The Christmas ghost story is a long-standing tradition – most recently, BBC Four revived the broadcaster’s old A Ghost Story for Christmas strand, looking to channel the spirit of classics like Whistle and I’ll Come to You with recent MR James adaptations A View from a Hill (adapted by Peter Harness) and The Tractate Middoth (by Mark Gatiss).
Having given us his own take on a James-inspired ghost story last year with fantastic original The Dead Room, Gatiss has returned to the author’s works this year for an adaptation of one of his own favourites, Martin’s Close.
The year is 1684 and “young gentleman of quality” John Martin (Wilf Scolding) is on trial for his life, charged with murder. He faces George Jeffreys (Elliot Levey), known as the ‘hanging judge’ for his severity and habit of handing out death sentences in the courtroom. But Jeffreys’ wrath is far from Martin’s only concern, because the young innocent he is accused of killing has apparently risen from the grave…
The limitations imposed on Martin’s Close – BBC Four’s Channel Editor Cassian Harrison noted at a recent press screening that its budget is a far cry from that of BBC One and HBO’s His Dark Materials – mean it’s a relatively simple story, told with a small-ish cast and with stripped-back production. The whole thing has a theatrical air to it – no bad thing – and that’s something the cast play up to.
Peter Capaldi is the starriest name here and while he’s reliably excellent, somewhat channelling Alastair Sim in his turn as barrister for the prosecution Dolben, his is not the showiest nor most attention-grabbing performance. The first honour goes to Levey, delivering a rather flamboyant Judge Jeffreys quite unlike any previous interpretation, while the standout performance actually comes from Jessica Temple as the “uncomely” Ann Clark, fantastically creepy in what is her TV debut.
BBC/Can Do Productions with Adorable Media/Michael Carlo
Besides the expected chills, there are dark themes too at the heart of Martin’s Close, including the suggestion that the privileged, in this case Scolding’s Martin, can toy with the less fortunate for their own amusement – and worse, get away with it.
But particularly in the early going, this period piece is actually surprisingly broad, almost Blackadder-esque, in its humour. Though it makes stunning, often startling use of silence to enhance mood across its 30-minute runtime, this lighter touch does mean that Martin’s Close lacks the tangible sense of dread that pervaded Gatiss’s earlier efforts.
For a half-hour piece, its storytelling also feels a little convoluted: Martin’s Close uses not one but two framing devices to tell its story and the second (featuring The Blood on Satan’s Claw star Simon Williams) is used rather sparingly and ends up feeling superfluous. According to Gatiss, it was necessitated in part by the production’s modest budget and a need to tell rather than show at certain key moments, but whatever the reason, this narrative technique never quite gels with the rest of the drama.
Spooky but never truly horrifying and a little more complicated than it need be, Martin’s Close is an enjoyably eerie diversion, but might not haunt your dreams for all that long. That being said, it’s far from killed our enthusiasm for this particular Christmas tradition – though it’s perhaps not Gatiss’s finest work in this field, we certainly hope he won’t be giving up the ghost any time soon.
Martin’s Close airs 10pm on Christmas Eve on BBC Four