Stories that inspired M.R. James

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Episode 33 – Mark Gatiss’ The Tractate Middoth

December 26, 2013 | Episodes | Comments (22)

In this special Christmas Bonus episode, Mike and Will give their thoughts on Mark Gatiss’ adaptation of ‘The Tractate Middoth’ by M.R. James, which aired on UK TV last night along with Gatiss’ documentary ‘M.R. James: Ghost Writer’.

Please note that this episode contains spoilers about both programmes so if you are planning on watching either then make sure you do so before listening to this episode!

Hats off to Mr Gatiss for providing us with a thoroughly enjoyable evening’s entertainment!

If you want to learn more about the original story then look no further than our own Episode 11 which examined The Tractate Middoth in detail.

Finally, if you enjoyed Robert Lloyd Parry’s bravura performance as M.R. James in the documentary, don’t forget to check out his tour dates or buy a dvd over at his website


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  1. wrieder66 says:

    Wonderful to have a Boxing Day treat from you – watching The Tractate Middoth live, I was curious of your thoughts on the program (having re-listened to Episode #11 the night before) and here they are!

    1) Change of era: this may have been a decision by Gatiss or a suggestion by the BBC that a 1950’s period show is just less expensive to stage than an 1890’s (fewer horses to balance out the lack of facial hair.) As with you, I don’t think it made a substantial difference.

    2) Gender politics: though the adaptation follows the story, I can’t imagine Gatiss (with his background) would cast Louise Jameson as Mrs Simpson without feeling the general BBC audience would read some of her Doctor Who companion history into the general feeling of the character – perhaps a trapped woman, but not a weak one.

    3) Front-loading the Jamesian whollop: with so much of the story being hard for an unfamiliar viewer to follow (the title isn’t exactly inviting, and it’s just a McGuffin anyway), I wasn’t surprised they decided to give us the whollop in “real time” and not just in the later retelling. Made for a bit of repetition, but understandable.

    4) Chase scene felt short: unless they shifted to an internal monologue, I doubt they could have given as much time to the story’s version of the chase (which was a train-spotter’s timetable fever dream) – an understandable alteration considering the abandonment of the story’s cross-field / horse-race.

    Again, thanks for your holiday special episode!

  2. Mats Sjöberg says:

    I’m just sad I cannot see this outside of the UK :-/

  3. Jerry D says:

    It was the Gorgeous at 75 Eleanor Bron who played the delightfully creepy housekeeper. (Another Doctor Who alum.) Una Stubbs was the chatty comedy woman on the train. She reminded me of the chatty comedy woman from the carriage in the opening of Tod Browning’s Dracula.

    Here’s my EXAPNDED thoughts – posted crossover from your FB page, just because I’m bored as hell today.

    What a wonderful adaptation! I think probably the most faithful yet. In my house it was watched by a head librarian (my wife) and a chief archivist (me) – and as I’m writing an ms. on the books in MR James we were pretty interested in how library life was going to play out.

    I have to say I totally dislike it when television takes a nice tight story like this one and turns it into something it’s not. The 2010 “O Whistle” is merely BASED on MR James. He never would have written such a thing. It was merely depressing. Same with the BBC radio version – it’s OK, but it’s not James. It was nice to FINALLY see his work more faithfully adatped to the scree.

    I got up yesterday and put on my favorite cord blazer and knit tie in tribute.

    Also, if you’ve never spent a day in coat and tie rummaging through an ancient collection of papers – you need to get that on your bucket list. It’s a window into the mind of a guy like James. In this world where everyone moves so fast, it’s hard to imagine a career where you see few people, move at a slower pace, and your days work plays out almost entirely in your head. That’s how I live – and having to do something like go to the bank or the mall is an almost jarring and unpleasant intrusion of reality.

    I have to admit to being a lot like Mr. Garrett when I was a student – happy to run and work in the stacks instead of hunching over a desk. I also took a lot of pride in knowing the collection. And a character like Sniffer is TOTALLY consistent with an old uni library staffer…same with the pornographic friend. There’s always That Guy.

    A couple of things that came to my mind – the update to the 1950’s created one major plot hole.

