and The Rose Garden (Terror 2006 at The Sticking Place, The Union Theatre,
A Night With A Demon (special screening of Night of the Demon, Borehamwood, Herts)
Casting the Runes by M.R. James (Pandemonium Drama Group, The Carriageworks, Leeds)
A Pleasing Terror: Two Ghost Stories by M.R. James (Nunkie Theatre production, Cambridge)
David Benson's Haunted Stage (Edinburgh Fringe, 2004)
M.R. James at the National Film Theatre
"The Cicerones" at the Greenwich Film Festival
(These reviews are original to the Ghosts & Scholars web site and have not appeared previously elsewhere.)
The evening of November 22nd found me and a couple of friends at the Union Theatre, Southwark, where, as part of the Terror 2006 season, we were going to see two plays based on stories by M.R. James. These had been included to commemorate the 70th anniversary of James's death, and the programme notes state: "No other theatre or literary group will be recognising James's work to such an extent as we launch world premiers of The Disappearance [adapted by Daragh Carville from "The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance"], The Rose Garden [adapted by William Stewart] and There Was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard". Strange, then, that there seems to have been so little advertising for the event and that we weren't sure exactly what we would be going to see until we arrived at the tiny theatre, which smelled of damp and paraffin.
Clouds of dry ice greeted us as we tiptoed past the footlights on a stage which looked like the decking from someone's back garden, and settled ourselves into seats in the front row. Luckily, the theatre is very civilised and members of the audience were allowed to take their drinks in with them.
When speaking of his dream, the letter writer of "The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance" mentions that, "The little curtain flew up and the drama began". Here, the actors playing Kidman and Gallop, or Foresta and Calpigi, leered menacingly at the audience before pulling the red velvet curtains open. The action began with the arrival of a Mr Rogers (Scott Brooksbank) at an inn. Scenery was kept to a minimum and there were sound effects of a snow storm outside. Although not a strict retelling of the story, the play did stay pretty faithful to James and the flavour of the tale was preserved. Rogers has come to investigate the disappearance of his uncle; the innkeeper is Mr Bowman (Simon Lloyd) and a bagman recommends the Punch and Judy show. Perhaps the most effective scene was the dream sequence. We were watching the Punch and Judy show, but then life-size figures in masks made their appearance and took over from the puppets. Members of the audience shifted uncomfortably under Punch's gaze and tried not to draw attention to themselves. The Policeman was quickly dispatched, then Punch sat at the head of Rogers' bed and caressed the baby, progressing from stroking its face to suffocating it. He struck the baby against the bed frame - causing the girl beside me to almost go into hysterics - and squeaked, "That's the way to do it", while Rogers trembled and moaned with horror.
In his third letter the narrator in the story writes, "The stage got perceptibly darker as each crime was consummated, and at last there was one murder which was done quite in the dark..." Punch drew a knife across Judy's throat, the theatre was plunged into darkness and those of us in the front rows felt the 'blood' hit us. The girl beside me shrieked and, when the lights went up again, she was distracted from the action while she checked her clothes and arms for any sign of the liquid we'd been drenched in. It was a good grand guignol moment. Rogers' dead uncle, complete with the bag over his head, appeared in a spotlight and there was a chase through the audience with lots of screaming. All the major characters of James's tale were present and some of the lines spoken were direct from "The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance" (though there was no Toby Dog!). Those not familiar with the text might have had a little trouble in following the climax, but the Punch and Judy masks were enough to give anyone nightmares and we enjoyed the combination of horror and humour.
Which brings us on to The Rose Garden. This opened with a Thames Television logo being projected onto the back of the stage, and credits running, much like those of a 1970s sit-com, using the names George and Mary as you would for George and Mildred. The wooden post was there throughout, being used as part of a church hall, on which Mary Anstruther has displayed her jumble sale knitwear; then featuring in the room in which George has his dream - this time dressed with horse brasses; and transformed in another room at Westfield Hall by the addition of a lamp shade: simple but effective. Being set as it was, the action was played more for laughs than ghostly chills and there were a number of schoolboy-humour jokes, mainly about how the Reverend (Scott Christie) wished Miss Wilkins (Gemma Larke) wasn't moving away, as he would miss her Puss; she had been such a good Puss to his Dick. You get the picture... Most peculiar was seeing Miss Wilkins in drag as Collins, trying to persuade George (Thomas McGairl) to use his influence with Mary (Charlotte Asprey), so that the post won't be removed. At the end, of course, the post is gone. George lies on the ground with a terrible gash across his head, while his wife tells him the doctor is on his way. The stage gets darker and Mary begins to get frightened. She backs away from George, going further and further upstage, until she can go no further. End credits begin to flicker as she says, "Is that you, doctor?... Doctor?" Whatever was being held down by the post has clearly been released. Again, all the major characters were present and there was some use of James's own words, but this was far less successful than the first play. Still, it made for a light note in an evening which was to get very dark indeed, as the play shown after the interval was not There was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard [only performed at Halloween - ed], but Normal by Anthony Neilson, "a shocking and controversial exploration into the mind of Peter Kurten, the Dusseldorf Ripper of the 1930's".
