Twelve years later, the story continues - at a time of economic depression - when amateur archaeologist Paxton (Peter Vaughan) arrives, by train from London, in the coastal village of Seaburg to a decidedly lukewarm reception from the desperately forlorn locals. "If anyone comes down here, it's an occasion." Paxton is told, as he attempts to investigate the fate of the Ager family, the last man of which is long since dead and buried. Rumoured to be the guardians of three legendary crowns that have mythical powers to protect England from invaders, the Agers (not to be read as 'New Age', okay!) survive as a wandering spirit that pursues any relic hunter to his doom. Paxton finds the secret of a treasure map in an old book and, after an anxious night spent digging in spooky Thruxton woodlands, discovers the fabled Seaburg crown exactly where it was supposed to be. However, the removal of the artifact from its hidden resting place of power invites tragedy, and Paxton is chased by a dark figure, elusive but obviously very threatening, always out of shouting range yet rarely out of sight. Haunted by this spectre of death, Paxton realises he must return the crown to its rightful place in the earth.
Persuasively creepy and highly atmospheric rather than being scary, this is a quietly effective, efficiently produced, supernatural tale that successfully induces a keen sense of terror in viewers better than many of Hammer's horror movies. Originally produced by the BBC as part of their annual strand of 'a Ghost Story for Christmas' (begun in 1971), this is the kind of genre adaptation, so particularly faithful to its distinctive literary source, which is no longer in favour today. Nowadays, brash and explicit digital visual effects tend to brush aside the evocation of menace by great acting, a finely honed teleplay or stylishly photographed landscapes and complementary shadowy lighting on sets. Or, perhaps, they really have forgotten how to make this sort of thing. Watching this poignant 30-year-old work, and then comparing it to the current crop of 'silly season' TV shows broadcast towards the end of 2002, only strengthens the notion that making a genuinely entertaining, though agreeably postmodern, Christmas ghost story for the small screen, is quite definitely a lost art.
Lawrence Gordon Clark, who also made the first instalment of this seasonal series, The Stalls Of Barchester Cathedral (1971), based on another M.R. James' tale, went on to make hard-hitting political thriller about the IRA, Harry's Game (1982), and the admirably chilling SF-horror serial Chimera (1991), scripted by Stephen Gallagher from his own novel.
DVD extras: biographies of director Clark and author James, a fine audio recording of the original short story read by Michael Hordern, sleeve notes by Dick Fiddy.