The BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas series had petered out by the end of the 1970s. They ceased to use the works of M.R. James as a basis for their story adaptations, instead turning to other classic authors such as Dickens or new and independent works, with varying degrees of success. Some of these are in the DVD set I purchased this spring and I may or may not deal with them later.
After a long lapse, the BBC returned to M.R. James this past decade. In 2005, their first new adaptation was based on a short story titled A View from a Hill. This is a story of James’s that I’d never read before seeing this television version. It’s not in the anthology under my pillow, nor on the Gaslight site. I have found it online in a couple of places and read it since then; for example, it’s on the Thin Ghost site at
Basically, it’s the story of a pair of binoculars that allow the person looking through them to see things such as old buildings that were there long ago in the past. But the way the binoculars were constructed means that there is a price to pay for this vision.
The BBC version begins with a young man (an actor I don’t know named Mark Letheren) standing on the platform of a tiny rural railway stop on a lovely autumn afternoon, and looking impatient. It’s not a delayed train he’s waiting for, but the person who was supposed to come and pick him up.
After awhile, he gives up. Fortunately, he has his bicycle with him; unfortunately, his bag falls off the back onto the road and he has to retrieve it.
When he arrives at the house where he thinks he’s expected, it’s a large and grand old place but looks neglected and perhaps even empty. No–there are two people living here: the last Squire, Mr. Richards, and his elderly family retainer, Patten (Pip Torrens and David Burke respectively, two actors I know fairly well).
Mr. Richards is astonished to see the young man, who introduces himself as “Fanshawe. I’m here about the collection.”
“This week. I’m here.”
“So I see.”
Both Richards and his manservant are a hoot in their different ways. Neither seems entirely in touch with reality, but Richards has more funny lines.
Fanshawe is shown to his room. While unpacking and meticulously putting his belongings away, he discovers that his binoculars have been broken.
Wandering the house as he goes down to dinner, he discovers that most of the rooms are unused and empty. And we’ll learn over dinner that Richard doesn’t pay Patten. Then why does Patten stay? Where else does he have to go?
Fanshawe’s job is to value a collection of antiquities, some of which were brought back from the Crimea by Richards’s great-grandfather, but most are local finds. He was sent from the university (presumably Cambridge) by his boss, who was an old school-fellow of Richards–though the conversation over dinner indicates that the two men really haven’t kept in touch over the years.
Part of Fanshawe’s work will involve authenticating objects in the collection by visiting the sites where they were discovered. Richards has to liquidate the collection to pay his debts. “Selling off the family silver,” is how he describes it.
When Richards shows Fanshawe the countryside around the house so he can get his bearings and have some idea of the location of the historical and archaeological sites nearby, Fanshawe has to borrow a pair of binoculars. The ones Richards finds for him are very old and odd-looking. But not as odd as what Fanshawe sees when he uses them while standing atop that hill mentioned in the story’s title.
Richards is pointing out some of the local sites, including a place called Gallows Hill and the remains of Fulnaker Abbey. Looking through the binoculars, Fanshawe sees what looks like a tower; the squire tells him that the abbey is in ruins and he must be looking at the village church.
Back at the house, Patten is distressed to discover that the binoculars are gone. He seems to think they’ve been stolen at first, but isn’t comforted when he learns that Richards has taken them out and Fanshawe has been using them.
Looking over the collection the next day, Fanshawe learns that most of the locally found objects were originally discovered by a watchmaker in the village, a man named Baxter.
“Fancied himself an amateur archaeologist,” Richards says. “Like yourself.”
“I am an archaeologist,” Fanshawe tells him. “Actually, I’m a doctor.”
“Have to get you to look at my feet,” replies Richards.
Baxter had a wonderful knack of knowing just where to look for the ancient sites in the neighborhood and–will it surprise you?–also made those strange binoculars.
Among Baxter’s notes and papers, Fanshawe finds a sketch of the same building he saw through the binoculars. It’s nothing like the village church, and on the back of the paper is written “Fulnaker Abbey.”
Fanshawe takes his bike and rides out that afternoon to the site of the abbey. As Richards has said, the abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII and there’s nothing left but some lumps and bumps, stray stones, and no remains of a tower or even anything that might still be called a wall. But someone else is there; Fanshawe glimpses a man through the trees while he’s looking around and, on the way back through the beautiful autumn evening, he has the ominous feeling that he’s being followed.
A poacher? On the path through the woods, he does nearly bump into a surly-looking man carrying a couple of dead rabbits, but as he hastens on–since it’s getting dark–he loses his way and the sensation that he’s not alone increases. A rustle in the dead leaves. A snap of a twig. A startled crow flaps up from the underbrush.
Then one of his bicycle tires goes flat. As he stops to see if he can repair it, a point-of-view camera shot rushes at him through the trees and something flicks his ear. Now he’s really spooked.
Grabbing the headlamp off his bike’s handlebars, he turns it on and flashes it all directions around him, shouting “Who’s there?”
No answer, of course. Fanshawe then stumbles on a large square block of stone with a smaller square hole at the top center. It’s the base for a gallows, and the horrified young man now knows exactly where he is. He begins to run, pulling his bike along with him.