The standard of acting was excellent throughout and it is amazing how atmosphere can be built and sustained when there is very little in the way of scenery and props. We were entertained in between the Jamesian plays by some appalling stale jokes and the sight of a showman, supposedly unable to feel pain, apparently putting a large spike through his thumb and drawing a lot of blood as a result; another macabre moment where shrieks of horror mingled with those of laughter.
It is to be hoped that the plays will reach a wider audience and that Britain's only Annual Horror Theatre Festival will continue for many years to come.
November 24, 2006. Copyright © 2006 Katherine Haynes.
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Some years ago, a number of plaques were put up throughout Borehamwood, including one for Hammer and another for Peter Cushing. Stars of film and television, some better known than others, attended an event at Elstree Studios. Vince [Mattocks] and I were there to represent The Dracula Society, while David Stuart Davies and his wife Kathryn were present on behalf of The Sherlock Holmes Society. Christopher Lee was the main draw for us, but we'd heard that Peggy Cummins would be there and I asked David to point her out to me. While we were standing with her, having asked for her autograph, the other stars began to pose for photographs. "Shouldn't you be with the others?" I asked. "Oh, no," she said, "I'm nobody now". Having had this rather sad meeting with Peggy Cummins, it was an enormous pleasure to attend a screening of Night of the Demon at which she was the guest of honour.
The film was shown as part of Elstree Film Classics to help celebrate our fiftieth Town Festival and was introduced by Paul Welsh, Chairman of Elstree Film & Television Heritage Group.
Vince hadn't told me what we were doing, but had asked me to either get the day off work on Wednesday 14th June 2006, or to come home early, so I didn't know we would be going to see Night of the Demon until that afternoon. After a short wait, we were shown into the auditorium of the Reel Cinema and handed a complimentary drink. We spotted Paul and beside him, looking nowhere near her age, the slim and elegant Peggy Cummins, dressed in neatly tailored trousers and jacket with a sparkling butterfly brooch. Having draped our jackets over our seats and put our wine into the cup holders (a luxury unheard of in my younger days), we approached Miss Cummins, who very kindly signed Tony Earnshaw's book Beating the Devil, the Making of NIGHT OF THE DEMON and our tickets. She mentioned that her husband had died five years ago and when she was sent something to autograph, she had accidentally written her married name on it, making it of no interest to the fan. "It was for someone in America, too," she added. Explaining that she had tried to keep her writing small, as she had large handwriting - her daughter once remarked that she makes it that size, otherwise she couldn't see it - she gave our things back and we made way for other autograph hunters.
About half an hour before the film was due to start, Paul conducted an interview and took a few questions from the floor. As he began, his mobile phone went off, causing Peggy Cummins to ask, "Do you want to take that?" while a ripple of laughter went through the audience. Paul explained that the BFI's copy of Night of the Demon is now in such poor condition that it can't be shown (though a version was screened some years ago at the old Borehamwood Venue; as a double bill with The Exorcist!). Columbia hasn't got a copy in the UK and it would have been very expensive to have one sent from America, so we would be watching a DVD. This was a double bill with the US Curse of the Demon and Paul commented that he hoped we would get Night and not Curse. "Oh, no, we don't want Curse. Or the Japanese subtitles we had earlier," said Paul.
Peggy Cummins said she had never worked with Dana Andrews before, though she knew and liked him and they remained friends for the rest of his life. She mentioned that he had "a problem", but that he didn't let it affect his work and he was the only actor she knew who could read through three or four pages of script and know his lines from that one reading. Someone in the audience said that they'd heard he had problems with the very last line. "Did he?" she said. "I don't remember that. Was I in that scene?" Having been reminded that this was the last scene, at the railway station, she still said she couldn't remember any problem. Every so often, she reminded the audience: "It was a long time ago". Upon being asked about Jacques Tourneur, she said that she'd never seen any of his films, but understood that they had been well received. She liked him and enjoyed working with him. "How did you get on with Hal E. Chester?" someone asked. "I was on excellent terms with him," she said tactfully; "I got on well with everyone. No, really, I didn't really have very much to do with him". Someone else wanted to know if there had been any sudden changes to the script or various scenes, but, again, she couldn't remember any. She said that she had played better parts than the "horribly bright" Joanna Harrington, who was just "the female". Having been asked about whether the demon should have been seen or not, she said that the actors had no input regarding this. Monsters were popular in nineteen-fifties B films and if Columbia wanted a monster, they got one. She hadn't realised that Dana Andrews was so opposed to the demon's being seen.
