December 9, 2016

The Signalman (1976)

It is 22 December 1976, and time for another Ghost Story for Christmas.

A railway signalman (Denholm Elliot) is haunted by a ghostly spectre that appears to foreshadow calamity. Over two nights he tells a curious gentleman (Bernard Lloyd) his supernatural tale.

For his sixth annual Christmas ghost film, Lawrence Gordon Clark abandoned the short stories of M.R. James in favour of Charles Dickens. Dickens has written the original story in 1866 following his near-fatal experience in a train crash a year earlier. The change in source material gives The Signalman a very different feel to the earlier films. M.R. James presented horror stories that were quite malevolent and fantastical, whereas here the supernatural elements are ghostly and unsettling but ultimately attempting to achieve some good. This feels like the cosiest and most reassuring of the four Christmas films I have seen thus far, which may go some way to explaining why it is probably the most widely acclaimed film of the set. This feels like a very safe, comfortable BBC short feature.

The short story is adapted by Andrew Davies, here a young fledgling writer but who will subsequently become one of the Britain's most acclaimed and respected TV script writers thanks to the likes of Pride and Prejudice, Middlemarch, House of Cards and A Very Peculiar Practice (a personal favourite). He does an excellent job, fleshing out the Gentleman's role and developing a range of visual signifiers for the film's supernatural events. One is the eerie red warning light, but more effective still is the warning bell inside the Signalman's hut which vibrates slightly when the apparition is near.

As with the earlier films, the location shoot helps to give the film a solid and realistic grounding. For The Signalman a Victorian-era signalman's hut was built alongside the Severn Valley railway. The deep gorge setting, with the black, ominous railway tunnel, makes for a very atmospheric setting.

As the Gentleman, Bernard Lloyd gives a traditional sort of mannered BBC performance of the time. It suits the Victorian setting very well, and certainly adds to that comforting feel. The real standout is Denholm Elliot as the terrified and traumatised Signalman. The apparition warned him of an impending tunnel crash, yet he failed to prevent it. It warned him of a woman falling from a train and dying, and again he failed to prevent it. Now he fears it is warning him again, and his anxiety and sense of helplessness is driving him close to tears. It's a tightly wound, cautious sort of performance that accentuates the horror of his circumstance.

I suspect I am not alone in primarily knowing Denholm Elliot for his two performances as Marcus Brody in Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones films. While they are easily his most high-profile roles they really go no way to demonstrate what an astonishingly gifted actor he was. He is superb here, and without his performance to form its core The Signalman would not be half the film it turns out to be. It may have an underlying sense of 'playing it safe', but this really is the BBC working its best quality in an area of TV drama it has always excelled. It might not be the most interesting of Clark's Christmas films, but of the ones I have seen it is almost certainly the best.

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