Lot No 249 2023 TV Review

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Reading Time: 5 minutes

Lot No 249 is more Hammer Horror than your typical A Ghost Story for Christmas fare, writes RICHARD MARKWORTH

Lot No 249

TITLE: Lot No 249
RELEASED: 24 December 2023 on BBC2
DIRECTOR: Mark Gatiss
CAST: Kit Harington, Freddie Fox, Colin Ryan, John Heffernan, James Swanton, Jonathan Rigby, Andrew Horton

Review of Lot No 249

After once again arriving on a dark Christmas Eve, bearing the gift of his latest entry to the A Ghost Story for Christmas series, it appears writer/director Mark Gatiss has now become as regular a visitor to our homes during the festive season as Santa Claus himself.   

Gatiss’ last three seasonal adaptations were derived from the ghostly canon of M R James but, on this occasion, he has opted to select Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lot No 249 as his source material, thereby subtly varying the formula of the strand and imparting a new flavour to his regular Yuletide treat.

The production wastes no time with preliminaries, hurling the viewer straight into the thick of the action as a terrified Abercrombie Smith (Kit Harrington) pounds frantically on the door of his unnamed friend (John Heffernan) imploring him to “Let me in for pity’s sake!”.

Once safely inside, Smith attempts to point out his shadowy pursuer to his concerned friend through the window. Unable to fully identify the form briefly witnessed in the distance, Smith’s companion reassures him “the fellow” has gone. Once he has a restorative glass of brandy clasped in his shaking hand, Smith, who claims to have been “within the handgrip of the Devil”, relays the bizarre events leading up to his dramatic arrival and the reason for his rattled demeanour.

The narrative shifts back seven weeks, where we see Smith, a trainee doctor in 1884, entertaining his new neighbour, Monkhouse Lee (Colin Ryan), in his rooms at Oxford. Conversation turns to the third occupant of their building, one Edward Bellingham (Freddie Fox) who inhabits the middle rooms. It seems Bellingham is an unconventional character, an expert on Eastern languages, “amongst other things”, who immerses himself in “strange studies” and is rarely seen from morning to night. Furthermore, Lee informs Smith, Bellingham is possessed of a foul temper having recently been engaged in a heated confrontation with fellow student Long Norton (Andrew Horton). 

Smith finally meets Bellingham in person late one night when an agitated Lee disturbs his studies and entreats him to attend the man’s rooms. Rushing to his aid, Smith finds Bellingham unconscious. His ministrations revive Bellingham from his comatose state but his condition upon awakening borders on hysterical until a healthy slap from Smith brings him fully to his senses.

Smith questions Bellingham as to his behaviour, enquiring sternly whether his predicament was caused by “some heathen pipe”, his suspicions aroused by the room’s noxious odour. Bellingham explains he was brewing a resin used by ancient Egyptian priests and was in the process of unwrapping a mummy, 40 centuries old which he had purchased at auction some time previously, when overcome by the fumes. He shows the desiccated remains to the two men, stating he has no idea of the corpse’s name and knows it only as Lot 249, as listed at auction. Smith recommends Bellingham finds “some less morbid study”.

However, it is soon patently obvious this advice has been ignored. In very short order, those who have crossed Bellingham, including Lee whom it is heavily implied is his discarded lover, are attacked by something “not human”, narrowly escaping death at the assailant’s bony hands. 

Smith is quick to comprehend Bellingham is employing his reanimated relic as a tool of supernatural vengeance having, on one occasion, noticed the rather spry corpse apparently returning to its previously empty sarcophagus amidst the shadows of Bellingham’s lodgings. 

Being a stiff upper-lipped man of the Empire, Smith doesn’t take kindly to these unholy shenanigans. He warns Bellingham “your filthy Egyptian tricks won’t answer in England” and threatens to see him swing if any member of the campus is killed during his stay at Oxford.

Smith then resolves to visit a friend of his, a “no nonsense sort of fellow”, to seek his counsel on the matter. While walking to the man’s house, he is pursued by the bandaged fiend in a sequence which brings the story back to where it commenced as he bangs on the door seeking sanctuary.

Smith’s friend, a pipe-smoking, dressing gown-clad gentleman who is planning on imminently taking a suite of rooms at Baker Street and looks as if he has walked out of a Sidney Paget illustration, is predictably rational about the affair. He provides explanations for each component of Smith’s account which are all perfectly logical. One might even say elementary. 

Smith, however, is having none of it and resolves to confront Bellingham to give him a chance to cease his actions on pain of death. Will his plan be fruitful or has Smith bitten off more than he can chew by crossing swords with the cunning necromancer?

Lot No 249 is, without doubt, a divergence from the more traditional ghost stories presented in the series. There are no actual spirits on display and the episode has more of the qualities of a classic Hammer horror film than an understated Jamesian creeper. However, in my opinion, resurrected mummies are a more than adequate stand-in for lurking phantoms and it is healthy for any series to see their formula changed up every so often.

Gatiss further deviates from the familiar template by choosing material which features an athletic young man, prepared to take direct action against the supernatural menace in his midst, as opposed to the over-inquisitive, middle-aged academic protagonists inhabiting many earlier episodes. 

The overriding theme of the piece is one of British Imperialism standing firm in the face of potential infiltration by malign foreign influences. The louche, arrogant, and obviously gay Bellingham is an affront to everything the thoroughly British Smith considers decent. Smith will not stand for his “hellish tricks” and, in true Imperial form, seeks to impose his will on Bellingham while holding him at gunpoint.

The strong homosexual sub-text is framed in a surprising manner by Gatiss. Rather than presenting Bellingham’s sexuality in a positive light, the character’s preferences are instead used to illustrate his predatory, outsider nature and highlight the threat he represents. In the context of today’s enlightened times, this is a daring move by Gatiss and will perhaps allay the fears of that certain percentage of viewership who fret about some perceived “woke agenda” at the BBC.

The cast perform capably with Harrington suitably square-jawed as Smith and Fox imbuing Bellingham with a menacing charm.

Once again, Gatiss’ annual offering has caused division amongst genre fans but, personally, I found Lot No 249 to be an enjoyable yarn, containing the correct level of spookiness and a welcome dash of knowing humour. 

The inclusion of Doyle’s famous sleuth, albeit anonymously, has caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the realms of online message boards, but can be appreciated as an amusing Easter egg which does nothing to detract from the overall tale.

In fact, Gatiss has stated this year’s project was greenlit partially to tie in with Lucy Worsley’s recent BBC series on Conan Doyle which explains the nod. It also indicates there is no cast iron guarantee of future episodes being commissioned purely on their own merit.

Let us therefore appreciate Mr Gatiss’ efforts to keep A Ghost Story for Christmas alive, before it, like the British Empire itself, fades away into the mists of history.  

Tell us your thoughts about Lot No 249 in the comments section below!

You can watch Lot No 249 on BBC iPlayer

Watch Lot No 249 Trailer

1 COMMENT

  1. A personal view, but as a lifelong fan of M.R.James and all things Jamesian, I thought both Conan Doyle’s original story – Lot 249 – and its adaptation by Mark Gatiss – to be melodramatic and the latter absolutely dire. The comparison to a Hammer horror yarn is very apposite.

    There are far, far better short ghost stories than this to adapt for television not only others by James himself such as “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook” or “The Uncommon Prayer Book” but also those by L.T.C. (Tom) Rolt; the likes of “Cwm Garon”, “Bosworth Summit Pound”, or “Hawley Bank Foundry” spring to mind. In the words of school reports – do those still exist – the phrase “could do a great deal better” seem singularly appropriate.

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