    No need for Garrett to go to the donations list to get Dr. Rant’s address – by the 50’s he could have just phoned Mrs. Simpson and asked where her cousin lived. Same with intercepting the book – a call to the Station Master would have solved that problem. In 1899/1900 that would have not been possible.

    Also, I rather liked Doctor Rant’s portrayal. The Simpsons don’t come of as particularly deserving. Boo hoo. They have to take in lodgers and actually WORK for a living instead of living off their dead uncle’s money. I found myself almost rooting for Dr. Rant to mess up everyone’s day.

    On to the books! I’ve always wondered why James picked the Middoth (or Middot) – it’s a tractate in the Kodashim which describes the measurements of the Temple. It’s an early treatise on geometry, essentially, probably Medieval, which was discovered quite late. The 1707 Amsterdam edition was real – printed by Joseph Atias at a time when a lot of Jewish texts were getting the torch. Atias was trying to print the whole scripture and had the cash to do it right. The books are ornate and very well done. They’re not particularly valuable today – a few thousand dollars. So it’s a real book – James had probably seen it. Though it’s a mystery to me why he picked it. I am sure there is an inside joke there.

    The prop wasn’t bad…but it has some problems. It was WAY TOO big. The Middot is really short. Even as a printed book it would have been thin. It also looked like it opened the wrong way round – the real one opens from the “back” – not the front – like all old Hebrew texts. Correct me if I saw that wrong.

    I have a theory that the book’s press marking is actually correct as well – though James might have left it incomplete. Library cataloging systems in the UK at the time followed a similar format. We have tons of books still extant that teach you how to catalog from those days. Catalogs ALWAYS begin with theology. So the first item on this press marking would have likely been “A.” Polyglots are usually first (10) followed by Hebrew texts – so “11.” So tractate Middoth would have been in the catalog under A.11. 3 probably refers to the Talmud – 34 the individual bound tractate volume. Etc.

    The library in the story wouldn’t have needed the letters becaused they used physical arrangement(classes) as their primary organizational strategy.

    Kings doesn’t use this kind of catalog today – and may never have. James might have made it up; but if he did it’s consistent with cataloging rules for the day.

    Which I totally nerd out on…

  4. A Rat In The Wall says:

    I thought it was a rather good adaptation, it seemed rather faithful to the story, which made me very happy. I wasn’t blown away or anything, but it was thoroughly enjoyable and looked incredibly good, I’m really glad the Christmas ghost story is back!

    There were indeed a few too many comedy characters, thinking about it. I thoroughly enjoyed Garret’s weird sleazy friend who hangs around this library with his pipe being amazing. Old Sniffer, too, was pleasant and amusing. But maybe perhaps a little too relief, more pleasing than terror.

    I didn’t particularly mind the main guy, I actually thought he did well enough. But I did mind, though, was seeing Dr. Rant’s ghost too many times. I expect a bit more from Gatiss on that front, being able to not show the horror so much. If we had only seen the typical Jamesian silhouette in the background more, a few more shots of spiders and stuff instead of so many shots of the actual ghost.

    I also really loved the documentary, it was really nice to watch – loved seeing that stuffed crocodile in St. Bertrand de Comminges! Also getting to see those locations and interviews. But mostly, I was so happy it didn’t obsess over sexuality, which these days would be so easy to dwell on. I was dreading the whole time that Gatiss would pop up and spend half an hour dwelling on nit-picky, cherry-picked bits of text. I personally don’t agree at all that James was in fact a repressed raging homosexual, those aspects in his stories about contact is a wonderful method for scaring people, because it isn’t what you expect from a scary monster looking to harm you, is it? As was said, James knew fear and how to scare people, and subverting expectations like that works wonderfully well.

    Over all, a wonderful Christmas offering, I would absolutely love to see more these things in future Christmases – next year, Count Magnus, please!

  5. RogerBW says:

    Since Gatiss has spent much of his career being very up-front about his homosexuality rather than letting it be ignored by people who don’t like to think about such things, it’s perhaps not surprising that he should see another writer (whom he clearly admires) through that particular lens.

    (I think it’s unfortunate that he shares with Steven Moffat a profound inability to write convincing female characters, but when adapting James that’s not such a drawback as elsewhere.)