One member of the audience said she preferred black and white films to colour and Peggy Cummins agreed, having "grown-up on black and white". She felt that you had to concentrate more and that black and white photographs often had better definition than colour ones. Occasionally the questions wandered away to other films and the interview was brought to an end at about seven-thirty. It was time to see Night of the Demon. "I'm sure I shall cringe," said the guest of honour, having been presented with a bouquet; "you always feel you could have done better". There was, however, a terrific round of applause when the name "Peggy Cummins" appeared upon the screen.
Clifton Parker's wonderful score swept through the darkened cinema as Henry Harrington (Maurice Denham) drove his car between the trees and the familiar facade of Brocket Hall came into view. This was very much a 'local film for local people' and I think it's one reason why Night of the Demon appealed to me so strongly as a child. At one point a friend of my mother's, the author Margot Strickland, had a flat in Brocket Hall, and Bricket Wood station isn't far from where my sister lives now. Vince pointed out that at the end, when John Holden (Andrews) is buying a ticket for Southampton, you can actually read the words "Bricket Wood" on the destination board in the ticket office.
Although people did eat popcorn, there was very little in the way of rustling and talking. Everyone enjoyed the light relief of the seance scene, and one or two moments made the audience jump. Our Deputy Mayor was sitting behind us and I heard her whisper "Scary!", when the writing disappeared from the calling card given to Holden by Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis), and again when someone (clearly not Dana Andrews!) climbed through a window at Lufford Hall to look for the key to the book The True Discoveries of Witches and Demons. At the end, she said, "Wasn't it marvellous!" having never seen the film before. Peggy Cummins said, "Thank you. See you all again," and the evening came to a close.
I know that there are some people who don't care for Night of the Demon because it seems so far removed from the story it is based on, namely "Casting the Runes" by M.R. James. Presumably, these people have come to the story first and know that Karswell isn't a man with an attractive voice and an elderly mother - an amateur magician who will pull "magic puppies" from a hat to delight the local children; but someone with "a dreadful face" who sets out "with the intention of frightening these poor village children out of their wits" by showing them a particularly horrid set of magic-lantern slides. I, however, saw the film years before I ever read the story; it was my introduction to M.R. James and, although not a faithful rendering of "Casting the Runes", it retains a number of elements from the original tale, including, of course, the passing of the runes, the surnames of some of the characters and a variation on the quote from Coleridge "about one who, having once looked round - 'walks on, And turns no more his head; Because he knows a frightful fiend Doth close behind him tread'". It would be interesting to know how many people, having seen Night of the Demon, would be prepared to pass under the trees surrounding Brocket Hall after dark, with the wind rising and clouds scudding across the moon, in October.
June 22, 2006. Copyright © 2006 Katherine Haynes.
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Pandemonium Drama Group describe themselves in the programme for this premiere of "Casting the Runes" as "a small rag tag bunch of misfits with a passion for Theatre and the Performing Arts". They are one of a number of amateur companies which were formerly based at the Civic Theatre in Leeds (currently being redeveloped as the Museum of Leeds), and now find a home at the new Carriageworks Theatre, which opened in May 2006.
This was a brave and at least partially successful attempt by a small amateur group to develop a stage version of one of M.R. James' most popular works. The limited space available in the small upstairs studio theatre was fully utilised, with clever use of a projection screen at the back of the stage and some quite chilling background music.
The opening projection, showing while the audience took their seats, was a non-moving version of the demon from the Ghosts & Scholars website. The opening scene was simply a voice reading out a letter to Karswell from "the Secretary" (whose role in the story otherwise disappears completely) asking him not to attempt any further communication regarding the rejection of his paper, and indicating that neither the secretary nor his colleague Edward Dunning have anything further to say on the matter. Scene two is Karswell's entertainment for the village children of Lufford: the pictures he shows them are sketches rather than the moving magic lantern slides of the original, but they are augmented by an unpleasant commentary from Karswell. The organiser of the evening, who chides Karswell for frightening the children, is Alice Harrington, John Harrington's sister. She takes on the role of the brother in this version.
Scene three is Edward Dunning giving a speech to "the Society", which is now a society for the study of witchcraft and related matters, albeit from an academic point of view and one intended to dispel ignorance. Dunning is apologising for the absence of the main speaker, John Harrington, whose whereabouts are unknown: Dunning suggests that he is absent-minded and is probably on a dig somewhere. In scene four, Dunning, who confesses to having had a couple of glasses of wine before his speech, is on a bus on his way home, and sees an advert (illustrated by projection on the screen) with the same wording as that in the original story, save that in this case only "3 days were allowed" and the date of death given is the following day. The dates on this advertisement also locate the year of the events as 1948, although the costume of the cast had already suggested a 1940s/50s setting. Dunning asks the conductress about the advert, but it has disappeared before she sees it. In this version it is Dunning, rather than the tram car staff, who is accused of having been drinking or being not all there.
