country vicar as she trains to be an exorcist for the Church of England. Before she's able to get much experience, she finds herself faced with powerful supernatural threats.
Bedlam – 2011 to 2012 – When a haunted former asylum is turned into a high-end apartment building, it has unexpected consequences for the building's new tenants.
The Secret of Crickley Hall – 2012 – Suranne Jones and Tom Ellis star in this supernatural miniseries about a family that relocates to a grand old estate up north after the disappearance of their young son.
How Do You Feel About Ghost Stories at Christmas?
Will you be reveling in the macabre tradition, or will you stick with Love Actually on a loop through December?