  6. Rich Johnson says:

    I was really enthusiastic about the Gatiss adaptation in the immediate aftermath, but having had a think and a listen I can understand some of the reservations people are having. I would say that generally it was a very good adaptation, in that it was faithful to the story – you’re quite correct to say that The Fans always look at adaptations with a gimlet eye waiting to pounce on the slightest of changes. I know I do.

    I thought it looked fantastic; I liked the locations and the library, and the sinister dust. The Jamesian wallop of the glimpses of the Thing was satisfyingly ‘orrible, although, yes, too soon and a bit too often. I liked the look of the special effects, they did hark back to that pre-CGI era of the classic TV versions.

    One thing that did irk me was the very ending; (SPOILER AHOY) perhaps the happily-ever-after ending is considered trite by our modern mentality, fair enough, but the happy-resolution-then-last-second-suggestion-of-continued-horror is maybe becoming equally trite. It was effectively done, though, with the dust and the spider, and I’d enjoyed the rest of it enough to let it pass.

    Perhaps I’d enjoy it less on second viewing, but I thought it was done with love and with no little style, and many of the flaws are there in the original story.

  7. Skywatcher says:

    I felt that it was an excellent little adaption. It lacked the thorough chill of something like A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS, but then the original story was far less intense. I suspect that it was far easier to adapt in some respects than some of the tales, as it has far more of a plot, but this did leave less time for building up atmosphere. Some people have complained about the humour, but it actually mirrored the original in that way. James was fond of his humorous asides, as we all know. I would give it 8.5 out of 10, but I would love to see Gatiss do a really uncompromisingly grim adaption of something like COUNT MAGNUS.

  8. Skywatcher says:

    Enjoyed listening to your podcast enormously, but I have one BIG complaint. The housekeeper/carer at the beginning was played by Eleanor Bron. The ‘comedy woman on the train’ was Una Stubbs. Both terrific actors, but about the only way you could possibly mistake one for the other is if you were suffering from cataracts and severe deafness. Harumph!

  9. Ghughesarch says:

    I have to agree that the adaptation felt like a prelude to the main event, which was the documentary – in fact, I’m not sure that James ever really transfers all that well to Tv except as fairly straight readings – something of the pleasure of sitting and reading the story, or being told it (especially if you’re lucky enough to be in the excellent R Ll P’s audience) is lost, and some of the plot holes show up in a stronger light, when it’s acted out.
    Not bad as dramatisations go, though Una Stubbs won’t be pleased that you’ve confused her (playing the rather superfluous gossippy woman on the train) with Eleanor Bron, who played the creepy housekeeper.
    The documentary was excellent, though like all James documentaries it just couldn’t deal with everything, but makes a worthy addition to the ones that are already out there. Jonathan Miller still seems to be clinging hopelessly to “it was all in my imagination” as the explanation of “Oh Whistle”, which suggests he’s never actually read the last lines of the story despite having adapted it for TV.

  10. Robert Ross says:

    I do wish the two programs could be viewed online for the US American fans.

  11. Jenny says:

    Comments about this episode & the documentary on the FB and Twitter ‘Jamesian’ grapevines were saddening me quite a bit, but your discussion of both was entertaining and on point!

    It felt like the adaptation took too long to get going, and then was rushed toward the end. It did look amazing though. It seemed like MG poured a lot more love into the documentary. I thought his discussion of James’ ‘repressed sexuality’ was interesting and not at all irrelevant when you consider (as MG mentioned) how much tactility, hair, flesh, etc, there is in his stories. The interviews, letters and locations were great fun to watch/get a peek at.

    Sort of related is this Robert Aickman adaptation of The Cicerones starring Mark Gatiss and directed by Jeremy Dyson…’ve probably seen it before, but just in case you haven’t:

    • A Rat In The Wall says:

      I personally chalked the touching, hair and flesh and stuff up to the idea of horrible physicality, that the thing is a little too real to be comfortable, abhorrent to rationalism or the close world of musty scholars, not because it’s homosexual manifestations. But that’s just me, no reason not to say there wasn’t a distaste for ANY physical touching (ragging aside) on MRJ’s part.

      And I had no idea that short film was on YouTube, link much appreciated! I saw a clip of it somewhere and was always interested.

