Lawrence Gordon Clark's next venture into adapting M.R. James, Lost Hearts (tx: 25/12/73), saw a number of changes in production. The BBC's drama department, noting the success of the 'Ghost Stories for Christmas' when A Warning to the Curious attracted nine million viewers in 1972, suggested to BBC1 controller, Paul Fox, that their department should be responsible for production of these films rather than them originating from within General Features. To this end, 'basically, what happened was the films were taken over by them and Rosemary Hill was assigned to produce them,' notes Clark. (1)

Hill had accrued a substantial track record at the BBC as a producer, her most recent production being an adaptation of Alice Through the Looking Glass, also transmitted on Christmas Day 1973, and she would continue to have a significant influence on the development of the annual ghost stories and work as a producer at the BBC and ITV well into the late 1980s. Clark recalls 'I walked across Shepherds Bush from my office at Kensington House to the Television Centre and met my new colleagues' and where he found Hill to be 'a very intelligent, funny and altogether lovely person.' (2)

It was agreed that he would continue to direct the adaptations but that a screenwriter and a script editor would now be brought on board to handle the adapting process. Clark retained the services of his cinematographer John McGlashan and sound recordist Dick Manton, both of whom had made significant contributions to the look and feel of the previous two films he had written and directed. Although the resources of the drama department were now at his disposal and he was blessed with a slight increase in budget, he only had 12 days to shoot Lost Hearts compared to the 18 he had for A Warning to the Curious. He also notes in the introduction on this DVD that any additional money was allocated to the paying of writers and script editors that the films now employed.

Hill turned to Robin Chapman to write the screenplay for Lost Hearts, one of the earliest M.R. James stories and presented to the members of the Chit Chat Club on 28 October 1893. As Simon Farquhar notes, Chapman de-clutters the original James story and embellishes much of the script with multiple hauntings and a slightly different ending, turning it into 'a straightforward, pacey tale' where, in contrast to the long-anticipated reveal of other filmed stories, the ghosts 'appear even before the first minute of screen time has elapsed.' (3)

Chapman had gained a considerable reputation with a number of crime dramas created, written and produced at Granada Television. Three of these were discreetly linked together by a number of recurring characters - The Man in Room 17 (1965-66), The Fellows (1967) and Spindoe (1968) - but Big Breadwinner Hog (1969), and its controversial gangland violence, was probably his most memorable and innovative work made at Granada. His skills as an adaptor of Huxley's Eyeless in Gaza (BBC 1971) had also presumably impressed Hill when they came to work together in 1973 on A Picture of Katherine Mansfield, a BBC drama series that was part biography and part adaptation of Mansfield's short stories.

It's clear from interviews that Clark found the new production regime a bit of an imposition and saw the restrictions it brought with it as anathema to the director's vision he had so carefully forged on the previous films. Although he and Hill had their disagreements, mainly over when the script was locked down, he acknowledges that, 'They also became tighter, because they were now scripted by well established writers and then put before a script editor.' (4) It's certainly born out by the running times of the three films on this disc which all come in at roughly 30 minutes compared to the 50 minutes lavished on A Warning to the Curious.

Shooting took place in Lincolnshire during the Autumn  of 1973, in and around the Georgian splendour of Harrington Hall (to represent the Aswarby Hall of the original story) with its 'wonderful drawing room and staircase and a very creepy attic and corridor that suited perfectly for the story'. (5) He also explored and used locations on the Fens and the Wolds and found the cupola and its stained glass domed roof not far from the Harrington Hall location.

Clark used the season's weather and light as an appropriate accompaniment, with the low sun and the early morning dew and mist offering ample opportunities to enhance the images he, John McGlashan and designer Don Taylor set out to capture. This included getting the crew up at 4.00am to try and get a shot at sunrise of the coach bringing the orphan Stephen to his uncle's house only to discover the sun was hidden by a blanket of mist which in the end proved to be just as fortuitous.  

Hill cast Joseph O'Connor as Mr. Abney, another of James's bachelor scholars whose deeds, as Robert Lloyd Parry indicates in the DVD booklet, might well have been inspired by James's own researches and translation of the Life of William of Norwich, detailing the ritual murder of a 12 year old boy in 1144. O'Connor and Clark decided that they would give the character a manic quality inspired by Robert Wiene's Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920) and its featured performance and appearance of Werner Krauss as the titular owner of the cabinet. 
Clark and McGlashan establish the story's link with the landscape
One of the period's most respected and busiest of child actors, Simon Gipps-Kent, who died tragically young at the age of 28 from a morphine overdose, was contracted to play nephew Stephen. Clark comments on his affinity with child actors in the introduction on this DVD, their lack of self-consciousness and preparedness to experiment and invent, and this enables him to get a very convincing and assured performance from Gipps-Kent and a notable unearthliness from the two children playing the revenge-seeking ghosts, despite the somewhat theatrical nature of their appearances. 

