The Stalls of Barchester (1971) The Stalls of Barchester (1971) ***

     The British tradition of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve seems strange to most Americans, but it really shouldn’t. After all, plenty of Christmas traditions were ported over from one pagan European Winter Solstice festival or another, and plenty of the continent’s pre-Christian cultures plausibly considered the longest night of the year to be also the most haunted. It was just our rotten luck that our country’s cultural foundations got laid at a time when the Puritans, with their special hate-boner for Christmas and their determination to extirpate all the cool, fun pagan bits from holidays in general, were at the apex of their power and influence. We had to rebuild Christmas practically from the ground up in the 19th century, and for whatever reason, we left that piece out— with the sole, curious exception of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

     Ebenezer Scrooge was by no means the only Victorian Englishman being visited by specters at Christmas, however, and that brings us to a clergyman’s son by the name of Montague Rhodes James. Although M.R. James somewhat disappointed his father by never taking Holy Orders, his career was impressive enough by any other standard. After completing his education at the University of Cambridge, he stayed on at King’s College, rising from fellow to provost between 1887 and 1905. He became vice-chancellor of the whole university in 1913, then scaled back his commitments five years later by accepting the provost’s position at Eton College, which he had also attended before moving on to Cambridge. Along the way, he made himself one of Britain’s foremost authorities on Medieval manuscripts, church history, and ecclesiastical architecture, and at least one of his translations (a Latin hagiography of Saint Ethelbert the King) remains the standard version in English more than a hundred years later. But the main reason why people still remember M.R. James today is because he also kept up a nearly lifelong hobby of writing ghost stories to read aloud at his institutions’ faculty Christmas parties.

     Truth be told, to call those tales “ghost stories” is to sell them considerably short, because only a handful of them concern any supernatural manifestation as ordinary as the returning spirits of dead human beings. Instead, James’s spook stories are populated by guardian daemons, avengers and assassins from Hell, uncanny artworks that reenact forgotten crimes, and the occasional witch’s curse. And when James was in a really weird mood, he was apt to roll up with some wild-ass thing like a hotel room that comes back from being renovated out of existence or a pair of necromantic binoculars that enable the user to see through time. Conservative though he was in both attitudes and temperament, James was a trendsetting innovator in the field of giving people the creeps. And because they were mainly written to be told at Christmastime, his stories have continued to be associated with the season in his homeland, even though only one of them that I can recall has any specific holiday connections in its subject matter. James was therefore perhaps the second-most obvious choice (after Dickens) to provide source material when the BBC inaugurated “A Ghost Story for Christmas,” an annual series of what American viewers would think of as holiday specials celebrating the macabre side of the season. The majority of these mini-telefilms were much too short to pass muster under my “features only” rule, clocking in at roughly half an hour each. But the first two installments— 1971’s The Stalls of Barchester and 1972’s A Warning to the Curious— ran just barely long enough to qualify, especially if I mentally insert the commercial breaks with which they would have been saddled had they ever played on American TV. I’m strongly motivated to cheat a bit on their behalf, too, since the movie industry has afforded me so few other opportunities to engage with M.R. James onscreen.

     The Barchester of the title is a fictitious town apparently borrowed from Anthony Trollope, while its stalls are the ornamented wooden enclosures in the choir section of the town cathedral where the ecclesiastical personnel sit during services. The choir stalls in Barchester’s Cathedral are noteworthy in particular for being covered all over with allegorical carvings depicting virtues and their rewards, sins and their punishments, figures from the Bible and early church, and heaven knows what else. Hell knows what else, too, as we shall see thanks to the investigations of a scholar named Dr. Black (Clive Swift, of Excalibur and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde), who comes to catalog the cathedral’s manuscript collection one morning in November of 1932. At first it seems that the cathedral library contains nothing of any interest whatsoever despite the considerable volume of its holdings, but then the librarian (An American Werewolf of London’s Will Leighton) pulls out an old trunk, the contents of which the previous dean of the library had been weirdly adamant about never letting anyone see. Inside the trunk are the personal papers of a certain Dr. Haynes (to be played in the flashbacks that comprise the bulk of the film by Robert Hardy, from Gawain and the Green Knight and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets), who served Barchester Cathedral from 1872 to 1894, first as a junior deacon and eventually as archdeacon, and who turns out to have been a naughty boy indeed.

     Haynes had thought he was being clever by accepting the junior deaconry at Barchester. Archdeacon Pultney (Harold Barrett, from The Ups and Downs of a Handyman and The Young Playmates) was more than 80 years old, and surely wouldn’t last much longer in the position. Just the place for an ambitious clergyman like Haynes to rise rapidly through the ranks, right? As it happened, however, old Pultney lived to the ripe old age— indeed overripe, so far as his would-be successor was concerned— of 92, and held onto his office to the very end. He’d probably have stuck it out even longer, too, had it not been for a curious accident. You see, one of the stair rods (the weighted iron bars laid at the far back edge of each riser to prevent the carpet runner from skidding on the polished oaken surface of the steps) on the main staircase in the archdeacon’s residence went unaccountably missing one night, and Pultney took a fatal header on his way down. A sad turn of events, naturally, but hardly the first or last time an exceedingly old man ever had a deadly mishap on a staircase. Black notices two things, however, that throw a rather different light on the incident. First, the cathedral account books start showing modest but cumulatively substantial payments to an otherwise unidentified “J.L.” with no record of any reason behind them. Then Black stumbles upon a letter to Haynes from Jane Lee (Penny Service), Dr. Pultney’s maid, whom Haynes let go in favor of his spinster sister, Letitia (Thelma Barlow), when he took over the archdeaconry. There’s no way it’s anything but a blackmail letter, and both the visiting scholar and the cathedral librarian reasonably take Haynes’s quick and evidently uncomplaining acquiescence as tantamount to an admission of guilt.

