By 1972, British audiences had become fairly accustomed to adaptations of the work of M.R. James, the father of the Edwardian ghost story. The previous years had seen four adaptations for the Thames Television horror anthology series, Mystery and Imagination; the Jonathan Miller-directed adaptation of Whistle and I’ll Come to You for BBC Omnibus (1968), and Lawrence Gordon Clark’s first Ghost Story for Christmas, The Stalls of Barchester (1971).
Clark could be said to have been forging a tradition that would run well into the 1970s and beyond, but his most important work on the ghost story as a filmic form comes in 1972 in his adaptation of James’s A Warning to the Curious.
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The film was the climax of an incredibly ghostly year of television, topping off a run of the horror series Dead of Night and the Nigel Kneale play The Stone Tape. Clark’s film also stands out not only for its searing terror but in its exploration of the East Anglian landscape – a focus started in Miller’s adaptation, but honed within Clark’s film.
Transposing M.R. James’s tale of terror
A Warning to the Curious follows the downtrodden, recently jobless Paxton (Peter Vaughan) who, thanks to his minor interest in archaeology, has travelled to ‘Seaburgh’ in north Norfolk in search of one of the supposed lost Saxon crowns of Anglia.
Though finding himself surrounded by a wall of local silence on the subject, he eventually tracks down the location of the last crown through the heritage of its guardian family, the Agers, and specifically the last member, William Ager (John Kearney).
Throughout his search, he is quietly followed by the presence of Ager who died some years earlier, unleashing his fury once Paxton has unearthed the crown buried in the beachside woods.
Paxton and his fellow hotel guest, Dr Black (Clive Swift), endeavour to put the crown back in the hope of appeasing the vengeful spirit, but they underestimate the malevolence and punishment dealt out to those curious enough to look for the crown that protects the East Anglian coast.
Already in this description, several deviations have occurred from James’s original story. Paxton has become far more sympathetic through actually having a desperate, financial reason for finding the crown. But, more importantly, Clark has changed James’s landscape from one of a shadow Aldeburgh in Suffolk to the north Norfolk coast – a pivotal shift of topography that results in a number of intriguing changes.
With this in mind, I set out to explore the various locations of both Clark’s filming choices and James’s original Suffolk locations, with the desire to see what changes had occurred during the transition. I hoped that they would reveal some of the intriguing secrets behind one of television’s most terrifying films.
Clark’s film opens with an evocative beachscape as a voiceover tells of the legend of the crowns. This stretch of beach is part of the Holkham Hall estate on the top stretch of the Norfolk coast. As the shot opens, Clark takes the viewer through the coastal forest, eventually to show the demise of an earlier archaeologist at the hands of Ager, espousing his famous warning of “No diggin’ ‘ere!”
Walking down to the beach is a far pleasanter experience than Paxton’s arduous and stressful journey to the crown site. Walking down Lady Anne’s Drive, a beautiful avenue created by trees, through the Holkham forests and to the beach is a pleasure. On the day, the beach was covered with an alien red plant, reminding me of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. The light was relatively close to that which Clark had when shooting his landscapes, and so attempting to recreate the atmosphere of A Warning to the Curious wasn’t too difficult.
This is in sharp contrast to James’s story which, on the contrary, puts emphasis upon Suffolk’s marshland and gorse rather than the beach:
Marshes intersected by dykes to the south, recalling the early chapters of Great Expectations; flat fields to the north, merging into heath; heath, fir woods, and, above all, gorse, inland. ”M.R. James, A Warning to the Curious
The marshes of Aldeburgh in Suffolk are much more luscious, made eerie only by the mist on a separate visit there to film the super-8 footage for the three-minute film I made inspired by A Warning to the Curious, embedded at the bottom of this article. The shingly beach front, which James also mentions, is far and away from the endless sandscape that Clark finds in Holkham. On the face of it, moving the story to a place of such vastness is a choice that pays dividends, creating the sense of several journeys in the narrative that build up the tension as the film progresses.
This, however, forced Clark to innovate by having to film Ager’s old house in a separate part of Norfolk, probably somewhere far down the coast near Happisburgh, where the film’s famous church and nearby red-and-white lighthouse also reside. Ager’s house is far more humble in James’s story, inspired by the derelict Sluice Cottage, which sits just on the Aldeburgh marshes; James’s description of it as “a cottage nearest the spot” is being over-polite as a description. It’s more like a semi-built hut, designed for the worker of the marsh sluices.
The same cannot be said for the grand White Lion Hotel, which dominates Aldeburgh’s seafront and is the inspiration for The Boar where Paxton stays in the story. Further down the coast past Holkham is where Clark found the necessary Norfolk equivalent for Peter Vaughan’s Paxton to stay; in the Shipwright’s Cottage that sits quietly on the East Quay Road of Wells-next-the-Sea.
Though the town is far more vibrant than it was in the 1970s (even boasting its own film festival chaired by Kevin Brownlow), it is still recognisably Paxton’s holiday haunt, with just a few added cars and families indulging in seaside sweets rather than hunts for Saxon crowns.
Coming full circle
Unlike Aldeburgh, whose walking from one end to the other can effectively give light to almost everything in James’s original story, Norfolk’s locations are spread out within the narrative, requiring Paxton to make several train journeys and bike rides. The particular station that Clark opts for is Weybourne train station, perhaps most famous for the Dad’s Army episode ‘The Royal Train’ (1973) where Mainwaring’s platoon are given a brief blast of steam by George VI’s train as they present arms to the passing royal. The station is still maintained with various period affectations, looking exactly like when Paxton stepped off onto the platform with suitcase and spade in tow.
The penultimate sequence of Ager’s unforgiving chase of Paxton through the woods brings the film full circle, starting where the drama initially unfolded and ending back up in the spooky forests of Holkham. Clark’s change here is the most dramatic, moving away from the Martello tower structures that James brings over from Aldeburgh: “But just before that, just by the martello tower, you remember there is the old battery, close to the sea.”
‘Seaburgh’ of the story is firmly hinted as Aldeburgh here, the town’s boundaries arguably being defined by the tower at one end – heading off south towards Cobra Mist and Orford Ness – and, aptly, by Ager’s Sluice Cottage to the north. Landscape is neat and linear here, unlike in Clark’s Norfolk, where the sheer fear that Paxton experiences while being chased along the beautifully desolate beaches and forests forces the very logic of the topography to dissolve. He did, after all, require a train and bike to get back to the burial location, which he appears to be able to simply run to when a hot-heeled spirit is clawing at his shoulder.
The landscape heightens the fear in Clark’s drama and even punishes the curious who wish to dig up its long hidden secrets; a granular fright arising from a landscape where, in the words of Dr Black, “you can’t see where the beach ends or the sky begins. It’s a real night for walking on the water”.
Watch No Diggin’ Here – a short film inspired by A Warning to the Curious
No Diggin’ Here written and directed by Adam Scovell
Read by Paul Carmichael
Music by Laura Cannell
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