A Ghost Story For Christmas (For Children)

Ghost In The Water (BBC1, 1982).

From Whistle And I’ll Come To You in 1968 through to The Ice House in 1978, the BBC produced nine celebrated seasonal spooky one-off plays under the banner title A Ghost Story For Christmas. Primarily based on the works of M.R. James and largely retaining the Victorian period setting, the adaptations attracted distinguished casts and were directed with chillingly atmospheric flair. Rarely repeated for many years, they became the subject of significant enthusiasm and fascination, and were a notable influence on the likes of The League Of Gentlemen and Derren Brown; indeed, Mark Gatiss has been closely involved with a more recent revival of the strand, while Ghost Stories, a play and subsequent film written by Brown’s frequent collaborator Andy Nyman, was affectionately informed by the stylings of A Ghost Story For Christmas. What is rarely remembered now, however, was that for a couple of years, Children’s BBC attempted to get in on the act.

1980’s The Bells Of Astercote and Ghost In The Water from 1982 probably escaped the attention of most followers of the more adult adaptations, but they certainly did not escape the attention of younger viewers, many of whom would recount the plot details in literally haunted tones for weeks afterwards. Far removed from the general – and not entirely undeserved – reputation of BBC children’s drama at the time, they are surprisingly bleak and adult efforts that both helped pave the way for the direction that the department’s productions would take in the coming decade and deserve to be celebrated alongside the likes of The Signalman and Lost Hearts. They both stand up very well even now and the sheer number of websites referencing one or both plays is testament to the effect that they had on their intended audience at the time.

This look back at The Bells Of Astercote and Ghost In The Water was originally written to accompany a feature on the more well-known similarly inclined children’s serials that the BBC used to broadcast in the run-up to Christmas – notably The Box Of Delights and The Enchanted Castle – which you can find here; a longer detailed history of the strand including both of the standalone plays subsequently found its way into my collection of columns and features Well At Least It’s Free, which is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

Between 1971 and 1978, it was something of a tradition for BBC1 to scare festive viewers out of their wits with A Ghost Story For Christmas. Inspired by Jonathan Miller’s superlative 1968 adaptation of Whistle And I’ll Come To You, these were chillingly atmospheric and painstakingly realised short films, primarily directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark and mostly drawn from the works of writer M.R. James. They continue to be held in high regard and their influence has been obvious everywhere from Doctor Who to The League Of Gentlemen, and they were very definitely not intended for younger viewers, or indeed for those of a nervous disposition. Whatever that was exactly.

What is less well remembered, however, is that in the early eighties, the Children’s Department had a go at producing their own Ghost Stories For Christmas, which in all honesty were only slightly less disturbing than their adult counterparts. Initiated by producer Anna Home, who was responsible for a number of well-regarded science fiction and fantasy serials for children’s television in the late seventies and early eighties, the putative strand ultimately only ran to two one-off specials, although it seems to have been restructuring of the department’s output, rather than any concerns about their suitability, that gave rise to this short duration.

On 23rd December 1980 – six days after the final episode of an adaptation of L.T. Meade’s A Little Silver Trumpet (which you can read more about here) – BBC1 broadcast The Bells Of Astercote. Based on Penelope Lively’s 1970 children’s novel Astercote, this concerned a village that, according to local legend, had lost its entire population to the plague. This becomes something of a pressing concern to the modern day residents of nearby Charlton Underwood when a man claiming to be both six hundred years old and the guardian of something called The Chalice Of Astercote turns up displaying some disconcertingly familiar symptoms. Needless to say, the village is gripped by paranoia and apocalyptic visions, and it is only when some sceptical local bikers elect to involve themselves in events that the bizarre truth finally comes out. Directed by Home’s regular collaborator Marilyn Fox, The Bells Of Astercote was broadcast from 16:40pm and was very nearly the last children’s programme shown that day; doubtless a fair few viewers were relieved to see Paddington straight afterwards.

Ghost In The Water (BBC1, 1982).
Ghost In The Water (BBC1, 1982).
Ghost In The Water (BBC1, 1982).

There was no spooky one-off follow-up in 1981 – the equivalent slot in the schedule was filled instead by a repeat of Rentasanta, the decidedly less chilling Christmas Special of Rentaghost (which you can find out much more about here), although an adaptation of Leon Garfield’s spook-free but no less macabre John Diamond appeared on 29th December – but New Year’s Eve 1982 brought an adaptation of Edward Chitham’s 1973 novel Ghost In The Water. The ‘ghost’ in question was that of Abigail Parkes, a young Black Country girl who had drowned in the late nineteenth century; although officially recorded as a suicide, Abigail was in fact trying to retrieve a ring given to her by her true love, who had died in a mining accident. A series of coded messages point two youngsters studying local history towards the truth, though whether they have simply stumbled across this or have been guided towards it by Abigail’s restless spirit is another question, and one that inevitably comes to dominate the story. Not exactly traditional New Year’s entertainment, Ghost In The Water – transmitted in more or less the exact same timeslot as The Bells Of Astercote – was produced by Paul Stone and directed by Renny Rye; two years later, the same duo were responsible for BBC1’s acclaimed adaptation of John Masefield’s The Box Of Delights, although you can find much more about that here.

The Bells Of Astercote was repeated over Easter 1982 and Ghost In The Water in March 1983, and Ghost In The Water was later released on DVD. Collectors might also like to keep an eye out for the tie-in reprint of the original novel of Ghost In The Water, and for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop album The Soundhouse, which included excerpts from Roger Limb’s soundtrack for the play. There’s already some debate over whether 1968’s Whistle And I’ll Come To You counts as an ‘official’ Ghost Story For Christmas, but – dull pedantry aside – these two little-seen efforts deserve more attention and, well, a place on the list.

Ghost In The Water (BBC1, 1982).

Buy A Book!

You can find the story behind The Bells Of Astercote and Ghost In The Water and the BBC’s many other spooky seasonal children’s dramas – including The Box Of Delights, The Children Of Green Knowe, The Phoenix And The Carpet and more – in Well At Least It’s Free, a collection of columns and features. Well At Least It’s Free is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

Alternately, if you’re just feeling generous, you can buy me a coffee here. Caffeine in the water is entirely fine by me, thanks.

Further Reading

You Shall Have It Under Your Hand Today is a look at the long hunt for the soundtrack of The Box Of Delights, and how what appeared to be the classical records used in it were not always quite what they seemed; you can find it here.

Further Listening

You can hear Joanne Sheppard talking about The December Rose, another chilling and grimy if decidedly less supernaturally-tinged Children’s BBC drama directed by Renny Rye, in Looks Unfamiliar here.

© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.