The film opens with the beautifully atmospheric emergence of the coach and horses from the morning mist. This establishes Clark's interest in Stephen's point of view as he is driven towards the estate of Uncle Abney. He intercuts Stephen's POV of the fields and of a brief vision of the two ghostly children waving at him, a foreshadowing of their purpose in the story and of Stephen's potential fate. The coachman's reply of 'only a step, don't lose heart' to his enquiry of how much further they have to go also provides a blackly comic hint of this.

Most important is Clark's and McGlashan's desire to establish the story's link with the landscape, a strong presence that endures throughout the film and provides an evocative connection between childhood, the supernatural and the environment. Clark transforms the boundless but empty gardens and fields into something of an antipastoral, representative 'of the dislocation of childhood, children severed from the world of adults, or the child part of the adult from a more acceptable adult self.' (6) It is a fertile place where children might innocently play but where they also become the unwitting victims of a man who dabbles in ritual sacrifice to recapture youth and even seek immortality.

Indeed, it is with childish glee that Abney greets Stephen, with the camera circling round both figures and Abney's shadow briefly and symbolically passing over Stephen's face as he declares him an 'excellent boy'. When Stephen meets the housekeeper, Mrs Bunch (a gorgeous performance from Welsh actress Susan Richards), she informs him that despite Abney's status as an old bachelor 'he's very partial to children'. There are also many scenes where Clark establishes the boundaries between the experiences and knowledge of the adult and the child, the intense borderline between generations that the film explores.

Abney thirsts for knowledge of the old world and wishes for his own work to live on and we see from Stephen's point of view, in a series of very brief intercuts, that he has surrounded himself with the esoteric paraphernalia of the occult - a statue of Arimanius, the lion-headed Mithraic God of the Dark who holds the keys to heaven, is seen on Abney's desk and Mithraic astrological symbols hang on a wall.

Abney seems to be, on the surface, a larger than life eccentric and O'Connor's performance not only fills the screen to bursting point but he also rather cleverly understands when to pull back on the eye-rolling and manic disposition to reveal something far more sinister beneath. As he looks out of the window at Stephen, he is already mapping out a destiny for the boy, putting him 'out to grass' as it were, until the appointed hour.

The establishing shot of the house and its environs is one that Clark repeats throughout the film and he couples this with a number of extraordinarily beautiful images as Stephen explores the grounds and discovers the cupola. In the cupola there is a sense of Stephen's fate, and the fates of two other children who stayed with Abney that Mrs Bunch told him about, caught in the stained glass of the roof with its throngs of cherubic angels frozen in the morning light suggesting a Christian alternative to the demonic heaven of Mithras that Abney subscribes to.

Heaven is also mentioned several times in the story. When Stephen is reprimanded for the deep scratches made on a wall and he enquires of Abney what could have made them, he is informed that 'there are more things in heaven or earth' responsible for the damage. Later, with doubt creeping in about his guardian, Stephen asks Mrs Bunce whether Abney is 'a good man' and if he 'will go to heaven'. It again reminds us of the the cupola and its stained glass angels where Stephen is first properly aware of the presence of Giovanni and Phoebe (Christopher Davies and Michelle Foster), the boy and girl he saw from the coach and who now haunt the grounds.

After Stephen glimpses them at the cupola, laughter and exaggerated footsteps reverberate on the soundtrack and Clark cuts from the audience's view to Stephen's point of view with a hand-held track round the cupola. Viewers of Clark's previous films will be well aware of how he, McGlashan and Minton use quick cutting, point of view camerawork and densely mixed sound to 'create' their hauntings. Stephen continues to see them in reflections and, after climbing a tree, he briefly encounters Phoebe. Clark associates these ghosts with earthly elements such as water, trees and sunlight, as spiritual manifestations of nature where landscape is both the repository of our fears, is alien and disturbing, but also holds regenerative and restorative powers. This is suggested in the later sequence when Stephen is out flying his kite and the landscape, inhabited by the ghosts, whispers to him, accompanied by quick cuts to fields and trees.
'I was never sure if we got Lost Hearts right.' 
Mrs Bunce also emphasises this idea in her recollection, typically as a Jamesian narrator telling a tale at the fireside to Stephen, of how Abney met both children, both of whom seem to be wanderers freely roaming the countryside. Folk song and music feature heavily on the soundtrack, from horn pipes and whistles to the strangely discordant hurdy-gurdy that becomes the overriding theme for the ghosts. As Helen Wheatley notes of the film: 'Music becomes a vital tool for the creation of an eerie atmosphere and is constantly tied to the appearance of the supernatural.' (7) The flashback also includes a use of silhouetted figures placed against the landscape that Clark repeats in the film as the ghosts return to the Hall to haunt Stephen and then to kill Abney. 

