M R James: Ghost Writer (2013)
MR James: Ghost Writer is a sixty-minute documentary written and presented by Mark Gatiss, exploring the life of Britain's foremost ghost story writer. Gatiss, a long-time admirer of James, delves in to the life of the author from his devout Anglican upbringing and close-knit family life, through to his ascent to the summit of academia at King's college, Cambridge. The program seeks to discover what motivated this scholarly bachelor to create some of the most iconic and chilling ghost stories in English literature. By following in James’s footsteps, the documentary attempts to gain a greater insight in to the enigmatic author.
MR James: Ghost Writer explores in some depth the legacy of Mr James, emphasising his early life in Suffolk and the religious nature of his family. His academic prowess and near obsession with Medieval text and apocrypha clearly had an impact upon his writing, with much of the visual imagery from his writings being directly lifted from manuscripts he worked with on a daily basis. Only being familiar with James's work from a literary standing, I was greatly surprised by the great academic achievements of his life. His written treatise on illuminated Apocalypse manuscripts still remains an unparalleled achievement along with his rise to the office of provost and directorship of the Fitzwilliam Museum.
Despite the dry and formal nature of Victorian life, James was a surprising gregarious animal, taking an active part in college social life. Although he certainly reflected facets of the antiquarian characters that so often populated his stories, he was also a man of immense passion. His personal friendships were deep and of great importance to him, as correspondence with his inner circle demonstrate. His relationship with ex-pupil and illustrator James McBryde, succinctly demonstrates a profound platonic friendship of a type seldom seen these days. The documentary also addressed the impact of the "Great war" upon both James and the college and the subsequent way it influenced his later writing.
Perhaps the best aspect of Mark Gatiss's exploration of all things Jamesian, is the honest and fair way the subject of his "personal life" is explored. There is a trend in contemporary analysis to sometimes over zealously look for evidence modern schools of thought in those from prior eras. Several revisionist scholars seem to seize upon "examples" of a sexual subtext in the author's work and are then are happy to extrapolate this in to theories of suppressed homosexuality. Mr. Gatiss does not shy away from such notions but neither does he make any definitive conclusions. His interview with a former pupil of James whose father was also a close personal friend, perhaps sheds the most light upon the matter.
The visual and editing style of MR James: Ghost Writer is very compelling and follows a broadly linear narrative path, with many a tangential aside to explore illustrative points. Being a BBC commission project there a lot of use of footage from previous television adaptations in referencing James's literary work. The documentary effectively makes use of actor Robert Lloyd Parry, who recreates James celebrated readings of his stories at Christmas, to his fellow members of the " Chit Chat Club". Parry specialises in one-man performances of the work of M R James and provides some excellent readings from such stories as Canon Alberic's Scrapbook and A warning to the Curious.
Although it is an impossible task to definitively encapsulate a writer such as M R James in a single sixty-minute documentary, MR James: Ghost Writer certainly provides an interesting overview. Mark Gatiss has an obvious passion for the man and clearly identifies with him on many levels. However, this is far from an unobjective eulogy and depicts James as a man of his time with not particularly progressive attitudes on sexual equality or modernisation. I therefore whole heartedly recommend MR James: Ghost Writer not only established M R James fans but to wider scholars of the ghost stories who wish to learn more about one of the genres finest authors.