(1) This was published in Dickens' 1866 Christmas edition of All the Year Round, his weekly literary magazine founded in 1859, and as one of his Mugby Junction collection of short stories.
There are perhaps two inspirations for the story. Dickens' own involvement in the 9 June 1865 Staplehurst rail crash, where he attended to injured and dying passengers. This had a profound psychological effect on the rest of his life, causing flashbacks, nightmares and nervous anxiety. Secondly, he may have been inspired by the Clayton Tunnel crash of August 1861 which highlighted the dangers of trains travelling too closely together, leaving signalmen to judge the safety of such situations, and the faults of communications and signals within the system itself.
Andrew Davies undertook the screenwriting duties on this adaptation of the Charles Dickens story, marking it as one of the first of many literary dramatisations he would eventually gain a reputation for. Since 1967, he had been writing for television with contributions to The Wednesday Play (BBC, 1964-70), Thirty Minute Theatre (BBC, 1965-73), Centre Play (BBC, 1973-77), Play of the Week (BBC, 1977-79) and drama such as The Legend of King Arthur (BBC 1979). He would be responsible for creating and writing his own series in the 1980s and 1990s - the contemporary education satire of A Very Peculiar Practice (BBC, 1986-88), sit-com Game On! (BBC, 1995-98) and a children's series derived from his own books featuring Marmalade Atkins (ITV, 1981-84).
The Signalman (tx: 22/12/76) was shot in October 1976, with Rosemary Hill producing, David Whitson behind the camera and Stephen Deutsch providing the score. The Severn Valley Railway, Kidderminster provided the locations (it would later become familiar to viewers of The District Nurse (BBC, 1984), Box of Delights (BBC, 1984) and a 1987 Joan Hickson Miss Marple ‘The 4.50 from Paddington’) for production designer Don Taylor's signal box, sitting in the cutting on the Kidderminster side of Bewdley Tunnel. The interior of the signal box was filmed at Highley Station (seen in action again in Disney's 2005 cinema version of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) and Bircham Coppice Cutting doubled as the mist-enshrouded valley the traveller walks through.
Clark acknowledges Whitson's contribution to the film in the introduction on this DVD, offering 'I had drawn up storyboards for the entire piece but they don't take into account the genius of his lighting and or his composition,' and the inspiration of the locations on the script and filming. (3) However, the Kidderminster location created its own problems with children from a nearby estate and a local school disrupting filming.
'I think it's some of the best work in all our Ghost Stories'Clark's and Hill's penchant for good casting also paid off. Denholm Elliot, one of the greatest character actors of his generation, loved the script and found time in a busy schedule to take part. 'I think it's some of the best work in all our Ghost Stories' notes Clark, even though he amusingly reveals in his introduction that, at the start of filming, Elliot was reading from cue cards posted around the set because he hadn't had time to learn the script. The film is essentially a two-hander with fellow actor Bernard Lloyd and with both actors matched to Davies' very faithful script, Clark felt that performances and the 'marvellously cardboard stiff Victorian dialogue' were left to 'express that time better than any authentic set decoration or costume.' (4)
It's a cyclical narrative. The traveller arrives, like an angel descending to earth, and greets the signalman in a way that he recognises and that strikes him with fear because it is the same greeting that the spectre makes on its materialisation. By the end of the tale, we learn that the signalman is destined to die and that the traveller is himself a manifestation of the spectre. The story gradually works its way to this revelation but it also sets up a number of other sub-texts too.
The viewer is left wondering whether the signalman is actually already dead and the traveller is simply meeting a ghost who is recounting his earthly demise and also, as Zbigniew Tycienski acknowledges, 'if the signalman is really dead then the railway now requires a signalman, and for most of the story the narrator has been receiving the necessary training for this job. Perhaps part of the signalman’s premonitions involved finding and training his own replacement.' (5)
Symbolically, Dickens may also have been foreshadowing the complete dominance of society by the industrial revolution and the anxieties about the mechanisation of the routines of the day, the signalman's alienation in his monotonous tasks and the loneliness generated by his isolation and lack of interpersonal communication. The distance between the industrial and the natural is also visually represented by the traveller's surroundings and the signalman's workplace, between the mist-enshrouded valley that the traveller walks across and the claustrophobic confines of the signal box.
Divining the meaning of communication is an important theme in the story. 'The story is about the attempt to communicate and the consequences of miscommunication, about speaking and listening and about the limitations of the spoken word'. (6) The signalman's world is one dominated by bells, chimes, the clicking of the telegraph, the sound of approaching trains and the pressures of time and fate.
