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Stories that inspired M.R. James

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Episode 87 – Mark Gatiss’s The Mezzotint

January 2, 2022 | Episodes | Comments (33)

Portrait of Mark Gatiss with a manor house in the background.In this episode, Mike and Will share their thoughts on Mark Gatiss’s recent TV adaptation of M.R. James’s The Mezzotint.

Join us for some monocle-popping, mustache-bristling, spine-chilling fun!

Show notes

The image that accompanied this episode includes elements of ‘Mycroft Holmes post stamp‘ by iMontage (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0), ‘Abbey Manor House‘ by David Luther Thomas (CC BY-SA 2.0) and ‘Picture frame‘ by Sailko (CC BY 3.0).

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33 Comments

  1. Kim says:

    Downloading to listen to this now, but having re-listened to Episode 3 and seen the Ghost Stories for Christmas episode, I’m frankly disposed to be suspicious and outraged at what seems like a solid case for for complaint. But then I’m an American, and have my lawyers on speed-dial. (If you need ’em.)

  2. Richard Harland Smith says:

    Bravo. Very enjoyable from stem to stern.

  3. DB says:

    You guys liked it more than I did. I found the tone all over the place and all the camp killed any possible dread. The lead actor was great. The tragically-wigged historian seemed like she just came off a bad episode of Dr. Who, for one. I didn’t like the actor from Toast either. I do like him on Toast, though, but this was the same character.

    For me, there was no atmosphere in the sets. They didn’t feel musky and claustrophobic enough. I did like the mezzotint itself and the efforts to make it more film worthy. However, the whole photographing the piece to track the changes went nowhere.

    As for the feminist stuff, seemed a little reductio as absurdum and struck me as kind of impudent. Surely James had genuine reasons for his opinion and not “girls are icky.”

    What to make of that line about “what’s changed in the last 500 years?”

    Anyway, I’d like someone other than Gatisse to do the next James. Martin’s Close and this are on par with the James episode of Doctors. I did like Tractate though.

  4. Sean says:

    Well! I’m glad someone liked this adaptation, because I didn’t. I really can’t find much good to say about it, now having watched it twice. I just don’t like Gatiss as a filmmaker, and I don’t think his style works for James. His direction is slightly obnoxious and even bad in places. The things which really stuck out to me were:
    -a need to drag some scenes out for far too long, especially the ending
    -poor lighting which dampens the impact of certain scenes, like Williams seeing the picture change
    -bland camerawork
    -hamfisted exposition dumps
    I suppose the performances were all good, but there’s something about his dialogue I don’t like, and it comes down his direction.

    Gatiss might be a horror nerd, that doesn’t really mean he knows how to craft a frightening film in practice. Mezzotint was a bad choice, regardless of deliberation or budget, because it requires too many changes to make into a film, the extremely niche appeal of the original story is lost in translation. There are other low-scale stories that would be far easier to straightforwardly adapt, like Canon Alberic or Rats.

    Overall, like most adaptations of most stories, it feels less like someone wanting to bring something to life, and more like the director saying ‘this is how I think it should be’. I’d much rather he produced these adaptations and handed off the actual filming to someone else. Bring back the director of ‘A View From a Hill’, Luke Watson, because for me that’s the best modern James film bar none.

  5. Eastman says:

    I feel like I am taking crazy pills here, but I find very little to enjoy about Gatiss’ adaptions. He may be a fan of James’ ghost stories, but he does not know how to create an eerie atmosphere or handle the Jamesian wallop at all IMHO. The humour or comedic element is more often exaggerated, and they lack the well-handled atmosphere and Jamesian wallop found in the original adaptations of the 1960s & the 1970s. Compare this ending to the very effective scene in A Warning to the Curious (1972), where we get a brief glimpse of William Ager in the dark room turning his dead before Paxton drops the flashlight.

    I did like the change of having Williams be related to the Francis family, but instead of the horrible climax that bordered on unintentional comedy, they could have all the lights go out of the room. With the room plunged in darkness Williams hears a sound of someone at the window, similar to There Was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard, and when he lights a match or a lighter there it is, right up close to him. In the Jamesian tradition of having the monster about to press their face up to them/“hug” them, or “embrace” them. The figure strikes, Williams screams out in terror and loses the match/lighter, and once more the room is plunged in darkness. Cue end credits.