There is a wonderfully playful shot that underlines much of the film's subtext about nature, landscape and the sudden appearance and disappearance of innocent children within it. A pair of garden shears looms into frame and appears to almost slice off the head of a stone cherub standing in the garden as Abney, humming contentedly on the soundtrack, takes cuttings from his plants. 'Borage... exhilarates the heart' claims Abney, adding yet more heart symbolism to the story. As he greets Stephen and babbles about the boy's fantastical explorations, Stephen is distracted by a scraping sound and turns to see the two ghosts starring out from a window at the top of the house.

Clark builds up the mystery and suggests that these spirits are benign to Stephen, are there to warn him. Their movement of bringing a finger to their lips as a plea of silence about their presence is in parallel to Abney's secret pact with Stephen. Clark also fully reveals their forms which is quite unusual for these films, their terrors reticently emanating from mere glimpses or suggestions of the uncanny rather than the full blown manifestations Clark goes for here.

Caught indistinctly in silhouette at the cupola, followed by shots of them looking down on the Hall and waiting in the grounds, Clark then has them slowly appear at a window to the accompaniment of chanting and whispering. He emphasises their talons in close up, intercuts their point of view and allows the sound of the hurdy-gurdy to dominate Giovanni's hypnotic effect on Stephen. This culminates in the film's major reveal, a rather bloodcurdling scene where Stephen, and the audience, understand the meaning of the story's title. Gipps-Kent is particularly good at realising the boy's terror.

The hurdy-gurdy is also a symbol of the rejection of this old man. Clark composes a shot where Abney looms high above it as he retrieves what he sees as a troublesome reminder of his past indiscretions, leaps back in fear at the sight of the two ghosts tapping at the window and then, using a very uncanny tracking shot, where just the neck of the instrument (fashioned into a head) dangles into frame, disposes of it on the fire. Abney refers to this in his observational journal as 'some annoyance may be experienced from the psychic portion of the subjects... where they can command the allegiance of... material objects.'

Unlike many of the earlier Clark films, this positions James's reticent terrors within the abjection of horror cinema, where imagery of the soulless body, the corpse, blood and and body parts create a two fold reaction: a perverse pleasure in this visual presentation and, simultaneously, a desire to reject it. As Clark notes: 'I was never sure if we got Lost Hearts right. I worried that we saw too much of the ghosts, when I was well aware of the power of suggestion'. (8) The use of visceral horror perhaps also underlines Stephen's unconscious rejection of the unstable 'father' figure of Abney, suspecting of both what he does to children and what this warped adult masculinity has in store for him. Note that it is the comfort of Mrs Bunch that Stephen seeks after this shock rather than his father in absentia. It also taps into the fears that children have of the old and the many psychological defences that they array against them as the more the elderly remind them of their mortality, the more they become potent reminders of oncoming sickness and death.

Clark denies the oft-made reading that the film is about child abuse and claims he wouldn't have made it if he felt that was the sub-text. He rather sees it as 'about the monsters that children fear' and 'one of the great nightmares that your father or mother may turn into an ogre or a witch'. (9) At the same time Peter Hutchings sees the instability of the father figure and the family as a common theme in horror films of the mid 1970s. Within such titles as The Creeping Flesh (1973), And Now The Screaming Starts (1973) and Demons of the Mind (1972), he suggests, 'these films often concentrate on the difficult relationships between fathers and their children, with the father often seen as preventing his children from becoming adults.' (10)