On his return home, in the early hours, Dunning switches on the radio, and is shocked to hear a news item referring to the death of John Harrington, whose sudden demise police are investigating, as he appears to have fallen out of a tree.
In scene six we are in the reading room of the British Museum. Dunning is restless and concerned at the death of his friend. Sitting with his back to him is a man swathed in a long black coat and (rather oddly) wearing what appears to be a bowler hat indoors. Dunning, unable to concentrate, gives up on his work, but finds he has mislaid a rare volume he had been studying. It is handed to him by the bowler-hatted Karswell, who says he has found it under his desk. Karswell leaves, and Dunning has a chat with a friendly librarian, during the course of which he discovers his neighbour was Karswell.
Dunning arrives at his house to find a note from his housekeeper warning him that she has been diagnosed with food-poisoning and will be off for a week. He dines on sandwiches. In scene eight he is in his bedroom, and, having fallen asleep, undergoes a terrifying nightmare which causes him to toss and turn and roll himself up in his bedclothes. He wakes, and is sure there is someone else in the room. He calls out, but there is no reply. The electric light will not work - but perhaps this is a common occurrence, as he keeps a torch by his bed. He shines it around the room and finally it alights on a black-clad cowled figure pointing at him. He screams and faints.
These first eight scenes take place at high speed, occupying probably no more than half an hour. Scene changes are slickly managed, using a minimum of furniture and props. With the exception of the speech to the Society in scene three, the content of which, apart from the reference to Harrington's absence, is rather rambling, the pace of the production is impressive and the tension mounts. Unfortunately, in scene nine, something goes wrong with the structure of the play. Dunning is in hospital (amusingly, projected onto backscreen, he is identified as being in "Canon Alberic Ward"). He is visited by Alice Harrington, who tells him that her brother felt, in the days before his death, that he was being followed and that someone was "out to get him". (I doubt whether this expression would have been in common use among the middle classes in 1948). She tells him of their visit together to the opera, and how, having gone out of the auditorium to buy a programme, her brother had been given one by a stranger, and, when they returned home, found a piece of paper with strange writing on it, a sort of hand-made bookmark. This had fluttered out of his hand and into the fire. (This narrative is dealt with as a mini-flashback, with the voice of Harrington heard off-stage.) Dunning then discloses that he had found a similar piece of paper in the volume handed to him by Karswell at the British Museum. Having read Karswell's rejected paper, he knows that he is an expert in curses and hexes, and recognises the symbols as some form of runic writing. Alice tells him that Karswell has obviously done to him what he did to her brother, and that he must act to save himself. Dunning says that he has considered simply passing the paper on to a stranger in the street (which he believes would be sufficient to rid himself of the curse) but feels that this would be wrong; Alice suggests that he should return it to Karswell himself. Dunning has reservations even about this, but Alice tells him he must, and leaves to find out Karswell's movements.
This scene, which is considerably longer than any earlier scene in the production, is wholly lacking in suspense. Dunning is aware of the nature of the paper which has been given to him; and Alice is equally aware of the effect a similar item had on her brother. The uncertainty about the nature of the curse and the method of removing it, which is a feature of the original story, is completely lost, and the production never succeeds in resurrecting the tension which had previously been produced. Too much explication is included in this one scene. At one point the paper Dunning is holding flutters out of his hand, but there is nothing as dramatic as the scene in the original where it nearly flies out of an open window.
A further encounter between Dunning and Alice takes place in Canon Alberic Ward. Alice has found out that Karswell leaves the following day on the train to Dover; she persuades Dunning to pretend to be Karswell, and he rings British Rail (or whatever it then was) to check which train he is booked on (I wonder if they were really that efficient?). In scene eleven, Dunning, rather lightly disguised by wearing a hat and long white mac, is on the platform at Victoria Station, being persuaded by Alice to go through with it. She cannot assist, because Karswell would recognise her. Following this, Dunning and Karswell are together in a carriage. Karswell is wearing a trilby with holes in it: strange headgear seems another of his hobbies, as well as murder by proxy. He is fidgety and nervous, and keeps speaking to Dunning, although the latter is trying to avoid catching his eye. Eventually he asks Dunning to keep an eye on his cases while he leaves the carriage. Dunning tries to put the paper in one of them, but cannot get it open, and has to sit down hurriedly when Karswell returns. A few moments later, as the train pulls in to Dover, he goes out again, and Dunning tries again, unsuccessfully, to open the case. At the last minute, he notices that Karswell has left his passport in a leather folder, and puts the paper in that. When Karswell returns, Dunning offers him the passport case. Karswell initially denies that it is his, but pats his pockets and then accepts it. He gathers up his bags and leaves the train. Alice and Dunning confer on the platform: they know that Karswell is travelling on to Rouen.
