1 9 7 1 – 1 9 7 8 (UK)
2 0 0 5 – Present (UK)
“This is a tale of the supernatural . . .”
So began the opening narration to the 7 May 1968 episode of the BBC arts showcase Omnibus. It was a clear warning aimed at viewers who had tuned in expecting another of the show’s high-brow documentaries or biographical dramas.
Instead, they got a terrifying adaptation of M.R. James’ ghost story Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come To You, My Lad.
The success of that film served as a stepping stone to a new strand of BBC drama, a series of eight supernatural tales, broadcast annually every Christmas between 1971 and 1978.
The brainchild of documentary director Lawrence Gordon Clark (who would direct all but one of the episodes), the spine-chilling series once again turned to the prodigious M.R. James for its source material, adapting five of his stories: The Stalls of Barchester (1971), A Warning To The Curious (1972), Lost Hearts (1973), The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (1974, pictured below) and The Ash Tree (1975).
The series then turned to Charles Dickens for 1976’s The Signalman. This was not just a terrifying tale in its own right, but also a fitting change of author – after all, Dickens had written the most famous ghost story of all time (and a festive one at that) with A Christmas Carol.
The results were some of the most nerve-racking and just plain terrifying supernatural chillers ever broadcast on British television, still able to make your skin crawl and your neck hairs stand on end after all this time.
Despite the success of those literary adaptations, in 1977 and 1978, the series served up two original tales – Stigma and The Ice House. Not a problem in and of itself . . . except neither was actually very good, spelling a disappointing end to the run.
Thankfully, like any good ghost story, the spine-tingling memories of those earlier films haunted all who grew up with them. So it was that the new millennium saw the BBC’s Ghost Story For Christmas revived, with fresh adaptations of James’ A View From a Hill (2005), Number 13 (2006), Whistle and I’ll Come To You (2010), The Tractate Middoth (2013), Martin’s Close (2019) and The Mezzotint (2021).