The Wednesday Play: A Ghost Story for Christmas – The Stalls of Barchester (1971)

This year's Ghost Story For Christmas

It’s not quite 45 years since The Stalls of Barchester was first broadcast, as it aired on Christmas Eve 1971, but this is close enough and since when have I ever run TMINE’s The Wednesday Play feature on a day other than a Wednesday, hey?

The Stalls of Barchester was an adaptation of master ghost story writer MR James’ short story of the same name. It sees 1930s scholar Clive Swift uncovering a box in the library of Barchester Cathedral that contains the diary of the cathedral’s former archdeacon (Robert Hardy). Swift is able to work out from the diary that Hardy caused the death of his own predecessor at the cathedral and resultingly came under the curse of the man who made the wooden decorations for the cathedral’s stalls – a curse that ultimately leads to his own death…

Stalls was the first official entry in the annual 1970s BBC play strand, A Ghost Story for Christmas. It was adapted, produced and directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, who had seen Jonathan Miller’s 1968 adaptation of James’ Whistle and I’ll Come To You and being a lifelong fan of the author, pitched the idea of another adaptation to Paul Fox, the then controller of BBC1. Fox agreed and Clark chose Stalls to be the first in a series he would produce, as well as largely write and direct. 

The slightly novice and unconfident Clark chose to follow many of Miller’s choices with Stalls, including building up tension and fear through suggestion and atmosphere rather than being overt, and shooting on location (Norwich Cathedral doubles for Barchester) using 16mm film rather than video; he even hired Warning‘s Ambrose Coghill to play the curator. Unlike Miller, however, he was able to shoot in colour – and rather tastefully, too, unlike many video-shot shows of the early 70s. He also reveals a bit more of the supernatural than James ever did in his story and despite a cast of actors known mostly for their roles in sitcoms, avoids the humour that Miller included in his piece. 

With no fixed run time thanks the scheduled late night time slot, Stalls was able to run to 50 minutes and proved so successful that Clark was able to make an annual return to James’ stories for most of the decade.

And it’s your Wednesday Play – enjoy!

PS Remember: if you like it, support the makers (ie the BBC) by buying it on DVD