Stories that inspired M.R. James

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Ep74 – Review of Martin’s Close on BBC4

January 6, 2020 | Episodes | Comments (21)

Capaldi_BBC4Excitement abounds in the podcast house as Big Santy C leaves us a new BBC Ghost Story for Christmas, courtesy of BBC4 and Mr Mark Gatiss!  Will and Mike offer their humble thoughts on this festive treat.

Show notes:

Image and excerpts from Radio Times and BBC4.



  1. A Rat in the Wall says:

    To be honest, I thought it was serviceable, and nothing more. I find Mark Gatiss to be an enthusiastic but middling filmmaker, Tractate Middoth was also fairly middle ground as M.R. James adaptations go. I’m really happy he’s kept the tradition going, I just hope some other directors can step in with Gatiss in a producer role.

    It’s remarkably faithful, for the most part, and I was very surprised with the portrayal of Anne Clark, I was kind of expecting them to sort of ignore that, but kudos for being up front about it. However, I think it slips up with the most key scene of the story – the cupboard scene. I completely disagree that it was handled well at all. That’s the crowning moment of horror in this ghost story. It was a missed opportunity, Gatiss seemed to favour his own insertion of Anne’s ghost at the trial at the end. While that wasn’t actually bad, the real wallop suffers for it, and leaves the adaptation pretty toothless all round. She can’t burst out of the cupboard, that would be too violent and not like the living Anne Clark, but she can appear in plain view, drowned and rotten, several times? I say let her have her vengeance and let us see it. Squire Martin seems pretty tormented by her otherwise.

    The climax was fine, but they really should have cut it after the title drop. That one last shot was kind of pointless and I don’t think it adds much of anything. 6/10, maybe 7/10 on a good day. Nice production values, mostly good performances (have to agree with the folks who said Jeffreys was miscast, ages aside), not actually bad in any way, just kind of meh.

    Apparently Gatiss plans to do more James adaptations and, worryingly, some ‘original ideas’. Here’s hoping he gets more of a budget next year.

  2. Luke says:

    I enjoyed it. Gatiss has an obvious love of M.R. James and I’m very grateful that he & the BBC are continuing this ghost story for Christmas tradition – albeit with a woefully low budget (but Gatiss handles low budgets well).

    I would love for you guys to dedicate an episode of your podcast to rating/ranking all the M.R James ghost story tv adaptations. For me the number 1 position MUST go to “A Warning To The Curious” closely followed by “Lost Hearts”. I quite liked the mid-2000s adaptations of A View From A Hill and Number 13.

    I would really, REALLY love to see a tv adaptation of Count Magnus and The Residence of Whitminster but with a low BBC budget maybe not do-able?.

    • A Rat in the Wall says:

      Oh I disagree, the best TV adaptation has to be ‘Stalls of Barchester’! Very faithful adaptation, quiet, atmospheric, kind of cozy, but with some good spooky moments. Haynes’ reaction to being touched by the, uh, slightly dodgy monster hand always sounded really genuine to me. I just can’t stand the fact that you see Ager in the Warning adaptation…

      • Nick Beale says:

        I think that for me, having got the BFI dvd’s to supplement my memories, Lost Hearts still comes out on top (scary then, scary now), then A Warning to the Curious and maybe Stalls. Seeing it again, I was disappointed by No. 13, although Abbot Thomas held up reasonably well. However, I still find the Jonathan Miller ego-trip that was Oh Whistle dreadful.

        P.S. I did quite enjoy the Gatiss Martin’s Close and Tractate Middoth adaptations. Not in the Lost Hearts class but decent entertainment nonetheless.

        • A Rat in the Wall says:

          If I had to rank them:
          Stalls, Lost Hearts > Abbot Thomas, View From a Hill, Oh Whistle > Warning, Tractate, Martin’s Close > No. 13, Ash Tree > that absolute joke from 2010 with John Hurt

          Oh Whistle is perhaps a little too slow in some places, a little indulgent, could certainly do with a little trim, but there’s too many good scenes and it builds atmosphere very well.

      • Luke says:

        The Stalls of Barchester is certainly quite good. I would rate it third, behind A Warning To The Curious and Lost Hearts BUT ahead of The Ash Tree.

        • Mike says:

          This exchange forces me to admit that I haven’t got a clear ranking in my own head. Time for a rewatch… I am very fond of Ash Tree but maybe only because it is adaptation most in the 1970s “rural horror” mode

  3. Andrew says:

    I generally agree that this was serviceable but not amazing. What I would say is that the portrayal of Judge Jeffreys was pretty much bang on. Macaulay represents him as a flippant and often bored judge whose mood could turn in a moment. I thought the actor got him about bang on – however I am aware that it does break with the majority of more recent portrayals of him

  4. Shaudame says:

    As a parent who lives with a ‘flapper’ I really really loved this. People keep sending me book and movie suggestions about disability and they nearly all make me want to gag. The actress who played Ann Clark had it down. From the incandescent joy to the excited flapping. Either personal experience or very good directing.

