I listened to three ghost stories on BBC Radio 4 last week. A new decade was beginning, and I was tuned in to three fifteen minute stories that were over a hundred years old. They may have been the best bit of my radio week.
This wasn’t just about the excellence of the stories, or of the actor reading, it was a clever piece of programming that began in the Radio 4 soap opera, called The Archers. The edges of this fictional village have often blurred and blended into the real world. In its early years, this was deliberate.
The soap was developed in collaboration with The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Then, it was billed as an everyday story of country folk.
These days The Archers is billed as, a contemporary drama in a rural setting. It’s set in a fictional village called Ambridge, in a fictional county called Borsetshire, which is somewhere near Birmingham. The story plays out in fifteen minutes slots on weekdays, with an omnibus on Sunday mornings.
As autumn 2019 drew to a close, several Ambridge residents began to ask who would volunteer to organise the village panto. Several characters were approached, but – ‘Oh no, they wouldn’t.’
Tension in the village, and amongst the listeners, mounted. Ambridge theatricals have often been broadcast by Radio 4 as a spin-off, over Christmas. Surely this tradition wasn’t going to be cut?
Not so much cut, as transformed, thanks to a Halloween episode. Jim Lloyd, a retired university lecturer, seriously spooked Robert Snell, another character, by repeating a Victorian ghost story he knew, as they were sitting in an isolated bird-watching hide. By December Jim had been persuaded to tell similar stories to a bigger audience as a Christmas Show.
We listened to fragments of the rehearsals in his performance place, the attic of a local stately home. He clashed first with his stage manager, then his artistic director. While they thrashed out artistic differences, for this listener, the surroundings became clear, even tangible.
It would be almost dark. The attic debris has been cleared to the side of the room, and seats added. It’s a place of shadows, of objects laid aside for decades: random and the once valued. Above are rafters, dusty and cobwebbed. The floor is bare boards. Jim is seated in an armchair, with his book, facing his audience.
On opening night tension mounted. Curtain-up time approached and only four people had arrived. Maybe the premise was too unusual, the setting too odd… Jim was talking of calling it off, when a busload of listeners trooped in.
The show was, of course, a smash hit, a sell out. Other characters discussed it, raved about it, regretted failing to get a ticket.
I now know what they missed, because Jim’s tales went out in that separate slot on the schedule. The first one, broadcast on December 30th, was The Room in the Tower, by E.F. Benson. It’s a 1912 story. Lost Hearts, the 1895 story by M.R. James went out the next day, and The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs, published in 1902, on New Years Day.
The long cold nights of winter are, of course, the ideal time for ghost stories. I first read tales like these in traditional teenage fashion, under the bed-covers, with a torch, when I was supposed to be asleep. I can still recall being aware of every sound, as the house cooled and settled into silence, and menace.
John Rowe, the actor who plays Jim Lloyd, paced his reading carefully, convincingly. His was the voice of someone recalling something they are still struggling to understand, it was perfectly suited to the confessional tone of these beautifully designed story openings: ‘It was when I was about 16...’; ‘It was in September of the year 1811…’; ‘Without, the night was cold and wet...’.
Many turn-of-the-century authors wrote as if their story were being spoken. Some actually described the family and friends at a fireside. We imagine the flickering of the gas or candle-light, turned down so that it fails to quite reach the corners of the room. Notice how those shadows are inclined to dance…
The broadcast stories needed no sound effects. They were abridged, by Jeremy Osbourne and Jeremy Howe.
John Rowe, an actor, playing a character who is taking on the voice of another fictional character, read all of the necessary voices beautifully – chillingly.