A Ghost Story For Christmas (For Children)

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.

There was no repeat of the experiment in 1981 - the equivalent slot in the schedule was filled instead by a repeat of Rentasanta, which you can read more about here - but New Year's Eve 1982 brought an adaptation of Edward Chitham’s 1973 novel Ghost In The Water. The 'ghost' in question is 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.

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.

If you're interested in spooky BBC children's dramas with a Radiophonic Workshop soundtrack, you might also enjoy this piece on the music from The Changes.

This is adapted from Winter's Tales, a longer piece looking at all of the BBC's supernatural/sci-fi children's serials of the seventies and eighties, in my book Well At Least It's Free. You can get Well At Least It's Free in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.