There is a final meeting between Dunning and Alice, at Dunning's house. Dunning switches on the radio, and they hear a report of a British tourist being killed in a fall from scaffolding on Rouen cathedral. Initially some witnesses had said that a second person had been present on the scaffolding, but no one could be found, and the police did not suspect foul play. Dunning says that he will see Alice that afternoon at John Harrington's funeral, but intends to have a nap first. She leaves, and as he nods off, a voice on the radio says: "Edward Dunning, this is a thrilling tale of murder and revenge from beyond the grave..."
There can be no criticism of Duncan Gates and Pandemonium for heavily re-writing the original "Casting the Runes". Attempts to dramatise M.R. James' stories at the leisurely pace at which they are written, and using the framing devices common to this author, tend to appear extremely slow paced - see the Lawrence Gordon Clark version of "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral". It seemed to this member of the audience however that cramming virtually all the explication into one scene half way through the play, thus losing any sense of uncertainty because Dunning appears to know precisely what has been done to him and how to deal with it, made the remainder of the production seem something of an afterthought. The entire drama lasted only fifty-five minutes: the cracking pace adopted in the first eight scenes, while successful, used up a large amount of the story's material.
The other weakness of the production was that much of the typical "Jamesian" atmosphere was lost. Although, when Dunning is being faint-hearted about planting the runes on Karswell, he makes a reference to preferring to spend his time with books, one never had any real sense of him as a scholar. The largely rewritten dialogue he was given did not capture the slightly pedantic and rather retiring bachelor academic of the story, and the young actor (Richard Waterfield) who portrayed him was perhaps not ideally cast for a role as a learned historian and expert in alchemy. Karswell, who has considerably more dialogue here than he has in the original, was more successfully written, and the actor who played him, Eddie Butler, managed to exude some real menace despite the distracting headwear. The change in gender of Harrington's sibling made little difference to the narrative (I had wondered if we were going to see some romantic interest developing between Alice and Dunning, but there was not a hint of it), but one might have preferred more anger from Harriet Chandler as the bereaved sister.
I am reluctant to criticise any amateur company: to allow one's work to appear on the stage requires far more bravery than I can manage. This production should perhaps be seen as a first draft: with some re-writing and changes in pace it could be highly successful. Particular praise should go to those in charge of the music, projections and staging generally, all of which were of a high standard. Despite the reservations I have expressed above, I thoroughly enjoyed the production and would recommend it to anyone interested in the theatre or M.R. James.
As a footnote, it may be of interest to whose who monitor interest in all things Jamesian to note that on its first night the play was sold out, and by 6pm that day there were only 15 seats left for the following night.
June 11, 2006. Copyright © 2006 Sarah Greenan.
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I was looking forward to this and I'm pleased to report that all of the
shows - performed in Cambridge at the Fitzwilliam Museum in MRJ's office
(Founder's Library) and at the Corpus Playroom, St Edward's Passage - were
a sell out. My other half and I managed to make the Fitzwilliam show (on
Saturday afternoon, December 10) for which I was most grateful as this was
my preferred venue. I've always enjoyed being read to, especially ghost
stories, and Robert Lloyd Parry's one-man-show offered a mix of this kind
of experience with a live dramatisation. This, together with the fact that
it was in James's former office, provided added value. I found the show
convincing and great fun, as did the rest of the audience. The opening tale
was "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book", which was the first MRJ ghost
story I ever read and therefore one of which I am particularly fond, although
I don't think it's his best. The audience was seated in chairs scattered
amongst the book stalls in front of the fireplace. Following a safety notice
- in case of fire, etc. - we were plunged into darkness accompanied by a
choral recording. It was an odd experience as electric shutters closed on
the windows, and for a moment I had this odd sensation that I was descending
into some dark abyss, almost as though the whole room were descending in
a lift. There were a few nervous laughs. In the darkness we heard an ominous
knocking, and as a single amber light lit the fireplace we saw a figure
tapping out ashes from his pipe into the grate. He looked startlingly similar
to a young M.R. James.
Robert Lloyd Parry delivered the story without any sensational pauses or dramatic devices. It was quite a casual, matter-of-fact delivery, with 'MRJ' leaning against the fireplace. At first I felt a little let down - maybe I was expecting a more exaggerated performance - but my first impression was mistaken. The show was convincingly close to how I had always thought MRJ might have presented his stories to his audience. The tale was recounted with copious sips from a glass, and an authoritative perspective with just the right balance of unveiling narrative and creation of suspense. Robert became the characters of the sacristan and his daughter - just as MRJ might have done (James loved mimicry).
