Following on from the BFI's successful GHOST STORIES FOR CHRISTMAS collection (a nice 6-disc 'expanded' set of which has also just been released on DVD), and forming part of their celebrated 2013 'Gothic' season, comes this most welcome digital debut of a series of short stories originally shown on BBC during the Christmas of 1986.

There are five episodes in total, each one based on a classic tale by author M R James, and running just shy of 15 minutes in length. The format of each one is simple: a well-spoken Robert Powell acts as our host, greeting us in his dimly-lit study and then nestling in his armchair Roald Dahl-style to tell us the story at hand. In each case, occasional scenes are dramatised through foggy lens framing with nameless actors to help visualise Powell's prose.

The first is "The Mezzotint", in which Powell exercises his vast vocabulary whilst telling of wealthy art dealer Williams who buys the titular engraving of an old country hall on the recommendation of an acquaintance who's also in the business. Returning home with the picture, Williams is disappointed with it until someone points out a dark figure approaching the hall from the corner of the frame.

Whenever Williams brings out the mezzotint to show others, the figure has moved stealthily closer to the illustrated hall. What is its purpose and what will happen once this apparition reaches its destination? These are questions that Williams and his friend set out to answer, by first determining the identity of the manor house in the picture...

Placing "The Mezzotint" first is probably a wise choice, as it's the tale that most instantly engages. The scares are subtler perhaps than in the other entries, insidiously so, but there's no denying the concept, if not its execution, is a creepy one. The illustrations are a nice touch here.

"The Ash Tree" tells of a woman who is put to death for witchcraft in a small English country village by ruthless landowner Sir Matthew. Years later, those with ties to the dignitary's dastardly deed start getting found, blackened and dead in their beds. Could it be that the wronged woman has returned to avenge her savage death? Powell gets really animated towards the end of this one, amusingly so, but the Gothic atmospherics and subtle background music help rein him in somewhat. The best bit comes in the form of some beasts wriggling on one characters pillow at night: what were they - cats?

"Wailing Well" follows a group of scouts who ignore warnings not to go near an old well while on a rambling trip. Needless to say, things don't end well for them when they run into the well's inhabitants - four vengeful ghosts. Darker and more downbeat than the other entries, there's an impressive anger to this tale that helps it stand out.

"Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, my Lad" has of course been adapted from James' work previously, and since, in longer form by the BBC. Indeed, the 70s adaptation remains a highpoint of made-for-television horror stories.

Here, Powell treats the simple yarn with a respectful deftness which complements its austere chills perfectly.

Finally, we get "The Rose Garden". In this, a married couple determine to make use of an unkempt corner of their new property's garden by planting roses in it. Then the previous owner turns up and warns that when she tried the same, terrible things happened to her hapless brother. Will the new owners heed her advice...?

Powell had already proven his genre chops in the 1970s by starring in the likes of THE ASPHYX and ASYLUM. He's equally reliable here: straight-faced, sincere and blessed with that serious, perfectly enunciated Englishness that all vintage home-grown horror films provide so well. He also manages to engage with the viewer well; while he may well be reading from an autocue; he seldom gives that game away and never stumbles across his words. Heck, he even goes so far as to afford his characters with the appropriate regional accents.

The setting is kept simple but is effectively so. Dim lighting and warm, autumnal colours are used intelligently; the score is subtle but creeps up nicely towards the finale of each episode. The little dramatised scenes are hardly necessary but don't detract from the overall effect, I suppose. They do help emphasise, though, how James' stories were very much based around those with money: professors, landowners, art dealers etc.

Each episode is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and looks pretty good, considering its age and scarcity of availability during the last three decades. Colours are nicely rendered; blacks are strong throughout. There is some inevitable noise and detail is good without ever being remarkable, but by-and-large I am very happy with the presentation here.

English 2.0 audio is clean and clear throughout, as are the optional English subtitles for the Hard-of-Hearing.

The disc opens to a static main menu page. From there, you get the option of either choosing to view each episode in isolation or pressing "Play All".

Extra features commence with three episodes of a similar BBC production from 1980 entitled "Spine Chillers". The three episodes proffered, all in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and with fair visual quality, are each based on James stories: "The Mezzotint", "A School Story" and "The Diary of Mr Poynter".

These were produced by the "Jackanory" team (!) and as such are a little lighter than those featured as this disc's main attraction. Still, Michael Bryant presents each 10-minute offering in earnest fashion and they're definitely worth a look as a result.

We also get the bizarre option of watching a whole 5 minutes of "Test Card F". Seriously, you must be in desperate need of a nostalgia fix to even consider wasting 5 minutes of your life watching a still picture of a little girl sitting in front of a chalk board while the screen whistles persistently at you ... Still, it exists here regardless (and although I didn't put it to the test, this set's booklet notes suggest that it plays endlessly unless you navigate away from it ...!).

Finally, we get the usual top-notch booklet accompaniment. In this instance, the included book contains essays by Lisa Kerrigan and Sonia Mullett, as well as full credits for each episode, and notes on the transfers.

CLASSIC GHOST STORIES has been nigh-on impossible to see since its original TV transmission. It ages well, continuing to provide gentle scares in that inimitably polished British style. Another cause for celebration, then, courtesy of our friends at the BFI.

Review by Stuart Willis

Released by Bfi
Region 2
Rated 18
Extras : see main review