Abney is constantly reminding Stephen that he is 'a big boy, nearly 12' but not yet a man. He must remain a child, and a virgin one suspects, in order for the ritual to have full potency. The implication of child abuse is difficult to assuage when one of the most uncomfortable scenes in the film shows Abney violently forcing Stephen to drink a glass of drugged port and sees Abney rip open the boy's shirt ready to receive 'the finest birthday gift' of a sacrificial blade, a secret that he and Stephen must keep as 'between men'. The film ends with Abney's disenfranchised ghost children turning his power against him, symbolised in the startling shot in silhouette of their talons wresting the ritual blade from his grasp and then, from his point of view, closing in on him for the kill as their chanting, whispering and the hurdy-gurdy fills the soundtrack. It's a disturbing end to a rather unnerving, often strikingly beautiful 35 minutes even if it doesn't quite resemble the more sedate ending of James's story.
'... a typically mischievous Bowen subplot involving fake mediums and gullible old ladies' 
The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (tx: 23/12/74) boasts a screenplay that was adapted from M.R. James' story of 1904 by John Bowen, a seasoned television writer with credits on The Power Game (1965-69), ITV Play of the Week (1955-68), Mystery and Imagination (1966-70), The Guardians (1971) and Dead of Night (1972). Much to Clark's regret, the original location of Germany and, in particular, the sunken well and its steps featured in the story went unrealised because of the budget and he found alternative locations closer to home for the film in Wells Cathedral and its close.

Bowen, 'a marvellous writer who understood James'  worked with Clark's choice of locale despite their 'little tiffs' but he also refashioned much of the original story, embellishing it with elements that purists were unhappy about, according to Clark. (11) These included 'bringing in a typically mischievous Bowen subplot involving fake mediums and gullible old ladies and introducing a protégé for the inquisitive academic' Somerton, as played by the great Michael Bryant. (12) 

Wells Cathedral provided an excellent base once Clark had placated its Dean, still smarting from the criticism levelled at him by the Friends of Wells when they discovered he had allowed Pasolini to shoot an orgy sequence in its cloisters for The Canterbury Tales (1972). Clark was able, via John McGlashan's impressive camerawork and lighting, to imbue 'a benign place' with an appropriately malevolent atmosphere when shooting took place there, in the Autumn of 1974, and at the Orchardleigh House and Estate in Frome to represent the Dattering's home and Graveley church. He was also inspired by a particular cowled gargoyle figure on the roof of Wells to specify, for the film, the location of the treasure to Reverend Somerton (Michael Bryant) and Lord Peter Dattering (Paul Lavers in a quietly impressive performance). 

Bryant's casting was a bit of a coup and it was Rosemary Hill that persuaded him to play the part of Reverend Somerton. He was primarily a stage actor, described by the Guardian as 'a pillar of the National Theatre' and 'a rock-solid company man who always gave of his best', but he also had some memorable film television performances to his credit. These included his performance in one of Clark's favourites, John Hopkins' Talking to a Stranger (1966), lead roles in a number of BBC dramas such as Roads to Freedom (1972) and Nigel Kneale's celebrated The Stone Tape (1972) and guest roles in Colditz (1972) and Fall of Eagles (1974).

With The Treasure of Abbot Thomas Clark again establishes landscape and architecture as a key motif of the film during the title sequence before engaging in the histrionics of a seance. Peter Dattering, watching sardonically from the sidelines 'is a presence which is hostile to a manifestation' and this prompts him to invite the academic rationalist Somerton to the next seance. The sole purpose of this is to reveal it to be a sham, to prove that the supernatural is just the irrational obsession of the chattering classes.

There's a lovely sequence at Wells, where he and Dattering explore the library and Clark uses his point of view motif to track Somerton as he walks through the corridors and past shelves of books, looking back into the camera as he converses with his friend. It's here that we learn that the two men have become interested in the fabled gold hidden in the monastery by the alchemist Abbot Thomas. The story slowly evolves into a treasure hunt dictated by the clues noted down by the Abbot.

The pairing of Somerton and Dattering is often visualised in long tracking shots of them pacing through the library, through the grounds or in hand-held point of view shots as they mount the steps to the roof of the cathedral. As Clark notes in his DVD introduction, there are also little glimpses of a cowled figure in some of the library scenes that suggest the Abbot may already be waiting to spring his trap. It's a wickedly subtle bit of manipulation that's fitting in a film that, like A Warning to the Curious, is concerned with perception, of seeing and understanding what is hidden in plain sight.

As Somerton takes tea with the ladies and Mr and Mrs Tyson (Frank Mills and Sheila Dunn), the charlatan mediums, Bowen's script and Clark's direction turn this confrontation with 'the higher silliness' of spiritualist gatherings into a witty but rather black drawing room comedy. At the same time, this scene also sets Somerton up as the disdainful Jamesian scholar, an advocate of Christianity as a rational system of belief and full of his own hubris and greed, destined for one almighty fall.

