Nostalgia corner: Casting The Runes (1979)

The one that nearly got away

Casting The Runes

Since we’ve been talking a bit about the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas this week, it seems appropriate to have a look at ‘the one that (almost) got away’: ITV Playhouse‘s adaptation of MR James’ Casting The Runes.

Virtually all the BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas were adaptations of short stories by James. Only 1976’s The Signalman, written by Charles Dickens; 1977’s Stigma, written by Clive Exton; and 1978’s The Ice House, by John Bowen, deviated from this tradition. However, this wasn’t because the producers had run out James stories to adapt – far from it, since BBC4 went on to adapt James’ View From A Hill and Number 13 in 2005 and 2006 respectively.

In fact, just as the BBC was winding up its annual Ghost Stories for Christmas, ITV’s ITV Playhouse anthology series chose to get two of its rival’s contributors, writer Clive Exton and director Lawrence Gordon Clark, to adapt James’s Casting The Runes. This wasn’t the first time ITV had adapted James or even Casting The Runes: there had been four black-and-white productions made of James stories between 1966 and 1968, including Casting The Runes, which have now been virtually lost (although some parts do remain of the adaptation of Casting The Runes), and it had adapted Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance for schools in 1975. But unlike those previous adaptations and those of the BBC, which had all been period pieces, this was a modernisation and extension of James’ original story.

Starring Just Good Friends‘ Jan Francis and Children of the Stones‘ Iain Cuthbertson, Casting The Runes took James’ tale of a covert, supernatural battle between a man and an outraged mage who’d received a bad review from him and transposed it to a modern day conflict between a TV journalist (Francis) and a notorious self-styled Aleister Crowley-like figure (Cutherbertson), outraged at being mocked by one of her documentaries.

Most of the features of the original story remain, from the Satanic curse secretly passed to Francis when she least expects it to the demise of a previous critic thanks to the curse a few years earlier, although the narrative is more linear and more eventful than James’ original. While lacking the quiet, haunting atmosphere of the BBC adaptations that perhaps only age, the empty countryside and a lack of people can bring, the ITV Playhouse version overcomes this by effectively using visual and sound effects – although Cutherbertson’s costuming and performance add an element of unwanted comedy to the proceedings.

Strangely, despite ITV Playhouse running for another five years, there were no more adaptations of James’s stories by the series – or by any other series – until Janice Hadlow revived the format for BBC4 and continued it once she moved to BBC2. Hopefully, now that BBC4’s drama budget is being handed over to BBC2, we’ll get another one this year.

If not, as in 1978, there’s now a golden opportunity for ITV to revive the tradition. Are you listening, Peter Fincham?

The full thing’s not available on YouTube, although Network DVD have very kindly released it on DVD (as a bonus, you get that adaptation of Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance as well), but here’s a trailer for it:




  • SK

    I must confess I've never found these particularly successful: there just seems something about the atmosphere-heavy, plot-light nature of James stories that just doesn't lend itself well to the screen. And it's not just the desire of drama for constant conflict and emotional movement, when James works best in utter stillness (from that point of view Casting The Runes is the most adaptable of James's stories, being the only one with an actual plot as opposed to just a build-up and then an event) but something, I think, inherent to the visual medium which just works against James's style.

    They say a picture is worth a thousand words; but the problem is that it dumps those thousand words on you all at once, like a pail of water over the head, whereas James can draw out the description of a single hand as a drip-drip-drip of terror (why yes, I have never quite recovered from reading Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book, why do you ask?). The pace of your reading is matched to the character's dawning realisation of their situation in a way that can simply never be replicated by visual presentation.

    This September, though, that guy who goes around the country reading M.R. James stories as James is coming to the Leper Chapel. That's going to be wonderfully chilling, oh yes.

  • I know what you mean and my favourite of the BBC's adaptations is actually The Signalman. But I think you're usually at least semi-effective, if you can suspend your disbelief wrt some of the effects used for the 'monsters'.