Stories that inspired M.R. James

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Episode 93 – Count Magnus Awakens

January 8, 2023 | Episodes | Comments (19)

Mr Wraxhall - BBC
A BBC Ghost Story for Christmas is thankfully as traditional as quaffing eggnog and leaving out a carrot for Rudolph. And what a treat, as this year Count Magnus made the Black Pilgrimage onto our screens.  But has Mark Gatiss been naughty or nice? We give you our verdict.

Show notes




  1. Sean says:

    I’ll be honest: I haven’t been terribly keen on Gatiss’ adaptations (I don’t believe his style is fit for James). I think they started fine with Tractate and got progressively worse with each instalment, with Mezzotint being offensively bad. But Count Magnus was a genuine surprise because not only was it actually a faithful adaptation, it was good!

    The most pleasant aspect was how effective Gatiss’ more necessary budgetary changes were. As for Wraxhall stealing the key, well, the church would have been another location to find and get permission for, so that’s understandable, but it serves to show the lengths someone enthralled by Magnus will go to seek him. The innkeeper’s story was certainly the highlight, but I really did like Froken de la Gardie and her servant, whose insisted “sleeping” gesture was a really great insert.

    However, I think the film starts falling off the second the tentacle appears from the tomb. I thought the actor playing Wraxhall hammed it up pretty badly towards the end, and the modern day coda was…just ridiculous, honestly. I know James sometimes mentioned a “sequel” near the end of his tales, but this didn’t seem like a necessary addition.

    As for the adaptation issue, I abhor the term gatekeeping because, in my experience, it’s almost always used by people new to a hobby or interest telling pre-existing fans they’re wrong about their interest. Can fans be snobbish, or elitist? Of course, but that’s generally down to a badly communicated personal connection or passion for something. There’s a nasty tendency for many adaptations–for example, the 2010 Oh Whistle–to stray so far from the source material that it makes you wonder, what’s the point? Many adaptations feel less like a filmmaker wanting to bring a story to life, and more like they want to tell their version, they never had the intent to portray a loved story in motion. Changes due to budgetary constraints forcing creativity is great, but some just are inexcusable, and Gatiss has been guilty of it. Thankfully, not in Count Magnus for the most part. Also, the Lawrence Gordon Clarke films are just that good, Gatiss will, I’m afraid, be living in their shadow. I still would love to see the director of A View From A Hill Return, it’s the best modern film for my money. It may be a battle each year, but Gatiss has the clout, he could executive produce and bring in more talent for different feels and tones.

    • Luke Hart says:

      For “A Warning To The Curious” alone, Lawrence Gordon Clark should be knighted for services to the arts. But add to it “Lost Hearts”, “Stalls of Barchester” and the non M.R James adaptation “The Signalman” plus others…. the man is simply king!

    • MarkB says:

      We think alike. I don’t necessarily have anything against using an existing story as a jumping off point, but if you’re doing the first television version, you should probably tell the story as is. It’s not as if they choose to dramatize M.R. James BECAUSE he needs to be ‘improved.’ It’s perfectly reasonable to make changes when a written bit just can’t be told well with dramatic technique – translation vs transcription – but if you think a story needs too many changes to work on the screen, you may as well tell your own story. But then, who would be interest in it? M.R. James gets made because M.R. James was a great storyteller.

  2. Luke Hart says:

    I live in Australia where unfortunately these Mark Gatiss M.R James adaptations don’t air, so I missed last year’s Mezzotint. I have seen “The Tractate Middoth” & “Martin’s Close” because some decent person uploaded them (probably illegally) onto YouTube.

    However about 2 weeks ago a decent chap uploaded “Count Magnus” onto YouTube & was kind enough to send me via email last year’s “Mezzotint” too. Quickly – I liked “The Mezzotint” but as you said in your review episode you could’ve done without seeing the wrath’s face. But all in all, it was good.

    “Count Magnus” was VERY good, it outdid my expectations – which is a good thing due to the fact that it is one of M.R James’s most beloved stories. Who doesn’t love it?.
    Despite the fact that it was clearly filmed in England and not Sweden (obvious budget constraints), I feel Gatiss got it generally right in terms of imagery and tone. Not much criticism from me, to be honest – I really enjoyed it and hope this becomes an annual thing. Although Gatiss shouldn’t feel the need to always do a James story, if he does, I’d love to see an adaptation of “The Residence At Whitminster” next.

    Keep up the great work guys!.

  3. Melka P says:

    The worst adaptation that Mark has done and the others haven’t been great either. It always boils down to whether they are scary, and Mark’s adaptations never are. What a shame

    • Sandjuggler says:

      Sadly, I have to agree. Tractate was good, not great, but Gatiss’ other attempts at MRJ just aren’t scary. He may be a genuine fan but that doesn’t translate to the screen. Jason Watkins was wrongly cast as Wraxhall, his reactions were more comedic than terror. The 70s adaptations were genuinely creepy – we need someone who can evoke the same tone.