My preference was for the second story - "The Mezzotint". There is a lot of humour in James's stories but I hadn't realised quite how much there was in "The Mezzotint", which came across as more of a mystery than a scary story, although the basic premise of a thing from the grave carrying off a child is very disturbing. Robert managed to create the right involving atmosphere - we were hooked. At one point, I almost wanted to put my feet up and throw another log on the fire - except there wasn't one!
I would have loved the show to have had candlelight, a roaring fire and mulled wine or port served to the audience (oh yes, and an armchair): with this I could have easily gone for another story - perhaps "Oh, Whistle"? Clearly it was impossible at the Fitzwilliam - fire regulations, space and so on - but as the production is available for private functions, it could be a great centrepiece for a party. I understand candlelight was used at the other venue, the Corpus Playroom.
Christopher Frayling provided a programme note (the Arts Council Chairman
crops up everywhere these days).
A final point. As I made my way to the Fitzwilliam I was curious about who might make up the audience. There was only one child, which I found terribly disappointing; but she appeared to love the show. I discovered MRJ at the age of 10 and am evangelical about recommending his ghost stories to kids, when I visit schools on book days; and I gather they really do follow up the suggestion. Most of the audience was fairly elderly - easily over 70, with some in their (I guess) 50s, like myself. Compare this to MRJ's original target audience which was eclectic but particularly included young people. I gather that these missing elements - especially an audience of kids - were there at the Corpus shows and I'm sorry that I wasn't able to catch the performance at this venue too. Well done Nunkie Theatre: a more warming atmosphere and it would have been close to perfect.
December 13, 2005. Copyright © 2005 Laurence Staig.
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(Stories inspired by: "The Turn of the Screw" - Henry James; "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" - M.R. James; "Caterpillars" - E.F. Benson; "The Phantom Wooer" - Thomas Lovell Beddoes.)
Beginning in the dark, with a shambling, shroud-wrapped form that brushes against members of the audience as it descends the steep aisle, then bursting into over-the-top, fright-masked leaping and roaring before revealing the friendly face of author/performer David Benson, it's clear from the start that we're in for a mixture of chills and laughs. And, I'm very glad to say, there are plenty of both to be had in the hour and a bit that follow.
Benson, as himself, comes across as immensely likable and chatty, whether he's quizzing members of the audience over their own ghostly encounters, telling of the spirit of a hanged woman who haunts the room upstairs from the very room we're in (and the Drawing Room at the Assembly Rooms certainly looks like it might easily contain a ghost or two), or sharing his memories of his own childhood discovery of the concept of ghosts and the paranormal. However, even as he cheerfully discusses his subject, he seems haunted, sometimes visibly shaken by some unseen presence that he says is haunting him... something he first encountered as a child... something that seems to have left him with a fear of caterpillars...
Besides this unseen presence, Benson shares the bare stage with only a chair and the dark sheet he entered in. But, as he progresses, we are introduced to other characters. He recalls his father, a doctor and a sceptic, who still shares his son's fright as they watch The Innocents on television. Within a few moments we are given the highlights of the film, complete with very accurate impersonations of Deborah Kerr and Peter Wyngarde, the Wyngarde sneer being at first very funny then, with a lowering of the lights, very unnerving. Anyone who has seen Benson's previous shows in which he has portrayed Noel Coward, Frankie Howerd and Kenneth Williams (among others) or heard him reading Williams' diaries in BBC radio's The Private World of Kenneth Williams, will know that he has an enviable talent for mimicry. His Wyngarde impersonation here, just a turning down of the mouth and a raising of an eyebrow, shows that it isn't just in vocal impersonation that he excels.
The moments when Benson plays his own eight-year-old self as well as his father are both amusing and touching. From this, he moves on to become his own grandfather who, in contrast to his skeptical father, believes in ghosts, ghouls and little green men. It is this part of the show that will be of most interest to M.R. James admirers, for it is here that we have a condensed version of "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad". The context for this is Arthur Benson telling grandson David a bedtime story, one which he insists is true and which was told to him by a friend who had studied under a certain Professor Parkin. All the events of James's original story are there, though told in a more informal style, with the grandfather providing sound effects for the apparition by tugging at the sheet, which he also uses to form the face of crumpled linen that arises out of the empty bed in Parkin's hotel room.
This adaptation is hugely effective and Benson, without doing an actual imitation, put me in mind of Michael Hordern's splendid readings on the old Argo audiobooks. He even, still in character as his grandfather, manages to cap the chills of the tale off with a very funny punchline as he ends this unusual bedtime story.
The next character we meet is Kev, a camp Brummie medium, based on Benson's own visit to a spiritualist meeting while researching the show. This involves more audience participation and is very funny, before leading us back toward whatever the presence is that haunts Benson and the connection it has with his late grandfather and that fear of caterpillars.
