The ghost story has long been a popular and regular feature of British television. For several decades now, the period between Halloween and Christmas in particular has been a time for small-screen scares, the TV schedules rife with tales of poltergeists, spooks and spectres of all sorts.
In the 1970s, the tradition of the Ghost Story at Christmas on the BBC, spearheaded by director Lawrence Gordon Clark and his passion for the work of M.R. James, cemented the ghost story as a regular autumnal pleasure, one harkening back to the oral origins of the English ghost story and tales told around the fire.
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Indeed, ghost stories arguably feel like a more natural fit for the small rather than the big screen. Often the sources are short stories, whose dimensions better suit the shorter form of television drama, while broadcasting via our TV sets also offer the benefit of unnervingly immediate access into the sanctity of our homes.
Even when TV ghosts have gone through periods of lesser popularity, such as they did in the 1980s, hauntings still cropped up in the most unusual places in the schedules. More recently, however, they have had something of a revival, thanks largely to Mark Gatiss: from his series Crooked House (2008) to his own ongoing string of M.R. James adaptations, beginning with The Tractate Middoth (2013) and up to the recent Count Magnus (2022).
As the nights draw in, shadows fall and the second volume of Ghost Stories for Christmas arrives on Blu-ray, here are 10 television ghost stories that linger after the lights are out.
Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968)
Director: Jonathan Miller
Jonathan Miller’s adaptation of M.R. James’s story ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ is one of the most effective ghost stories made for television. Although not the first adaptation of James on British television (that was The Tractate Middoth for the Mystery and Imagination series in 1966), it is certainly the most famous.
Made for BBC Omnibus and first broadcast in the distinctly unspooky May of 1968, the episode is built around the fantastic performance of Michael Hordern as Professor Parkins, a fusty academic whose wintry rural holiday away from the rigours of college life takes a turn for the spooky when he unearths an unusual whistle from a cliff-side grave. Foolishly ignoring its Latin inscription, which ominously reads ‘Who is this who is coming?’, Parkins blows on it and summons up forces that quickly crumble his own stubborn scepticism surrounding the supernatural.
Miller turns the story back upon the author himself, creating a kind of fictional essay about James, his mentality and his work. But he does so while also creating some of the scariest moments in television.
The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: ‘The Horse of the Invisible’ (1971)
Director: Alan Cooke
Based on anthology books put together by Hugh Greene (Graham Greene’s brother), Thames Television’s The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (1971 to 1973) adapted many short stories by Arthur Conan Doyle’s peers, creating two wonderful series of Victorian mysteries and thrillers. Although they are largely crime rather than horror stories, one episode dipped into the supernatural: ‘The Horse of the Invisible’ (1971).
Adapted from William Hope Hodgson’s story starring his famed occult detective Thomas Carnacki (Donald Pleasence), the episode follows a young couple soon to be married who are being terrorised by the presence of a ghostly horse from family folklore. With some incredibly spooky moments and a double-twist that leaves the blood cold, the episode is the real surprise of the series. It’s a shame it didn’t result in a longer series dedicated to Carnacki.
Out of the Unknown: ‘To Lay a Ghost’ (1971)
Director: Ken Hannam
Sci-fi anthology series Out of the Unknown (1965 to 1971) may seem an unusual place to find a ghost story, but, as with many flexible anthology slots of the period, genre elements of all sorts cropped up. With the final 1971 series, the show took on a stranger, more suburban tone, focusing on odd goings-on in the modern day. Written by Michael J. Bird, To Lay a Ghost is the most disturbing of the episodes that survive.
The story follows the fate of newly married, oddly sexless couple Eric (Iain Gregory) and Diana (Lesley-Anne Down) as they move into their unnerving new house. As Eric is a photographer and Diana his model, he begins to photograph her around the property only to find he is capturing a figure following her around. It requires the help of parapsychologist Dr Philimore (Peter Barkworth) to discover the truth: that a malevolent presence is being summoned by Diana, who may have developed unusual desires towards it.
Dead of Night: ‘The Exorcism’ (1972)
Director: Don Taylor
Dead of Night was one of many spooky anthology series that emerged during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and a natural successor to series such as Mystery and Imagination (1966 to 1970) and Late Night Horror (1968). This time focusing solely on supernatural tales, and under the production of Innes Lloyd, all of its seven episodes were concerned with spooky happenings. Of the three that remain in the archive, the most effective is Don Taylor’s The Exorcism.
Following a group of friends having Christmas dinner in an old, haunted cottage, Taylor’s play has a remarkable sense of dread. Things quickly begin to go wrong, firstly in the form of a power cut and then with wine turning to blood, until finally one of their number begins to become possessed. Featuring a barnstorming performance by Anna Cropper, the play stands out among its peers in what was possibly the spookiest winter of programmes on British television.
The Stone Tape (1972)
Director: Peter Sasdy
Nigel Kneale’s vast and celebrated output often deployed ghosts of various kinds, whether in adapting Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black (1989) or – more surreally – the ghost of a dolphin in his Beasts episode, ‘Buddyboy’ (1976). While his ghostly credentials would no doubt be even stronger if the BBC’s archive was intact, with haunted stories such as Out of the Unknown’s ‘The Chopper’ (1971) and First Night’s ‘The Road’ (1963) sadly missing, what survives still chills the bones – and none more so than his 1972 play The Stone Tape. Initially considered as another episode for Dead of Night, the play was eventually broadcast as a standalone on Christmas Day.
