Throughout the 1970s, the BBC television series A Ghost Story for Christmas provided a chilling counter to the gaudy frivolity of the season, brilliantly dramatising some of the great tales in the English ghost story tradition. Director Lawrence Gordon Clark initially concentrated on filming stories written by the great master of this tradition, MR James, including The Stalls of Barchester (1971) and A Warning to the Curious (1972). 1976’s The Signalman, based on a Charles Dickens short story, was the first to break the Jamesian sequence but which, in its hair-raising juxtaposition of the uncanny and the prosaic, constitutes perhaps the finest entry in the series.
A lonely signalman working in a railway cutting near a bleak and stygian tunnel is visited by a stranger whom he disturbs with his distracted yet aggressively suspicious manner. The two converse, become friendly and the signalman explains his initial reticence: “I took you for someone else… that troubles me… that someone else.” He goes on to describe a series of fatal accidents on the line which have each been presaged by an ethereal ringing of the railway bell and the appearance of a ghostly figure at the tunnel mouth, which shouts “Halloa! Below there!”, “the left arm…across his face and the right arm waved…violently waved.”
In this climactic sequence, the stranger, having partially succeeded in comforting the signalman by appealing to the Enlightenment ideals of scientific veracity and duty, returns the next morning to continue their discourse. As he approaches he hears an ethereal ringing and the whistle of a train, clutches his ear and in a sudden presentiment of disaster starts to sprint towards the cutting.
The signalman, who has also heard the ringing, emerges from his box and walks slowly along the track towards the tunnel and the dread figure which once again waves violently and cries to him in warning.
The camera cuts to a view from the approaching train which has entered the far end of the tunnel. We see the silhouette of the signalman standing motionless in the middle of the track; dumbstruck and seemingly blind to his impending doom.
Again a cut, this time to the signalman’s point of view and we feel a pervading flush of horror as the face of the apparition, slowly revealed as its cloak descends – and the last thing the signalman sees – is revealed to be his own death mask, frozen in a paroxysm of agony.
Unlike James’ stories, which are generally concerned with the grotesque and archaic discoveries of academics and antiquaries, Dickens’ tale is a modern one in the sense that, while it too is concerned with the existence of the mysterious and inexplicable, it considers them in relation to the impersonal mechanics of vertiginous nineteenth-century industrialisation. This great film, understated in spite of the visceral horror it depicts, precisely conveys the unsettling mood of Dickens’ tale through its descriptive visualisation of a remote and sombre hinterland which occupies the space between knowledge and the abysmal unfathomability of death.