A star rating of 3 out of 5.

"The one everyone has always wanted to do is Count Magnus, which eluded the great Lawrence Gordon Clark," Mark Gatiss shared in 2019, speculating that perhaps a screen version of M R James's tale of a terrible force inflicted on an inquisitive traveller was simply "not meant to be". This festive season though, Gatiss has finally broken the curse and achieved what Clark, his predecessor in spearheading the BBC's A Ghost Story for Christmas strand, could not in bringing this Holy Grail of James adaptations to the screen.


Clark had wanted to film a version of Count Magnus adapted by novelist Basil Copper as his final Ghost Story in December 1977, but was unable to secure sufficient budget from the BBC for the Sweden-set narrative. 45 years later and Gatiss has delivered a stripped-back version very much of a piece with his previous sojourns into the supernatural – like 2019's Martin's Close and last year's The Mezzotint, this Count Magnus is sparse but mostly effective.

Set in 1863, the story follows the inquisitive Mr Wraxhall (Jason Watkins) as he attempts to unpick the shadowy history of the titular Count, by all accounts a "merciless" character who embarked on a "Black pilgrimage" to the Holy Land "on most unholy business", bringing something – or someone – back with him.

There's often something blackly comic about James's tales of unwitting victims being drawn slowly but inexorably towards a terrible fate, but it's fair to say that vibe is laid on pretty thick here – compared, for example, to The Mezzotint's sympathetic protagonist Williams (played by Rory Kinnear in the 2021 adaptation), Watkins's Wraxhall is far more a pompous dolt, entirely ignorant of the meaningful looks and sorrowful silences that surround him whenever he mentions Count Magnus to the locals.

The first act of this short, sharp horror almost plays as a comedy of errors, with Wraxhall – described as "an intelligent and cultivated fellow" though appearing to be anything but – refusing to be deterred from his investigations despite the warnings, both implied and explicit, from Magnus's descendant Froken de la Gardie and Herr Nielsen (MyAnna Buring and Max Bremer, both delivering memorable performances with limited screentime).

But the further that our thoughtless protagonist progresses on his path to the darkness, the more successful this adaptation becomes. The layers of mystery begin to be peeled away and from the moment we hear tell of an invisible evil that left one man dead and another broken, Count Magnus grows steadily more atmospheric and suspenseful, delivering some genuinely spooky moments and one particularly horrible visual flourish, as a burst of vivid blood-red pierces an otherwise monochrome flashback.

Froken de la Gardie (MYANNA BURING) in A Ghost Story for Christmas: Count Magnus
Froken de la Gardie (MyAnna Buring) in A Ghost Story for Christmas: Count Magnus. BBC / Adorable Media / Can Do Productions / Michael Carlo

Much like his previous M R James dramatisations, Gatiss's Count Magnus again avoids being what he once himself referred to as a "static retelling" by adding an additional sting in the tail and it's a particularly delicious twist that closes out this half hour, one that offers a neat climax to the story as it's unfolding on screen while also providing added value for James aficionados convinced they know how this particular yarn will play out.

The rather broad first act means that Count Magnus isn't quite up there with the best of these Ghost Stories. The Mezzotint was particularly exceptional, while 2018's The Dead Room – an original tale written by Gatiss but inspired by James's work – was another small but perfectly formed gem. All the same, there's plenty here to entertain and unsettle – certainly enough to leave fans hoping that, with four stories down and 30 more to go, Gatiss's adaptations of James's works will remain a fixture in the festive schedules for some time to come. Let's hope he can strike a deal to secure such longevity...

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A Ghost Story for Christmas: Count Magnus is available to watch now on BBC iPlayer.

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