The film opens with the traveller walking across the countryside on a bright day, briefly in silhouette against the hills (a typical Clark motif) and in silence save for the singing of birds. The whistle of the train then dominates the soundtrack and the traveller turns to see a train dashing through the landscape, plumes of steam rising into the air. The industrialisation of the nation theme is encapsulated immediately.
Clark reconnects with landscape in the film when the traveller is seen walking back to his inn in the foggy dusk or looking from his window at the misty dawn. The traveller's hail to the signalman is the central image around which the tale is fashioned because it soon becomes a harbinger of doom, a form of communication that the signalman would rather he not use when he returns to visit.
The next shot we see is of the tiny figure of the signalman walking slowly along the track from his signal box in a deep, darkly shaded valley, an overwhelmed 'half-light and half-darkness' figure whom we will learn is struggling in a self-made purgatory. The opening scene 'implies that the man is bound to his dark situation, and his environment and indeed to his fate.' (7) Stephen Deutsch breaks with tradition on this film and employs a modernist, minimal electronic score and, as the signalman looks up at the distant figure of the traveller beckoning him, his eerie tonalities underscore the situation to tell us something is awry in this meeting, dominated by the prominently glowing red tunnel signal.
We hear these tonalities again as the traveller quickly glances at the telegraph wires as he walks along the railway line towards the signalman, the humming perhaps indicative of the noises in the wires, but also overlapping them visually and aurally with the rail tracks too as two examples of mass communication. Deutsch's score often merges with the other sounds in the film, of bells and chimes and ticking, and there are suggestions that these electronic embellishments can be heard by the signalman. Elliot's body language in this scene is extraordinary. He stands absolutely straight, as if rooted to the spot, staring out into limbo and as if he was listening to these sounds. Later, we see him tense up as the electronic tone and quick cuts to shots of the signal box's warning bell are used to imply his great trepidation at misunderstanding a supernatural communication connected to the previous accidents on the line.
'look out, look out below there!'The red signal is a key visual motif - of the signalman's duty and his link to the tunnel - and it overlaps with a number of other symbolic images in the film. It is as vibrant as the glow of the fire into which the two men stare, prominently placed in the centre of the first of many two shots and then regularly cut to in close up. It is the fireside hearth where tales are traditionally told but it also becomes a foreboding motif linked to the rail crash in the tunnel that the signalman later recounts and which the film flashes back to.
The meeting between the two men becomes a confessional and where the signalman unburdens his concerns. Clark sees this as part and parcel of Dickens diatribe on fate, where 'the dutiful signalman... is an impotent witness to the disasters, personal and cosmic, that a new dark age is bringing in.' (9) He is a man allegedly responsible for the running of part of the vast Victorian industrial machine but it is about to overwhelm and destroy him. When the traveller returns to his inn and fitfully sleeps (a scene added by Davies), his dreams are filled with more combinations of images and sounds connected to the signalman's fate.
A close up of his eye dissolves to a tracking shot out of the tunnel into daylight, the red signal is overlaid onto the strangely chiming bell and this is accompanied by the signalman's instruction to him, 'don't call out.' But there are also images here of confinement - the traveller sitting in his cell-like room or standing and staring out of his window at glorious, misty countryside - suggesting a visual equivalent of the traveller's earlier line 'I've been confined' and it 'makes us ponder whether this Traveller is referring to a claustrophobic working environment or perhaps even a spell in prison.' (10) It may also be referring to the release of the supernatural augur, the dark angel free to go about his business and fulfill the prophecy of the signalman's doom.
This consistent use of images and sounds culminates in the unsettling finale. After a further night of disturbed sleep, wherein the warning symbols become ever more strident, the traveller makes his way to the signal box, whistling jauntily. Clark matches this with the signalman, also whistling as he goes about his work, and forges their fateful connection. He even repeats the image of the steam train hurtling across the countryside, the traveller's silhouette and the tiny figure of the signalman on the track that opened the film. At the same time, the two men both seem to hear the supernatural hum that is a pre-text to doom and the film's closure with that significant gesture of waving and the ominous call of 'look out, look out below there!'
The Signalman marks the apotheosis of Clark's work on the series with his vision perfectly matching Davies' precise and assured screenplay, bursting with metaphor and ambiguity. It is also a return, after his workmanlike efforts on The Ash Tree, to a more evocative and ambiguous use of landscape, sound and performance. He is aided in this by a stunning central performance from Denholm Elliot and support from Bernard Lloyd, exceptional use of location filming and David Whitson's photography and lighting. It quite rightly attains its place as one of the very best of the BBC Ghost Stories and has never been matched since.
