Friday, 12 November 2010

Masterclass


I wanted to say a little bit more about Lawrence Gordon Clark and his M R James adaptations. I enjoyed the Mark Gatiss series A History of Horror. He seems to have a very similar sensibility and upbringing to me, although several years later. If I had made the series it would have been almost identical in terms of the movies covered, but I would have added Lawrence Gordon Clark's 1970's ghost stories for the BBC.

Lawrence was interviewed at the Halifax Ghost Story Festival by Tony Earnshaw as I have already mentioned. I thought it was worth going into what he said in a little greater detail.

Lawrence spoke about the making of these films with a great deal of affection and maybe a touch of nostalgia. They were made in a very different climate to that which exists in television today, as Lawrence was at pains to point out.

He explained that it was relatively easy to pitch ideas in those days, as there were not the layers of development that there are now. Not only that, but because of the simpler structure, he could get the things made reasonably quickly and see them on screen not long after.

The first two films for the Ghost Story at Christmas (both M R James adaptations) - The Stalls of Barchester (1971) and A Warning to the Curious (1972) were produced, adapted and directed by Lawrence.

Amazingly, Lawrence had been a documentary filmmaker before these lyrical, pitch perfect films. His interest in M R James had been formed at an early age when his father read the stories to him as a boy. In effect, Lawrence had done the same for me, years later, with these films.

The process of making these films sounded wonderfully organic and small scale. Lawrence was his own location scout and would adapt the script to the locations he found. He had no script editor to contend with. The level of control he has seems extraordinary.

And despite the fact that Lawrence had come from a background in documentary film making - or maybe even because of it - he stressed that he wanted to tell the story visually wherever possible. This is something that really came over strongly, revisiting these films. There are many sequences of still images, like a slide show, to set a scene or to build tension.

I found myself once again - as I had when I saw some of these films again fairly recently - what it is about them that is so odd. And there is something odd about them - in a good way, of course. They seem totally unlike anything that is on television at the moment. I suspect they were quite unlike anything that was on television at the time.

I wonder whether this is something to do with the fact that the television aesthetic and the cinematic aesthetic have merged in recent decades as TV looks to cinema rather than the theatre. When I was a teenager the difference between TV and the movies was stark. Certainly the difference between the bulk of British TV, shot on video in a studio, and cinema seemed very pronounced.

Lawrence's M R James adaptations were shot on film and on location. Not only that, they seemed very 'European' somehow. They seemed to look towards European movies rather than to American cinema or television. Interestingly Lawrence mentioned that when they shot a sequence where the cruel old magus in Lost Hearts was silhouetted on the banks of a dike talking to the gypsy boy, he was thinking of the 1920s German silent classic Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari.

Incidentally, the wonderfully creepy hurdy-gurdy music in Lost Hearts was a product of the BBC Music Library (or was it the Sound Archive?) rather than some specially commissioned piece. What a find. And the music in Treasure of Abbot Thomas was simply played by the organist at Wells where some of the scenes were shot.

And then there are the performances that Lawrence managed to get out of his cast. Michael Bryant is fantastic as the Rev Justice Somerton in Treasure of Abbot Thomas. I enjoyed the slightly Wildean relationship that was hinted at between the urbane Reverend and the good-looking, vain Peter (played by Paul Lavers). There seemed a bit of Saki creeping into the James.

Peter Vaughan is superb as Paxton in A Warning to the Curious. Lawrence cleverly shifted the date of the story to the Depression and made Paxton unemployed with the hint of desperation needed to take on the forces that were clearly standing between him and the treasure. Clive Swift is also wonderful as Dr Black.

Joseph O'Connor's lovely twinkle-eyed old charmer is so at odds with what Mr Abney is really up to in Lost Hearts that it adds another layer of revulsion. Simon Gipps-Kent was very believable as the boy, Stephen and Christopher Davis and Michelle Foster horribly good as the ghost children. Oh my, but how they disturbed my sleep when I first saw them. Lawrence had originally wanted the children to skip away at the end tossing Abney's heart to each other as they went. An amusing thought - but I'm glad he didn't.

Looking at the films now, those ghost children in Lost Hearts are the only thing that really jars. The special effect make-up isn't quite up to the task and in any case, gore seems out of place with these films. A bloodless hole might have worked better to indicate the absence of a heart.

