While cataloging the library of Barchester Cathedral, a scholar finds a diary detailing the events surrounding the mysterious death of an Archdeacon some 50 years earlier. The first of the BBC's famed 'A Ghost Story for Christmas'.
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A scholar, Dr Black (Clive Swift), is engaged in cataloging the collection of the library of Barchester Cathedral. He is finding the work heavy going as there is little of any real interest within the collection and the librarian is proving less than helpful. However, the librarian and Dr Black discover a box of documents pertaining to a former Archdeacon of the Cathedral. Black begins reading the diary of Dr Haynes, an ambitious cleric who finds his promotion to the position of Archdeacon blocked by a geriatric incumbent who seems like he will never vacate the position. The impatient Haynes (Robert Hardy) seems to conspire to hasten the Archdeacon's death and is duly appointed Archdeacon. However, his diary reveals that once in post Haynes becomes increasingly disturbed as he is plagued by unnerving events both within the Cathedral and his own home.Written by
"Who that touches me with his hand, if a bloody hand he bear, I counsel him beware"
'The Stalls of Barchester (1971)' was the first entry in BBC's wonderful "Ghost Story for Christmas" series, but unfortunately it fails to attain the dizzying heights of creepiness reached by 'A Warning to the Curious (1972)' and 'The Signalman (1976).' The short film was adapted from a tale by author M.R. James who provided many of the "Ghost Stories for Christmas" and was directed by Lawrence Gordon Clarke, who likewise helmed most of BBC's ghost-story adaptations. The story concerns Archdeacon Haynes (Robert Hardy), who inherits his title following the "accidental" death of his 92-year-old predecessor, whose demise Haynes had awaited rather impatiently. Though it's never explicitly spoken, we all know what evil the Archdeacon has orchestrated, and so punishment is gradual yet inevitable. The recording of the story that I watched (taped, I estimate, around 1999) had an interesting introduction from Christopher Lee, who briefly describes meeting M.R. James in 1935 at Eton College.
If I had to name one reason why 'The Stalls of Barchester' isn't quite as scary as its successors, it would be the storytelling structure. Though telling the story through Dr. Black's (Clive Swift) library research was likely staying faithful to James' original story (I haven't read it myself, but he constructed many of his ghost-stories as third-person tellings), it also disrupted the rhythm of the narrative at regular intervals, and removed the immediacy of Archdeacon Haynes' otherworldly experiences. Hardy, in the main role, was oddly distant and unidentifiable as a character, and so we don't particularly hang onto his every breath as we might otherwise have done. For what it's worth, I associated mostly closely with Dr. Black, and it's unfortunate that his part in the tale was merely that of a curious and belated observer. The first half of the film, merely a set-up completely devoid of the supernatural, was something of a chore to sit through, though the eventual pay-off provided adequate compensation in the form of creepy night-time happenings.
Perusing my previous review of 'A Warning to the Curious,' I was interested to recall that Clive Swift there reprised his role as Dr. Black, playing the holiday companion to Peter Vaughan's haunted treasure-hunter. The success of that M.R. James adaptation underlines my earlier point: by placing our narrator in the midst of the paranormal, and placing his own life on the line, there is a more immediate sense of threat that translates directly towards the viewer's insecurities. 'The Stalls of Barchester,' by its very structure, encourages detachment from its doomed subject, and Hardy's aloof portrayal only broadened this emotional gulf. Nevertheless, this Ghost Story for Christmas has enough creepy moments to warrant interest from fans of the series: a disembodied hand, gaunt and knotted, reaches for Haynes' shoulder; an unseen voice whisperingly requests permission to enter the bedroom; a shadow, swathed in darkness, retreats from the scene of a murder, a chilling hybrid of human and feline features. Sinners beware, for there are those who will always be able to recognise that blood on your hands.
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