Halloween Gems: The Signalman (1976)

Denholm Elliott in The Signalman

A slight departure from the normal Thursday Lost Gem/Weird Old Title Sequence in that today’s installment is available on DVD and YouTube (I’ve embedded it below for you). But because it’s so awesome and because it’s Halloween on Sunday, I thought I’d break all the rules and cover it today anyway.

As I mentioned when I covered The Ice House in Lost Gems, back in the 70s the BBC traditionally made a ghost story each Christmas: it’s a tradition BBC4 revived recently and now BBC4 controller Janice Hadlow has moved to BBC2, guess which channel is going to be airing a new adaptation of A Warning to the Curious with John Hurt this Christmas.

As with this year’s ghost story, the Christmas ghost story was usually an adaptation of one of MR James’s. However, on rare occasions, the BBC would turn to different authors for ghost stories. In 1976, they turned to Charles Dickens and his short story The Signalman and got the young Andrew Davies to adapt it for them.

Starring Denholm Elliott as the eponymous signalman, it sees a traveller (Bernard Lloyd) come across his signal box and strike up conversation with him. It turns out that the signalman has been haunted by a ghostly vision that offers what might be a warning or even a greeting – but every time he sees it, a terrible accident soon occurs.

It’s a masterful piece of work, with a great atmosphere, great acting and a wonderful ear for 19th century language. It’s also bloody frightening. So if you’ve 40 minutes or so to spare, turn off your lights, gather around the screen and enjoy The Signalman.