Thursday, December 26, 2013

A Ghost Story for Christmas: Lost Hearts

The BBC shop in Leicester is a dangerous place. It is hard to visit without coming away with armfuls of DVDs from your youth.

Months ago I bought a boxed set of the corporation's Ghost Stories for Christmas. With some modern extras, it is made up of the M.R. James adaptations that were a feature of the festive season in the 1970s.

I had not summoned up the courage to watch any of them, so when Christmas Eve came along I thought it was time to be a man. I watched Lost Hearts from 1973, reasoning that it must be 40 years to the day since I saw it last - and also that, as I had survived it at the age of 13, I ought to be able to cope with it now.

It turns out, in fact, that it was shown on Christmas Day that year (as Slade gloried in their victory over Wizzard) - a mark of just how important these ghost stories were back in the day.

Lost Hearts was the second ghost story M.R. James wrote and it is not typical of his style. Forget the uncanny figures seen at the corner of our vision: the ghosts here are seen in the noonday sun. They appear in the first minute of the TV adaptation, which is entirely true to the spirit of the story.

As the director Lawrence Gordon Clark said in his interview with Mark Gatiss, James gives you wonderful scope for filming English landscapes and English buildings. And he took full advantage of it: I would love to know where he found the cupula, with its stained glass roof and wary cherubs.

Like all good boxed sets, this one has an accompanying booklet. In it, says Cathode Ray Tube, Gordon 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'.
Well, maybe. But the boy in the story, Stephen, has been taken in by an elderly distant cousin who consumes children's hearts in an attempt to win immortal life for himself. It is hard not to see child abuse as one of the subjects of the story and adaptation.

The cousin is played with prancing glee by Joseph O'Conor. He was Mr Brownlow in the film of Oliver! and thus provides an interesting piece of intertextuality and a reminder that elderly bachelors may not be as benevolent as Dickens liked to hope.

Stephen was played by Simon Gipps-Kent, a child actor who was everywhere in the 1970s and died from what sounds like a drugs overdose in 1987 at the age of 28,. Yet a site devoted to his career is struggling to find out much about his life or death. That is spooky too.

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