Monday, 19 November 2012

Ghosts of the 1970s

I'm back in Cambridge after a rather tortuous journey back from Halifax involving a taxi, three trains, a bus and, oh, another taxi.

I feel like I ought to say thank you to a few people.

Firstly to Dee Grijak for organising the Halifax Ghost Story Festival , for asking me back, and for being so tirelessly enthusiastic and supportive.  I always feel sorry for the organisers of festivals and events because they put so much effort into these things and then never seem to have the chance to enjoy them through the stress and exhaustion.  I asked Dee at one point if it was enjoyable for her at all.  'There are moments,' she said.  I hope there were a few this year.

I should thanks Dee's husband Vic Allen too.  I hardly saw him this time, but again, he is so helpful and supportive and I could see that he was constantly looking after people.

Thanks to Tony Earnshaw for buying me several drinks and even feeding me.  He was also great company and did a superb job on the interviewing front, often knowing more about the work of those he interviewed than they themselves remembered.

Thanks to Chris Mould for picking me up from the station at Leeds and driving me to Halifax.  He also came along to support my reading, along with mutual friend, Nina Wadcock.  It was great to look up from my reading and see Dee, Tony, Lawrence, Chris and Nina looking back.

Thanks too to Mark Davis for taking some great photos of the event.

The Halifax Ghost Story Festival was very enjoyable, both as a performer and as a member of the audience.  I had the chance to meet Jonathan Miller and hear him talk before watching his 1968 M R James adaptation of Whistle and I'll Come to You.  I got to hear Reggie Oliver read Pieces of Elsewhere from his Mrs Midnight short story collection.  I read The Demon Bench End from Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror and introduced the 1971 BBC Ghost Story For Christmas - The Stalls of Barchester - by saying a few words about the effect those films had on the teenage me.

And as if that wasn't enough, I had the director, Lawrence Gordon Clarke right there in the audience to hear me say that I think those films shaped me as a writer and maybe even as a person.

I have no idea what it is that makes a person stop being simply an audience for such things and actually consider producing their own response.  Most people go to a music concert and are content to listen.  Most movie-goers are perfectly happy to be lost in the enjoyment of watching the movie.  Why do some readers feel they need to write?

All I know is that even whilst caught up in the chills that Lawrence was expertly creating, somewhere in my mind I was learning from him and storing what I'd learnt.  I think Lawrence - like all good filmmakers - helped to broaden the scope of my imagination when I read.  The world he evoked seemed pitch perfect for the kind of stories I enjoyed reading.  I was living in a dour council estate, a world away from the college libraries and quads of M R James.

In fact it was Lawrence who introduced me to M R James, a writer I had never heard of before.  He also introduced me to that wonderful Dickens story, The Signalman.  But revisiting his films now, I realise he also introduced me to a very different aesthetic.

Lawrence's films were just that - they were shot on film, not video, as most things were in those days and this allowed for much more subtle lighting.  There is a painterly feel to many of the shots and to the way they are lit and framed.  It was a perfect match for James' prose and very different from either the home grown television of the time, or from the imported television from America, which had far higher production values, but emulated American movies.

Lawrence's films seem to have much more in common with European cinema of the time, in their pacing and intelligence.  Most especially, they are not filmed in a self-consciously horror movie style.   I never get the impression that Lawrence has any particular interest in horror as a genre.  I think that is possibly part of their success as films.

I first met Lawrence two years ago and was delighted to find that he is an extraordinarily friendly and generous man, quick to smile and laugh and very easy to talk to.  It was a real treat to be able to stand up and make him squirm a little by singing his praises.  But I meet people all the time who remember these films with great fondness and excitement, but who don't know Lawrence's name.

They should.

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