Following on from his ‘5 alternative ghost stories for Christmas’, MARK FRYERS goes into more detail about one of the entries, ‘Christmas Spirits’.
Buried in the late-night ITV schedules at 10.50pm on January 1st 1981, Christmas Spirits is an obscure and curious, yet definitely rewarding Christmas ghost story. Penned by thrice BAFTA-nominated scriptwriter Willis Hall, who contributed to the 1960s British new-wave with screenplays for Billy Liar and A Kind of Loving, the script takes a wry look at class and the fact that Britain’s stately homes are reduced to providing cheap and cheerful entertainment for, particularly, American tourists. “We American’s are suckers for your Aristocracy” admits American Julia Myerson (Elaine Stritch).
In the first scenes, we are introduced to Angela Aintrey (Norma West), the last member of an aristocratic line and owner of its attendant pile, Glebes Hall, who bickers with her husband, Charles (Ben Aris) that Julia is visiting at the last minute on Christmas Eve. Charles is heartened to learn that Julia is a location scout for a Hollywood production company, looking to shoot a big-budget horror film at the hall- much needed income, he reasons.
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Charles gleefully recounts the macabre history of the hall, in which a young boy murdered his sister in the nursery one Christmas Eve after she mutilated his pets. The maid is executed for the killing but the boy commits suicide a few years later. Julia is shown the waxworks and portraits of the unfortunate protagonists and her eye is drawn to two little dolls on the window seat of the nursery.
She is also introduced to the obligatory haughty housekeeper, Mrs Purvis (Tenko’s Stephanie Cole), who objects to the presence of outsiders at the hall. Angela and Charles are called away to visit Angela’s Aunt (“another bloody aristo” in Charles’ estimation), Angela is left in the house by herself. She is startled on the stairs by Mrs Purvis, before Purvis herself leaves for the day and Charles telephones to say they may be delayed in returning until the next day due to car trouble.
The majority of the drama from that point onwards is provided by the narrative voiceover of Julia as she becomes increasingly paranoid alone in the dark as the door is mysteriously locked and the lights not working. Her attention is focused on the nursery and the grisly reminders of the house’s history. She swiftly modifies her original opinion that “finding this house is just too good to be true”.
Director June Wyndham-Davies makes full use of the claustrophobic atmosphere of the house’s interior location, letting the camera follow Julia in her nocturnal frenzy, and occasionally punctuating these with creepy sounds such as disembodied children’s laughter and short musical passages that sound like they emanate from a child’s music box.
Rather like Michael Horden in the classic Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1967), Stritch has to carry the brunt of the narrative burden single-handed. Thankfully, the distinguished actress was more than capable. A veteran of stage and screen, Stritch went on to be nominated for eight Primetime Emmy awards, winning three in the process (particularly for her role as Alec Baldwin’s obstinate mother in 30 Rock)
There is a twist before the ending, but I won’t ruin that here, but suffice it to say it is worth waiting for. If you found dark old houses, children’s dolls and waxworks unsettling before, this won’t do anything to improve the situation, but if you crave a Christmas spine-tingler, this might well satisfy.
Guest writer DR MARK FRYERS takes us to times of Christmas past with these little-known yuletide spookfests!
As the nights get shorter and enthusiasts of the supernatural begin to dust off their beloved copies of one of the BBC’s many adaptations of M.R. James, Sheridan Le Fanu and Charles Dicken’s ‘Ghost stories for Christmas’, it is worth remembering that there have been many other televisual evocations of the yuletide tradition.
Alongside Robin Redbreast and The Stone Tape, here are five more obscure entries you may want to give a try (if you can track them down).
1. The Blue Boy
Screened over the festive period in 1994 on BBC2 and on Masterpiece Theater in the US, this haunting tale of adultery boasts a cast including Eleanor Bron, Emma Thompson and her mother, Phylidia Law. Never screened again, its obscure status is as mysterious and enigmatic as the tale itself. The titular blue boy is a ghost that haunts the environs of a remote hotel and Loch in Scotland, suffusing any photographs taken in the locale with an eerie blue tint. Is the boy just a legend or is it trying to warn the protagonists against catastrophe re-occurring?
2. Christmas Spirits
This ITV offering was broadcast on January 1st 1981 and features Elaine Stritch (Cocoon: The Return) as a Hollywood location scout looking for an English mansion to feature in a horror film. She is trapped in said house overnight, alongside the creepy dolls in the nursery and other ‘manifestations’. The drama has a strong pedigree – scripted by Willis Hall, who also penned Billy Liar, and produced/directed by June Wyndham-Davies of Pollyanna fame. It is the performance of Stritch, however, as she talks to herself in voiceover during the ordeal, that really provides the narrative thrust. Read Mark Fryer’s article about Christmas Spirits 1981 here.
3. A Child’s Voice
A real tour-de-force this one, actually an Irish short film that was broadcast on BBC2 in December 1980. T.P. McKenna stars as a self-aggrandising ‘Man in Black’ style radio storyteller, McCready. One evening he begins recounting the tale of a little boy, a magician’s assistant, who does not wish to be part of the disappearing act. Later that evening, McCready receives a mysterious call from a little boy imploring him not to continue with the tale: “I would prefer it if you would go no further with it”. The arrogant McCready ignores him, and is made to suffer the ultimate punishment.
4. Govan Ghost Story
Okay, so this one was not actually screened at Christmas, actually closer to Easter- time in 1989, and formed part of ‘The Play on One’ drama anthology. It was directed by prolific actor Jack Hayman. As such, it tackles weightier themes of bereavement and unemployment in the Glasgow shipbuilding community at Govan. However, it is set at Christmas and features a central character, Jock McGinn (Tom Watson), who is literally and metaphorically haunted by the apparition of a little girl. It swaps the gothic mansion for the council estate but loses nothing in atmosphere and gains everything in grungy realism and poignancy. Read more about Govan Ghost Story.
5. Take the High Road – Millennium Special, 1999
Another curiosity from the Celtic fringes, this is actually a two-part special of the once – popular Scottish soap opera Take the High Road that was broadcast to coincide with the Millennium. It is full of the iconography of the supernatural: nocturnal chases through woods, mysterious, belligerent figures in animal masks and fevered nightmares. Perfectly accessible for the casual viewer, it’s Highland pagan imagery recalls the classic Scottish film The Wicker Man.
There we go. If you can locate them, they are well-worth the effort to fulfil your appetite for festive fear!
DR MARK FYERS is a Norfolk-based lecturer in film and television, who specialises in British media history. He has written and presented on many aspects of gothic and supernatural culture and has a special interest in the gothic maritime, and the maritime sphere’s connection to British national identity. He has been fascinated with the supernatural from an early age. His twitter account is @markfryers1 and his website is https://markfryersbritfilm.wordpress.com/