Dickens founded a tradition of ghostly Christmas stories that's still alive and well on our TV screens. Just don't let Jonathan Creek anywhere near itby Peter Bazalgette / February 28, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
Why does Christmas have to be white? Because, as we know, Charles Dickens decreed it. Why do telly folk schedule ghost stories at Christmas? Because, once again, Dickens kicked off the tradition. In 1843 he published A Christmas Carol, the first of his five Christmas books—a wildly successful series that went on to include the equally spooky The Haunted Man and The Chimes. There’s something almost jocular about Dickens’s tales, though, and I prefer the darker efforts of those who came later, many of which are metaphors for mental illness or sexual repression. Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw is arguably about the loss of innocence represented by puberty. The Glamour of the Snow by Algernon Blackwood is a powerfully erotic lament. And in MR James’s sinister classic, Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad, the spectre composed of contorted bedclothes seems to spring straight from the gay subconscious of the main character (and, quite possibly, from that of the author too).
Dickens’s insight was that at Christmas families gather together and it gets dark early: they need entertainment. The telling of a chilling tale—in those days by the paterfamilias, and now by the television—matches that need. This Christmas, BBC4 led the traditional ghostly charge. It’s very difficult for digital channels to attract a sizeable audience—how can they be noticed amid the multi-channel noise? One strategy is to gather programmes together in a “season”: a judicious collection of repeats from the archive, lightly garnished with one new production. BBC4’s new production was a trilogy called Crooked House, written by Mark Gatiss, whose taste for the gothic was well established when he wrote and acted in the utterly extraordinary BBC2 comedy The League of Gentlemen a decade ago.