This brings us to E.F. Benson, David Benson's distant relative (according to his unreliable grandfather, who seems to have been fond of embroidering the truth), and, with a change of clothes, we are presented with the elderly narrator of the story "Caterpillars". In Panama hat, dark glasses, linen jacket and holding a walking stick, the cheerful Benson seems to have vacated the stage to make way for this haunted old man. And it's with the conclusion of this story that certain things become clear, about Benson's grandfather and about the presence that has haunted him since childhood, a spectre that hangs over us all.
I had the great pleasure of shaking hands with David Benson after the show and telling him how much I'd enjoyed it. Rather like the stage version of The Woman in Black, the audience is invited to use their imagination to summon up the props and scenery, and Benson's script and performance certainly managed to create the right pictures in my mind. I was amused, moved and just a wee bit frightened, and should the opportunity arise to see the show, perhaps in some future touring version, I'd advise anyone with an interest in ghost stories to see it.
August 24, 2004. Copyright © 2004 Daniel McGachey.
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The evening of Tuesday, November 21, 2000, proved wet and windy, a suitable night on which to curl up with a good ghost story. I therefore made my way to the NFT to meet Julia Kruk, Chair of the Dracula Society, for the M.R. James Double Bill. This was to have been screened in NFT2, but when we got there we were told that the venue had been changed to NFT1. There was a small notice on the wall telling us of this, but calling the event the "Mr James Double Bill"!
In the first film, "The Ash Tree", which was originally broadcast by the BBC in 1975, Edward Petherbridge, as Sir Richard, comes to take possession of his new home, and is greeted by the servants. There is general muttering about their having a new master and they pray there will be a child to inherit. This seems likely, because Sir Richard is courting a young lady, played by Lalla Ward (I did wonder if upper class women would have had plucked eyebrows in those days!).
The action takes place partly in the present - the late eighteenth century - and partly in flashback. In the flashback sequences Sir Richard seems to become his own ancestor, Sir Matthew, and to experience past events as if they are happening to him. Thus he sees the buxom, blonde Mrs Mothersole busy about the ash tree, then sees the hare running away and follows it to her house, where he seemingly rouses her from sleep. The narrator of the original story says: "Whether the persons accused of this offence really did imagine that they were possessed of unusual powers of any kind...or whether all the confessions, of which there are so many, were extorted by the mere cruelty of the witch-finders - these are questions which are not, I fancy, yet solved." Richard/Matthew is present when Mrs Mothersole is tortured and again when she curses him, just before she and two other 'witches' are to be hanged. The words she uses are "Mine shall inherit", rather than James's "There will be guests at the Hall".
Sir Richard sees dead animals about the countryside and learns that the sheep are being taken under cover to protect them from the 'sickness'. The whole time-scale has been tightened up and events which are only reported in James's tale are now experienced directly. For instance, the vicar who knew Sir Matthew is the same one who now knows Sir Richard, rather than the grandson of Crome as in the story.
It is from the vicar that Sir Richard gleans most of his information concerning his dead relative. Two of the original Bible quotations, "Cut it down" and "It shall never be inhabited", are cited, but not "Her young ones also suck up blood." The vicar mentions that he suffered stinging pains and paralysis for weeks after having come into contact with Sir Matthew's corpse. In the story this happens to the women who lay out the body.
Having resolved to open up the closed room for his own use, Sir Richard opens the Bible and reads, "You shall seek me in the morning and I shall not be." Cue the spiders.
When we first see the spiders in the ash tree, they are quite effective and, no doubt, they worked well on television and were genuinely scary. In close-up on the big screen, however, they look rubbery and unconvincing. At the time of making the programme, it probably seemed a good idea to give them babies' faces and to have them cry, but a ripple of laughter went through the audience at this point. A shame, as this should have been one of the most frightening moments.
Poor Sir Richard is found dead and black next morning. His sweetheart arrives to find the ash tree a smouldering mass, from where it has caught fire, and the spiders have been killed as they ran out. She touches her dead lover's skin and receives the same stinging poison on her hands that the vicar had got from the body of Sir Matthew.
All-in-all, a pretty good adaptation, and well worth seeing, despite the spider babies.
With "Casting the Runes" (1979), director Lawrence Gordon Clark departs from his usual period setting and updates the story to the 1970s. The main character becomes a young woman, played by Jan Francis, who gets on the wrong side of Karswell (Iain Cuthbertson) when she mentions him unfavourably in a television programme she has made. The message about John Harrington and the time allowed shows up after the credits when she is looking back over a tape of the programme (fans of Edward Petherbridge got double measure this evening, as he plays the brother of the departed John Harrington).
Made for Yorkshire Television, the production has all the trademarks of televised plays from the seventies, what with the amplified sounds made by closing doors and rustling sheets and the intimacy of videotape rather than film.