Kneale’s play follows a dangerously curious electronics team who find a room in an old building that seemingly has the ability to record past events. Their investigation leads to ghostly phenomena as they unravel various past recordings in the walls: some simply spooky, some more malevolent. More than 50 years on, The Stone Tape is still a dramatic and unnerving watch, its delicious combination of analogue technology and ancient evils making it a popular haunted drama even today.
The Signalman (1976)
Director: Lawrence Gordon Clark
A list of classic television ghost stories could be taken up by the films of Lawrence Gordon Clark. Taking charge of the BBC A Ghost Story for Christmas slot in 1971 with The Stalls of Barchester, Clark provided Christmas chills each year, with seven for the BBC and one for ITV. Though largely focusing on adapting M.R. James stories, which included classics such as A Warning to the Curious (1972), Lost Hearts (1973) and The Ash Tree (1975), among others, Clark’s real masterstroke came later in the run with an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ story The Signalman (1976).
Following a chance meeting between a stranger (Bernard Lloyd) and a signalman (Denholm Elliott) who is troubled by ghostly manifestations and dark omens on a railway line, Clark’s film draws every ounce of Victorian atmosphere from Dickens’ original story. Elliott also provides the series with one of its great leading performances, as the troubled signalman haunted by ghostly warnings of disaster.
Sapphire & Steel: ‘Assignment Two’ (1979)
Directors: David Foster and Shaun O’Riordan
With its regular malevolent spirits and haunted time anomalies, Peter Hammond’s Sapphire & Steel (1979 to 1982) is still the most unnerving children’s television show ever made. It follows interdimensional agents Sapphire (Joanna Lumley) and Steel (David McCallum) on a number of different assignments over the course of four very spooky series, investigating all kinds of supernatural goings-on. The eight-part story ‘Assignment Two’ (1979) is the show at its most haunted.
The agents arrive in an abandoned train station, currently under a lonely paranormal investigation conducted by parapsychologist George Tully (Gerald James). As things progress, it becomes clear that an anomaly is giving power to the spirit of a spiteful First World War tommy (Tom Kelly). What follows is a dread-filled haunting featuring some of the series’ spookiest and most memorable moments.
Leap in the Dark: ‘The Living Grave’ (1980)
Producer: Colin Rose
Leap in the Dark was an unusual and sporadic anthology slot that ran for four non-consecutive series, beginning in 1973 and concluding in 1980. With most of it missing from the archives, the series is largely forgotten, but the surviving episodes give a flavour of the strange 30-minute tales it had to offer.
The strongest of these is the fourth episode of its last series, ‘The Living Grave’. Written by David Rudkin of Penda’s Fen (1974) and Artemis 81 (1981) fame, it deftly explores his usual theme of ghosts connected to place and personal experience. Based on the real folklore surrounding Jay’s Grave in Dartmoor – the supposed last resting place of a suicide victim who haunts the spot and sprouts fresh flowers here – the play follows Pauline (Lesley Dunlop) as she is regressed into her past life via hypnotism in order to find an eerie connection to a woman called Kitty and the truth behind her unusual historic death.
Spooky: ‘The Keeper’ (1983)
Director: John Woods
Spooky was a precursor to the longer running Dramarama (1983 to 1989) strand for Thames Television. While the latter series certainly retained its genre credentials, it was the earlier run that was more concerned with ghostly tales to scare a younger audience. Many of its seven episodes are effective chillers, but the strongest is show finale ‘The Keeper’.
The play was written by celebrated novelist Alan Garner, whose other works have been adapted for television with equal ghostly aplomb, especially The Owl Service (1969 to 1970) and his episode for Leap in the Dark, ‘To Kill a King’ (1980). Following a pair of young paranormal investigators staying the night in a haunted cottage, the drama is a surprising slow-burner, given its short running time, as coincidences begin to accumulate and the sounds of something otherworldly enter the building. As one chilling line puts it, “We shouldn’t have meddled…”
Director: Lesley Manning
Perhaps the wittiest and most infamous British mockumentary ever made, Stephen Volk’s classic Ghostwatch may have terrified more viewers than any other televised ghost story. Broadcast by the BBC on Halloween 1992, and directed by Lesley Manning, the play managed to trick a number of people into believing that its drama was a genuine live investigation into the disturbed, Enfield haunting-like possession of the suburban household of the Early family. Haunted by the glimpsed presence of an evil ghost called Pipes, the drama builds to a dark and effective climax.
Causing a huge controversy at the time, Ghostwatch incorporates real-life personalities as the programme’s presenters, namely Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene and Craig Charles, which adds a unique layer of realism to proceedings. Its broadcast instigated various alleged stories about genuine paranormal events, as well as breakdowns and all sorts of other tabloid fodder. It was never broadcast again but today is rightly celebrated as a classic small-screen ghost story.
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