     Soon thereafter, the new archdeacon’s diary takes a turn for the bizarre. It begins recording disembodied voices heard in the middle of the night— usually seeming to originate on or near the stairs where Pultney fell to his death— and strange moving shadows, as if phantom animals were somehow running loose in the house. More peculiar still, the diary reports an incident in the cathedral itself, in which Haynes laid his hand on the carving of a cat that adorned one of the armrests in his stall, and seemed to feel it come alive under his touch. From that day on, or so Haynes wrote in his journal, the furtive shadows skulking about the archdeacon’s residence by night increasingly took on the appearance of an unusually large black cat. Even some of Haynes’s visitors remarked upon the cat during this period, although his manservant (David Pugh, of Burke and Hare and The Love Pill) claimed to have acquired no such animal. Subsequently, a chat with the verger (Martin Hoyle) established that the carvings on the archdeacon’s stall were not contemporary with those in the rest of the cathedral. At some point in the 17th century, that stall was damaged by fire, and its appurtenances replaced by a local artisan named John Austen— known to his neighbors by the curious nickname “Austen the Twice-Born.” Word in the village had it that this fellow was gifted with a bit of second sight. As for the wood itself, that came from the oaks in a marshy grove to which superstitions much older than Christianity attributed a variety mystical influences both benevolent and malign. A troubling bit of intel to receive about the origin of a sculpture that seems to be supernaturally persecuting one, I’m sure you’ll agree. But that being so, what should really have troubled Haynes was what Austen the Twice-Born carved on his other armrest: a wee little bust of the Grim Reaper.

     If I had to guess at what makes M.R. James so counterintuitively unappealing to screenplay and teleplay adaptors, I’d probably blame his historian’s approach to story construction. More often than not the viewpoint character in his stories is not the protagonist in any normal sense, but rather a researcher who uncovers some weird thing that happened generations before he was born, and who parcels out bits of the narrative around that weird thing as he gathers the various documentary and archeological clues pertaining to it. Furthermore, a James narrator is apt to be describing something that he discovered long ago in his own career, adding yet another layer of temporal distance. Obviously there can be little urgency involved when somebody tells you about the time 30 years ago when they stumbled upon evidence of a supernatural occurrence 150 years before that while rummaging through the archives of some rinky-dink church in Bollockthorpe-on-Piddle. Writer/director/producer Lawrence Gordon Clark was therefore taking a real chance by structuring The Stalls of Barchester in such an authentically Jamesian manner, with all the original distancing effects intact. And Paul Fox, the controller of BBC1 during the early 1970’s, is to be commended for supporting Clark’s gamble.

     The gamble mostly pays off, although I’m not totally convinced that scrapping the framing story with Dr. Black and the pompous librarian wouldn’t have paid off even better. If quietly, unobtrusively spooky is your preferred mode of horror, The Stalls of Barchester should scratch that itch effectively enough. Though the film attempts few scares in the “Boogabooga!” sense of the term (and tends to come up short when it does), it’s very good indeed at generating mounting unease. Its settings are the kinds of places where the candlelight never seems to reach quite as far as you’d like, where shadows take on an opacity that verges uncomfortably on physical substance. Its supernatural manifestations are all the more disconcerting because it’s never entirely clear what they’re actually supposed to be, let alone what their capabilities are. The movie’s best trick is to follow something alarming, menacing, or just plain weird with some remark by a character not involved in the incident, which retroactively makes it seem even worse. Like it’s an eerie coincidence when a cat almost trips you down the same stairs that you once rigged to produce a deadly accident, but something else again if after that happens, the butler confirms that you don’t have a cat. It’s disturbing enough for the carvings on your choir stall to come fleetingly alive at your touch, but considerably more so to learn thereafter that a psychic sculpted the ornaments in question out of wood from a tree that was long reputed to have magical properties. That’s a genuine James technique, so I’m pleased to see that it works so well on film. Similarly true to the source is Clark’s willingness to lay all the pieces out without actually assembling them. For instance, at no point is it ever directly stated that Haynes removed Pultney’s stair rod. Clark just shows us a bunch of circumstantial evidence pointing in that direction, and trusts us to recognize that the ghosts (or whatever they are) surely aren’t just persecuting the younger archdeacon without cause. There’s even one undeniable advantage to spending so much time in the cathedral library with Dr. Black 38 years after the end of the real story, insofar as it would otherwise be difficult to work in a final revelation about Austen the Twice-Born’s carvings that turns The Stalls of Barchester into an unsettling meditation on inevitability— a bit like a gothic forerunner of The Terminator. It’s interesting to see that the 70’s were an uncommonly good decade for horror on television in the UK, too.



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