mon 20/05/2024

A Ghost Story for Christmas: Lot No 249, BBC Two review - mummy's boy unleashes hell in the halls of academe | reviews, news & interviews

A Ghost Story for Christmas: Lot No 249, BBC Two review - mummy's boy unleashes hell in the halls of academe

A Ghost Story for Christmas: Lot No 249, BBC Two review - mummy's boy unleashes hell in the halls of academe

Creepy Conan Doyle story brought to the screen by Mark Gatiss

Kit Harington as Abercrombie Smith

Having previously brought us adaptations of M R James’s ghost stories, reviving the BBC tradition inaugurated by Lawrence Gordon Clark in the 1970s, Mark Gatiss has now turned to a short story by Arthur Conan Doyle for his annual Christmas chiller.

With its cast of upper-crust academics amid the shadowy staircases and wood-panelled studies of Old College, Oxford in the 1880s, it makes a fine addition to the canon.

Recruiting a stalwart cast was a wise precaution. Kit Harington is at centre stage as Abercrombie Smith, who is studying medicine and seems assured of an illustrious career. Though, when we first meet him, his customary composure has deserted him, as he hammers desperately on the door of a colleague, begging to be let in. Reviving himself with gulps of brandy, he gasps that “I have been within the hand-grip of the Devil, that is certain.”

The source of his discomfiture, we learn, lies in the extraordinary behaviour of Edward Bellingham (Freddie Fox, pictured below), an Egyptologist whose researches seem to have been leading him down sinister and inexplicable avenues. On a previous occasion, Smith helped to revive Bellingham from a catatonic stupor. “Narcotics, it is? Some heathen pipe?” demanded Smith. Bellingham replied that he’d been sampling “a sacred plant of ancient Egyptian priests.”

It is Bellingham who gives the story its title. He has acquired Lot No 249 from an auction house, and it comprises “human remains from 40 centuries ago”. It is, in fact, a mummy. Bellingham’s inquiries into its provenance evidently stretch way beyond mere bookishness and into more practical experimentation.

You may be able to imagine the way the story goes (you undoubtedly will if you’ve read Conan Doyle’s original), but the key is the manner of its telling. The Oxford surroundings are redolent of tradition and propriety, where hierarchies are understood and respected. Scholarship is esteemed, as are manly performances on the sports field. Messing with the undead or arcane artefacts from outposts of Empire undermines the orderliness of things. Howling chaos threatens. As Smith puts it, “your filthy Egyptian tricks won’t answer in England.”

Weird noises in the night, unfortunate accidents involving fellow students such as Monkhouse Lee (Colin Ryan) and barely-glimpsed visions of something unspeakable lurking in the shadows steadily crank up the tension, as Smith’s logical scepticism is steadily undermined by whatever is going on in the adjoining corridor. Smith’s friend, a pipe-smoker of aquiline mien who’s proposing to move into rooms on Baker Street, seeks to apply calm analysis to the situation, but that’s a Conan Doyle story for another day.

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