Alison Graham: “Now is the perfect time to bring back the Christmas ghost story”

RadioTimes television editor salutes the ghosts of Christmas past

Ghost story (Getty,mh)

There are two questions people ask when they meet me for the first time: “How much television do you watch every day?” And, “What do you do at Christmas because, surely, you’ve seen everything?”

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My answer to the first question is: I watch more television than the human imagination can stand. It’s eroded my tiny mind to the point where I yell at the screen during every single episode of Silent Witness (back soon!), “Forensic pathologists don’t investigate crimes! You would never get away with that under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act!”

And to the second I say: I am banished to the coal house with a Twiglet, a compendium of board games from 1953 and the instructions on how to make a model of York Minster out of matchsticks, plus matchsticks. I pause frequently to sob into a dirty Welcome to Whitby tea towel as a heavenly choir sings, “We don’t want any spoilers so you’re not coming out until the first episode of McMafia has finished on New Year’s Day.”

Of course, the implication of the second question bubbles beneath it – that because I’ve seen everything, or almost everything, because that’s my job, that’s what I do, then my Christmasses must be barren television wastes, a tundra of blank hours and even blanker despair. Because, what is Christmas without telly?

Now, this is the splendid, adored Christmas double issue of Radio Times, so I’m not going to tell you that, hey, I don’t watch anything. It’s so liberating that I drink champagne from Tom Hiddleston’s Gucci loafers while James Norton and Aidan Turner take it in turns to plait my hair (good luck with that, boys!) as I play baccarat in Monte Carlo.

In truth, I watch everything again, wishing to avoid banishment (see above), and I read an awful lot of ghost stories. I love ghost stories, and I have television to thank for that. When I was young, I was addicted to those wonderful adaptations of MR James tales, such as Whistle and I’ll Come to You from 1968, with Michael Hordern as the academic who found a whistle on the Suffolk sands and was haunted by an entity with a face of crumpled linen. To this day I have a morbid fear of twin-bedded rooms – you’ll have to read the story to discover why.

The Christmas TV ghost-story tradition fell away a long time ago, but it should be brought back. Dear, lovely BBC4 is doing its bit on Christmas Eve with a whole night of adaptations (repeats, but never mind) of MR James stories (A View from a Hill, The Tractate Middoth, The Stalls of Barchester and us – the last two read by Christopher Lee) and Charles Dickens’s neat little essay in terror, The Signalman.

Lily Cole (Getty, HF)
Lily Cole (Getty, HF)

There are MR James documentaries, too, from Mark Gatiss (a huge fan of “Monty”, as devotees of the author are allowed to call him) and Timeshift. And later in the Christmas holiday, catch up with a repeat of Midwinter of the Spirit (ITV Encore), a creepy adaptation of Phil Rickman’s even creepier novel about a female exorcist.

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I think now is the perfect time to bring back the Christmas ghost story, which offers its own kind of escapism from a world full of entirely new uncertainties, from Brexit to domestic terrorism. Getting lost in a world far away from our own, but at the same time thrillingly close, is surely what Christmas is all about.