UK Teleplay Retro: The Signalman
The source material was the key component in the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas series, so after five years of MR James adaptations following the 1968 version of Whistle and I'll Come to You, the 1976 rendition of a Charles Dickens story seemed like a strange departure. The Signalman was the last period piece in the pre-revival series.
Understandably, we don’t equate Charles Dickens with horror. Juggling giant works such as A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and David Copperfield, this entry is pulled from Dickens’ Mugby Junction, a series of supernatural tales published in the Christmas edition of the All Year Round periodical in 1866. Could it be a coincidence that The Signalman was featured in the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas series?
A softly spoken kind of tale, the type that evokes a folksy campfire story; short, simple and thoroughly powerful. After seeing The Signalman, you can’t help but wonder how literature would changed had Dickens turned his energy purely into horror.
Denholm Elliott (Marcus Brody from the Indiana Jones films) is a railway operator, or “signalman” who recounts a recurring ghastly premonition the manifests itself before two fateful accidents. While the signalman seems like a rational person, his nervy demeanor suggests that he’s committed to his belief in a supernatural force that haunts the length of train tracks where he’s located.
Bernard Lloyd plays The Traveller, who remains skeptic and almost moved by the troubled operator and decides to provide some comfort in providing some insight regarding the sightings However, the Traveller’s attempt to calm the poor soul is in vain as the mounting tension gives way to a tragic finale.
There are some elements in this story that could be miscategorized as clichéd or standard practice but after digging through the thematic sandbox of horror devices, the most rewarding stories are more often than not the originators of a genre. The Signalman relies on a simple three act structure, thoroughly conceived narrative, playing on the eternally compelling notion; the fear of death and the unknown.
There’s a bevy of interpretations for a story like The Signalman; is this the overactive imagination of a solitary stranger, is he losing his grasp on reality as a result of a mundane profession, or is death tangible, can it manifest itself and wave its cautionary scythe when you or someone else’s time is up? The one variable I frequently subscribe to is that if a story has such a keen sense of the supernatural or the unexplainable, then it should be read as such, otherwise where’s the fun in a poor old man losing his marbles?
Most importantly, it gives us a choice to walk away from this with more than one way to mull the story over, which is not only a sign of great storytelling, but a viable component missing from the spoon-fed, answer genial climate of modern films.
There’s a level of credibility that The Signalman establishes from the start, and we can thank Denholm Elliott, one of the greatest actors that no one really took advantage of, and that’s flattery because he sells the story with such expressive restraint. There’s such a metaphysical buffer zone that puts us in a place where we can only call him the “signalman” because he’s solely identified by his work. And yet Elliot’s performance is one of profound emotional discord and sadness that continues to resonate upon repeated viewings.
As is the tradition in the A Ghost Story for Christmas series, The Signalman is an expert realization of atmospheric horror. There seems to be an intuitive understanding throughout the series, utilizing literary material that best suits the medium of standalone episodic television.
The thirty-eight-minute runtime might would be a compromising factor in lesser hands; some episodes in the series compromise themselves by building toward a dramatic reveal without enough power to effectively convey anything genuinely scary. Or the payoff is simply ineffective, with a Scooby-Doo-esque “twist,” something our extratextual hindsight would collectively find poisonous.
Sometimes movies miss the point, had Dickens’ The Signalman been ushered into a full-length picture it would be padded with extraneous filler, superfluous characters and a cute dog for the lonely old signalman. But that’s not the expedited ration of nervy anticipation that director Lawrence Gordon Clark and Andrew Davies (who adapted the story) seem to operate with an awareness of their craft and how well the source “fits” their informal wheelhouse.