Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Festive Frights On BBC2 - Part Two

Alongside the Hammer horrors, BBC2 also produced two brand new chillers for our entertainment over Christmas....

You have to love Mark Gatiss, a supremely talented bugger, he endeavours to single handedly or collaboratively bring back all that was good in the tradition of television; Doctor Who, Sherlock and now the Ghost Story for Christmas - an adaptation of MR James' The Tractate Middoth for BBC2 Christmas Day.

In truth it's not the first time Gatiss has tried to resurrect the Ghost Story For Christmas formula, having previously given us The Crooked House, a story of his own devising, for BBC4 a few years ago. But its perhaps this adaptation that hopefully brings it back to the fore, given that it was also granted a companion piece; a documentary about MR James hosted by Gatiss immediately after he'd scared the bejesus out of us.

The Tractate Middoth is a rich and suitably chilling story for a late Christmas evening, with only the tree lights and the fireside flickering and a glass of something by your side. I don't normally consider myself fearful of spiders (unlike James himself, a notorious arachnophobe) but I had quite a clammy frisson of fear for the arachnid watching this  and shudder at the thought of one crossing my face now! Likewise dust motes, something so ordinary can cause a chill here. 

It's a reverential and well drawn adaptation in Gatiss' scriptwriting and directorial hands. The casting is strong with Sacha Dhawan in the central role whilst his fellow young players include Nicholas Burns and Charlie Clemmow, but its perhaps in the casting of the more mature roles that Gatiss not only excels but betrays his love of nostalgia; Roy Barraclough gives the piece some comic relief, as does Una Stubbs (previously employed by Gatiss for Sherlock) whilst 70s classical actor hunk John Castle, the divine Eleanor Bron, David Ryall (playing the very definition of a wicked old bugger) and Louise Jameson (70s Doctor Who companion, The Omega Factor and Bergerac star - a clear favourite of Gatiss) all grandly fill out the rest of the cast. For the record Jameson's striking ice blue eyes still look amazing and even better in HD.

It's a simple story well told that maintains the tradition of less is more when it comes to scares. The last scene featuring Castle for example bears all the hallmarks of the classic 70s ghost story adaptations.

Well we were rather promised 'A Ghost Story at Christmas' with The Tractate Middoth but, good though that was, it was the second new chilly offering from BBC2, The Thirteenth Tale (based on the novel by Diane Setterfield) that trumped it entirely.

An utterly engrossing atmospheric Gothic and psychological chiller, The Thirteenth Tale pitted two glorious actresses together; Vanessa Redgrave, whose brittle frail elder stateswoman was perfect to embody the cancer ridden and mysterious writer Vida Winter, and Olivia Colman, the national treasure at the height of her powers as Margaret Lea, her inquisitive biographer summoned to the Moors to hear Vida's life story - a life story that was strange, chilling and full of twists and turns. Both gave brilliant performances that made it impossible to tear your eyes from the screen. Likewise, the film's flashback narrative was also populated by great actors  like Robert Pugh, Tom Goodman-Hill, Alexandra Roach, Sophie Turner and Antonia Clarke and indeed, the most harshly horrific moments occur here.

The narrative itself was slow moving, allowing the actors to tell the story and sinuously grip a hold of you, pulling you like quicksand into the dark atmosphere and enveloping you totally in the prickly unflinching mystery and scares.

An eerie story of grief, jealousy, incest, murder and the peculiar dynamic of twins, The Thirteenth Tale was tense, harsh and often almost too unsettling and unhappy to bear. Never a comfortable watch, it was damn entertaining nonetheless. If I had to pick holes, it was perhaps inevitable that the required rationality of the final act made it far less compelling than all the suspense and mystery that came before it, but that's just a minor quibble concerning one of the season's TV highlights.

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