    Gatiss seems to approach these adaptions, especially this one, as modern horror stories. The pacing and the editing is far too modern and typical of what you find in a modern horror film. There is no reticence there, and the “final flash or stab or horror” is forcefully shoved in your face and drawn-out to the point of unintentional comedy. In his short essay Ghosts — Treat Them Gently! James wrote: “On the whole, then, I say you must have horror and also malevolence. Not less necessary, however, is reticence.”

    It seems painfully obvious to me that Gatiss’ & the BBC are guilty of diversity for diversity’s sake. This is a university in England ca. 1904, and we have a character with the surname Nisbet who is of Indian descent. The Tractate Middoth (2013) & Martin’s Close (2019) also by Gatiss had some painfully blatant examples of this. I am almost certain this diversity for diversity’s sake casting/approach is a requirement from the BBC, and unless these are met they will not greenlight another adaption. If this diversity for diversity’s sake really is a requirement, then at least set it in the present day when it wouldn’t be distracting. They went to the lengths of having period accurate outfits, so they should have period accurate casting as well. The less said about Gatiss original ghost story The Dead Room (2018) the better.

    If they do continue this tradition Gatiss can be an executive producer but I do not want him anywhere near the creative side of any further adaptations or original stories. They really should let someone else try their hands at these adaptations.

    Other than the present day necessity for diversity injected into the past, and the dragged-out Jamesian wallop, there is really nothing special or memorable about this or any of the other adaptations by Gatiss. There is no atmosphere or sense of growing eeriness. Everything is way too bluntly and exaggerated to be effective; the editing, the comedic element, the present day tone of it all. An indifferent ghost story is, perhaps, the worst form ghost story known…

    To further quote from James’ essay: “These stories are meant to please and amuse us. If they do so, well; but, if not, let us relegate them to the top shelf and say no more about it.”

    • Jon says:

      With a heavy heart, I have to say I agree with you. Every year I circle these shows in my Xmas Radio Times and look forward to them…and every year I am disappointed. This latest I enjoyed marginally more than Martin’s Close, but none of them really bring the shivers and the sense of the uncanny that the best James adaptations (and other Ghost Stories for Christmas) have delivered. Watching a repeat of The Ash Tree I was struck by how successful it was, even given its obvious technical limitations. I say all this as an admirer of Gatiss (whose love for James and classic horror generally is nothing less than sincere), but his 2000 League of Gentlemen Christmas special had more genuine scares in it than any of his Ghost Story for Christmas efforts.

    • John says:

      “This is a university in England ca. 1904, and we have a character with the surname Nisbet who is of Indian descent.”

      It’s completely plausible. There were definitely Indian students at Cambridge, and other British universities, in that period (in fact, from the 1870s onwards).

      • Mike says:

        Yes! I’d meant to mention this on the podcast as I thought it might come up. I understand the first university societies for students from India were formed in Oxford and Cambridge in the 1890s. On the casting, it’s also well worth listening to Mark Gatiss talk about his (understandable) desire to make the story less male and “clubable” during the BFI panel session. I have added a link to this in the shownotes, above.

      • Simon says:

        A certain Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi studied at UCL and Inner Temple, and was then called to the bar. I can find no mention of him being the first Indian to do so, or that this was in any way unusual. That was 1888-91.

        Admittedly the surname Nisbet doesn’t instantly suggest a subcontinental origin, but there’s easy explanations available if anyone cares.

  6. Eric says:

    First, I was thrilled to see a new episode just in time for my pre-Christmas Texas road trip (and it alerted me to the Christmas Eve program, which I eagerly watched that night). And even more thrilled to see your follow-up commentary on the program. This is one of my favourite James stories, because I found it so clever, although I understand your points that the characters are in no jeopardy (I had forgotten your suggestion from 2013).

    I thoroughly enjoyed Gatiss’s adaptation, for many of the reasons you mention. I thought the scene that sets the climax was perfect – showing the real-life view of the house, and then quickly moving to the same scene in the mezzotint. An immediate sense of dread.

    I did think the reveal was too much. We didn’t need to see its face (although it did make my hair stand on end), and I think James avoided just this type of detail. That’s a small complaint, however, given the overall quality of the production. And if it brings a larger audience which translates to more of these productions, then by all means.

    On a related note, I happened upon the Evolution of Horror podcast (which you referenced) on my return road trip, and I was thrilled at the Jamesian Wallop reference (albeit unattributed). I felt like an insider when I heard this. If only I had had someone to tell!

    One last point – you shouldn’t apologise for any delay in putting up new material. We are far more in your debt than you in ours. That being said – I look forward to the next episode!