Stigma completely shifts the annual Christmas Ghost Story away from the usual period setting(11)
Exton had made contributions to The Wednesday Play (BBC, 1964-70) and Armchair Theatre (ITV, 1956-74), gaining some notoriety with difficult material when his play for the latter, The Trial of Dr Fancy, was held up for transmission for two years, until 1964, after fears that the black comedy about a murder trial might cause offence.
He also adapted John Wyndham's Dumb Martian for Armchair Theatre, a production which acted as an introduction to the science fiction anthology Out of This World (ABC, 1962), would provide scripts for Play for Today (BBC, 1970-84), ITV Playhouse (1967-83), Survivors (BBC, 1975-77), Killers (Thames, 1976) Doomwatch (BBC, 1970-72) and The Crezz (Thames, 1976) and was also responsible for the screenplay of Richard Fleischer's 10 Rillington Place (1971). He would adapt M.R. James' Casting the Runes for Lawrence Gordon Clark in 1979. Later, he was much lauded for his work on Jeeves & Wooster (ITV, 1990-93) and Agatha Christie's Poirot (ITV, 1989-)
As Phil Tonge acknowledges, Stigma is 'a straight down the line horror story' rather than a ghost story and that, regretfully, 'it just doesn't fit in with the feel of what a Christmas ghost story should be'. (12) After stripping away the period trappings that were the tangible aspects of the other ghost stories in the series, it embraces contemporary cues from modernist horror and occult works such as Dead of Night (BBC, 1972), The Stone Tape (BBC, 1972) and Beasts (ATV, 1976). Its link with ancient stone circles also reflects children's telefantasy drama such as Escape into Night (ATV, 1972), Sky (HTV, 1976), Children of the Stones (HTV, 1977) and Raven (ATV, 1977).
However, this does Stigma a slight disservice. It's a compact tale with a tremendously bleak ending, told with little dialogue and where the themes are implied almost exclusively in visual terms. Clark's visual dexterity lifts a script that steadfastly defies any attempt at exposition or explanation about what has actually happened after a standing stone has been disturbed by local labourers to enable the owners of a cottage, the Delgados, to lay a new lawn.
The film opens with a blurred, out of focus shot of the motorway, the screen dominated by a red dot that eventually resolves itself into the car that is carrying mother and daughter Katherine and Verity. Rather obviously, the dot foreshadows the dots of blood that will spring from Katherine's body once it has been afflicted by the force released from beneath the standing stone.
There are several sub-texts operating in the film. Female desire and menstrual cycles; the ancient landscape under threat from modernisation; the juxtaposition of modern life and pagan knowledge all weave through the story. The relationship between Katherine (Kate Binchy) and 13-year old Verity (Maxine Gordon) is under stress, presumably because Verity is struggling towards sexual maturity and independence. As the car approaches, we can hear wind on the soundtrack and this again foreshadows the ancient blast that hits Katherine later when the stone is removed from the garden.
The dichotomy between modern and ancient life is modestly articulated: Verity is annoyed that she can't get her favourite radio station 'down here'; the progress of the Voyager spacecraft and its measurements of 'peculiar radiations' can be overhead on the radio as Katherine prepares dinner; the labourers bring in heavy plant to shift a stone that was placed there thousands of years before any such machines existed. Clark introduces the tractors that the labourers use through a low shot of a field, with the machines gradually overwhelming the frame, and cuts in wide shots of Katherine's car (aptly red in colour) speeding past ancient stone circles. The bleak ending of the film also suggests that, for all our modern appurtenances, the unknown and the unknowable can still have an impact on life.
When she first arrives, Verity symbolically pushes away childish things such as dolls (she puts one upside down in a vase) and turns her attention to the activity in the garden outside. We see her through the kitchen window, over Katherine's shoulder, talking to the two men. She flirts with the younger man, attracted by his display of male virility as he chains up the stone ready for its removal. Later, Verity's view of her encroaching female emancipation is echoed in the lyrics of 'Mother's Little Helper', the Rolling Stones song she plays as, down in the kitchen, Katherine, the dutiful housewife recovering from the psychic, and psychedelic, energy released by the stone, prepares dinner.
