Monday, 7 January 2013

M.R. James' Winter Tales

I'm going to use the first post of 2013 - yay! - to talk about a subject dear to my heart: the ghost stories of M.R. James, as retold in the DVD boxed set The Complete Ghost Stories of M.R. James. This is the Region 0 version of the tales, recently released by Australians Shock UPC. All of these programs were originally broadcast on UK television, many of them decades ago.

For those who aren't familiar with the contents: there are twelve episodes in all, though only eight stories are drawn on. Each episode tells one of M.R. James' stories, and depending on which you pick, they can be straight-up narratives - as with Christopher Lee's Ghost Stories for Christmas - period pieces, or modern retellings of the old stories. The oldest is a 1968 edition of Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, and for that matter the most recent is a 2010 version of the same tale.

First, a quick note on format. This may not be something the British realize, but UK DVDs, when viewed in formats outside the UK, tend to come out slightly pixelated. I'm not going to go too deeply into the technical what-not behind this; just take it from me that they do. As this is a Region 0 set, that isn't a problem here. The picture is as clear as a bell.

As DVDs, the discs lack a certain something. Each contains the original programming, and no more. No extra features, interviews, or any content other than the show itself. Since many of these have been unavailable for some time, that isn't a huge problem; most will be happy with just the episodes. However as these old shows are also published by the BFI, which does include extra content, people who find themselves having to choose between one or the other may prefer the BFI discs. Take the 1968 Whistle; the BFI version has two Ramsey Campbell extras and an audio version of the story, as well as the 1968 piece, whereas the 1968 story in the boxed set only has the show itself. Bear in mind, my BFI version of Whistle is the older one; I understand there is a more recent BFI edition, which probably has different extras.

For that reason alone, I'm not sure I would recommend the Region 0 to anyone who has the chance to get hold of the BFI editions, particularly since the BFI has re-released all of these shows in 2012. However the Region 0 has them all together, where the BFI has broken them up into several separate discs. I don't think there's a separate BFI version of the Christopher Lee stories either, so if you went the BFI route you might have to pass on those. Also, the BFI has a nasty habit of letting material like this go out of print very quickly, and not bother to reissue them.  The same may not be true of Shock.

From a price perspective, there's some difference between the two. The individual BFI discs are cheaper, but even once you add all of them together, there's about 20 quid between the Region 0 and the BFI versions. There's also a BFI boxed set, but that doesn't seem to contain the same shows as the Region 0; as it's labelled 'Ghost Stories for Christmas', I rather suspect it won't be out there for very long. Of course, all this assumes that you're able to buy in the United Kingdom; if you're importing this, the price difference may well be eaten up in shipping or forex costs.

Now that I've had that rather long digression, what about the shows as shows?

For my money the Christopher Lee versions, which originally aired in 2000, are the most faithful, and the most atmospheric. That probably has a lot to do with the format of the original stories. They were structured in such a way as to be read aloud to an audience, which is exactly what Lee does. There are very few effects, and most of the shots are of Lee sitting in an armchair, talking, with occasional glances at his audience. While that certainly works as a story, I'm not convinced it works well as television, though I still prefer these to some of the more modern retellings.

The 1970s titles - A Warning to the Curious, The Ash Tree, The Stalls of Barchester, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, Lost Hearts - are all very well done, and many of them really work wonders. The Ash Tree and The Treasure of Abbot Thomas are probably the best of these, though I admit I'm giving the Ash Tree credit largely because of a very effective end sequence. Good special effects are always going to be a problem with something like this, and there are one or two moments when Ye Plasticke Hande of Satan - or something very similar - almost spoils the mood. That said, options in the 1970s were limited; they can't be seriously faulted for the occasional duff moment.

The modern versions are probably the least satisfying, particularly the 2010 Whistle, which throws almost all of the original plot out the window, up to and including the reason for the title. My quarrels with the 2010 Whistle are specific, but were I to pitch a general complaint at all the modern versions, it would be that the protagonists seem to have been re-cast to be as unlikeable as possible. That's a huge problem in a setting where, as MR James points out, the objective is to get the audience to think "if I'm not careful, something like that might happen to me!" For that to work, the audience needs to be in sympathy with the protagonist, which is damn near impossible when the main character is a miserable prick.

The 2010 Whistle is just odd, to the point where you begin to wonder whether the director would really rather have been working on something else, but got stuck with this instead. I don't say the central plot device wouldn't have worked as an original piece, but it isn't an original; it's a rework of an existing plot, and as the two stories are so different in character and tone - really only retaining the setting and the title - it's impossible to come away happy with the 2010 edition if you've read the original story.

So, to sum: I would recommend the Region 0 set to people interested in M.R. James' stories, since it's a complete set, and contains some material that you won't easily find elsewhere. That said, if it's a choice between the Region 0 and the BFI, I'd recommend the BFI, as those discs contain more material and are probably cheaper to obtain. You'd probably have to sacrifice at least some of the Christopher Lee versions, but if that doesn't trouble you, purchase away!