This article contains minor spoilers.
It has taken a while for the traditional BBC ghost story to make a fully formed return in the 21st century. This is surprising considering the popularity of the return of other genre television traditions from Doctor Who to Battlestar Galactica, but the singular ghost story at Christmas has taken some time to get right. Before this recent M.R. James adaption by Mark Gatiss, the form had had a number of false starts. From two average James adaptations in 2005 and 2006, a Christopher Lee mini-series and an unwise remake of Whistle and I’ll Come To You, it seems that now is the time to get it right.
This was not only Gatiss’ first attempt at adapting James but also his first stint as director. In contrast to the other slices genre television on at Christmas (including the monumentally awful episode of Doctor Who) The Tractate Middoth got the tone of James’ original story and the atmosphere of the time of year pitch-perfect. Gatiss has always been one for wearing influences proudly and an M.R. James adaptation is one form where this is almost necessary to get it right; in the words of Lawrence Gordon Clark: “expand it (James) at your peril”.
For a program a mere thirty minutes long, The Tractate Middoth has a lot of ground to cover. It has to introduce several characters quickly and, more importantly, show their basic drives. This is essential to James’ style of storytelling as it is often these drives and traits that get them into trouble and set about the ghostly happenings. Here, Gatiss introduces various strands of a distant family; an uncle and his niece and nephew. The uncle is a vile creature, in fact so vile as to live on in a more apt form; that of a rotting spectre. His will is a puzzle, left to the niece and nephew on his deathbed. They must find it from various clues but only one can inherit: whoever finds it first.
On a separate strand, we find ourselves in a beautifully dusty library. James’ love and almost self-projection within his obsession of the scholarly and the antiquarian are present in the original prose and Gatiss’ adaptation. This comes in the form of the library that houses the mysterious book that hides the will and the poor librarian drawn into the intrigue by being sent to find it. The Tractate Middoth works well in this sense as a straight period drama; a quest to find a will in an older Britain. Of course, this is the England of James so no object of desire is going to be quite so simple to acquire.
Like all of the best James adaptations, Gatiss mixes the rustic browns of old books and wood panelled rooms with the refreshing but eerily open English countryside. This has been the norm since James first made his way the screen (at least in what we know survives) in Jonathan Miller’s and Lawrence Gordon Clark’s adaptations. One new aspect that Gatiss does bring out in his adaptation though is his beautiful use of dust. It’s as Jamesian a presence as a clawed hand with rough, black hair on it, but has yet to make a televisual appearance until now. The strange visual of light behind small particles of dust becomes a precursor to the presence of the story’s ghost; its movement being as equally light and unknown.
And then of course, like any great ghost story, the crux of The Tractate Middoth comes down to Gatiss’ realisation of the fiend. Gatiss’ horror cinema vocabulary shows in his innovative methods of displaying a haunting. Its appearances stops sound short, creating an uncomfortable silence as it moves slowly towards its various goal. Its design harks back to Gordon Clark’s The Signalman; a gaunt, hollow skull, trapped by a layer of tight skin, locked in a moment that seems a mixture of a laugh and a scream.
Gatiss knows which of the classic adaptations work best but, perhaps more importantly, knows where their potential shortcomings were too. His ghost was not to be seen running, or even barely moving unlike some of its predecessors. It also remains ambiguous as to whether the hauntings are dreams or reality. This was an aspect that sometimes hinted at paranoia on the part of the original adapters but, here, Gatiss is rightly sensible to keep it ambiguous, even if the viewer knows that there is something horrific afoot.
To follow this with a long overdue (and far more detailed) documentary on James was almost spoiling the viewer. It was filled with wonderful interviews, anecdotes and scenery, particularly those of James’ cycling routes which seem to have been an essential influence on his writing. Perhaps best of all, Gatiss’ M.R. James double bill has surely proved to the BBC that there is much potential still to be found in both James’ work and the concept of the ghost story at Christmas. Here’s hoping for many more to come.