Dir. Lawrence Gordon Clark
Part of the BBC’s annual series A Ghost Story for Christmas, which ran from 1971 to 1978 and featured some of the small screen’s most chilling moments, The Stalls of Barchester was the first of several MR James adaptations written and directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark. It tells of one Dr Haynes, an Archdeacon who acquires his status through unscrupulous means, and the dire consequences that await him.
Nigel Kneale provided a succinct description of James’ work, and the main themes and ideas that move throughout it, when he said: His victim-characters are usually lonely men, antiquarians investigating ancient manuscripts and carvings, bachelor amateurs dabbling in the esoteric. Suddenly and troublingly they may find themselves less alone… the enemies are always waiting, ready to be summoned by an unwitting whistle or tampering with a forbidden lock. Prior to 1971, adaptations of the work of MR James had been scarce (not that they’re exactly rife these days either) with only a handful of his short stories adapted for the small screen and, of course, Jacques Tourneur’s chilling take on Casting the Runes, Night of the Demon. In the late Sixties Jonathan Miller would adapt James’ shivery Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You; the quietly terrifying tale of a stuffy academic who is visited by something from beyond 'our philosophy' when he uncovers the titular instrument on a desolate stretch of beach on the Suffolk coast.
Clark’s adaptation of The Stalls of Barchester is immensely atmospheric and remarkably faithful; it even retains the wrap-around narrative concerning the scholarly Dr Black (who would reappear in the subsequent A Warning to the Curious) and his uncovering of the dark secrets of the cathedral while cataloguing its library. When he discovers a long forgotten box, from it he retrieves a 50-year old diary which details the events leading up to the rather mysterious death of Dr Haynes (Robert Hardy), a former Archdeacon of the cathedral. As Dr Black (Clive Swift) studies the diary we are privy to the events described in it through extended flashbacks and gradually see for ourselves the terrifying last days of the doomed Archdeacon as he is haunted by a malevolent, possibly demonic spectre.
Clark’s approach stealthily mirrors that of James’ as the horror is revealed oh so slowly, quietly and spine-chillingly; disembodied voices whisper on darkened stairs, a large black cat makes its insidious presence known, creeping footsteps echo throughout the corridors and, to use a phrase of James’ own, there is frequent ‘movement without sound’ throughout the Archdeacon's shadowy abode. One of the most unsettling moments occurs when Haynes is looking over the banister of the stairs, and a grey, talon-like hand emerges to momentarily place itself on his shoulder. That it happens so quietly and in an almost matter of fact way, without music or prolonged build up, heightens the impact. The film also benefits from its immensely creepy location, rife with shadows, darkened hallways, rooms and cloisters. Not even in God’s house is our crooked protagonist safe from unknowable evils… Haynes differs slightly from the typical Jamesian protagonist in that he brings on the ‘haunting’ himself through his bloody, self-serving actions.
Traces of the blackest humour are also to be found, particularly in the early scenes depicting the aged Archdeacon on successive birthdays, with Haynes appearing more and more impatient and unimpressed by the older man’s refusal to shuffle off his mortal coil, while he mutters about Methuselah. Aspects of folk horror also ripple throughout proceedings (I think a separate essay on the aspects of folk horror evident in the work of MR James is called for one of these days) as we learn that the ornate carvings adorning the stalls of the cathedral were sourced from a nearby tree known as The Hanging Oak. The wooden effigies – a black cat, the Devil and Death – were supposedly carved by a mad man called ‘Twice-Born Austin’ who placed a curse on them. These carvings play a part in the otherworldly retribution inflicted on Haynes for his foul play. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that the power of the carvings and their ability to summon forth malevolent forces when touched by the hands of a murderer stems from the tree itself and not the carver. When Dr Black discovers the following verse in the library it becomes clear that Dr Haynes was hounded by some unspeakable entity wrought from the damned earth that gave vile sustenance to The Hanging Oak, and somehow still inhabits the creepy carvings...
The Stalls of Barchester is a prime example of the ‘less is more’ approach to horror and Clark’s ability to convey an unshakable sense of creeping dread and dark foreboding has rarely been bettered in this series. To paraphrase what Donna Tartt said about the work of Shirley Jackson; the more quietly the subject matter is relayed to us, the more terrifying it is, and the closer we lean in to listen…