  4. Helen Grant says:

    I listened to this podcast with great pleasure (from my Covid sick bed, so it was about the only nice thing today). I agreed with nearly everything Will and Mike said; I thought this was a great adaptation too, and on the grounds of budget one must forgive the only one thing that jarred with me a little bit in terms of setting: the mausoleum not being attached to a white-walled Swedish church with a black roof and an onion dome.

    I loved the addition of the footman, and Froken de la Gardie; the original story does not tell us much about the “family” so there is no reason they couldn’t have been exactly like this, and it added some effective diversity. I liked the idea that the footman was trying to warn Mr.Wraxhall and was suitably outraged when he waved the man off with “I don’t do that sort of thing” or some such rude remark. You had your warning, Mr.Wraxhall, so tough titty about your eventual fate…

    Otherwise I must defend Mark Gatiss on a couple of small points:
    – in the story Mr. Wraxhall DOES see someone outside the mausoleum: “I must remember,” he (Wraxhall) writes, “to ask the deacon if can let me into the mausoleum at the church. He evidently has access to it, for I saw him to-night on standing the steps, and, as I thought, locking or unlocking the door.” So that was not Mark Gatiss’ addition!
    Also, in the story Mt. Wraxhall notices that the key is hung on a nail inside the church and pinches it the last time he goes to see the tomb. So that is not as bad as actively stealing it from someone’s hands, but it does have some of the same transgressive feeling.

    Finally: I met Mark Gatiss at the Dracula Society awards dinner at the beginning of November, and he was kind enough to show me some stills from the adaptation, then under embargo. It nearly killed me not saying anything to anyone!!!!!! I hope he does “Casting the Runes” next.

    • Sarah says:

      Following up on the original story version of Mr. Wraxhall seeing what he takes to be the Deacon unlocking the church door; when I first saw the episode I assumed the dark figure peering out after Wraxhall’s first visit to the mausoleum was the Count’s tentacled companion, but it does make more sense for it to be the Count himself. Also, in the story both the Count and his servant seem to be able to come and go as they please: witness the fate of the two men in the woods and the sound of the door shutting once more.

      This was a really great podcast; I’m glad you enjoyed the episode so much!

  5. Chris Mackinder says:

    Thanks for the episode on MG’s adaptation- always good to listen in to other people expressing views on matters MRJames!
    Another “Easter Egg” may be the key in ‘Rats’. Here, a key- with all the symbolism it carries- plays an equally important role leading an over-curious gentleman into trouble. He even oils it so as to gain easier entry to a forbidden locked room thereby revealing considerable premeditation!
    Keep up the good work at the Podcast.

  6. Daniel McGachey says:

    A very enjoyable listen, though the coat of arms and artwork were not by Richard Wells, as I think many folk believed, as Richard mentioned on Twitter that he had been unavailable to work on the production.
    I greatly enjoyed ‘Count Magnus’ on broadcast and on watching it again. Some genuine shudders were provoked – that sighting by the roadside – and I loved the atmosphere throughout.

  7. Jon Dear says:

    Hello there. Enjoyed that very much. I’m writing a book on the BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas and was on set for a couple of days of Count Magnus. Happy to have a chat if you ever fancy it.

  8. Jon says:

    After listening to your discussion and reading the comments here, I think I will try watching this again. I found it as disappointing as most of the other recent adaptations, slightly dull, and – worst of all – not remotely scary. Perhaps I’d overdone it on the sherry.

    I thought the Inside No 9 special was fantastic though.

  9. Luke Hart says:

    Just one more point in relation to Mark Gatiss changing some things about M.R James’s stories for his tv adaptations that seem to piss some people off….

    Lawrence Gordon Clark’s brilliant & highly praised adaptation of “A Warning To The Curious” had a pretty significant change made my Clark himself – changing Paxton from a young man who discovers the crown by mistake to an older man who deliberately went out looking for it. Very few people complain about that. Why? Nostalgia?. Does it even matter because it was so well made, perhaps?

    I think Mark Gatiss did a very good job with “Count Magnus” despite obvious budget restraints. I would even prefer a somewhat below average M.R James adaptation than no adaptation at all, quite frankly.