  12. Paxton's Spade says:

    Hi Gents, firstly a big thanks for the company of the podcasts in back number this winter. As a MRJ enthusiast since the Robert Powell 1986 readings, through subsequent regular re-reading of the original source material, Christopher Lee, Robert Lloyd Parry and the TV adaptatations, a Christmas Radio Times trawl for MRJ is a festive must, albeit often ending in frustration and I can’t understand why the Ghost Story for Christmas revival has been patchy and not more fully embraced.

    Anyway, I shared the enthusiam of many knowing that the Tractate Middoth and documentary was scheduled. The initial drama was above average with several good points including the humour, but I do agree that Rant’s ghost was over-exposed and somewhat inanimate. I think a lot of the sinister element of the spectres come from their odd, disconcerting movement such as the long-striding lawn stalking baby-snatcher (Mezzotint) linen-shrouded, break-water tripper (Oh Whistle) poncho-wearing sprinting Agar (A Warning)etc. A long shadow, dust and spiders is all well and good but if it’s just a chinless mannequin, ugly as it is, the threat disappates a bit. Looked good though. One thing the 2005 A View from a Hill got right was brevity of seeing the horror and Baxter in skull mask moving towards the lens. I would like to have seen some reference to the manner of Dr. Rant’s macabre interment mentioned, as I have always felt this was integral to the story – did I miss it somewhere? I’m a fraction behind your scoring I think, say 3.6/5 versus your (as I judge it) 4 point something. Probably looking a gift horse in the mouth though and I’m very grateful to Mr Gatiss.

    The documentary was excellent work and covered some good ground. As to the prurient attitude to the private/sexual life of horror/ghost writers, it will never go away, as it was often the starting point for editors of E.F. Benson, E. Nesbitt etc, when I was buying collections re-issued in the 1980’s, so it’s human nature and not just reflected trends of modern journalism. I think Mike has described it as a valid line of enquiry and I agree, while chossing to ignore the Freudian elements and just enjoying the spills and thrills.

  13. Derek Wright says:

    Great stuff, as always. This link is to Gatiss & co commenting on the recent TV adaption of “The Tractate Middoth.”

  14. Richard Leigh says:

    I’m not at all convinced about MRJ’s loathing of physicality. If you’ve ever walked into a mass of cobwebs in a dark room, you won’t need to have his dislike of creepiness explained to you. As to whether this dislike was a result of sexual repression – who can possibly know? As you say, he’s dead, almost everyone he knew is dead, and there’s no documentary evidence either way. The point is, I think, that apart from the two chaps in “An Evening’s Entertainment”, there’s next to nothing in the stories that prompts this line of questioning.
    Incidentally: you point out the extreme goriness of the grandmother’s story – MRJ at his most explicit. How odd that this, of all stories, is told to two small children.
    I share your enthusiasm for Gatiss’ documentary – it looks stunning, and shows so much that hasn’t been seen in previous programmes about MRJ. I missed the “Middoth” and will have to wait for the next BFI Christmas release. Let’s hope they issue it with the documentary.

  15. Richard Leigh says:

    ps. Now that the film is available on youtube, I’ve finally seen it. I think it’s pretty faithful to the story, and well-made without being a masterpiece. I agree that there’s too much comedy: the chatty woman in the train could have been profitably omitted. There’s also a puzzle (for me) about the will. I’ve always assumed that it was written in English but using Hebrew letters. This would baffle anyone who didn’t read any Hebrew. But in the film it’s written in English, backwards, in writing which imitates (vaguely) the look of Hebrew. So anyone ignorant of Hebrew would be quite likely to see it as English mirror-writing, since they wouldn’t be distracted by misreading it as Hebrew. (There must be a more concise way of putting all this…)

    • Three Crowns says:

      But the will is inside a Hebrew book. So the casual observer would assume it’s Hebrew because that’s its context.

