Ghost Stories for Christmas: Mark Gatiss on the enduring appeal of the BBC’s ghostly festive tradition

With his new Conan Doyle ghost story airing on Christmas Eve, we pulled up a fireside chair with Mark Gatiss to discuss his favourite Ghost Story for Christmas and which other haunting short stories he’d love to adapt.

21 December 2023

By Adam Scovell

The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (1974) © BBC

Few figures in television’s recent history have done more to fright us at Christmas than Mark Gatiss. Drawing inspiration from both the literary and television traditions of the Ghost Story for Christmas, Gatiss has successfully summoned back the spookier atmospheres of the festive season, making it once more a time of unnerving tales and pleasing terrors.

Though now familiar as a semi-regular feature of Christmas television, the Ghost Story for Christmas has an unusual history. Its beginnings are generally traced to Jonathan Miller’s BBC Omnibus adaptation of M.R. James’s Whistle and I’ll Come to You in 1968, but its broadcast in the turbulent May of that year was hardly very festive. Yet its success led to the later run of Ghost Stories for Christmas under director Lawrence Gordon Clark, focusing heavily on further James short stories and beginning in 1971 with The Stalls of Barchester. The run lasted until the end of the decade, also including an instalment of Charles Dickens and two original stories.

Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968)

Revived in the early 2000s, the slot’s return was initially haphazard but still focused on James, with adaptations such as A View from a Hill (2005). It was not until Gatiss took the helm in 2013 with his adaptation of James’s ‘The Tractate Middoth’ that the slot once again became a more regular festive treat. A further four ghost stories have been directed by Gatiss over the last decade, three based on James and one Gatiss’s own.

This year marks both a departure and a return for Gatiss. On the one hand, this year’s instalment, an adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story ‘Lot No. 249’, starring Kit Harington and Freddie Fox, is the first non-Jamesian adaptation he has worked on for the ghostly Christmas slot; on the other, it is a return to familiar Doyle territory due to Gatiss’s work as writer and co-creator of Sherlock (2010 to 2017).

With Lot No. 249 set to haunt our screens this Christmas Eve, we sat down with Gatiss to talk about all things ghostly.

How did you first come to ghost stories?

I devoured everything supernatural when younger, and I’ve always loved ghost stories in general. The first I read was E. Nesbit’s ‘Man-Size in Marble’, which has stayed with me throughout my life. It never quite goes away. There’s even a little bit of it in my Doctor Who episode ‘Empress of Mars’. There was also a very good Agatha Christie one called ‘The Lamp’. I remember that very well. And a lot of compendium books, too, like the Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories. I couldn’t look at the cover of volume 13 in particular. It was terrifying!

You’re obviously well versed in the classic Ghost Stories for Christmas of the 1970s. Which is your favourite?

I vividly remember The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (1974) and The Signalman (1976), so it would be a toss-up between those two. The Signalman is really a masterpiece. It’s Dickens, so it naturally has an atmosphere of real dread. The reveal is like nothing else either.

Then I love the baroque quality of Abbot Thomas. It’s a very clever adaptation of the [M.R. James] story and adds a lot; that sense of the treasure hunt, and the fake mediums, rationalism versus greed, and my favourite quote: “It is a thing of slime, darkness and slime.”

The Stalls of Barchester (1971)

I love them all really. I also have a soft spot for The Stalls of Barchester. As the first one for Lawrence Gordon Clark, it really has almost everything in place. Robert Hardy was never better. Clark said to me that Robert Hardy told him “I can get big, watch out!”, and yet his performance is fantastically restrained.

Why do you think the majority of adaptations for the slot are from M.R. James’s stories? Is there something in them that makes them work well on the small screen?

I think in all honesty there is a sense of brand recognition to his work. It starts with Jonathan Miller’s Whistle and I’ll Come to You, even if not broadcast at Christmas. Miller was alerted to James by John Betjeman, then Whistle helped revive interest in everything James. Clark then went to the BBC with the idea of doing it as a Christmas thing a few years later, and he became the master of the form.

James’s stories do lend themselves very well to television shorts. They’re very clever short stories and, with the exception of ‘Casting the Runes’, they’re not epic. They’re very contained, which is very handy as you can achieve a lot with them on a small budget. That’s what I’ve found with mine anyway. They have that academic atmosphere as well thanks to their confirmed, prying bachelors as leading characters and, ultimately, it’s what people expect at Christmas: a pleasing terror.

And yet, now we’ve moved on with Lot No. 249 from James to Conan Doyle. What marked the shift?

Well there’s an upcoming documentary with Lucy Worsley about the life of Conan Doyle, and it was seen as a nice tie-in to that. The last few years, BBC Arts have been amazing, scraping together the money for one each year, but this one really fitted nicely into this upcoming Doyle season. It’s been a really enjoyable change working on a Doyle story, too. This story is very much about masculinity. Abercrombie Smith [Kit Harington] is Doyle’s man: square-jawed, a good chap. And it’s all about that versus the exoticism of Bellingham [Freddie Fox].