  7. Luke Hart says:

    I haven’t seen it yet because I live in Australia and the ABC (Aussie equivalent of BBC) never air them and we can’t access BBC iPlayer either.
    I’ve only seen Mark Gatiss’s other M.R James adaptations & docos because some kind soul has uploaded them to YouTube.

    So if any Brit who has “The Mezzotint” on DVD or USB file or whatever would like to upload it to YouTube for us foreign M.R James to view, I would greatly appreciate it.

    • RogerBW says:

      While I agree with you that this would be an entirely reasonable thing to do, it is the sort of illegality which gets the powers that be highly annoyed – because rather than merely spoiling people’s lives it affects money (in this case, the BBC’s potential overseas sales income). So you probably don’t want to be asking people to do it in a public place.

      • Luke Hart says:

        I understand the illegal aspect of my request BUT as a huge M.R James fan in Australia how else do I see it?

        If the BBC put Mark Gatiss’s 3 M.R James adaptations & documentary on DVD, I would certainly buy it & the BBC would get my $$$.

        Until then, what?.

        • Mike says:

          Hi Luke, nice to hear from you again! I saw on the Facebook MR James Appreciation Society that Mezzotint might be available on BritBox in Australia?

        • Mike J says:

          Hi Luke, nice to hear from you again! I saw on the Facebook MR James Appreciation Society that Mezzotint might be available on BritBox in Australia?

          • Luke says:

            Hi Mike, thanks for replying.

            I don’t subscribe to BritBox and I don’t do subscription streaming services either.

            Besides, I just visited the BritBox website and there’s no mention of “The Mezzotint” at all. Oh well, maybe one day it will pop up on YouTube (yes, illegally).

            Great podcast, guys!

          • Doug Pickard says:

            I watched it on Britbox in Canada – but you have to go through Amazon Prime

        • Simon says:

          Hi Luke

          I can understand the Beeb restricting the iPlayer to licence fee payers, but I’m less clear of their rationale when it comes to, in effect, preventing willing customers from paying for individual items. It’s surely not beyond the wit of man or technology, in the third decade of the 21st Century, to let people outside the UK buy access to the iPlayer, either for a limited time or for particular shows.

          Which is all a preamble to saying: have you tried torrenting? Get yourself an app (eg qbittorrent) and see if The Mezzotint is around on eg The Pirate Bay. I couldn’t condone torrenting for things that one could purchase (and therefore should), but I’ve fewer qualms about it when you’d happily pay but plain can’t. Just a thought 🙂

          • Simon says:

            Hi again Luke

            Just to add… another possibility, which I’ve only just discovered (after my wife had a dodgy email incident yesterday which has kicked me into finally getting it sorted), is to try a VPN. As well as seeming more and more like a Good Idea in general, a VPN (by anonymising your location) apparently gets around geographical restrictions — the reviews on eg TechRadar specifically mention the BBC iPlayer.

            You’ll need to do a bit of googling — for deals (we’re trying SurfShark) and for how, having persuaded iPlayer that you’re not *not* in the UK, you can persuade it you have a TV licence — but since, as I say, all the top VPNs can apparently solve the iPlayer problem, it could be worth looking into.

            Oh, and having acquired a VPN myself, I just tried The Pirate Bay for a torrent of The Mezzotint, and it’s available… but (the file titles indicate) it’s dubbed into, uh, Portuguese! No, I don’t get it either! So no help there I’m afraid.

            Good luck!

          • Luke Hart says:

            Hi Simon.

            Thanks for your advice.

            Unfortunately I’m not tech savvy and the idea of getting a VPN and installing it….oh my God, I’m lost already.

            Look, realistically, I’m just going to have to wait until they’re released on DVD or uploaded to YouTube like Gatiss’s other ghost story episodes & docos.

            But thanks for the help.

  8. Phil says:

    Two episodes in quick succession- I can’t believe it! Please don’t disappear again. I’d be willing to pay a subscription for these pods and I’m sure others would too.

  9. David Malcolm Sommer says:

    I don’t have access to this version of The Mezzotint, but I enjoyed your discussion of it.

    While this may be regarded as one of James’s lesser stories, it does seem to be influential in the field of horror films. There’s almost a Lynchian quality to the haunted picture; it reminds me of a scene from Twin Peaks in which the villain slowly and unnaturally clambers over a couch towards the camera, wearing an evil grin. The Omen also comes to mind, with its photographs that predict people’s manner of death.