He arrives back at the house after dark, out of breath and disheveled. Mr. Richards and Patten at both waiting at the door for him.
“Got lost?” Richards calls out cheerfully. “We were about to send a search party out for you.” Then he sees the look on the younger man’s face.
Over dinner, Fanshawe tells his host everything that’s happened, not only his experiences on Gallows Hill but what he saw through the binoculars. Richards puts it all down to imagination, optical illusion and wishful thinking as far as the abbey is concerned and, well, Gallows Hill is a disturbing place to be even in broad daylight. But Patten has a story to tell. He knows a lot about Baxter; his father sat on the jury for Baxter’s inquest.
As Patten speaks, we get the story in a series of grisly flashbacks.
Baxter was a peculiar fellow. He wasn’t only interested in digging up antiquities, but in digging up the bones of the men hanged on Gallows Hill (the hanged weren’t taken down, but left there for the crows to eat). He had strange ideas about seeing through the eyes of men who lived in the past and boiled up the bones to make some nasty black liquid, which he used in the making of those binoculars. Patten doesn’t say this last part, but we see images of Baxter at his work.
Baxter disappeared suddenly one night. The local people thought he had run off, until they noticed the crows flocking on Gallows Hill…
Richards hears the tale with skepticism, and says my favorite line of the show: “The hanged men came for Baxter because they didn’t like their bones being boiled?” But Fanshawe seems inclined to believe it and calls it an interesting story.
A wonderful sequence follows as Fanshawe looks up through the binoculars and sees the abbey in all its former glory towering over him–finials and gargoyles and flying buttresses.
Fanshawe laughs in delight and spins around to take in more. The cuts between the images he’s seeing grow shorter and shorter, mere blinks, until there’s a flash of light. At last, he’s standing inside the abbey, walking on the marble floor, touching the polished altar rails, as sunlight streams through the stained glass windows.
But this magical moment cannot last. While he’s sketching what he sees, Fanshawe finds he’s not alone in the abbey. At first, it’s just a glimpse of a man standing behind one of the pillars. Then a shape rushes up to him, very fast, knocks the binoculars out of his hand and pushes him down.
Fanshawe starts to run, but doesn’t get far. The scene goes black and when Fanshawe next opens his eyes, he’s being dragged through the woods by two men. We don’t see them except for their legs and their arms hooked through his. They take him to Gallows Hill, throwing him down near the block of stone, and a gallows-post goes up.
Meanwhile, Richards has sent out a search party. A group of men walk through a twilight field, bearing flashlights and shouting Fanshawe’s name. They find his bicycle and the binoculars at the abbey ruins. Then they notice the flock of crows circling over Gallows Hill…
It may simply be a matter of having seen it first, but I prefer the television version to the original. The country squire and his faithful servant are more conventional characters in James’s version, each with his own comic tone, but not as interesting to me. Although this adaptation has its comic elements–nearly every line Pip Torrens speaks makes me laugh–the overall tone is more ominous; in the written story, there’s never any sense that Fanshawe is in real danger even when he loses his way on Gallows Hill, while the most beautifully filmed scenes of the sunny autumn woods and that marvelous sequence at the abbey always have a feeling that something dark and dangerous is lurking nearby.
But I do like Patten’s description of Baxter being dragged away from his home by the invisible ghosts of the hanged men:
“… out come Mr. Baxter into the street in his day-clothes, ‘at and all, with his arms straight down by his sides, and talking to hisself, and shakin’ his head from one side to the other, and walking in that peculiar way that he appeared to be going as it were against his own will. George Williams put up the window, and hear him say: “O mercy, gentlemen!” and then he shut up sudden as if, he said, someone clapped his hand over his mouth, and Mr. Baxter threw his head back, and his hat fell off. … ‘‘Tis best you mind your own business. Put in your head.’ But whether it were Mr. Baxter said it so hoarse-like and faint, he never could be sure. Still there weren’t no one but him in the street, and yet Williams was that upset by the way he spoke that he shrank back from the window and … he heard Mr. Baxter’s step go on and up the road, and after a minute or more he couldn’t help but look out once more and he see him going along the same curious way as before. And one thing he recollected was that Mr. Baxter never stopped to pick up his ‘at when it fell off, and yet there it was on his head.”
There’s nothing like this in the television version, since Fanshawe’s assailants are visible.
Fanshawe does survive his hanging on Gallows Hill; the search party arrives in time to cut him down. The story ends in a manner reminiscent of The Treasure of Abbot Thomas and A Warning to the Curious, with Squire Richards seeing Fanshawe off at that tiny railway stop. The young man is badly shaken by his experience and wears a scarf high around his neck to cover the rope burn.
After Fanshawe says he’s sorry about the collection, Richards tells him to think nothing of it–it’s all “a drop in the ocean” of what will be needed to pay off his debts–then leaves him to wait for the train.
We see Patten, back at the house, tossing all of Baxter’s papers and possessions, including the binoculars, onto a bonfire. But will he destroy it all in time?
As Fanshawe sits waiting, he hears a rustling in the bracken and looks up in alarm.