So, I am back for my monthly mumblings on matters monstrous, after taking a sabbatical due mainly to being far too busy than any man has a right to be. Plus 2013 was a difficult year healthwise, capped off by a house move right at the beginning of the New Year. I had to let something go, otherwise I’d have been so exhausted as to have been no good to anyone. Additionally, I wanted to concentrate on getting the latest Spectral book, The Christmas Ghost Stories of Lawrence Gordon Clark (edited by Tony Earnshaw and with a Foreword by Mark Gatiss) to print, and that’s been a massive undertaking what with everything else (hopefully there will a review of this tome here in the near future from the esteemed reviewing staff of TIH).
Some of you, no doubt, will be wondering who this Lawrence Gordon Clark fellow is: is he a newly discovered writer, one who we will no doubt be hearing more of in the future? Or an obscure gem from the past?
He is neither of these, yet he is also both of them. Gordon Clark is the man responsible for giving us the gift of the BBC strand A Ghost Story for Christmas in the seventies, a series of dramatic adaptations of classic supernatural tales from M R James and Charles Dickens (plus some original material). Even today, thirty to forty years after their original broadcast, they stand the test of time, and lead the way as to how ghostly television should be done. Mark Gatiss, who recently made his directorial début with James’ The Tractate Middoth shown on the BBC on Christmas Day 2013, cites Gordon Clark as an inspiration for his own forays into genre drama. Plus, it would be fair to say that much of the kickstart for many of the TV ghost story anthology series which followed (such as Tales of the Unexpected, Hammer House of Horror and Shades of Darkness) was likely derived from Gordon Clark’s dramatic wellspring.
Gordon Clark didn’t cut his directorial teeth on drama, however: he was initially a documentary filmmaker. Not really a shoe-in for the job of adapting and directing dramas based on the stories of one of ghostly fiction’s icons. The simple matter is that the stars were definitely right on this occasion: first, Gordon Clark just wanted to direct a ghostly tale because he thought it ought to be done, there was an available slot in the scheduling for Christmas 1971 which needed to be filled, and the rigidity of the present hierarchical commissioning system at the BBC of today didn’t exist then and people were a lot freer to experiment or take a chance. Paul Fox was Director of Programming for BBC 2 at the time and, as he himself relates, he had to make quick decisions necessitating a simple “yes” or “no” there and then, based purely on instinct, it seems. So, in essence, Fox said “yes”, allotted Gordon Clark a budget and shooting window, and told him to get on with it (okay, I am massively oversimplifying it, but this is in essence what happened).
And so was born an annual tradition. Every year in December, a dramatisation of one of Montague Rhodes James’ tales was broadcast on BBC until 1978, and by doing so revived a Victorian tradition updating it for the Age of Television. In all there were five James stories (The Stalls of Barchester, A Warning to the Curious, Lost Hearts, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, and The Ash Tree), one by Charles Dickens (The Signalman), and two original stories (Stigma by Clive Exton, and The Ice House by John Bowen). Casting the Runes was also made, not for the BBC but Yorkshire TV. Also, Basil Copper wrote the script to a further James adaptation, Count Magnus, which was never filmed (the script is being reprinted in the Deluxe slip-cased edition of the book). The BBC dramas were recently released on DVD by the British Film Institute, and last December this was where the paperback of The Christmas Ghost Stories of Lawrence Gordon Clark was launched, alongside a panel discussion chaired by Matthew Sweet and featuring Lawrence Gordon Clark himself, actor Reece Shearsmith, and academic Helen Wheatley.
The book is a tribute to the pioneering work of Gordon Clark – yes, there had been anthology series dealing with the supernatural before, such as Tales of Mystery and Imagination, but he laid the foundations for the popularity of such shows. As Helen Wheatley pointed out, there were perhaps certain social circumstances which allowed the genre to flourish, in much the same way that so-called ‘reality’ TV shows do at present. TV is much like any other medium, subject to the whims and fancies of the general public (at least to some extent). Perhaps such dramas tapped into some kind of zeitgeist, which would have remained unexpressed had not the success of The Stalls of Barchester ensured there would be subsequent episodes.
Then again, let’s not forget that Christmas is traditionally the time of family – that inevitably means remembering those who have gone before. This was an element of why the Victorians established the yearly ritual – sitting round the patriarch of the house while he read a suitably shiver-inducing tale standing while a log fire roared in the grate, and remembering relatives who had died. Midwinter was also traditionally associated with being the closest the living approached the realm of the dead, and perhaps feeling the presence of the dearly departed. You can easily imagine how, with a bright moon-lit and snowbound night outside the window, the telling of ghost stories would easily lend itself to the occasion.
In the present, we’ve lost that idea of family, perhaps, but we still have a focal point: not the patriarch, but the television set in the corner of the living room. Mark Gatiss’ revival is, perhaps, a symptom of that loss of atmosphere and remembrance, almost a keening yearning. From a personal point of view, I find myself stuck between generations – the generation before me, whose experience of life appears to have been far more tactile and first-hand than the generation after. To oversimplify yet again, life came to the older generation and happened to them, whereas now the younger appear to have to go to life in order to experience it. I feel like I am stuck somewhere in the nexus between nostalgia and technology – I feel more connected to the past than I have ever done before but I am also aware of the potentialities of technology (after all, the digital wave has enabled me to set up a professional-looking imprint, plus you are reading these words in the comfort of your own home due to the very same revolution). Yet, as my own tastes in horror and genre testify, I prefer the oldies to the new stuff (but I still enjoy the latter). Maybe it’s that existential uncertainty which is partly responsible for my love of genre.
Anyway, it appears that I have meandered slightly from my main topic, so to end this little epistle suffice it to say that The Christmas Ghost Stories of Lawrence Gordon Clark is both a tribute to an unsung hero and a slice of nostalgia. It’s very much a labour of love, and Tony and I hope that you will get out of it as much as we put into it.