  16. Three Crowns says:

    I don’t think it’s right to assume Mark Gatiss made the conscious descision not to “reform” the Tractate Middoth. Maybe he did, but for me personally, it didn’t occur to me that there was anything that needed “reforming” until you mentioned it. I don’t agree with this mentality whereby a story is sexist if the central protagonists are men. MR James was a male author who lived his whole life in a male environment. He had little interaction with or interest in women, as as the adage goes, write what you know. There may be an argument to “feminise” the story from a commercial point of view, ie maybe you will appeal to a broader audience if you include women (like in the Hobbit when they invented a whole female character), but that’s a commercial argument and not a moral one. I just don’t see what’s so wicked about having a male-centric story. If a female author writes a female-centric story, is that wicked too, or is it only wicked when it’s men? I don’t think MR James hated women, I think he was just indifferent to them; they weren’t part of his world. That’s something a modern audience has trouble grasping – we go to co-ed schools then work in co-ed jobs. We see the opposite sex every day on TV and on the internet and down the pub. We have trouble grasping the idea of that almost monastic point of view so we interpret it was misogyny.

    Similarly, we interpret it as repressed homosexuality. “Oh, he mostly hung out with men, eh, we know what that means (wink wink)”. I think that people pre-occupied with sex look at Monty’s apparent lack of interest in sex, can’t grasp it, so interpret it as repressed homosexuality. “He lived in the olden days you know”. We have a bias that we live in the post-60s, liberated, enlightened modern world, where every sexuality is embraced, understood and celebrated. Every sexuality except, apparently, asexuality. I think it was wrong for Mark Gatiss to assert as a matter of fact that Monty’s “repressed sexuality” was important. Mark Gatiss is himself openly gay, and I think he was seeing what he wanted to see. There’s a trend nowadays to go through history mining it for historical homosexuals. I’ve heard this about everyone from Nietszche to Jesus. “Nietzsche never married, dontcha’ know?” Jesus hung out wth twelve men all day, wink wink”. I think we’re pre-occupied with looking for homosexuals, and I think this says more about us than it does about Monty.

    If I was to speculate about Monty’s sexuality, I would say he was asexual. He just wasn’t interested, it wasn’t part of his world, he had more important and interesting things to think about. Possibly the only time he thought about sex was when he felt self-conscious about his lack of sexuality. The fact that the ghosts are all slimy and gropey possibly reflects not that he was gay, but that he thought of sex in general negatively.

  17. Dennis De Graaf says:

    First of all thanks and congrats for your excellent podcasts on each of MR James’s ghost stories. I have discovered his writings recently while reading an essay, disguised as a ghost story, by the Irish writer John Connolly. In his story ‘I live here’ he is reminiscing about the horror-novels and movies from his youth which influenced him as a writer and MR James played a large role. Anyway, after that I started to read the Jamesian stories and the were a revelation to me. I grew up in the Netherlands and MRJ is largely unknown there.

    Now for the BBC 2014 documentary of Mark Gattis, which I also enjoyed very much: were you aware of the publication of his essay ‘Ghost Stories’ which was published in the ‘The Eton Rambler’ of May 1880 which features here? Including, it seems, a short story? I noticed that you both have not discussed this yet. I understand that you have set the podcast on a new course with stories from other writers, but it might be interesting to research in the Eton library to see or discover texts from a youthfull MRJ that are perhaps hidden there.

    Cheers and keep up the good work!

  18. craig lancaster marr says:

    I have been an MR James fan since I found one of his anthologies in my school library in my early teens – in the early 1980s – and from the BBC Christmas ghost story adaptations. I am also a librarian and cataloguer and the library setting of this story obviously holds a special interest.

    I think I can throw some light on this aspect of the Tractate Middoth and the number 11.

    The university library would not use the Dewey Decimal classification system as this is too broad and is more often found in public and school libraries. Specialist and esoteric libraries may develop their own systems of course, but in many universities the Universal Decimal System (UDC) is used. It is a system I am aware of but have never used personally, but the subject class 11 is for Metaphysics. The Tractate Middoth should be in class 26 – Jewish theology.
    UDC was developed in 1895 so would have been in use during MRJ’s lifetime.

  19. Craig Lancaster Marr says:

    To follow up the above post I have been told that MR James was cataloguing the collection at Cambridge so he may have been responsible for creating the system he mentions in Tractate or it is a variation of an existing one which assigns a subject number (11), a shelf number (3) and the exact number position of the book in question (34) – which gives us the Tractate Middoth, with the commentary of Nachmanides, Amsterdam, 1707, located at 11.3.34

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