Clark makes much of the rituals of tea and cake (it's apparently indulgent and sinful to go for the petits fours rather than the slab cake), tracking a proffered cup of tea around the circle of guests by way of introductions and Somerton's arrogant depreciation of them. He puts the fear of God into the Tysons by suggesting their dabbling with the spirit world would have had them burnt at the stake in the period of history he is studying. It's all beautifully played by Bryant, Mills and Dunn and very funny.

The seance again displays Clark's visual embellishments - a stunning overhead shot of their hands and the reflections of their faces in a metal bowl, a circular symbol that is repeated later in the lens of a camera, a code-breaking wheel and the burst of the suns rays from between the trees and finally beyond the silhouette of the avenging Abbot Thomas. The camera also circles the faces of the seance's participants, under lit and framed in deep black. The overhead shot also prefigures many of the later views from the roof of the Cathedral as the two men locate the treasure or, in the conclusion, where a frightened Somerton, immobilised in his bath chair, is seen from high above in the centre of a driveway that forms a gigantic cross. It is a final reminder that while he cleaves to his Christian rationalism it will not protect him from vengeful otherworldly forces.

While Somerton debunks the Tysons there is, in contrast, a brief close up of Dattering and the suggestion that a communication from the Abbot is heard by him alone, a whispering invitation to fall into the trap of misplaced pride and arrogance. Dick Manton is back working his magic on the sound mix and he puts together some unearthly noises and voices for the production that culminate in the sickly wet sounds for the slime creature that Somerton eventually releases from the treasure's hiding place.
'flapping his academics gown at the camera while grimacing in affrighted panic.'
As the two men begin to assemble the clues, Clark and Bowen again add to James's original by reflecting the discourse about the effects of technology on the late Victorian era and the borderlines between science and the supernatural. 'I thought you were all for science,' Dattering asks Somerton while he photographs the stained glass windows where they locate the Abbot's clues. This process reveals another hidden clue that can only have been discovered through the medium of photography despite Somerton's verdict that 'photography does not yet to seem to me to have become an exact science' and that, tellingly, 'I've seen too many blank plates.'

Bowen's version of James's story is the epitome of the hybridisation of ghost and detective fictions of the period, Conan Doyle in particular, as well as a nod to the prevalence of spirit photography to suggest that 'something invisible could somehow materialise visibly on the sensitive plate of the camera'. (13) The camera is also highly symbolic of the film's themes - the paradoxes of superstition and science - and an instrument capable of recording evidence of both the rational and the uncanny.

Running through the film are more of Clark's visual relationships with elements and nature. The Abbot's clues are located in the 'church on the water' and the two men are briefly depicted as tiny figures in the natural landscape and, similarly, seen from the air, to be lost in the vastness of the cathedral's grounds, a representation of the Abbot's clue 'he looks down from on high to what is revealed'.

Somerton's ascent to the roof of the cathedral also precipitates a frantically shot and edited elemental attack, prefigured earlier in a very brief shot of 'something' flying past the stained glass windows they are investigating, but here rationalised as an encounter with a flock of crows. Clark created this sequence out of the simple effect of Bryant 'flapping his academics gown at the camera while grimacing in affrighted panic.' (14)

As Simon Farquhar notes, Somerton's quip 'Your Mr Sludge is quite discomforted' directed at the embarrassed Mr Tyson, the fraudulent spiritualist, also 'comes back to haunt Somerton' when he explores the earthy tunnel beneath the cathedral close. He wades through water, past walls glistening with slime and peppered with slugs, to find the location of the treasure is guarded by a 'Mr Sludge' of a very different kind. Clark again cleverly pre-empts the black slime that oozes under Somerton's door in two earlier scenes, with his accidental knocking over of a bottle of black ink that spreads over the plans of the stained glass and Dattering's scraping away of the black paint that obscures the Abbot's cryptogram on the glass.

Finally, this is the first of Clark's films to have a specially commissioned score and Geoffrey Burgon rises to the occasion magnificently with his mixture of organ, plainsong, counter-tenor, percussion and weird noises, generated by bicycle chains apparently. His score adds a palpable dimension of unease and disquiet. There are some beautifully shot scenes of Somerton walking through the cloisters, the moonlight breaking through and casting long shadows, and the excavation in the tunnel, the 'church under the water' as it were, that are even eerier because of Burgon's music. 

