The Stalls of Barchester(1971) Lawrence Gordon Clark
One Dr. Black is commissioned to catalogue the finer points of Barchester Cathedral Library and report back on the more interesting entries. Black struggles however to find anything of remote interest, finding the books in bad condition or just interminably dull. He enlists the assistance of librarian, in the hope that he may direct him towards more interesting tomes. Together they find little of interest, but stumble on the unread diaries of one Archdeacon Haynes, the former head of the diocese. The librarian informs Black of the strange circumstances of Haynes's death, theses facts and a quick browse through his writings immediately strike a chord with Black. Initially he finds the entries to be about the mundane clerical workings of the diocese and also on his ambitions to succeed the incumbent Archdeacon Pulterney, who it would seem was going to live for ever before he himself also died in odd circumstances after a fall down the stairs. But what really rises Black's interest is Black's writing on the strange happenings within the cathedral and his home after he did take over. Haynes's becomes aware of peculiar events, noises and whispering voices, that seem to have no solid basis in reality. He questions his own sanity, analyses his family's mental history and quickly denies the possibility that he is going mad. But when his fears rise after some hellish visions, he must again question what the reasons for it are.
The Stalls of Barchester was the first in the BBC's series of Ghost Stories for Christmas and after the success of Jonathan Miller's Whistle and I'll Come to You (1968), the makers again took inspiration from the works of M.R.James. I must admit that I found this film a less well defined adaptation than later films in the series, while it certainly holds your interest, there is a distinct lack of scares. Sure it has its creepy moments, ghostly whispers, doors opening by themselves, even some evil looking cats, but one very unsettling ghostly hand apart, it lacked the fear factor I craved. The cause of this may be one of two things, either this is too faithful a literary adaptation or Clark hadn't developed a style for adapting James' work. Either way the viewer never really comes to terms with Haynes's fears, he remains rather aloof and his fears are given so little time on screen, that some viewers may lose interest or worse still just not care. Another reason maybe the fact that the story telling is done through a third party, namely Dr Black (usually a successful ploy in other James's works), but here perhaps less so. Still though the premise remains intriguing and the film on the whole retains interest throughout, there's even time for some wry black humour concerning Archdeacon Pulterney, whose clutches to life becomes a continuing annoyance to Haynes. A youthful Hardy is excellent in the role, despite the aforementioned aloofness of the character. Clark for his part created a fine debut film, slightly flawed perhaps, but still brimming with good ideas, that would develop even more throughout his directorial career.