As the labourers try to remove the stone Katherine sends Verity off to the shops. Clark rather overdoes the visual symbolism here as the crane lowers the hook for the chain in a point of view shot that implies a hangman's noose around Katherine's head. Clearly, the poor woman's doomed even before she can enjoy a roast dinner with her husband.
There's a clunky metaphor here about the burgeoning womanhood that is about to descend on Verity as the cursed 'ill wind', the 'peculiar radiation' from beneath the stone now descends on Katherine, receiving the stigma of the film's title, what Phil Tonge sees as 'the male fear of menstruation' represented in the story. (14) The later scenes of Katherine's husband Peter (Peter Bowles) finding her in a blood soaked bed evoke this rather viscerally.
This ancient 'ill wind' manifests itself in the shaking of the house, cracking of walls and displacement of objects. Significantly, one of these is a framed print of Henry Fuseli's 'The Nightmare' suggesting some correlation between the forces attacking Katherine and the painting's themes of female sexuality and the predatory nature of desire, symbolised by the incubus sitting on the female figure, and their relationship to folklore about possession, while sleeping, by demons and witches. This folklore is refered to again in the link between the stigmata, knives and onions (onions were allegedly effective against evil spirits invading the home or preventing sickness and plague) that play out in a sequence when Peter investigates the kitchen late at night. He hears female laughter and witnesses said onions and knives possessing a life of their own.
Once these ideas are established, the rest of the film deals with the manifestation of this ancient force. Katherine begins to bleed but the source can never be found, blood seems to ooze out of her skin. Clark depicts this is in a series of sequences that do not use dialogue, with actress Kate Binchy left to effectively convey the abject panic that the prospect of bleeding to death might create over the sound of a running bath, her heavy breathing and the gradually increasing sound of howling wind. To ensure you get the theme at the centre of Exton's script, Katherine's frantic attempts to staunch the flow of blood and clean up after her are intercut with shots of Verity happily and freely enjoying a walk through the standing stones. This is no longer about using the subtlety of the James' adaptations.
The film culminates with the return of the labourers and the uncovering of a burial chamber beneath the stone, filled with the remains of a ritual murder, just as Peter discovers Katherine's fate and Verity, rather conveniently filling us in on 'the old religion' that she's read about in a book, sports a fearsome set of red nails and starts peeling an onion. Does this intimate that Verity is somehow possessive of the old religion in the same instance that she has become sexually available? Again, it is left to the viewer to decide. Clark hurtles towards a terribly bleak ending, through Peter Bowles' performance effectively conveying the husband's horror and shock, and concludes a rather odd film with a symbolic final shot, high overhead, of the stone circle, the cottage and Peter's abandoned car.
'The Ice House sometimes verges on surrealism'(15)
Paul is, in effect, seduced by the brother and sister, Clovis and Jessica (Geoffrey Burridge and Elizabeth Romilly), who run the spa. It seems to be a house and gardens whose occupants are unable to communicate, seemingly frozen in time, mentally and physically. The other guests rarely speak to him, a masseur who pleads with him to help him escape then disappears and Clovis and Jessica obsess about a vine that grows over the ice house in the grounds. The relationship between the vine, sporting a deep scarlet and a white flower, and the siblings is never fully explained but visually they match the brother and sister, who both dress in the same colours.
This brittle atmosphere is, depending on your opinion of the performances, either aided or destroyed by the very artificial delivery of Bowen's contraction-less dialogue. The non-naturalistic performances suggest the nineteenth century rather than the twentieth and perhaps this would have worked all the more effectively if it had been set in period surroundings. As Paul notes at the beginning of the film, the spa thrives on 'quaint, old fashioned ways.' and often Burridge pushes his overstated performance of Clovis dangerously towards camp. Stride cleverly picks up on this non-naturalism and as he progresses through the film his speech becomes more and more akin to theirs, suggesting his immersion in the dumb conformity of the strange world they exist in.
Director Derek Lister manages to evoke a dream-like quality in the images, of a nightmarish sunlit paradise, a perverse garden where death is postponed and life is suspended by the intoxicating perfumes of the strange vine and the incestuous powers of Clovis and Jessica. His direction reflects the restraint of the earlier Ghost Stories, slowly building up atmosphere and not fussing with over indulgent visual touches.
Clovis and Jessica are the bold flowers of the vine, overwhelming their guest with an intoxicating, suffocating and soporific duty of care. There is a weird sexual tension between Paul, Clovis and Jessica too, first intimated when Paul is walking the grounds and singing the praises of the place and Clovis expresses her enjoyment of the guests as 'having them' and then in the 'delightful' touch of Clovis when he replaces the masseur and later, after Paul's discovery of what is in the ice house, Clovis's offer to sleep next to Paul and nurse him through his nightmare.
