Robert Lloyd Parry has performed a one man show of M.R. James tales since 2005 and tours his show up and down the country. As both an engaging performer and expert on M.R. James we were delighted to track him down to capture his thoughts on James as part of our continued celebration of his work.
Let’s start with an easy question. When did you first read the work of M.R. James and what was it that drew you in?
When I was about 13, I think, my dad thought I might like a look at his copy of The Collected Ghost Stories. He was right. I was into Sherlock Holmes and Dungeons and Dragons at the time and James’s tales chimed with those interests and tastes. Fantasy. Men in tweed coats smoking pipes. Steam trains. Demons.
What is your favourite M.R. James tale and why?
It’s hard to single one out as an absolute favourite – there are probably half a dozen or so, most of them early ones, that I think jostle for position. One that I hold a special affection for is ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book’. It was the first fully fledged ghost story that we know James wrote, the first he published anyway, and it was the one that got me hooked on him. All the things that I love about his stories are there already fully formed at his first attempt – the humour, the gradual build-up of tension, the terrific and weirdly convincing detail, the marvellously described setting. It was also the first of his stories I performed and committed to memory. I’ve probably performed it nearly two hundred times now and it still manages to thrill.
Are you a fan of the horror genre in the main or are you a Jamesian scholar? What modern authors do you enjoy?
I’ve got to say I’m not a particular fan of modern horror. I’ve nothing against it; I just don’t read or watch it very much. I’ve enjoyed reading new stories and works by Brian Showers, Reggie Oliver, Adam Nevill and Peter Bell – these are people I’ve met through touring my M.R. James shows. Then there are other writers of the past that I admire greatly – chief among them probably Algernon Blackwood, who was far more prolific than James, and at his best every bit as powerful and entertaining. I have a faint nostalgia for old Hammer Films but I wouldn’t call myself a fan.
You studied classics at Oxford, what inspired you to perform the work of MR James; a writer so entrenched in the history of Cambridge University?
Well, long after graduating I got my first, and so far only, grown up job at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. That was in 2000. James had been the Director there in the 1890s and it was when I found that out that the idea to perform his stories as monologues took root. I think a background in Classics is pretty useful for reading M.R. James, but it’s by no means essential.
What is your favourite James story to perform? Which story has brought the most terror from your audience?
I enjoy them all in their different ways. I don’t think I could have spent so long doing the shows if I didn’t love the material. Most terrifying? At different times they’ve all elicited the right kind of reaction – which is a mixture of amusement and fear. Perhaps the most satisfying was when a friend of mine came along to a show out of politeness, and expecting I think to be rather bored, seemed genuinely disturbed by ‘Lost Hearts’ when I met him in the pub afterwards. I should say that the stories in the repertoire at the moment are ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book’, ‘The Mezzotint’, ‘The Ash Tree’, ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll come to you, my lad’, ‘Lost Hearts’ and ‘A Warning to the Curious’. I’m preparing ‘Number 13’ and ‘Count Magnus’ at the moment.
Have your found any stories particularly difficult to perform?
I started doing ‘The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral’ and I learned the thing but could never get it to work very successfully on stage. A lot of the story consists of old diary entries and I just couldn’t find a method of presenting these in a way that was consistent with the way I do the other stories and that didn’t involve me reading for long periods from a book on stage – which I think is a rather deadly thing to present an audience with. I felt it was a flop so I swapped it for ‘Lost Hearts’.
To be honest if you saw me walking down Civvy Street you wouldn’t think I look anything like M.R. James, I don’t think. But when I smear my head with Brylcream and don the old round, horn-rimmed spectacles then I look and feel like a different person.
Have you ever had any eerie experiences whilst performing?
No but I once got the heebie jeebies talking to someone after a show. He was an American, who’d never read or even I think heard of M.R. James, and had come along with friends. The second story that evening was ‘Oh, Whistle…’ and I met this rather pale looking fellow afterwards. He had hung around because he had something he wanted to tell me. Apparently the night before he had had a terrifying dream that precisely matched the climax of the story – a heap of bed linen with an evil face had reared up towards him in his hotel room.
I guess you had to be there…
What are your favourite screen or radio adaptations of MR James’ work?
The BBC adaptations from the Seventies produced by Lawrence Gordon Clark are all pretty good. I’ve re-watched them recently because I have written some notes for the BFI who are re-releasing them all later in the year. The different scriptwriters vary in their loyalty to the original stories. Sometimes these changes detract, but often they add something. ‘The Ash Tree’ is a good example. The film is no less creepy than James story and by introducing themes of childlessness; it arguably has a little more substance.
I’m afraid I don’t think the more recent BBC adaptations are nearly as successful. The new version of ‘Oh, Whistle…’, with John Hurt that was on Christmas 2010 was a failure as an adaptation of James’s story and didn’t stand up very well as an original work either, I didn’t think. Jonathan Miller’s 1960s superb black and white version on the other hand is one of the very few genuinely scary things I’ve seen on TV.
MR James was very forthright in what he thinks constitutes a great ghost story, he likes a familiar setting, characters that are relatable and an antiquarian object. For you what is it that makes his work able to stand the test of time?
I think his deep antiquarian knowledge, filtered through his unique, playful imagination. Also his mastery of the English language – he was an effortlessly good writer I think.
What do you think is James’ legacy to English literature and the horror genre as a whole?
He’s a footnote in the history of English literature as a whole, I think. He didn’t himself make any great literary claims for his stories, nor should he have. He sought solely to entertain not to instruct, or confess, or examine ideas. But they do deserve to be called literary works, I think. His prose style alone sees to that. He deserves to always be revered as the absolute master of a peculiarly English genre – the antiquarian ghost story, and I hope he’s also remembered as being a very funny man.
If you had to tell our readers where to start with M.R. James what story would you recommend?
‘Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook’. In most collected editions of his work it’s the opening story and I’d defy them not to go on and read, the second, third, fourth…
Robert has produced two excellent DVDs of his performances – A Pleasing Terror and A Warning to the Curious, they both come highly recommended from This Is Horror staff. Robert will be touring throughout the UK from September onwards. For all tour dates and to purchase his DVDs please visit the Nunkie Productions website.