sat 29/02/2020

Martin's Close, BBC Four review - where did the scary bits go? | reviews, news & interviews

Martin's Close, BBC Four review - where did the scary bits go?

Martin's Close, BBC Four review - where did the scary bits go?

Mark Gatiss adaptation of M R James story is a damp squib

Peter Capaldi (in unfeasible wig) as prosecutor Dolben

The series of short films, A Ghost Story For Christmas, became a Yuletide staple on BBC One in the 1970s. Most of them were adapted from the works of medieval scholar M R James, and drew their unsettling supernatural aura from the understated and academic tone of the writing.

Mark Gatiss is a fan of this televisual tradition, and in 2013 he adapted James’s story The Trachtate Middoth. After writing his own spooky yarn last year, The Dead Room, now he’s back on the M R James trail with this new effort. Unfortunately it won’t be remembered as a landmark of the genre.

Perhaps it’s because all the likeliest James stories have already been given the TV treatment. Perhaps Gatiss had too much on his plate this Christmas, having masterminded the BBC’s new Dracula dramatisation as well as presenting a documentary about Bram Stoker and the creation of the sanguinary Count. Whatever the reasons, Martin’s Close was a listless, uninspiring affair. Hairs on the back of one’s neck refused to bristle. The spine remained obstinately un-tingled.

The story was set in 1684, and concerned a well-to-do young man, John Martin (Wilf Scolding), who was on trial for the murder of Ann Clark (Jessica Temple). Clark was a poor servant girl suffering some form of mental impairment, with whom Martin decided to engage upon what looked like a romantic affair. This was baffling, since he came from a wealthy family and was already engaged to be married to a glamorous young woman of similar social rank. His dalliance (or whatever it was) with Clark caused his wedding to be cancelled. She then pursued him relentlessly and became “the very plague of his life”.

Despite the dolorous performance by the prosecuting attorney Dolben (Peter Capaldi, in a farcical jumble-sale wig), the evidence of Martin’s guilt was circumstantial at best. He was charged with cutting the girl’s throat and dumping her body in a pond, but it was never made clear whether he did or not. Nor was his motivation apparent. Was he possessed by the Devil, as the prosecution alleged? Or perhaps Ms Clark was in fact Old Nick incarnate?

What was supposed to send us diving under the bedclothes was the news that Clark had mysteriously been seen alive after she was supposed to be dead, while a garbled story of a weird misshapen creature hiding in a cupboard at the inn where she’d worked hinted at the presence of the paranormal. But it all refused to hang together. One could only sympathise with the notorious Judge George Jeffreys (of "Bloody Assizes" notoriety), who presided over the case with an air of sniggering and facetious incredulity.

Judge George Jeffreys (of 'Bloody Assizes' notoriety) presided over the case with an air of sniggering and facetious incredulity

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Give up Mark. This and the Dead Room was crap compared to the oldie's

What I saw was a pretty faithful dramatisation of the original story, which I like to to think that Adam read and was familiar with before he embarked on his review. I would certainly agree that Martin's Close is one of the less well-known M R James stories but a worthy effort, I thought, and I went to bed on Christmas Eve very pleased with it, although my favourite - one, I suspect, of Geoff's "oldie's" (sic) - remains A Warning to the Curious. Reading some of the comments on the BBC Dracula thread, I get the impression that Gatiss is on a hiding to nothing with some people: That adaptation is certainly irreverent, taking enormous liberties with Stoker's original. I could go on at greater length about it but, reminded that this thread is about Martin's Close, I'll just say that, with Dracula, Gatiss,is getting it in the neck (pun intended) for departing too far from the original work, whereas with Martin's Close, he's criticised for sticking too closely to the original - a pretty dry affair, based as it was around the transcript of a court case. So I suppose the answer to "where did the scary bits go?" is, simply, that there weren't any to start with...

I regret I haven't read the story, PB, though your description of it doesn't make one rush for the bookshelf. It seems odd that Gatiss would pick this one to televise.

Please don't let me put you off Adam: I think Martin's Close is a good story, and certainly worth reading; what delighted me about the adaptation was how closely it *did* adhere to the original tale. I am not normally impressed by TV adaptations that deviate too far from the original - thinking here of Sarah Phelps' execrable Agatha Christie adaptations. Having said that, James presented Martin's Close as a post-facto account of a court case and the slow atmospheric development of the tale works fine on paper, but the dramatic limitations of the form are obvious. What works well in prose form does not necessarily transfer well to the screen. Gatiss in my view did the story a great service by playing it largely "by the book". I suppose this approach worked for me as I'm a bit of a purist when it comes to M R James, although I can see how it might have been thought a bit slight and/or slow-moving by someone unfamiliar with the story, and expecting more in the way of Chills and Thrills. Your comment about it being an odd one to televise is interesting as I recall thinking the same - "how's that going to work?" - when it was first announced. It was certainly a long way from being the obvious choice for an adaptation - I'd like to see someone have a crack at "An Episode of Cathedral History" - but the end result was pleasing to me, if not yourself. Clearly adaptations are a tricky, not to mention risky, business, and there'll be no pleasing everyone. I will close by hoping that you'll give the original story a go. PB

Yes, why not. I did have an M R James collection which seems to have vanished along the way. A replacement would seem in order.

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