    • Sean says:

      I’m in the extreme minority here–I’ve never been terribly fond of the Warning adaptation, precisely because of Clarke’s incredibly unnecessary changes. The original tale is so utterly pitch perfect and realized. One of my main issues is the “no diggin’ ‘ere” prologue. Like the original tale, we should never have seen Ager, he’s so much more intimidating as a constant but unseen presence, behind every door and in every corner. But in the film he’s one of the first things we see, utterly deflating him as a too-tangible presence. But that’s also the thing about James, his horrors work so well because of their tangibility: the hair, the slime, the grabbing, they’re extremely, undeniably physical and present. But Ager is a genius reversal of James’ tangibility technique–Ager never appears, he’s described as “airy”, but all the same, everything he leaves behind is uncomfortably physical, like the razor, the bony footprints, and Paxton’s mangled corpse. Giving Ager a defined form was a huge mistake on Clarke’s part, not to mention changing the story to be from Paxton’s POV, thus removing that sense of dreadful helplessness of the OG tale’s narrators as they look on this poor young man, way in over his head, walking into certain doom.

      I mentioned it above, but the issue a lot of fans take with adaptations of all kinds (as a Lovecraft fan, I feel righteous about this) are the unnecessary changes, I mean what kind of new angle did letting us see Ager bring? Or changing Paxton from a young scared man whose life is about to be cut tragically short, into an older man with nothing to lose? Sometimes filmmakers think of themselves too much as an authority, and don’t want to bring a beloved tale to motion, they want to make their version of it.

      • Luke says:

        Hi Sean.

        Yes, I see your valid points. Quite unnecessary changes to “A Warning…”. And yet despite those changes I think it captured a chilling mood very well. In fairness though, I think I’ve seen the tv adaptation more than I’ve read the actual story. Some changes irk me, but those didn’t for some reason – but you make very good points against though.

        Maybe someone one day will remake “A Warning…” properly with zero changes. But for now, I’m very happy with the Clark adaptation. I just like to see ANY M.R. James story on tv – except that awful John Hurt version of “Oh Whistle & I’ll Come to You, My Lad”.

        • Sean says:

          Oh it’s absolutely not a bad film! By itself it’s great, lovely stark visuals and great performances, but unfortunately it doesn’t exist in a vacuum because it’s an adaptation, and one that kind of misses the point of its source material. It’s just kind of disappointing me.

          I’m of two minds on how an adaptation would work. Do you dramatise Paxton’s story, or do you get one really strong monologue? One’s dependent on budget, the other on acting chops, especially the part where poor young Paxton breaks down into tears. If done right, that could be devastating. The foggy beach would be a problem, I’d imagine but necessary, for that incredible “what sort of face it would show” line that still spooks me to this day.

          I’m glad we can all agree on that absolutely baffling 2010 Oh Whistle though! I’ll never know what they were thinking, it’s not even an adaptation of the story–it’s an adaptation of the 60s adaptation, and a rather loose one at that!

  10. David says:

    I thought this was a decent adaptation. I don’t think it was as good as The Mezzotint but still much better than Martin’s Close, which I still rank as by far the weakest of the Gatiss adaptations.
    I would agree that certainly in terms of the shooting it didn’t do the most convincing job of persuading me it wasn’t filmed in England. Whether a couple of quick CGI establishing shots or stock footage would have helped in this regard I don’t know…
    The changes were I think broadly helpful. Myanna Buring’s character was necessary to advance a story that relies heavily on narration and I think she was a decent addition. I can understand some of the jitters around the modern-day coda. That said I don’t think it was as clumsy as the “man by the fire” device in Martin’s Close.
    I tend to try and treat the adaptations as their own thing, mindful that trying to do 100 per cent “like for like” stories is nigh on impossible. The 70s stories also deviated at various times – for good or ill – and sometimes retaining certain elements can expose shortcomings in the stories.
    All-in-all Gatiss has done a good job reviving the strand for the modern era. I hope he’s able to continue to win the battle to get them commissioned since having half-an-hour one-offs tied to a very particular time slot feels a real treat in the streaming service era.

  11. Kim says:

    I’m far from a fainting purist, and generally appreciate taking liberties with the original text more than strict worshipfulness… but even so, I think you all are much more positive about this AGSFC entry than I could ever be, or really credit hearing from people I respect as I do. Maybe best to leave it at that. Regardless! — as always, a real treat to have another episode of podcast, and very enjoyable.

  12. jeremy greenwood says:

    I really enjoyed this. Using Scandinavian actors was a fine idea. The additions improved the screened story. I have nothing to add.
    All Mark Gattis’ earlier episodes have come out just as good on repeat viewing. I am old enough to have watched Lawrence Gordon Clark’s stories as they came out, and was often disappointed at first, but found them to be brilliant on repeat viewing. Mark Gatiss is a worthy successor. These stories must earn the BBC a lot of money in the long term, so I hope they keep these going with adequate funding, but not so much as to go all Hollywood.
    This Christmas was amazing, ghost stories all over the place, so thank you BBC.

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