Monday, 30 December 2013

A Very Monty Christmas

Well, Mark Gatiss certainly pulled off the big one, to steal a phrase from the realms of football commentary. Not only did he manage to get his dramatisation of an M.R. James story on the box on Christmas Day, but also presented an excellent documentary on Monty to follow it up.

The Tractate Middoth was extremely well-handled and very entertaining. As Gatiss' directorial debut, it bodes extremely well. I admit it's not one of my top ten Monty stories. But Gatiss chose cleverly, I think, by selecting a story that's just right for the 35 minute slot allocated. A bit more complex, a few more characters, and the result would have been a slightly garbled effort, whereas one of the slighter tales - such as 'An Evening's Entertainment' - might have wilted under the glare of the camera. As it is, though, the antics of naughty Dr Rant proved to be just the thing.

From the start the drama pays tribute to the great Lawrence Gordon Clarke adaptations of the Seventies. 'A Ghost Story for Christmas' pops up on the screen, a woman in old-fashioned attire cycles across English countryside to a fine old house, and the first few lines of dialogue take us straight into the plot. The fact that the bicycling lady in question is Louise Jameson (Leela from old-school Doctor Who) just adds to the air of TV nostalgia. Dr Rant (David Ryall) is suitably unpleasant. 'Come closer, Mary!', he says to poor Mrs Simpson (no, not that one), and you know her instinct is to leave the room and never come back.

It's an impressive cast for a short drama. It was good to see Una Stubbs, fresh from her role in Sherlock, and the superb Eleanor Bron alongside assured young performers. And what can one say when Roy Barraclough turns up as the library clerk, 'Sniffer' Hodgson? Perfect casting. As Mr Garrett, Sascha Dhiwan was just jumpy enough at first to make his eventual breakdown credible. The shocks are foreshadowed - notably by glimpse of a spider in stained glass - and timed nicely to underline that there is real menace here, not just a case of standard spookery.

When I watch an adaptation of a story I know I ask myself, would someone unfamiliar with the original get this? I think with The Tractate Middoth there'd be no problem for the astute viewer. The hidden will as McGuffin is clear enough, Dr Rant's dodginess is not in doubt, and John Eldred (John Castle) is plainly aware that something is amiss with the book.

I suppose purists might criticise the final scene, in which Garrett, his new wife, and Leela - sorry, Mrs Simpson - move into the old house. Has Dr Rant finally been laid to rest? Well, it's fair to say that we don't know and Gatiss plays with this a little. Another criticism I've heard is that it was simply too glossy, but in these days of HD and big screens I think it's impossible to dramatise anything without aspiring to a somewhat cinematic feel. It's either that, or found footage...

Anyone following up their viewing of the drama with M.R. James: Ghost Writer would have been more than satisfied, I think. Again, Mark Gatiss cuts through to the essence of the subject, beginning with a recreation of Monty reading to his Chit Chat Society pals. I was delighted to see Robert Lloyd Parry (using a script for a change, as of course MRJ did not recite from memory) in the role of the author. It was also exactly right to emphasise the old BBC adaptations and the role they played in drawing new readers to James' work.

Overall the documentary was absorbing. It was nice to see the stuffed crocodile at St Bertrand de Comminges, even better to see Great Livermere and the house where Monty grew up. The inevitable questions about motivation - did the ghost stories reflect some inner turmoil or repressed emotion? - can't really be answered, but they will always pop up. I suppose it's impossible to avoid speculating about someone's sex life, even though we know precisely nothing about it.

The gory fantasies of mediaeval illustrators, however, were obviously a major inspiration, given that M.R. James the young scholar spent thousands of hours cataloguing the wonderful Fitzwilliam Library at Cambridge. It's trite to say that fiction is made from earlier fiction, but it's hard to avoid that conclusion with Monty - except that the 'fiction', with its visions of tortured sinners and so forth, was held to be fact by those who wrote it centuries ago.

If there was one obvious (to me) omission it was early motion pictures. Monty's ghosts are often described as hopping or darting with 'alarming speed', and this might well have been down to the young author's enjoyment of silent films. The ghost in 'Oh Whistle...' casting rapidly up and down the beach, certainly has a silent movie vibe to me. Get a bloke in a sheet to run about, use a hand-cranked camera, see what happens...

But I digress. The night of Christmas Day was a good one for ghost story fans, and we're lucky to have an erudite enthusiast like Mark Gatiss to champion the cause of supernatural terror at the BBC.

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