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The Signalman
cast: Denholm Elliott, Bernard Lloyd, Reginald Jessup, and Carina Wyeth

director: Lawrence Gordon Clark

39 minutes (PG) 1976 BFI DVD Region 2 retail Also available to buy on video

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Paul Higson
Andrew Davies, we read constantly, is a bringer of classic drama to television, but he's laughing all the way to the bank on the talent of others, his best no more than a transcription of the dialogue from the classic English novels section of your local bookshop. His job is merely the removal of the prose and turning it into simple script direction, retaining only the verbal interaction. The script girl could do that. The remainder of his fame is to up the ante on the sexy side. He is nothing more than a dirty old plagiarist. To see accolade heaped on the man offends me, the few occasions that he did not leap upon and molest the literary works of Kingsley Amis, Jane Austin, Charles Dickens, Daniel Defoe, Mrs Gaskell, Sarah Walters, Trollope, Eliot, Thackeray and Shakespeare and the rest of the gratefully dead of the classics library, he came up with... what? The pathetic sit-com Game On that built up a fanbase of those who thought reiterating the word 'shag' 50 times in 30 minutes was hilarious, and the lusty lycanthrope caper Wilderness, a more such hardy and important job that he felt necessary to have a co-writer on, his wife. He is no Dennis Potter, unless there were mouths urgently in need of feeding he would not have turned to adaptation, he had the lucky lustre of creativity in his natural bent.
   Davies built up his reputation in the BBC through commissions that like a good boy he applied himself as honestly as possible to, no added ladling of soft sleaze, if it is a short story and that is clearly what the producers want, that is what they shall have returned. Davies was not a regularly contributor to the BBC's annual treat of a ghost story for Christmas when they came to their penultimate yarn in the strand with an adaptation of Charles Dickens' The Signalman in 1976 and it was his luck that they ended the Victorian examples on such an effective note, for though earlier BBC Christmas ghost stories were as effective, it had nothing with a supernatural costume gothic theme to supplant it for some time upon that, with the replacement ghost strand in a modern setting and minus Lawrence Gordon Clark and company's talents for the eerie and the threatening. It is likely Davies was granted this gig as a result of his fortuitous adaptation of Poe's Imp Of The Perverse for television's Centre Play a year earlier, starring Michael Kitchen.
   "Hallo! Below there!" begins the story, the cry of a visitor (Bernard Lloyd) to the country, a man free following an illness, his lungs fastening on the air, his mind fascinated with the discoverer of a railway gorge and a signal box close to tunnel, the lone signalman (Denholm Elliott) trapped for interminable hours in its cleavage, the sky a limited ceiling, visitors rare, and glad of the company, if only it were not for the spectre repeatedly appearing under the danger light at the mouth of the tunnel. The stranger identifies with the signalman; the landscape is refreshing to him for he has also come from a cornered predicament, unexplained but for "I have spent much of my life shut up within narrow limits. I have been confined and now I am free." The signalman is a man of lousily hid intelligence, admitting then to have been formerly a student of natural philosophy, but neither is he afraid of the S-word: supernatural. He is a haunted man, responding not only to the bell that instructs him of the due approach of the trains but the phantom vibrations that it gives off also. The spectre too disturbs him frequently on some new forewarning of a tragedy. The signalman knows it to be a fatal incident on the way as he is able to recount two previous episodes that began with the wail of the desperate ghost and ended with, first, a terrible crash in the tunnel, and secondly, the sickening fall of a newly wed bride from the carriage as it leaves the tunnel. The increased activity of the haunting one is destroying the signalman, desperate also to try and prevent the new tragedy but unaware of the form it will take, certain only that it will be appalling. Denholm Elliott's countenance is one of a man convincingly distressed upon the haunting. His occupation is cruel to him, time is plentiful, the job is non-taxing physically but damaging mentally because of the great responsibility that lies with it. The manual work is occasional and straightforward, it is the plentiful time between that he must occupy himself with and as the ghost mimics events from the future it is time that plays the ultimate jest on him. If only he hadn't had "...all the time in the world to fill," he may not have become prey to the entity, the tragedies occurring naturally, riding on his torment.
   The music of Stephen Deutsch is more accurately a soundtrack, like someone left some machines on in the Radiophonic Workshop and somebody let a bad air in on it. Chills are delivered on the carefully composed shots, in the silences and on the electronic soundboard. The camera driving past the ashen, eyeless ghost on a soundtrack of tinnitus still evokes a shiver. Perhaps too short to issue alone as a DVD release, this is nonetheless a superbly set out and paced thriller. As to Davies, there is no evidence as his constituting a part in the scary end results, the credit going to the original authorship as this creepy original is transposed to film, the real added talent lying in the direction of the camera, the sound and the superb on-screen performances of the two leads.
   DVD extras: a reading of the original Dickens' story by John Nettleton (40 minutes), sleeve notes by Dick Fiddy.
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