The BBC has a long and illustrious history of commissioning innovative adaptations of the works of M R James. Consider Jonathan Miller’s Whistle and I’ll Come to You or The Ash Tree by Lawrence Gordon Clark. Tonight at the BFI Southbank I had the pleasure of seeing an advance preview of the latest “Ghost Story for Christmas”. The Tractate Middoth, written and directed by Mark Gatiss, once again demonstrates how well the finely crafted short stories of Monty James lend themselves to the medium of film. Mr. Gatiss has a clear understanding and passion for the horror genre and proves (as he did with Sherlock) that “adaptation” does not have to mean “bastardisation”.
The Tractate Middoth relocates the events of the story from the Edwardian era, to the early Fifties but apart from this changes remains remarkably faithful to the text. We meet young librarian Mr. Garnett (Sacha Dhawan) who has a rather disturbing experience while searching for an old tome of Hebrew text for an irascible academic John Eldred (John Castle). It would appear that a mysterious third part may have an interest in the book. While recovering from his shock, with a dose of country air, Mr. Garnett meets Mrs. Simpson (Louise Jameson) and her daughter Anne (Charlie Clemmow). They tell a strange tale of a missing last will and testament that would make them heir to a sizeable inheritance. Unfortunately, the document has been written in an obscure book. Could it be the very same volume that lead to Mr. Garnett’s supernatural experience?
This delightful adaptation blends the erudition and macabre atmosphere of M R James with the wit and intelligence of Mark Gatiss. The two compliment each other very well. M R James’s liking for comedic minor officials and bureaucrats is embellished by Mark Gatiss, leading to some clever observational humour and comic asides. However, this is not done to the detriment of the brooding atmosphere or the central supernatural plot. The thirty minute adaptation has a minimum of superfluous CGI, keeping as much effects work as possible in-camera, thanks to the stylish cinematography of Steve Lawes. The prosthetics for the central ghost are suitably ghoulish and very much in accord with the original story.
The period feel is authentic and still maintains M R James cardinal rule that a good ghost story should always be set in the past and related by those who have indirectly experienced it. Performances are universally good ensuring that characters do not descend in to genre caricatures. The handsome production design and art direction reflect the architectural and topographical detail that is synonymous with all of James’s short stories. It is to the directors credit that the supernatural climax is effectively carried out in broad daylight without losing any dramatic impact. The final sting in the tail, although a whim of Mark Gatiss, is far from out-of-place.
As with the BBC adaptations from the Seventies, this latest production has a distinguished pedigree, sporting such names as Una Stubbs, Eleanor Bron and John Castle. There is also a clear sense that everyone involved has a love and respect for the work of Montague Rhodes James. The Tractate Middoth is text-book example of the sort of quality television that can be produced when the right people are involved and deferred to. Mark Gatiss spoke of the freedom afford to him by the BBC Arts Department and it is clear that their trust in him has paid off. The Tractate Middoth, is well paced and lovingly crafted, delightfully unsettling. There are several jolts leading to a classic Jamesian Wallop (Thank you Will Ross and Mike Taylor for coining that phrase).
With regard to the preview screening at the BFI, it was very well received by the audience at NFT1. It neatly dovetailed in with the documentary M R James: Ghost Writer, which proved to be very insightful. After the performance there was a Q & A session chaired by Neil Brand, featuring writer/director Mark Gatiss, Producer John Das and actors John Castle and Sacha Dhawan. It was interesting to hear how writer and actor Gatiss adapted to the role of director and what he learned from the experience. Both actors also provided an insight in to their experience on the production, with John Castle making an honest admission that horror is a genre that usually he avoids, as he frankly finds it somewhat scary.
As ever with BFI audiences, the questions were thoughtful and intelligent and demonstrated a clear love of the horror genre and the traditional ghost story. I suspect that wider public still harbours an affinity towards such material, especially in the winter months. Hopefully The Tractate Middoth will be suitably promoted by the BBC in the run up to Christmas and will be the resounding success it deserves to. I for one would happily countenance a “Ghost Story for Christmas” from Mark Gatiss every year.