Ghost Stories at Christmases past

The Ghost Story for Christmas series added a fearful frisson to the Christmas TV schedules throughout the 1970s. These vintage pages of the Radio Times offer a nostalgic glance back at the festive TV of yesteryear.

The Christmas edition of the Radio Times has long been a fondly awaited fixture for families across the British Isles, providing an open sesame into the year’s yuletide television treats. Throughout the 1970s, one such treat was the annual Ghost Story for Christmas, a series initiated by the popularity of the creepy M.R. James adaptation Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968), directed by Jonathan Miller and starring Michael Hordern.

Bringing a palpable chill into people’s homes in the depths of December, the series began with M.R. James’s The Stalls of Barchester in 1971 and encompassed four further James adaptations, alongside an atmospheric Dickens dramatisation (The Signalman, 1976) and two screen originals (Stigma, 1977; The Ice House, 1978).

These listings pages from the Radio Times Christmas editions from 1971 to 1978 show the Ghost Story episodes scheduled alongside other festive favourites, reruns of which prop up our winter viewing even now. There are Morecambe and Wise Christmas specials and episodes of Dad’s Army; popular sitcoms of the time such as The Liver Birds and the latest episodes of dramas like The Onedin Line. Big films like The Graduate (1967) were transmitted alongside now-forgotten drama specials.

Settling into your armchair on Christmas Eve 1972, you could enjoy a 7.25pm screening of West Side Story (1961), then an Omnibus special on Judy Garland, before the first transmission of A Warning to the Curious – one of the scariest of the Ghost Story series. Then on Christmas Day 1973, chuckles from Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon in The Odd Couple (1968) were balanced with witching-hour shivers from Lost Hearts.

And if the chill cut too deep, enterprising travel companies tempted the eye with summer holiday suggestions: adverts for sunny destinations appear together with seductive staycations proposing “Five ways to fall in love with Cornwall” or a trip to Guernsey, “A holiday you can still rely on.”

Christmas 1971: The Stalls of Barchester

The Stalls of Barchester (1971)
Radio Times’ listing for The Stalls of Barchester, Christmas Eve, 1971

A mysterious box in the old library of Barchester Cathedral reveals the strange story leading up to the death 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.

(Radio Times, 24 December 1971)

Christmas 1972: A Warning to the Curious

A Warning to the Curious (1972)
Radio Times’ listing for A Warning to the Curious, Christmas Eve, 1972

A man comes to a Norfolk seaside town in winter. He is looking for an ancient crown he thinks is buried nearby. A local legend foretells disasters if anyone moves the crown. Indeed, some years before a visiting archaeologist was killed but no murderer was found. No one knows where the crown is buried, or if they do they won’t say. The searcher persists and succeeds – but he finds a great deal more than the crown.

(Radio Times, 24 December 1972)

Christmas 1973: Lost Hearts

Lost Hearts (1973)
Radio Times’ listing for Lost Hearts, Christmas Day, 1973

‘There was singing round the house for as much as an hour after they’d gone … and lights in the woods…’

(Radio Times, 25 December 1973)

Christmas 1974: The Treasure of Abbot Thomas

The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (1974)BBC
Radio Times’ listing for The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, 23 December, 1974

A 19th-century historian and his protégé find a clue to Abbot Thomas’s treasure in an old stained-glass window. But the Abbot has set a guardian over his hoard.

(Radio Times, 23 December 1974)

Christmas 1975: The Ash Tree

The Ash Tree (1975)
Radio Times’ listing for The Ash Tree, 23 December, 1975

The fifth annual M.R. James tale. A nephew is haunted because of the testimony of his great uncle.

(Radio Times, 23 December 1975)

Christmas 1976: The Signalman

The Signalman (1976)BBC
Radio Times’ listing for The Signalman, 22 December, 1976

A lonely signalman is haunted by a hooded figure which seems to warn of danger. But what is the danger?

(Radio Times, 22 December 1976)

Christmas 1977: Stigma

Stigma (1977)
Radio Times’ listing for Stigma, 28 December, 1977

It is as well to leave one’s gate-posts standing if one lives in certain parts of the country.

(Radio Times, 28 December 1977)

Christmas 1978: The Ice House

The Ice House (1978)
Radio Times’ listing for The Ice House, Christmas Day, 1978

Does the Ice House hold a secret or is it, as they say, just ice?

(Radio Times, 25 December 1978)

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