The quick cutting used in the rooftop attack comes in handy later when, as Clark points out, there was little time to ensure that the emergence of the slimy guardian was achieved more effectively, and the loathsome, slimy thing could only be suggested through the editing and shooting. For all its simplicity, the sequence is still unnerving, dropping in subliminal images of a grimacing face reflected in the water in the tunnel, of slime covered fingers caught in Somerton's hair and mixing them with Dick Manton's soundtrack of slapping and sucking noises, screams and Burgon's counter-tenors. A truly disturbing moment in a tightly constructed story, precisely filmed and edited, boasting an exceptional performance from Michael Bryant.
Rudkin's themes of transgressive sexuality, mythology, nationality, the supernatural and landscape... 
A year later and Lawrence Gordon Clark was back on BBC1 with The Ash Tree (tx: 23/12/75) and this time working with writer David Rudkin on what would be his final M.R. James adaptation for the BBC. Rudkin's work had spanned theatre and television and he had been exploring the themes of transgressive sexuality, mythology, nationality, the supernatural and landscape in many of his works for theatre, beginning with the success of Afore Night Come at the RSC in 1962. That play followed the growing tensions, frustrations and suppressed hatreds among a group of seasonal labourers working at a Bromsgrove fruit-farm for the pear harvest. As the day wears on there is violence and bloodshed and Rudkin employs a sub-text that dwells on themes of fertility and paganism.

His first television play, The Stone Dance, transmitted as ITV's 'Play of the Week' (24/9/63), also explored repressed sexuality, ancient landscapes and oppressive religious beliefs. It was his 'Play for Today', Penda's Fen (BBC 21/3/74) that alerted Clark to his talents. Time Out London included Penda's Fen in its 2011 survey of the 100 best British films and summarised it as: 'A multi-layered reading of contemporary society and its personal, social, sexual, psychic and metaphysical fault lines. Fusing Elgar’s ‘Dream of Gerontius’ with a heightened socialism of vibrantly localist empathy, and pagan belief systems with pre-Norman histories and a seriously committed – and prescient – ecological awareness.'

The Ash Tree centres on the curse placed on Sir Matthew Fell, who sends a local woman, Mrs Mothersole, to hang for alleged witchcraft. The sins of the ancestor manifest on Fell's heir, Sir Richard and his stricken estate where the ask tree outside his bedroom window produces nightmarish creatures that invade his sleeping hours.

Clark's shoot, again with John McGlashan behind the camera, was complicated by the frustrations of finding suitable locations. The original story was set in Suffolk and finding a manor house with an ash tree of the required size was next to impossible. Finally, Clark shot the sequences featuring the tree in his own garden in Bokelly, Cornwall, and this enabled the crew to create a platform in the ash tree outside his farmhouse big enough for the extensive filming, stunt and visual effects work required. He complimented this with exteriors and interiors filmed at Prideaux Place near Padstow, which had 'a wonderful dark oak room with carved wooden figures and beautiful parkland to film the rest of the story.' (15)

The film opens with an extended sequence that heralds the arrival of Sir Richard Fell at his estate and as the new Squire of Castringham. His ride through open country is the first of many sequences that enshrine landscape and the natural world, its fecundity in particular, at the centre of the film. The servants line up and greet him, Clark using point of view to emphasise their acknowledgement that this is the heir to Sir Matthew's estate. However, a child seems to understand something of Matthew's taint that eventually eclipses Richard's boundless energy as he transforms the house and the narrative's gradual slippage between past and present. In voice over we hear the servants gossiping about 'the new Sir Matthew' and his apparent status as bachelor resonating with the film's revelation that Richard and Matthew are, in essence, a continuation of the same person cursed by Mistress Mothersole.

Clark reigns in his visual talents in this adaptation and even though it is a very competently unsettling drama, it misses the ambiguity of previous tales, where connections and contrasts are made through images. What holds this together is Edward Petherbridge's intense performance as the film casually slips back and forth in time, between Matthew's first sexually charged encounter with Mothersole (Barbara Ewing) and Richard's slow decline under her chilling curse, 'mine shall inherit'. Her declaration echoes over the climax of the film, appropriately attached to an image of the Fell estate.

Despite his best endeavours to eradicate the malign influence of his ancestor Matthew - making alterations to the house; filling it with rather dubious erotic art; dreaming of adding an Italianate entrance to the hall and planning a life of future contentment and offspring with Lady Augusta (Lalla Ward in a pre-Doctor Who appearance) - he eventually succumbs to the 'uncle to uncle' inheritance of blighted farmlands and barren bachelorhood.

Sound mixer Dick Manton, in lieu of any music scoring the film, creates a febrile atmosphere of echoing and whispering voices emerging from the depths of time to taunt Richard; exaggerates the scraping of trees against windows and the cracking of branches and suggests something unearthly living in the ash tree outside the window through a pulsing noise mixed with the mewling of babies.

