A Ghost Story For Christmas (For Children)

A look back at the BBC's spooky children's plays The Bells Of Astercote and Ghost In The Water.

Although I have very fond memories of the one-off spooky BBC children’s dramas The Bells Of Astercote and Ghost In The Water, particularly of how, well, haunted the other youngsters in our street seemed to be by them for days afterwards, this feature on the two unlikely festive schedule-padders came about by accident rather than design. I decided to cover them both as part of a feature that I wrote about the BBC’s long run of spooky autumn to winter children’s serials from The Phoenix And The Carpet in 1976 all the way to The Watch House in 1988 (which you can now find in my collection Well At Least It’s Free, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here), because… well, if I was going to mention sodding Billy’s Christmas Angels then I may as well include the halfway decent stuff too. More on a whim than anything I decided to publish a slightly modified and expanded version of the section covering them on my old site as a way of promoting Well At Least It’s Free, and was taken aback by just how popular it proved to be. Clearly there were a lot of youngsters out there who were every bit as spooked as anyone from across the road from me…

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 for those of a nervous disposition.

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. Masterminded 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 their output, rather than any concerns about their suitability, that led 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 – BBC1 broadcast The Bells Of Astercote. Based on Penelope Lively’s 1970 children’s novel Astercote, this concerned a village that, according to 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 six hundred years old and the guardian of 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 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 repeat of the experiment in 1981 – the equivalent slot in the schedule was filled instead by a repeat of Rentasanta, the somewhat less chilling Christmas Special of Rentaghost, 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 discovered this or have been guided towards it by Abigail’s restless spirit is another question, and one that needless to say 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 pair were responsible for BBC1’s acclaimed adaptation of John Masefield’s The Box Of Delights, as you can read more about here.

Sadly, although The Bells Of Astercote was repeated over Easter 1982 and Ghost In The Water in March 1983, neither have ever been commercially released; collectors might however wish 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 Roger Limb’s soundtrack for the play. Both however are strong efforts that deserve to be more widely seen, so perhaps it might be worth repeating them instead of the next inevitable attempt at reviving A Ghost Story For Christmas.

Ghost In The Water (BBC1, 1982).

Buy A Book!

You can find a lengthy examination of The Bells Of Astercote and Ghost In The Water alongside the BBC’s manhy other spooky children’s dramas – including The Box Of Delights, The Children Of Green Knowe, The Phoenix And The Carpet and more – in my book 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.

Further Reading

You Shall Have It Under Your Hand Today is a feature on Roger Limb and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s soundtrack from The Box Of Delights; you can find it here.

Further Listening

The December Rose, another grimy and chilling Children’s BBC drama directed by Renny Rye, features in Looks Unfamiliar with Joanne Sheppard which you can find here.

Eerie Children’s BBC drama The Changes was one of Samira Ahmed’s choices on Looks Unfamiliar, which you can find here.

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