This review contains spoilers.
A Ghost Story For Christmas is a series of one-off short dramas originally produced annually by the BBC between 1971 and 1978, and produced as occasional treats since 2005 (in 2005, 2006, 2010 and 2013). The majority of these stories are adaptations of M.R. James short stories (and one by Charles Dickens); this is the third specially written screenplay, and the first since the 2005 revival.
The idea of telling ghost stories while gathered around the fire at Christmas has a long history and is still in use (for example the novel The Woman In Black opens with everyone telling each scary stories by the fire at Christmas). The stories don’t have to take place at Christmas, though this one is so very summery, it can feel a bit odd watching it on a cold, dark night! The warm orange glow of the lighting in the flashback/timeslip sequences and the bright disco music heralding flashbacks to the drought of 1976 effectively conjure up the feel of summer heat and tension and brooding that is only helped by more recent memories of this past summer’s UK heatwave.
In a sense, this doesn’t really matter. It’s a ghost story for Christmas, not a ghost story about Christmas. Still, the summer heat radiating off the story does make you wonder whether it might be even spookier if experienced during a humid summer evening, rather than surrounded by the cosy glow of Christmas lights while sheltering indoors from the cold and the damp.
Mark Gatiss adapted an M.R. James story in 2010, and now he presents his own tale in the style of James’s famous ghost stories (with a shout-out to James himself, of course). The story has some occasionally frustrating red herrings, from Tara’s suggestion that Aubrey was somehow involved in his predecessor Seymour’s death to the eerily silent Joan. If either had been involved in the resolution and climax, it would have been too predictable – but to have them play no role at all seems to contradict the rule of Chekhov’s gun (if you see a gun on the mantelpiece in Act 1, it must have gone off by Act 3). Their role seems mainly to be to pad out the early part of the story and offer some misdirection.
We don’t find out what the story is really about until a good 10 minutes in, but the mysteriously altered script (another Jamesian device) that first introduces Paul’s death before we even know his name is a neat and spooky beginning to the haunting. The final reveal is a satisfying one, turning Aubrey’s tragic love story into something far more sinister and alerting the audience to the fact that whatever this ghost has planned for the actor, it isn’t likely to be pleasant.
Ghost stories are about the past intruding on the present. Gatiss follows M.R. James’s rule that the ghost must be malevolent, and there is little ambiguity in those closing shots – this is a story about a restless and vengeful spirit. However, the story works even better on a metaphorical level. Aubrey’s return to the old studio, about to be put out of commission in real life, brings up more ghosts that just poor Paul. It is a reminder of the bad old days, of an unforgiving society that judged people for loving each other, the memory of that time haunting the survivors into the present.
Even the ghost of old technology, however romanticised by Aubrey, is seen in a poor light. The new ghost story Aubrey dislikes so much, Ready Player Death, is mostly poking gentle fun at Ready Player One – which is, of course, about nostalgia, sometimes mistaken nostalgia. But in the version of Paul’s death that Aubrey tells Tara, he tells her how much more difficult it was to contact people before modern communication technology, a reminder that whatever problems they bring with them, mobile phones and e-mail and social media can also be good things. Aubrey’s own desire for privacy, while partly rooted in the prejudices of the 1970s, is also an early indication that he’s hiding something.
Gatiss’ direction is reliably creepy and of course, the whole thing is held together by Simon Callow. When you have an actor as compelling and charismatic as Callow carrying a story, it’s hard to go wrong. His deep, resonating voice is perfect for the telling of ghost stories, as Gatiss well knows, since Callow played Charles Dickens in Gatiss’ Christmas-set zombie-themed Doctor Who story The Unquiet Dead. All the supporting actors do good work as well, and Gatiss’ script is tight, if a little obvious in the section where Aubrey sets out what he thinks makes a good ghost story, right down to contemplating whether the 1970s would be an appropriate setting – though this doubles up as a nice nod to the 1970s origins of A Ghost Story For Christmas.
The fact that the real life studio where the story is both set and filmed is being shut down after many decades lends this an extra sense of melancholy. There have been scarier ghost stories, and twistier ghost stories, and sadder ghost stories – this isn’t breaking any new ground, and it quite deliberately isn’t playing with the form. Rather, this is a tight, traditional ghost story. It offers some simple, effective spooky chills for your Christmas fireside – though you might want to give it a re-watch in the summer!