M.R. James’s story, on the Gaslight site at http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/jamesX05.htm, is about a 17th-century gentleman who accuses a woman of witchcraft. Unfortunately for him, the accusation isn’t unfounded and she places a curse on his family that will not only destroy him but also his grandson 50 years later.
James tells his story in chronological order, beginning with the grandfather then going on to the grandson. The BBC version, made for their Ghost Story for Christmas series in 1975, reverses the order. It also makes a slight alteration to the family tree, so that the curse passes from great-uncle to grandnephew.
The television version of The Ash Tree opens in the 1700s just as Sir Richard Fell (Edward Petherbridge) returns from his travels in Italy upon his uncle’s death to claim his inheritance. Sir Richard is full of progressive ideas and plans to improve his newly acquired estate. He sketches up a Palladian front for his old manor house, decides on a spot for a Grecian-style temple, and speaks to the vicar about building a family pew in the parish church. At every opportunity, he mentions his pending marriage to one Lady Augusta and the progeny he hopes to have–sometimes both in the same breath.
That Sir Richard’s thoughts go straight from marriage to baby-making is probably not due entirely to his sense of duty in carrying on his family line; this becomes apparent once we meet his lovely fiancee (Lalla Ward).
Together, they are a fast and modern young couple. Lady Augusta rides over unaccompanied to visit her fiance and see her future home. The two laugh over racy books like Tom Jones, hang up nude paintings brought back from Italy in the front hall, and kiss right in front of the servants.
But a strange darkness already overshadows their prospective happiness. As Sir Richard rides around his new estate, he observes dead sheep and cattle in the meadow. The shepherd says that that happens when they’re left out and that animals shut in for the night are safe from “the sickness.”
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