Clark supplements these hauntings with silhouetted figures, with Mothersole's execution and ultimately with glimpses of her progeny seeking revenge on Richard. The slippage between Matthew and Richard is wonderfully conveyed and the evocative use of memory and flashback can often take the viewer unawares. When we see Richard attempting to sleep one night, he observes Mothersole sitting in the ash tree and suddenly, through dialogue, we realise that he is in fact Matthew bearing witness to her flight through the trees and, through an abrupt cut to stock footage, her metamorphosis into a hare.

The ancient powers of the land are evoked both by placing tiny human figures against the splendour of woodland and coast and by Richard's fatal attempt, as a 'pestilent innovator', to clear Mothersole's grave from the churchyard when he plans extensions to the church to house a new family pew. There's a very effective sequence when Richard discusses this with Dr Croome (Preston Lockwood) and his present thoughts about the grave meld into Matthew's sentencing of Mothersole. 'The lady has to die' is overlapped with 'she must be removed' as time folds in on itself.

That the sacred burial should be respected is made clear when Croome tells Richard that Mothersole's place in the churchyard was a bequest of the farmers on the estate. There is here some kinship with the themes of ancient beliefs and their overturning of rationalism in Kneale's Quatermass and the Pit, where this 'disruption of the church buildings, the shaking of their foundations, and the staging of dramatic events within their aged stones signifies a moment of crisis in the nature of the beliefs to which they stand as a monument'. (16)
'lust and loathing' 
'Mothersole' is equated with 'mother's soul' or 'mother's hole' here, suggesting a pagan Goddess' regeneration in connection with the land (the ash tree drains all the goodness out of the house), the issuing of new life from her/its body (the life draining progeny she gives birth to in the tree) and then unleashes on male power in the form of Matthew and Richard. The curse clearly originates from his ancestor's punishment of an attractive young woman who forces him to deny the sexual longings that are anathema to his controlling and puritanical upbringing.

That god-fearing connection is also reinforced by another character, Dr Croome, who spans the two eras of the Fell dynasty - the scourge of the witchfinders and the reforming zeal of more enlightened times. There's a beautifully shot sequence where Croome and Richard walk across the coastline, the sea glittering behind them, and reflect on Matthew's strange demise and the supernatural effects of the ash tree.

The imagery of the torture and execution here is evocative of films with a similar theme such as Witchfinder General (1968) and Blood on Satan's Claw (1970) and, similarly, Mothersole is 'a martyr of the old beliefs, sacrificed to the rigid and controlling ideology of the new, dominant religion'. (17) The added realism here comes from Clark's use of point of view shots as Matthew observes her treatment by the witchfinder and bears witness to her transgressions.

She is a victim of Matthew's 'lust and loathing' that Clark describes in his introduction, and her persecution is seen in contemporary context of religious bigotry, but Clark also underlines that for James, she is also a supernatural being, 'a malign and evil woman who could bring huge spiders out of trees and kill people' and he remains unsure if he and Rudkin departed from that conception to the detriment of the film. 

The denouement of the film, where Richard's lack of sleep drives him to spend a night in Matthew's room, is revoltingly macabre. Clark was impressed with John Friedlander's visual effects to create the horrific, hairy, baby-faced spiders that scuttle out of the tree but still felt that 'we maybe dwelt too long on those' and 'the longer something is actually on the screen the less effective it is.' (18) Friedlander would have been more familiar to Doctor Who viewers, having created the memorable Draconian masks for Frontier in Space (1973) and the original Davros make-up for Genesis of the Daleks (1973) but between 1967 and 1976 he also supplied visual effects to Doomwatch, Dad's Army, Jackanory and I, Claudius. The creatures for The Ash Tree are sparingly seen, hinting at rolling eyes and sharp teeth and, combined with Dick Manton's sound effects of babies crying and suckling, the sequence of their possession of Richard is certainly one of the most memorable moments in television horror of the period.

The ambiguous flavour of James's reticent horror, brilliantly captured in Clark's earlier films, is further undercut by this ending. After the spiders drain Richard's body, the tree burns down and a gnarled, ancient skeleton is discovered in its roots, its position suggesting the throes of childbirth. None of this explicit detail is in the James original. 'All of this is Rudkin translating James. None of the horror of birth and sex is present in such explicit and disturbing form in the story' as Jez Winship notes and this adds a completely new dimension to the adaptations.

