English - Favourite haunts

14th December 2012 at 00:00
A festive set of ghost stories supplies spectral stimulus

The British Film Institute (BFI) has come up with the perfect Christmas gift for English teachers - a complete collection of the BBC's Ghost Stories for Christmas, originally broadcast in the 1970s and now available as a DVD boxed set. Each film is the ideal length for a lesson and opens up the delights of such Victorian and Edwardian classics as Charles Dickens' The Signal-Man and M.R.James' The Treasure of Abbot Thomas and A Warning to the Curious (pictured above).

It might seem sacrilegious to suggest it, but at their best these adaptations actually improve on their literary originals. In A Warning to the Curious, for example, the protagonist Paxton is something of a cipher. But in the 1972 Lawrence Gordon Clark screen version he has an entirely convincing and sympathetic back story, hinting at recent unemployment and a deep resentment of those born to receive a better education than he.

The character's single-minded pursuit of a buried Anglo-Saxon crown - in spite of nasty supernatural warnings to desist - therefore makes psychological sense and provides a great lesson to pupils about character motivation in supernatural fiction.

Another hugely satisfying addition comes in John Bowen's 1974 adaptation of The Treasure of Abbot Thomas. The Reverend Justin Somerton's fall from lofty, rational superiority to deceitful money-grubbing treasure-hunting is depicted as an actual descent into the abyss - or a medieval culvert or drain - from which he emerges begrimed and inexorably pursued by the "thing of slime" set to guard the secreted riches. No key stage 3 or 4 class I have taught using this film has failed to spot the significance of this incident. The production provides a great lesson in subtext and symbolism.

A greater challenge, which the films manage with varying degrees of success, lies in depicting James' brilliantly suggestive descriptions of the supernatural. The adaptations are at their best in suggesting the slow but unavoidable intrusion of the ghostly into the protagonists' everyday world - although the close-up shots never succeed in capturing his vivid prose.

The films boast some great extras, including interviews with James enthusiasts such as director Sir Jonathan Miller and educationalist Sir Christopher Frayling, and a dramatic reconstruction of the original telling of A Warning to the Curious with Christopher Lee as James.

But in the end they drive you back to the original tales, which are challenging for many of today's young readers but made massively more accessible by the welcome rerelease of these BBC adaptations.

Freelance writer and teacher Jerome Monahan is currently updating the education resources for three of the Ghost Stories for Christmas. The new free material is due to appear early in the new year on the BFI education resources micro-site: bit.lyVjRxCp.


Ghost Stories for Christmas: The definitive collection is available from the BFI film store. bit.lybfiGhosts

Encourage pupils to write their own ghoulish tales, with TESEnglish's creative writing pack. bit.lyGhoulishTales

Help pupils with their story-writing with Louisa28's ghost story starters. bit.lyGhostStoryStarters.

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