Mark Gatiss and Kit Harington filming Lot No. 249 (2023)
Photo by Colin Hutton. © Adorable Media Ltd.

Having adapted both, did you feel a tonal difference between James and Doyle?

There’s a muscularity to Doyle that isn’t there in James. James was a life-long academic. He hasn’t quite gone into the light. Doyle was the opposite. He was a very physical man: a whaler, an oarsman, a doctor, a detective, the lot. Even the dialogue has that Empire-era quality that you can have fun with and play against. This is almost a horror story for Christmas, with the ambiguity surrounding the creature, though James was equally full of revenants as well.

There’s a lot of grey area, but the creature here is a very physical thing, though you can’t quite work out what it is. I love that stillness when it initially appears that makes you wonder what exactly you’re seeing. But it’s not just simply a lumbering monster.

Is that ambiguity in the original Doyle story?

Absolutely. We’ve brought out quite a bit from it. I’ve done a lot of reading around the period’s Egyptomania in particular. Wealthy people then would buy mummies and have unwrapping parties. By the time you get to the period of Hammer’s horror films, it’s clearly irresistible as a theme. It’s like Dracula arriving in a Victorian parlour, and you really don’t know what the consequences are going to be. It’s a very rich vein overall.

Casting always seems very important to the ghost stories, especially as the casts aren’t very large. You’ve worked in the past with Peter Capaldi, Rory Kinnear and Sacha Dhawan, to name a few. How did you go about casting for this one?

Interestingly, there was a similar dilemma to people making television in the 1960s, in that you have to go slightly older as you need people with proper chops to pull it off. It was admittedly less of a dilemma when trying to cast the Jamesian archetype; there were people in the same vein as Michael Hordern and they just knew what to do.

Lot No. 249 (2023)
BBC/Adorable Media Ltd/Kieran McGuigan

But this one is about students. I thought of Kit suddenly one morning, and he leapt at it and got it straight away. He played it with a completely straight bat. I don’t really want to let go of him as Smith. He needs to be in more things playing this character! And he plays it so well.

Freddie was the same. In the original story, Bellingham was meant to be like a toad, and I thought I’m not going to do that. It was about making him attractive, and there are so many undercurrents in the script for him. There’s a moment when Smith slaps Bellingham to bring him out of a daze, and I wrote in the script that when he comes around he at first seems angry but, then, there’s a moment where you wonder if he perhaps enjoyed it. There’s a lot of that in the original story. The subtext is there; I’ve just disinterred it a bit.

This is obviously not your first adaptation of Doyle, being the writer and co-creator of Sherlock. How was this different to adapting a straight Holmes story?

It was lovely, because whenever you read a non-Holmes Doyle it’s really like reading another Sherlock Holmes story. It just feels so familiar. His writing is like an old friend. Even in different circumstances, you can feel the familiarity between this and, say, a short story following Holmes and Watson. And, unlike in Sherlock, we can fully indulge here in the Victoriana as well.

In an ideal world, what other writers and stories would you like to get on to the screen for future Ghost Stories for Christmas?

I’d definitely like to do some E.F. Benson. We were going to do Nesbit’s ‘Man-size in Marble’, but were defeated by the strangest thing: our complete inability to find the right statues within the M25. We couldn’t hire them or make them on the budget either. And then Count Magnus (2022) unusually became the viable option, in spite of being set in Sweden.

There are lots of options really. Lots more James and Doyle. Doyle’s ‘The Captain of the Pole-Star’ would be a good one, though it’s set in the North Pole, so that would be a problem on a budget again. Then ‘The Sweeper’ by A.M. Burrage, ‘God Grante That She Lye Stille’ by Cynthia Asquith: the list could go on.


Lot No. 249 airs on BBC2 on Christmas Eve at 10pm.

Ghost Stories for Christmas Volume 2 is out now on BFI Blu-ray.

Further reading

Ghost Stories at Christmases past

By Sam Wigley

Ghost Stories at Christmases past

50 years of Ghost Stories for Christmas, the BBC’s classic strand of festive terror

By George Bass

50 years of Ghost Stories for Christmas, the BBC’s classic strand of festive terror

The early Ghost Story for Christmas you’ve never seen

By Adam Scovell

The early Ghost Story for Christmas you’ve never seen

10 great TV ghost stories

By Adam Scovell

10 great TV ghost stories

10 great winter ghost stories

By Adam Scovell

10 great winter ghost stories

“No diggin’ ’ere!” – Revisiting the ghostly locations of A Warning to the Curious

By Adam Scovell

“No diggin’ ’ere!” – Revisiting the ghostly locations of A Warning to the Curious
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