    I was very nervous about how it would be handled. They did great. Jeffries was engaging but could have been better handled.

  5. Martin Closer says:

    re Simon Williams

    The wikipedia page for The Blood on Satan’s Claw film mentions that Gatiss also featured in a spoken word adaptation of the film released by Audible.

  6. Mark Williamson says:

    Capable, but I resent the introuduction of the slave character. This was the BBC’s diversity
    programme in operation again. Gatiss isn’t as clever as he thinks he is and has an agenda. Hopefully, this will be the last of his Ghost stories for Christmas.

    • Mike says:

      Just wanted to respectfully disagree with you on this Mark. That said I had my say on the character of the Boy (a servant or labourer, I think, rather than a slave) and role of the beeb in the podcast, so would point everyone towards that rather than repeat the point here!

      • mark williamson says:

        I think it was more likely that he was a slave as slavery in England wasn’t made illegal untl the Mansfield judgement of , I think, 1772. Even if he was a servant, it is highly unlikely to have had agricultural skills.
        i definitely think Capaldi would have made a better Jeffries and why not Robert Lloyd Parry instead of Simon Williams?

        • Luke says:

          Robert Lloyd Parry should definitely appear in a Ghost Story For Christmas – either a Gatiss one or even perhaps his own. One based on M.R James or an equally chilling ghost story of that era.

  7. John says:

    I rather fear that the Jamesian narrator was intended as an “affectionate” parody of how things were done in the 1970s. I do hope that the somewhat over-exposed broad daylight lighting for the narrator (and summer lighting at that, it would seem) was a parody of incompetence rather than the real thing.

    I think it was an artistic mistake to show the ghost – as one of you pointed out, this story would work better on radio.

  8. ThreeCrowns says:

    I think it would have worked better to ditch the idea of Ann being intellectually disabled, and just make her a naive peasant-girl. Then we could feel some real malevolence from her ghost. Instead, it’s not really clear if ghostly Ann is actually angry or not, if she even understands what happened to her.

  9. MarkB says:

    For those outside the UK, I just found this on Youtube.

  10. Richard Leigh says:

    I found the appearances of the madeira-drinker superfluous: the play would have been quite comprehensible without him, and the time could have been used in making the courtroom scene more chilling. The detail of the room growing darker was rather thrown away, in my opinion.The extra bit of dialogue, where Martin tries to appeal to his relationship to the judge, and is slapped down, was very effective. I also thought that the acting of the part of the boy was excellent – almost stole the show -and I can’t see the inclusion of a black actor as tokenism. Peter Capaldi’s evident discomfort at the ghostly elements was very well conveyed. Perhaps the tight budget is to blame for the slight lack of wallop – another few minutes could well have taken care of that. I demand a 90-minute version, by Mark Gatiss, of “The Residence at Whitminster” for next Christmas.

  11. MarkB says:

    I’m afraid this did nothing for me – I can’t think of anything I enjoyed about it. The throat cutting turned it into a slasher movie, rather than a ghost story. The ‘ghost’ looked like one of those 1950s movie monsters in the rubber suit with the zipper on the back. The judge strayed into Monty Python territory more than once, and while a narrator would make sense within James’s style, this one looked like he was lifted out of some other television show and dropped into this one. And for the love of God, please can we have a ten year moratorium on flashbacks? The device is hackneyed, and has been beaten to death. Just tell the story – don’t imagine you’re getting clever.
    I’m not sure this story could have been done well in video form, so my expectations weren’t high.

  12. Jeremy Greenwood says:

    This was excellent, Mark Gatiss is every bit as good as earlier adaptors of Ghost Story for Christmas. This was not as good as Tractate Middoth, but then again neither is the story itself. Long may he continue.
    I had no problem with the black man. I loathe anything politically correct. I have seen a woman playing Hamlet and a black man playing Lear, and though they were both excellent, so much so that I became oblivious to the obvious incongruities, I resent having to make the effort and find myself despising the logic of the producers. But I think there were black people around Devon in those days and the way that he was treated enhanced the theme of Martin’s Close.
    The star of the show was Elliott Levey, sheer perfection. I hope Mr Gatiss follows up with the Rose Garden and brings Mr Levey back as the apparition.
    Ann Clark was done very well. I think Mr Gatiss missed a trick with the murder, I would have enjoyed more pathos had I seen her flap with joy and run to her ‘lover’ only to meet the knife. My son has special needs. A beautiful Swedish girl in a club took him to be her dancing partner and he was made up. I think her motivation was to escape the ogling of the middle aged men around her, but the whole affair was happy and without humiliation. Obviously Martin’s Close has special poignancy for me and I thoroughly detest Squire Martin. I just wonder if Ann’s shade was entirely without vengefulness or malice, she may simply have been pursuing the same infatuation she followed in life.
    Simon Williams did a fine job, but the narrator really should have been Robert Lloyd Parry.

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