The script was a little repetitive in places, as characters told other characters things we had already heard, and there were one or two giggles at the fashions, especially a night-dress purchased from 'Nightowls'. This was of the night-shirt variety, brushed nylon, in red with white ribbon on the bodice. One of the cast held it up and said, "Oh, it's lovely," which prompted a loud laugh. It is in this night-dress that the Jan Francis character is destined to undergo what should be a terrifying experience.
Karswell has a dolls' house set up to resemble the rooms in the girl's flat and places a spider on the bed. The hapless Jan hears a noise which has her searching through the flat, then returns to bed only to be confronted by a large, rubbery yellow arachnid. Clearly spiders were not the special effects department's forte, and they would have done well to have avoided this one! Again, what should have been a scary moment was spoiled, and it couldn't compare with the hairy-mouthed thing under the pillow from James's story.
Despite these shortcomings, the production does work fairly well, and Iain Cuthbertson is wonderfully creepy as a rather jolly Karswell. The snowy, outdoor scenes provide a suitably atmospheric background and there is a genuinely shuddery moment at Karswell's residence, which does not appear in the original tale.
In fact, this whole dramatisation works quite well until the end. Having passed Karswell the runes, the girl makes it obvious that she has passed them and Karswell knows they are attached to his ticket before he boards his plane. He seems to just accept that he has now got the runes back, whereas you would have thought a black magician with his power would try to do something to save himself. Even if the runes had blown away and he'd chased them, as in Night of the Demon, it would have made a better ending than this meek acceptance of his fate.
After this, the girl and her friends see a television report with news of a disturbance on a plane, which has now disappeared, the impression being that it has crashed. As I remarked to Julia, this seemed rather unfair on the other passengers! Might it not have been better for the girl to realise she had no hope of passing the runes back without involving all these other people, and sacrificing herself in order to save them? The play could then have ended with her friends vowing to get their revenge on Karswell.
Although not in the same league as Night of the Demon, to which it seems to owe more than to James's original story, I would not write "Casting the Runes" off altogether. It is well played and quite effective in places, and certainly better than many so-called 'ghost stories' we have been offered by television in recent years.
December 7, 2000. Copyright © 2000 Katherine Haynes.
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The Cicerones was adapted from the Robert Aickman short story of the same name by Jeremy Dyson, of the League of Gentlemen, a self-confessed Aickman fan. Mark Gatiss plays John Tranter, a middle-aged bachelor, travelling through an unspecified Eastern European country, visiting out-of-the-way churches and cathedrals in order to view obscure works of art. He travels to the lonely and shunned Cathedral of St Gavon in which he meets four strange and unsettling young men. Unnerved by these encounters Tranter escapes to the crypt and meets the enigmatic and sinister Bishop.
Gatiss plays Tranter perfectly as a fussy, stuck-in-the-mud middle-aged man who would wear white cotton gloves in order to run his fingers over the maid's dusting. A chance meeting with a peasant woman with her heavily pregnant daughter and prospective son-in-law on a train results in Tranter being warned not to visit St Gavon. There's almost a thought bubble over his head at this, which says "Foreigners! Superstitious nonsense!" And, although there is a sign on the Cathedral door stating that it is closed for the day, an outraged Tranter enters anyway.
The Cicerones was shown with The Wicker Man on November 12, 2002, as part of the Greenwich Film Festival (London), and was followed by a short question and answer session with Jeremy Dyson. The audience seemed baffled by the film, which was billed as a ghost story. However, those of us who are Aickman fans relished its unsettling quality. But silence fell as, due to the audience's bewilderment, there weren't any questions. And so the MC started things off. Dyson revealed that he had an obsession with Aickman and had already adapted one of his short stories for radio ["Ringing the Changes"]. He'd also changed the ending of The Cicerones. Originally it ended with the line "And then they all started to sing", but instead he'd chosen to end it with the mysterious Bishop informing Tranter that "The Cathedral is closed now. Please follow me." I thought that this was equally unsettling. Dyson also chatted about the supposed location for the film being Ghent. There was a strong sense of Eastern Europe throughout so I was surprised to learn that it had all actually been filmed in the UK at such glamorous locations as St Albans, Lichfield, and St Mary Magdalene, Paddington, for the crypt scenes. All on a budget of £65k. One audience member asked how much darker the League of Gentlemen might become and Dyson muttered that they weren't looking for a niche audience.
I enjoyed the film immensely. Dyson managed to capture Aickman's sense of atmosphere and inscrutable storytelling completely. The locations and lighting helped enormously in this respect. I particularly liked Gatiss' performance and also the appearance of the Bishop, looking as though he celebrated a different, older religion than the one being supposedly celebrated in the Cathedral.
January 26, 2003. Copyright © 2003 Carole Tyrrell.
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Last altered: November 24th, 2006.
Gargoyle by Clipart Castle; Bar by Syruss.