“Hello! Below there!”
In 1971, the BBC decreed that they would broadcast a ghost story every Christmas Eve. These disturbing tales ran every year for eight years before being occasionally revived on BBC4 in 2005. Most of these films are adaptations of M.R. James stories. James, of course, is the archetypal British ghost story writer but he was certainly influenced by the pen of one Charles Dickens.
Dickens most famous ghost story was something called A Christmas Carol but he did many others over his distinguished career. The Signalman is the bone chilling tale of a railway signal controller who is haunted by a ghostly apparition that whispers to him of terrible tragedies and fatal accidents. I don’t know much about Dicken’s version but this BBC adaptation is timeless, macabre and chilling and it contains a pair of cracking performances from Denholm Elliott and Bernard Lloyd.
Elliott is tortured and unstable as the unfortunate signalman but it is Lloyd who ensures that an opening half an hour in which nothing much happens remains atmospheric and frightening. The story unfolds in ghastly fashion as we crawl to an unforgettable conclusion.
It’s interesting that there is such a tangible link between trains and the occult. No other form of transport can boast such a supernatural bond, with the idea of a ghost train dominating popular culture for decades now. There certainly is something creepy about the idea of a runaway train hurtling around the British countryside in the witching hour and The Signalman exploits this idea while also helping to propagate it.
The Signalman is generally considered to be the best of the BBC’s ghost stories and it is certainly a must watch for anyone who likes their horror to be a little more subtle. After all, a ghost story is for life, not just for Christmas.