But it is a tribute to Lawrence's skill as a director and adapter that these films stand up so well after all these years. I can't imagine that the same could be said for much of the BBC's output from the mid seventies.

Lawrence's connection with A Ghost Story at Christmas thread came to an end with the contemporary chiller Stigma, screened on 28 December 1977. The year before, Lawrence had filmed an adaptation of Dickens' The Signalman with the inimitable Denholm Elliot - arguably the finest of the series. He then moved to ITV and to a very rich and varied career, returning to M R James briefly with an updated version of The Casting of the Runes in 1979. The BBC carried on for a while with The Ice House in 1978 and the much better Schalken the Painter in 1979.

Everyone at the event bemoaned the recent disinterest in supernatural TV among television executives, other than of the very obvious kind involving vampires and zombies. Lawrence was very generous in his praise for BBC 4's recent attempt to revive the M R James adaptation with A View from a Hill.

There was some discussion of regrets Lawrence may have had for not directing for the cinema, but I was happy to tell him that for me I think his influence was all the greater for being via the more intimate medium of television. For those of us growing up in the grey and grim seventies, the television was like the log fire around which we gathered on those chill Christmas nights. Lawrence's films were the last things I saw before I walked down to my bedroom to sleep - or at least to try and sleep.

Lawrence Gordon Clark gave me a masterclass in the art of telling a creepy story back in the 1970s. I am hugely indebted to him.

6 comments:

  1. I, too, have very fond memories of the 'pleasing terror' of watching those 1970s M.R.James films; my favourite was almost certainly 'Lost Hearts' . Speaking of Mark Gatiss, I think he came very close to the spirit of those 1970s films with his three part TV play 'Crooked House' in December 2008 (and it won the Dracula Society's Hamilton Deane Award!)

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  2. Lost Hearts is a cracker. I had forgotten how dream (or nightmare)-like it was for almost its entire length. It is a very strange film indeed.

    Sadly I missed Crooked House because I was out of the country when it aired but I'm sure they'll reshow it sometime. It did sound good.

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  3. And thanks - that also alerted me to a mistake I had meant to rectify in an earlier post. Whoops! That'll teach me to write things in a hurry late at night.

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  4. Hi Chris,
    here I am again ;)
    On the link below you can find the cover and the italian booktrailer of "Le terrificanti storie del vascello nero"
    http://www.newtoncompton.com/index.php?lnk=101&ISBN=978-88-541-2232-1&idaut=1837;&idcur=
    bye
    Enrico

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  5. Thanks for that. No expense spared on that trailer!

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  6. I FIRST WATCHED "LOST HEARTS" ON CHRISTMAS 1973 (WHEN i WAS IN MY EARLY 20'S) I'M GLAD I WASNT THE ONLY ONE WHO FOUND IT TERRIFYING (EVEN THOUGH IT WAS MADE NEARLY 40 YEARS AGO)IT'S THE SCARIEST THING I'VE EVER SEEN. REMEMBER WATCHING IT IN BLACK AND WHITE. WATCHING IT IN COLOUR (ON YOU TUBE)IT STILLHAD THE POWER TO SCARE ME (ESPECIALLY WHEN THE "BOY" COMES INTO STEPHENS ROOM AND STARTS PLAYING HIS HURDY GURDY AND LEADING HIM TO THE BATHROOM WHERE THE"GIRL" IS. ITS THEIR LONG NAILS THAT IS THE MOST SCARY PART(ESPECIALLY AS THEY COME TOWARDS MR ABNEY)READING ABOUT THE AUTHOR M.R. JAMES (WHO DEPICTS HIS GHOSTS AS BEING MALEVOLENT AND AVENGING (NOT HOW THEY ARE USUALLY PORTRAYED AS BEING KIND AND HELPFUL) ARE THE STUFF OF FAIRY TALES AND MYTHS AND LEGENDS) YET BY KILLING MR ABNEY THEY SAVE STEPHEN'S LIFE. I ONLY RECRENTLY FOUND OU THAT SIMON GIPPS-KENT (WHO PLAYED STEPHEN)PASSED AWAY IN HIS 20'S FROM A DRUG OVERDOSE.SO VERY SAD.

    GILLIAN LEWIS

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