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 it
February 28, 2009

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.

Crooked House—shown on the 22nd, 23rd and 24th December—was promising if not wholly satisfactory. The main story concerns a young man, Ben, who has deserted his pregnant wife. He finds an old door knocker in his garden and takes it to the local archivist, played with a curiously camp Scottish burr by Gatiss himself. The archivist tells him three eerie stories connected with the old house, Geap Manor, from where the knocker originated.

In the first, set in the 18th century, one owner apparently hangs himself when he falls under the malign influence of his wainscotting (the timber, it turns out, came from the Tyburn gibbet). The condemned man was well executed, if I may put it that way, by Philip Jackson—already a people's hero, having played the dogged Inspector Japp in the original Poirot (how ITV trashed this magnificent series by removing Japp, Miss Lemon and Captain Hastings is a subject for another time).

The second story is set at a vile bodies party in the roaring twenties where the wraith of a wronged bride stalks the corridors of Geap Manor. The third part then returns us to Ben in the present day. This plot was altogether more ingenious and horrifying. Ben's wife is conjured back four centuries by a Tudor necromancer seeking an heir. Gatiss's ghostly character is the architect of the scheme, and the screams of a modern woman who suddenly finds herself in labour in 1585 were genuinely chilling. Here, Crooked House fulfilled many of the requirements of a cracking ghost story: a strong sense of place, something evil lurking beneath apparent normality and an overwhelming sense of being trapped.

article body image

Jonathan Creek (BBC1) also promised a demonic theme in a feature-length episode on new year's day, but it turned out to be the crassest piece of television drama in a long while, while Lark Rise to Candleford (also BBC1; the new series began on the 21st December) was ghostly but unbearably saccharine. Mercifully, we can move swiftly on to this Christmas's finest ghost story: ITV's Affinity (pictured, right), adapted by the deft and prolific Andrew Davies from the Sarah Waters novel of the same name. Shown on the 28th December, it played with sexual themes so cleverly that it was often difficult to distinguish between destructive desire and supernatural force.

Margaret, a Victorian prison visitor, develops a Sapphic infatuation with Selina, an inmate in a ladies' prison, imprisoned after a séance she was conducting went fatally wrong. Selina is engaging and intense, but also deceiving and manipulative. She persuades Margaret to empty her bank account and buy her a wardrobe of fine clothes in preparation for their elopement. But how will she escape the prison? She tells Margaret she will come to her at daybreak by literally spiriting herself out of her cell and across London. Poor Margaret, driven by love, believes her. In fact, Selina suborns a wardress to release her and flies into the arms of her lover and partner in crime, Ruth Vigers. Vigers is Margaret's maid and she has already collected the finery. They are seen escaping on a Thames barge. Through flashbacks it is revealed that the spirit who appeared at Selina's séances was, in fact, Vigers with a fetching pair of mutton-chop whiskers stuck to her already masculine features.

Just when we feel all has been revealed, there is a beautiful twist. Margaret throws herself from a bridge into the freezing water of the Thames. Selina is immediately aware of it—she is evidently psychic after all. She imagines herself jumping from her barge to save Margaret—the power of empathy and, dare we say it, spiritualism. Lesbianism, of course, was not legislated against by the Victorians. Unlike male homosexuality, they preferred not to acknowledge it at all. So this story would have been rather strong meat for Dickens. But I like to think that he would have approved of it, at least in spirit.