A Ghost Story for Christmas

A staple Yuletide treat for TV viewers in the 1970s was the BBC’s annual ‘Ghost Story for Christmas’.

These spare, atmospheric dramas ran from 30 to 50 minutes and drew heavily on the stories of Cambridge scholar MR James (1862-1936). Favouring Victorian or Edwardian settings, they played brilliantly with the power of suggestion to terrify viewers across Britain. In 2005 the BBC revived the strand with a brand new James adaptation, the genuinely creepy A View from a Hill, followed a year later by Number 13.

You can also view bonus titles including Jonathan Miller’s classic Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968), a key influence on later MR James adaptations. And the groundbreaking feature-length drama The Stone Tape gave the period ghost story a sci-fi makeover, courtesy of influential writer Nigel Kneale (Quatermass). More recently a new version of Whistle and I’ll Come to You was shown on Christmas Eve 2010, suggesting our fascination with festive chills remains as compelling as ever.

Ten to try

The Stalls of Barchester (1971)

A murderous cleric is stalked by figures resembling the carvings around Barchester Cathedral.

A Warning to the Curious (1972)

An archaeologist searches for a buried Saxon crown, angering the violent forces which guard it.

Lost Hearts (1973)

An orphan moves in with his uncle, and is disturbed by a pair of ghostly children.

The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (1974)

A respected theologian unearths clues to find the treasure of an evil monk.

The Ash Tree (1975)

An aristocrat inherits his family estate and is haunted by visions of his ancestor’s role in a witchcraft trial.

The Signalman (1976)

Denholm Elliot struggles with a chilling premonition on an isolated railway line.

Stigma (1977)

A young couple move into a remote country house in the middle of a stone circle – with predictably disastrous consequences.

The Ice House (1978)

A strange flower in the grounds of a health spa may be the cause of a series of misfortunes in this original story by John Bowen.

A View from a Hill (2005)

BBC Four revived the creepy Christmas tradition to deeply unsettling effect with M.R. James’ tale of a mysterious pair of binoculars.

Number 13 (2006)

Greg Wise stars as an unfortunate traveller who finds himself wishing there had been no room at the inn.

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