The Signalman (1976)

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A lonely Signalman is visited by a stranger.


(story), (adaptation)
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Complete credited cast:
The Signalman
Bernard Lloyd ...
The Traveller
Reginald Jessup ...
The Engine Driver
Carina Wyeth ...
The Bride


For this the sixth of the BBC's "A Ghost Story for Christmas" series we are presented with an adaptation of a Charles Dickens story rather than one by M.R. James. A traveler (Bernard Lloyd) sees a railway signalman (Denholm Elliott) in a lonely location. The signal box is situated between two steep sided hills close to the entrance to a tunnel. The traveler, shielding his eyes from the glare of the sun with one arm, waves to the signalman and cries out "Hallo, Below There". But he is puzzled when the railway worker not only does not reply to him but actually seems to be afraid of him. When the traveler reassures him that there is nothing to fear about him, the signalman welcomes the stranger into his signal box and begins to tell him a remarkable story. Written by Mark_a_Wood <>

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


Drama | Horror | Short





Release Date:

22 December 1976 (UK)  »

Also Known As:

Ghost Story for Christmas: The Signalman  »

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Did You Know?


When the signalman steps out of the tunnel shortly after the accident inside (which result in a still burning fire at the time of the shot) the tunnel is issuing forth large amounts of smoke but there is no red glow one would expect if a fire was burning a short way down it. See more »


Version of Suspense: The Signal Man (1953) See more »

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User Reviews

An unexpected surprise - a period drama concerned with more than curtains.
28 May 2001 | by (dublin, ireland) – See all my reviews

Costume dramas today are equally reviled and revered for their superficiality, their concentration on surface pleasures - the recreation of a past historical period, country houses, costumes, gestures, manner of speaking, in a way that was virtually absent in the classic works - e.g. Dickens, Austen - they are based on, where these things were part of everyday life. Such a concentration might have a useful value - to underline in concrete terms the restrictions on individuality in the period

  • but more often they are recreated and enjoyed for their own sake. This

is why they are often called 'heritage' works - something to be preserved, frozen in time, as in a museum, rather than anything that might say anything to us today.

Since the early 1990s, the heritage drama revived spectacularly with successes such as 'Middlemarch' and, especially, 'Pride and Prejudice'. The architect of this revival has been screenwriter Andrew Davies, who might be seen as its auteur. But Davis wasn't always a literary curator, as this strange offering from the 1970s shows. If modern heritage drama is defined by its sumptuous visual pleasure, its fetishising of period detail, and its vivid cast of quaint characters, than 'The Signalman' is its austere opposite, a dark chamber two-hander, confined to one location, a railway box shrouded in a steep valley by a tunnel.

Where the modern heritage drama priveleges long shots to emphasise detailed production values, 'Signalman' is full of grim close-ups; period details are minimal, the mise-en-scene often impenetrably obscure. There is no jolly music, just eerie, science-fiction type sound effects which literally express the thematic importance of telegraph wires, but more deeply give an estranging sense of unfamiliarity, the modern intruding on the 'safe' past.

My husband, a big fan of Davies' later work, thought it was like a Beckett play, and promptly fell asleep. I was enthralled by its puritanical stripping down of superficial pleasure, creating the proper atmosphere for a ghost story, but also emphasising the narrative's ritualistic aspect - the setting in a space apart from 'civilised' life; the focus on characters defined by their solitude; the three-part nature of the story.

Denholm Elliot is a railway signalman who on occasions has seen a supernatural vision of someone yelling 'You down below', and waving his arms. This vision has twice been followed by horrific train accidents. A stranger passing by, who has been mysteriously confined for some time, listens to his story, and insists on the rational view - that it is a product of a mind worked on by the bleak loneliness of his situation. The Signalman takes his advice to forget all about it.

Dickens is such a relentlessly social, sprawling novelist, it is a pleasure to see something as pared back and concentrated as this. The connection made in the source between scientific progress (telegrams, railways) and the supernatural, between telegrams and visions as media of information transmission, of the effects on time made by the annhilation of space produced by new technology, may not be as lucidly brought out as they might, but as an example of how serious and genuinely faithful (i.e. in spirit) TV literary adaptations used to be, this is a must.

18 of 21 people found this review helpful.  Was this review helpful to you?

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