    For a more modern take on the Mezzotint idea, I recommend checking out a group of talented amateur filmmakers on YouTube (“Buried Hatchet Productions”) who have made several short horror films exploring James-style haunted imagery.

  10. Charles Dudgeon says:

    I generally enjoyed Mezzotint more than Martin’s Close (the portrayal of Judge Jeffreys as a buffoon drew out all of the menace from him). I thought the casting here was sound and the story and its alterations were all well done. However we saw far too much of Gawdy in the closing scene. It should have been ended with the figure just beginning to pull back the hood, or even earlier. Someone on youtube has posted an alternative ending which I think is much more effective. See what you think.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RtBqeIunaUs

  11. Jeremy Greenwood says:

    I agree with everything you and others, and indeed Mark Gatiss have said. It does improve on repeat viewing, but on the whole it was disappointing. Though probably preferable to the contemporary ghost story as originally planned, lets keep them for Halloween.
    The mezzotint print itself was appalling, quite the worst I have seen and more like a cheap Christmas card. The figures were no more than vague blurs, I doubt the skellington would scare anybody, I doubt a child would notice it. The fact that that Gordy was hanged after due legal process, having had the misfortune to kill a keeper, was not mentioned. Believe it or not, a squire of that period could not summarily string a chap up, least of all for mere poaching. He would have had a keeper discretely shoot him, by accident of course. I don’t remember Gordy’s ancestory being mentioned, which was very important towards his motivations. I appreciate Covid and budgetary restraints, but the story has been covered by the BBC at least twice before as readings, which were altogether much better, with more credible and scary mezzotints. There are quite a few other M R James stories he could have covered within the restraints.
    On the other hand I do think Mark Gatiss is a worthy successor to Lawrence Gordon Clark. I had no idea Harrow school was so lovely from the rear and I thought the atmosphere and filming were both excellent. I loath the introduction of diversity for the sake of it, but I think there is some true and delicious irony to the fact that Nisbet, obviously a tutor, addressed the other tutors as Sir. The introduction of a woman was appropriate and welcome and the extension of the plot very good. I am in 2 minds about the wisdom of showing the revenant up close, but I thought it was done well.
    Previously the Tractate Middoth was excellent and Martin’s Close good. The closing scene of Ann Clark’s ghost was moving and thought provoking. Personally I have come round to thinking that she pursues John Martin’s ghost because she loves him; entertaining for her, but horrible for him. I suspect I will see more and more in this Mezzotint with further viewing.
    In future I would particularly like to see the Rose Garden and an Episode of Cathedral History, which I think would fall within Covid restraints and be reasonably cheap to do.
    I am glad we have the BBC and would hate to lose it, but I would love to see more of this sort of thing, which is cheap, popular and internationally acclaimed; and less along the lines of soap operas, game shows and the noxious Diana interview. BBC management is clearly top heavy and bloated; and seemingly ponytailed and coked up to the eyeballs. At least they haven’t cancelled or yoofed up the Sky at Night.

  12. Steve Dempsey says:

    I enjoyed Martin’s Close, Jeffries did have a sense of humour in court, and I enjoyed the Mezzotint too, right up to, but not including, the finale. Never show the monster.

  13. Sus says:

    I felt this was the best of Mark ‘s adaptations. It had some humour, some pace and was well acted. My husband doesn’t generally like MRJ, finding them a bit slow, but did enjoy this one. I hope they continue.

  14. John says:

    I think that Will’s proposed ending was a rubbish idea when first suggested, and certainly isn’t improved by having been appropriated by Gatiss. It certainly has been appropriated; this is shown not least by it sharing the same glaring fallacy: being an illegitimate son doesn’t make you the “last of the line” (the clue is in the word “illegitimate”!) Whether Will has any recourse is trickier to determine.
    It is often said that there is no copyright in ideas, but that is only true for non-fiction (see the Holy Blood/Da Vinci Code case.) There certainly is case law to show copyright in fictional ideas – in the celebrated Rock Bottom/Rock Follies even if expressed orally (i.e. not in tangible form.) Now, Will’s idea was certainly expressed in a tangible form (i.e. it was recorded), but the problem is that it was given in a non-fiction (i.e. critical) context. If he had said, “This is my idea for an alternative ending, and I have written it down for the treatment of a television adaptation” he would have been quids in. Well, a few quid anyway…

  15. I’d love to see an adaptation of either of the Scandinavian stories: The Number 13 or Count Magnus. There’s a lot in both stories that could be good material for a visual medium. Especially the dancing in shadows in Number 13 and the dark perusing figures in Count Magnus.

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