The Aural Aesthetics of Ghosts in BBC Ghost Stories – Part 6 (Excavation).

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5.

Human Interaction With The Landscape And Its Soundscape.

“The wind was bitter from the north, but was at his back when he set out for the Globe.  He quickly rattled and clashed through the shingle and gained the sand, upon which, but for the groynes which had to be got over every few yards, the going was both good and quiet.” James – (p.129, 1931).

One of the most Jamesian of traits is to have characters interact with the rural landscape; their eventual haunting being a result of their curiosity and academic pursuit of something hidden under its earth.  In all of the M.R. James adaptations by both Miller and Clark, the spirits and their objects have all in some way come from under the ground.  The physical act of this tense unearthing in his narratives is given a stark emphasis that usually shows the male character’s desire and greed gradually overtaking their sense of personal worry and instinct towards danger.  From the whistle in Whistle and I’ll Come To You, the crown in A Warning To The Curious, and the gold in The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, the ground is often the last barrier between the character and their ghost.  The human interaction with the landscape is often an aurally striking moment in these narratives.  Take, for example, the segment that opened this section from the original story of Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad.  As a writer, James took pleasure in setting up an aural contrast within the human interaction with the landscape as Parkins “rattled and clashed” his way along the coastline even though the going was “good and quiet” (1931).

This sense of interaction with the ground and the environment has several aural possibilities, sometimes given great thematic emphasis in the stories but other times simply taken for granted.  Miller’s take on this relationship is extremely effective and it is not surprising considering his film has no music to fill in the gaps.  Parkins’ relationship with the ground is not strictly in the sense of the previously mentioned examples.  Instead, Miller opts to portray a different side to Parkins’ relationship; heightening his solitude by bringing out the sounds of his footsteps on the ground.  This aural anticipation of the character’s isolation is an off-shoot of the previous section’s idea with the use of wind, but the effect is thematically tied with other Jamesian characteristics too.  Newman described James’ stories as “…crescendos of terror…” but for that description to work, the drama and aural soundscape must begin somewhere subtle (p.440, 2011).  The sounds of isolating interaction with the environment are the perfect beginning for a narrative to build upon this aurally.

When discussing what he plans to do on his holiday with another guest, Parkins states that he is going for a good “trudge”.  As soon as he utters the word, Miller cuts to this action with a ground-level camera capturing Parkins’ first “trudge” on a beach.  This is the first of a number of aural elements that increase Parkins’ solitary state.  The sound of his footsteps on the sandy and shingly beaches are lonely sounds but also sounds that imply the presence of a single person.  When he first sees a strange figure in the distance, the sound of his footsteps suggests the uncanny; in other words, there is a clash between the visual and aural with one suggesting the presence of two people while the other is presenting only one.  This relationship is reversed completely in the film’s dream sequence when Parkins’ footsteps are no longer heard at all in spite of running heavily and in panic along the beach.  Though this is because it is a dream, it suggests that Parkins’ own identity is a potential source of the ghostly encounter itself, with the absence of sound hinting that he is dreaming the ghost into existence of his own accord.

In Clark’s films, this relationship with the ground is more simplistic but also effective.  Paxton’s story in A Warning To The Curious is split up by two separate digs into the earth: one where he initially finds the crown and the other when he desperately puts it back.  Fisher argues that in the BBC adaptations, this relationship and all of its aesthetic traits became the main focus of drama, stating:  “But when the BBC adapted these stories, the films became about the relationship between the Inorganic Demon and the East Anglian landscape from which it is unearthed.” (p.2, 2012).  He is correct though James’ original stories often obsessed over the idea of treasure hunts as well.  Ager’s catchphrase for the story is of course “No Diggin’ Here!” (1972).  This film in particular makes use of the sound of digging, the falling away of brittle ground, and the clink of trowel on treasure.  Farquhar sums up the more terrifying moments of the film and how its most effective moments are built around this relationship:

“When moments of fear come, they are particularly fiendish; the overnight excavation at the spot where the crown is buried is brilliantly eerie, but the most explicit moment of shock – in which the ghost of William Ager returns to snatch back the crown – works because of Clark’s mastery of minimalism: after we are plunged into darkness, a torchbeam roams around the room accompanied by frightening sound effects, finally settling on a figure lying face down on the floor in a dirty black overcoat.” (p.20, 2012).

When Clark eventually allows the clink of metal to occur, it seals the character’s fate and, though it is not as definitive as this reading suggests, with hindsight it is the shifting moment in the film.  For, once this sound is made and Paxton has touched the crown, Ager’s ghost no longer simply follows him about but physically chases him through the woods, onto the beach, and all of the way back to his hotel where he claws violently at the locked suitcase in which he stores it.

Easterbrook states the following:

“Shot on 16mm colour film by the technically gifted John McGlashan and featuring a chilling and effective soundtrack recorded by Dick Manton, a sense of isolation is integral to Clark’s adaptation of ‘A Warning to the Curious’; the eerie loneliness of the Norfolk coast, a part of England then, as now, far from the modern world and its sodium-lit scepticism.” (p.8, 2012).

It is clear that critical appreciation of the work often leans towards both its visual and aural aesthetics though rarely do writers go into the detail of why.  Clark’s film, with its subtle narrative direction change, marked by the sound of interaction with the landscape recorded by Manton, is almost unconsciously effective.  Farquhar suggests why this is so, arguing that “Warning is the most poetic of the films, revelling in its awkward, unsettling dialogue and obsessed by its environment more than any other instalments.” (p.19, 2012). While it is clear that Miller’s Whistle is actually more obsessed with the environment, it would be correct in stating that Warning is more obsessed with the interaction with the environment.


Clark’s relationship with this aural ideal speaks of a desire for a realist sound-design more so than a thematic tie-in to the original stories’ themes.  Earsnshaw recalls Manton’s recollection of working on the film which speaks volumes of the direction of this soundscape:

“Dick Manton remembered Clark as encouraging, optimistic, inspirational and highly creative.  “Lawrence wasn’t a dogmatic director”, said Manton.  “He gave you a bit of freedom.  He was always interested to listen and to see if there was an alternative way of looking at something.  Not only was he good creatively but he was a nice chap to be around and that made for a happy set…  Lawrence was always interested in ideas, eager to get not just the visuals but also the soundscape right.  That very often can drive the audience’s emotional reaction towards the images they see – to steer them in the right direction of the narrative….  Not only did they work well visually but they gave me a chance to work on a relatively quiet ambient sound level and create subtleties which would have been lost in a more noisy environment.”” (p.11, 2013).

The natural diegetic sound of these films could indeed simply be there to “set the scene” and create an aural geography in order to fully realise the stories’ setting.  Yet, for work based on such layered fictions, it is not improbable to provide such readings of these aural worlds in relation to their role within the narrative.  They may be aspects often taken for granted but, aptly, the things in James’ stories that often are ignored, usually return to enact their will upon the unsuspecting victim; whether they be a fusty antiquarian or a casual viewer.


Part 7.

Adam Scovell.

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