The Tractate Middoth 2013 TV REVIEW

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The Tractate Middoth 2013 breathed new life in the classic A Ghost Story For Christmas series thanks to Mark Gatiss’ affection for M.R. James, writes RICHARD MARKWORTH

Sacha Dhawan in a scene from The Tractate Middoth 2013.
Sacha Dhawan in a scene from The Tractate Middoth 2013.

TITLE: The Tractate Middoth
RELEASE DATE: 25 December 2013 on BBC Two
DIRECTOR: Mark Gatiss
CAST: Sacha Dhawan, John Castle, Louise Jameson, Charlie Clemmow, Una Stubbs, David Ryall, Paul Warren, Eleanor Bron, Nick Burns, Roy Barraclough

Review of The Tractate Middoth 2013

In 2013 the BBC commissioned multi-talented writer, actor and League of Gentlemen alumnus, Mark Gatiss, to make a documentary on arguably the greatest ever author of ghost stories, the legendary M R James. Having previously worked on the superb documentaries A History of Horror and Horror Europa for the corporation, the Beeb clearly now considered Gatiss their “go to guy” for all things spooky.

Gatiss, a true fan of the master, accepted the offer but cleverly added the caveat he be allowed to write and direct an original James adaptation as a companion piece to the documentary. The BBC agreed, and the result was a dramatization of The Tractate Middoth. 

 Not only did Gatiss realise his ambition to pilot an M R James adaptation, but The Tractate Middoth also allowed him to revive the legendary A Ghost Story for Christmas, which had slumbered undisturbed in its crypt since 2010’s Whistle and I’ll Come to You.

The story opens in the 1930s, where widow Mary Simpson (Louise Jameson) arrives at the home of her dying Uncle, Dr Rant (David Ryall), just as her cousin John Eldred (John Castle) is leaving the house following his own visit to the old man. Mary is greeted by Rant’s housekeeper, Mrs Goundry (Eleanor Bron), who somewhat tactlessly states her uncle “won’t last the night” and refers to her ailing employer as “the very devil”.

As Mary attends Dr Rant’s bedchamber, her soon to expire relative informs her there is something she must know.    

Skipping forward 20 years we see Eldred conversing with chief librarian “Sniffer” Hodgson (Roy Barraclough). He explains he seeks The Tractate Middoth, a collection of Hebrew writings, housed in Hodgson’s library. Hodgson despatches a young staff member, William Garrett (Sacha Dhawan), to fetch the tome. 

Eldred’s demeanour grows noticeably anxious when the returning Garrett informs him the Tractate Middoth is not present and he had observed a man, dressed in a cloak, removing it. A visibly agitated Eldred makes his excuses and departs, advising he will return on the morrow to obtain the book.   

Following Eldred’s departure, Garrett notices strange, swirling dust motes in the library and is puzzled to note the book is back on its shelf despite seeing no sign of the mysterious man who must have returned it. Garrett is interrupted by his friend and fellow librarian, George Earle (Nicholas Burns) who also saw no customer in the vicinity. As they converse, the two men remark on an unpleasant aroma that has begun to permeate the library. 

True to his word, Eldred reappears the following day and Garrett once again heads off to procure the volume for him.  As Garrett reaches the lonely aisle in which the Tractate Middoth is located, he notices there is now a profusion of dust particles in the area. Furthermore, a mysterious cloaked figure, its back turned towards the librarian, is stationed by the shelves. The figure turns slowly around causing Garrett to scream and pass out in shock.  

Eldridge is informed by Hodgson that Garrett has suffered “an attack”. Despite having been waiting for the young man with growing impatience, Eldridge again beats a hasty retreat from the library on hearing this news.

 As Garrett recovers from his unpleasant encounter, George questions him as to the details of the incident. Garrett tells his friend he saw “something”. A memory flashback reveals the cloaked stranger to have been a sinister spectre, its hideous countenance enshrouded in thick spider webs. The sight of this ghastly apparition had understandably terrified the librarian to the point of collapse. George recommends Garrett take a recuperative break in the country to recover his nerves.

Following his friend’s advice, a frazzled Garrett is met at a rural train station by Mary and her daughter Anne (Charlie Clemmow) who now run the lodging house in which he has arranged to stay for the duration of his holiday.

As Garrett chats to the ladies, Mary explains they have been forced to take in lodgers to make ends meet thanks to the machinations of her rich but malicious uncle, Dr Rant. It transpires former priest Rant “wasn’t a distinguished man and not a nice one either” and had cruelly set Mary and her cousin John against each other by creating two wills, one in each of their favours. 

John has become the old man’s immediate beneficiary, currently enjoying their deceased Uncle’s estate, but there exists a second, overriding, testament bequeathing everything to Mary. This has been hidden in an unnamed publication located somewhere outside the house. Rant had made both parties aware of this fact, delighting in leaving the cousins at odds with each other with his last dying act, and leaving them engaged in a race to secure the decisive will.

Garrett is intrigued and resolves to help the women search for the document. He soon realises the recent customer at the library was Mary’s cousin and the will is secreted within the pages of the Tractate Middoth he had sought. However, Eldridge has a head start and the words of Mrs Goundry in respect of Dr Rant, “Don’t trust him. In life or death”, prove to be prophetic.

Whilst The Tractate Middoth does not quite hit the heights of the classic Lawrence Gordon Clark presentations from the series’ original 1970s run, it is nonetheless a respectable addition to the cycle and Gatiss makes an impressive directorial debut.

Although the source material is one of James’ least substantial tales, for instance there is no clear motivation for Rant’s antipathy towards his relatives, Gatiss keeps the narrative moving fluidly and never fails to engage the viewer. 

The director manages to generate several legitimately eerie moments, with a hallucinogenic sequence featuring Garrett on a train being a prime example. He does, however, occasionally overegg the pudding. This is particularly exemplified by the camera dwelling a tad too long on the ghost of Rant itself when it makes its final deadly appearance.

The players are uniformly excellent. Dhawan makes for a sympathetic protagonist while the supporting cast of well-established character actors add a genuine richness to the production, particularly the marvellous Roy Barraclough as the nasally challenged library supervisor.

The success of this production would be the catalyst for Mark Gatiss to become the driving force behind the current run of A Ghost Story for Christmas and it is fair to say his tenure at the helm of the series has proved a somewhat controversial and divisive one amongst certain factions of fandom. 

It is, of course, impossible to please all the people all the time, particularly it seems when adapting beloved literary works, and in this age of social media those with negative viewpoints have a ready platform on which to vociferously air their displeasure.

However, I doubt A Ghost Story For Christmas would have returned to our screens any time soon, let alone endure, if it was not for Gatiss’ affection and commitment to the genre. I may not agree with all his creative choices but am nonetheless appreciative of his dedication. Long may he continue to cast a chill shadow over the festive season.

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Mark Gatiss talks about The Tractate Middoth 2013

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