To anyone saying “Bah, humbug” to Love Actually (2003), Home Alone (1990) and other festive viewing staples, there’s something decidedly less saccharine on offer for you this Christmas. Thanks to late-night BBC2, horror fans can enjoy Mark Gatiss’s The Mezzotint: a new adaption of the ghost story by M.R. James, and the latest in a series of Christmas chillers that stretch back almost as far as the Queen’s speech.
It was half a century ago when young filmmaker Lawrence Gordon Clark decided to see who else might enjoy James’s classic horror writing with their mulled wine. A documentary director with no previous drama experience, Clark had read the author’s Collected Ghost Stories as a teen, and was aware of Jonathan Miller’s 1968 adaptation of James’s Whistle and I’ll Come to You for Omnibus. On a whim, Clark sent a James hardback to the controller of the BBC with a note attached suggesting any of the stories might look good in the Christmas TV listings. He soon found himself commissioned to produce and direct.
The resulting film, The Stalls of Barchester, was a critical and ratings success. A tale of vengeful spirits and the price of hubris, which was broadcast on Christmas Eve, 1971, it feels more relevant with each passing year, and adds a holy angle to the standard haunted house movie.
Clive Swift plays archivist Doctor Black, who in 1932 is in Barchester Cathedral investigating papers that once belonged to Archdeacon Haynes (Robert Hardy). He’s trying to shed light on why the clergyman was so troubled – specifically, why he was concealing regular payments to his maid, and why he developed an obsession with his predecessor, Archdeacon Pulteney (Harold Bennett).
As the inquisitive Doctor Black, Swift is perfectly cast: he’d play similarly curious characters in the following year’s The Exorcism (part of the Dead of Night series), and in Nigel Kneale’s macabre Beasts (1976). Hardy, meanwhile, convinces as that mainstay of M.R. James stories, the tortured academic, managing to look youthful and jowly at the same time.
Arriving to take up his post in Barchester in the early 19th century, Hardy is dismayed to find the 84-year-old Pulteney still in residence, and in no hurry to retire. Perhaps those toasts to his long life have worked too well – could a more underhand action speed his retirement? After all, as a clergyman, Haynes can always blame any suspicions on the Lord working in mysterious ways.
Once Haynes succeeds the incumbent, he begins to see bones in his altar and hear giggling in the shadows, which as a rationalist he tries to dismiss. Haynes’ sister Letitia (Thelma Barlow) urges him to take a break, but he’s dismissive of her too, ordering her to “refrain from thinking”. If he just stays committed to his duties – lighting candles, keeping the choir in good order – then everything will right itself.
Of course, protagonists in ghost stories are never that lucky. Clark cites Hitchcock as an influence on his filmmaking, and the MacGuffin in The Stalls of Barchester comes in the form of the wooden grotesques in the corners of the cathedral pews. According to the verger, they’re carvings of the damned, with the figures nearest to Haynes’ pulpit having a particularly diabolical past.
The Stalls of Barchester is as much a tale of human guilt as it is a warning about disregarding folklore. The silhouettes and clawed talons that Clark lets us glimpse could either be spirits or manifestations of Haynes’ troubled conscience. Was a local hanging tree really felled to refurbish the cathedral interiors? Haynes becomes obsessed, and narrates his journal writings each night. His terrified voice is easily a match for the wax recordings of Mrs Drablow from The Woman in Black (1989).
Viewers are occasionally allowed to catch their breath during the soft-focus choral sequences, and there are a few flashes of humour even as the hauntings grow stronger. A fatal neck injury cuts to a tapped egg. A black-robed figure follows Haynes across courtyards – can the archdeacon claim it’s a ghost when it could easily be a stranger in an oversized cassock?
The story builds to a grisly resolution, and its feel of inescapable doom set the template for five further Christmas M.R. James adaptations from Clark. 1976’s The Signalman would swap its source writer for Dickens, and perhaps drove the BBC to encourage Clark into producing and directing the more contemporary Stigma (1977).
Unable to adapt James’s 1904 vampiric Count Magnus, Clark jumped to ITV for 1979’s Casting the Runes. The BBC would resurrect the Christmas ghost story in 2005; this year’s Mezzotint will be Gatiss’s fourth time at the helm.
Will The Stalls of Barchester influence his direction? It certainly influenced Gatiss’s Crooked House (2008), an episode of which featured haunted wainscoting. Perhaps cursed artefacts are now officially part of Christmas – after all, as antiquarians, horror writers and professional fumigators will tell you, you never know what might come out of the woodwork.
Radio Times’ billing for The Stalls of Barchester on Christmas Eve, 1971
A mysterious box in the old library of Barchester Cathedral reveals the strange story of a former archdeacon. From some old diaries, Dr Black, a scholar, pieces together a chain of events leading to a horrifying climax. As Dr Black delves deeper into the past a macabre explanation emerges. But surely such things cannot be…
The film was shot entirely on location in Norwich Cathedral and Cathedral Close.
Originally published: 15 December 2021