(1) Simon Farquhar, Lawrence Gordon Clark profile, DVD booklet, Ghost Stories
(2) Simon Farquhar, Ghosts of Christmas Past, Sight and Sound archive
(3) Simon Farquhar, Lawrence Gordon Clark profile, DVD booklet, Ghost Stories
(4) Ibid
(5) Lawrence Gordon Clark, Introduction to Lost Hearts, Lawrence Gordon Clark's Ghost Stories for Christmas. 
(6) Roni Natov, The Poetics of Childhood
(7) Helen Wheatley, Gothic Television
(8) Simon Farquhar, Lawrence Gordon Clark profile, DVD booklet, Ghost Stories
(9) Lawrence Gordon Clark, Introduction to Lost Hearts, BFI DVD 
(10) Peter Hutchings, Hammer and Beyond - The British Horror Film
(11) Lawrence Gordon Clark, Introduction to The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, BFI DVD 
(12) Simon Farquhar, Ghosts of Christmas Past, Sight and Sound archive
(13) Hilary Grimes, The Late Victorian Gothic: Mental Science, the Uncanny, and Scenes of Writing
(14) Lawrence Gordon Clark, Introduction to The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, Lawrence Gordon Clark's Ghost Stories for Christmas.
(15) Lawrence Gordon Clark, Introduction to The Ash Tree, Lawrence Gordon Clark's Ghost Stories for Christmas.
(16) Jez Winship, Sparks in Electrical Jelly: David Rudkin: Penda's Fen, The Ash Tree and Artemis 81
(17) Ibid 
(18) Simon Farquhar, Lawrence Gordon Clark profile, DVD booklet, Ghost Stories

About the transfers
Lost Hearts, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas and The Ash Tree were all supplied to the BFI as standard definition transfers. Shot on 16mm they are often soft and grainy but this is commensurate with that particular format. The contrast on all the films can vary but for the most part these are clean images, certainly not as dirty as the transfer of A Warning to the Curious and betraying only the odd speckle. Perhaps of the three, The Ash Tree is the weakest of the transfers with a little more dirt and sparkle on the image and an intermittent lack of contrast. Colour and detail are often good and I didn't detect much difference from the versions aired by BBC4 back in 2004 and 2005. 

Special Features
No sign of further editions of Ghost Stories for Christmas with Christopher Lee (BBC 2000) and its adaptation of The Ash Tree would have been a welcome bonus here. However, we do get plenty of anecdotes from director Lawrence Gordon Clark to open each film.

Introduction to Lost Hearts by Lawrence Gordon Clark (10:50)
Clark chats about the transition of the films from the documentary to the drama department of the BBC under the aegis of producer Rosemary Hill. He talks about the production, shooting on location with John McGlashan, casting and working with child actors. 
Introduction to The Treasure of Abbot Thomas by Lawrence Gordon Clark (10:39)
He talks about Bowen's adaptation, looking for appropriate locations and using the gargoyles on the roof of Wells to inspire the story, the decision to start the film with the fake medium scene and provide Somerton with a companion and using Geoffrey Burgon as the film's composer.
Introduction to The Ash Tree by Lawrence Gordon Clark (8:05)
Clark recalls the building of the camera platform in the ash tree at his farmhouse, the visual effects created for the film and the differences between Rudkin's interpretation of Mothersole and the original character in the James story.
This features new essays on all three films each by horror writer Ramsey Campbell, Alex Davidson and Dick Fiddy; a biography of M.R. James; more of Simon Farqhar's profile of Clark and the films and Robert Lloyd Parry's look at the locations that James used in his stories.

Ghost Stories: Classic adaptations from the BBC Volume 3
BFI DVD Released 17 September 2012 BFIVD961 Cert 12

Lost Hearts (1973)
UK / colour / 34:51 / English / DVD9 / 1.33:1 / Dolby Digital mono audio 320kbps
The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (1974)
UK / colour / 36:50 / English / DVD9 / 1.33:1 / Dolby Digital mono audio 320kbps
The Ash Tree (1975)
UK / colour / 31:53 / English / DVD9 / 1.33:1 / Dolby Digital mono audio 320kbps

Bookmark and Share

Viewing Figures

The Legal Bit

All written material is copyright © 2007-2023 Cathode Ray Tube and Frank Collins. Cathode Ray Tube is a not for profit publication primarily for review, research and comment. In the use of images and materials no infringement of the copyright held by their respective owners is intended. If you wish to quote material from this site please seek the author's permission.

Creative Commons License
Cathode Ray Tube by Frank Collins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.