That nightmare is partly Clovis and Jessica's determination to ward off decay and putrefaction and is signaled in the after-dinner conversation where Paul's declaration to 'help people get through life' is countered by Clovis and Jessica's claim that he 'should assist people to end their lives not to get through them.' This hints at their function but the film's ambiguity does not allow for further elucidation. Roy Gill intimates 'there could be a suggestion of vampirism in Bowen's script' and that 'the pair somehow draw vitality from the lonely guests they draw to their establishment.' (16) But this is perhaps more about their function as suppressors of emotions and beliefs specifically and the rejection of the very life that Paul explicitly sets out to support in his profession.
That these elements are not thoroughly explained may please and irritate in equal measure but there is a horrible inevitability that, once Paul understands the function of the ice house, he will be unable to resist the invitation to become part of it, trapped in the everlasting rounds of tea on the lawn, croquet games and dinner in the evening, the perfumes of the vine keeping him in thrall to the pleasures that Clovis and Jessica provide. As Alex Davidson concludes, when Clovis and Jessica lead Paul back to the ice house, 'a scene recalling Death leading the peasants in Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957)', he has given up on life and willingly seeks preservation in 'this chilly, sterile limbo.' (17)
(1) Simon Farquhar, Lawrence Gordon Clark's The Signalman, BFI DVD booklet
(2) Dave Rolinson, Andrew Davies, BFI Screenonline
(3) Lawrence Gordon Clark, Introduction to The Signalman, BFI DVD
(4) Lawrence Gordon Clark, Introduction to The Signal-man, Lawrence Gordon Clark's Ghost Stories for Christmas.
(5) Premonitory Tales: From Dickens' Signalman to the Radio Broadcasts of A.J. Alan
(6) Sarah Cardwell, Andrew Davies, The Television Series
(9) Lawrence Gordon Clark, Introduction to The Signal-man, Lawrence Gordon Clark's Ghost Stories for Christmas.
(10) Simon Farquhar, Lawrence Gordon Clark's The Signalman, BFI DVD booklet
(11) Helen Wheatley, Stigma, BFI DVD booklet
(12) Phil Tonge, Stigma review, Creeping Flesh Volume 1
(13) Frank Collins, Zodiac review, Cathode Ray Tube
(14) Phil Tonge, Stigma review, Creeping Flesh Volume 1
(15) Robin Davies, The Ice House review, Creeping Flesh Volume 1
(16) Roy Gill, The Ice House review, Creeping Flesh Volume 1
(17) Alex Davidson, The Ice House, BFI DVD booklet
About the transfer
All three films were provided as standard definition transfers to the BFI. As with all the other films in the series, they were shot on 16mm. The grain is inherent in the format and offers plenty of texture to the images. Images on all three films are, for the most part, solid and clean with scratches, specks or blobs only occasionally disturbing them. The Signalman and The Ice House are often detailed and sharp whereas Stigma is paler and less robust. In the main, contrast levels are reasonably good and there are only a few instances where this appears as faded and grey. Colour is understated and is richer in both The Signalman and The Ice House whereas Stigma is again quite pale and washed out.
Introduction to The Signalman by Lawrence Gordon Clark (10:41)
Clark discusses the origin of the Dickens' adaptation and Andrew Davies work on the screenplay. He reflects on the performances of Denholm Elliot and Bernard Lloyd and on the themes of man's fate in the shadow of the systems he creates.
Introduction to Stigma by Lawrence Gordon Clark (8:45)
He explains the circumstances which led to him directing the Clive Exton script, the location shoot in Avebury and working with Kate Binchy and Peter Bowles. He also discusses his move to Yorkshire Television and directing Harry's Game.
This features new essays on all three films each by Matthew Sweet, Helen Wheatley and Alex Davidson and Simon Farquhar's profile of Clark and The Signalman.
Ghost Stories: Classic adaptations from the BBC Volume 4
BFI DVD Released 17 September 2012 BFIVD962 Cert 15
The Signalman (1976)
UK / colour / 38:15 / English / DVD9 / 1.33:1 / Dolby Digital mono audio 320kbps
UK / colour / 31:47 / English / DVD9 / 1.33:1 / Dolby Digital mono audio 320kbps
The Ice House (1978)
UK / colour / 34:13 / English / DVD9 / 1.33:1 / Dolby Digital mono audio 320kbps