DVD Review: The Signalman

On June 9, 1865, the boat train from Folkestone to London derailed. Among the passengers on that train were the famous novelist, Charles Dickens, accompanying his mistress, actress Ellen Ternan, and her mother. None of them were badly injured in the crash, but Dickens aided and helped tend to other injured passengers, some of whom died. The accident left him shaken and understandably reluctant to travel by train.

Smoke from the tunnel

This train crash and the Clayton Tunnel disaster of 1861 are attributed as the inspiration for Dickens’s ghost story, The Signal Man.

It’s surprising that the BBC’s Ghost Story for Christmas only used one of Dickens’s short stories, since he was the man who re-popularized the old Christmas ghosts tradition during the Victorian era. A Christmas Carol has been overdone to death in film and television, but Dickens did turn out other spooky pieces regularly at the holiday season–many of which are forgotten today.

In 1976, after they’d been through their first round of M.R. James’s ghost stories, the BBC aired their version of The Signalman, starring Denholm Elliott as the unfortunate railway worker who is haunted by premonitions of disasters he feels helpless to prevent.

This adaption, written by Andrew Davies, begins with a Victorian gentleman (Bernard Lloyd) on holiday strolling the countryside. When he comes upon a railway cut ahead of him, he walks up to the edge and looks down to see the signalman standing just to one side of the single line of rails at the entrance to a tunnel, staring into it.

The gentleman calls down to the signalman, “Hello! Below there!” and the man appears even more startled and disturbed by these words. The gentleman clambers down the steep slope to speak to the signalman without shouting; from their subsequent conversation, he learns that the man thought he was someone else… someone he’s seen before.

The Signalman at the tunnel When asked where, the signalman points toward the tunnel entrance.

They go into the signalman’s signal box overlooking the tracks. It’s very cozy in there, but as the two men chat, the signalman continues to seem distracted. He glances toward the tunnel in an uneasy way as he speaks of the day-to-day tedium of his job. And yet it’s terribly important he does everything right and keeps alert to the bells here in the signal box and the red lantern hanging outside the tunnel. A mistake can be disastrous. A crash inside the tunnel is the worst, since it traps the flames and heat, as well as traps the the train passengers.

When the gentleman leaves, the signalman invites him to come back the next day–only, please, don’t call out to him.

It isn’t until the gentleman visits again that the signalman decides to confide in him. He’s seen “a figure” standing at the entrance to the tunnel, but he can’t get a good look at the face since the figure is holding up his hands as if to ward off disaster or block his own gaze from some terrible sight. The figure also hails the signalman by the same words the gentleman used: “Hello! Below there! Look out!”

Fire in the tunnel

The first time he saw this figure, it preceded a horrific disaster: two trains crashed in the tunnel and many people were killed in the subsequent fire. This is the part of the story inspired by the Clayton Tunnel disaster. The tunnel shown here isn’t the actual tunnel where the 1861 crash occurred, but according to the director was a location from the same era on the Severn Valley rail line and not as remote as it appears.

The second time, the figure’s appearance preceded the death of a young woman, a bride in full regalia. In flashback, the signalman watches in horror as the train goes past–a door flings open and the bride falls out to land on the ground near him, dead. The train stops and a number of men gather her up to carry her away while her groom stands by stunned and grieving.

The dead bride The two men discuss these tragedies. The figure is obviously trying to warn him, the signalman is certain of that, but it’s remarkably unhelpful in giving him information about what he could possibly do to avert the disasters. If he sends warning signals up the line without reason, will it do any good? Or will his vague warnings be ignored and lead to his being dismissed from his job as unreliable? Was there any way he could have warned the bride not to get on the train that day?

Worst of all, he’s seen the figure again recently. Some further accident is coming up, but he has no idea what it is and feels completely powerless to avoid it.

The gentleman is sympathetic to his distress, but falls back on that most Victorian piece of advice: The signalman can do his duty. Even if it doesn’t change anything, he at least has that. This doesn’t offer much consolation, but the signalman thanks his visitor for it and the two part company for the evening.

At his inn that night, the gentleman has a nightmare about the signalman and the tunnel. He had a similar dream the night before, only not as vivid.

When he goes out for a walk the next morning near the rail line, he sees the steam from a train approaching the tunnel and, this once, hears the same phantom warning bell the signalman has claimed to hear.

From inside the tunnel He runs toward the steep slope and looks down to see his friend standing at the entrance to the tunnel.

The signalman, below, has just seen the figure at the tunnel’s entrance, arm upraised and face concealed. He is apparently oblivious to the train going in at the tunnel’s other end.

To warn him, the gentleman shouts out from above, “Hello! Below there! Look out!”

The signalman, taking this as a cry from the figure, doesn’t respond to it, doesn’t get out of the way… but he does at last see the face of the specter that had appeared so often to him.

This face, by the way, is the same image that’s featured on the cover the Ghost Stories DVD box.

The ghost's face

The Signalman is a two-character show, with Elliott taking the lead since he gets some really good speeches as he describes the tragedies he’s witnessed and expresses his feelings of helplessness at the next one coming. There are only a handful of other people shown, almost none of whom have lines; the one who makes the strongest impression is the bride who has no chance to say anything at all before she dies.

Andrew Davies has padded the story somewhat with a couple of dream sequences, but the images of the two main disasters are effective and disturbing. The death of the bride, although not very gruesome, is strange, sudden, and inexplicable; you’re not exactly sure how the accident happened as you watch this young woman falling out of the passing train onto the side of the tracks (Did the improperly latched door just come open while she was leaning on it? Did someone push her… her new husband, perhaps?).

The larger catastrophe of the crash in the tunnel is conveyed very well even with a small budget by use of red lighting and shadowy figures of injured passengers.

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On the same DVD are the two final ghost stories from the 1970s. I don’t like either of them, so I won’t give them full reviews.

The first, Stigma, concerns a family living near my favorite ancient stone circle at Avebury. A skeleton is dug up with the remains of an iron knife, and the mother of the family suddenly starts bleeding from her chest with no apparent wound until she bleeds to death. There’s some connection between the two events, but it feels pretty much pointless.

The second, The Ice House, is strange. The story about a weird brother and sister who run a health resort and keep selected clients frozen in their ice house isn’t bad in its substance, but the presentation is off and it doesn’t work. The dialog is oddly mannered and the actors’ speech is stilted; it feels like it’s a direct translation from Swedish or German.

After these last two shows, the Ghost Stories for Christmas died off, until the series was resurrected in the 2000s.

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Author: Kathryn L Ramage

Kathryn L. Ramage has a B.A. and M.A. in English lit and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She lives in Maryland with three calico cats named after the Brontë sisters. In addition to being the author of numerous short stories, reviews, essays, and period mystery novellas, she is also the author of a series of fantasy novels set in a dukedom called the Northlands on an alternate Earth whose history has diverged from ours somewhere during the medieval period.