written & directed by Mark Gatiss (based on the story by M.R James)
This adaptation of M.R James's 1911 short story aired on Christmas Day, but I've only just found time to sit down and watch it. Mark Gatiss (Doctor Who) has been a lifelong fan of the renowned English author since watching the BBC's classic 1970s adaptations in his formative years. Indeed, his career has been largely spent updating or paying homage to his adolescent touchstones; from The League of Gentlemen days, through to his modernisation of Sherlock Holmes, an update of a H.G Wells story (First Men the Moon), and the Amicus horror inspired Crooked House miniseries (also influenced by M.R James).
The Tractate Middoth is the least remarkable of the recent drama's Gatiss has written, but perhaps the fact it's a relatively straightforward adaptation was part of the appeal for a writer sitting in the director's chair for a change. Maybe as a result of this experience, Gatiss will feel confident enough to tackle trickier stories soon, perhaps from source material other than his own.
This 35-minute ghost story (part of the BBC's annual A Ghost Story for Christmas strand, revived in 20051), was a reasonable and occasionally chilling affair, but one that never seemed to build to anything extraordinary. There were also a few contrivances modern audiences won't let slip--like how our librarian hero (Sacha Dhawan) is spooked by a skull-like phantom laced with spiders, then convalesces at the home of the very people who know the spectre's back-story. It's all so convenient I momentarily thought I'd missed something that would have excused it.
Where this special excels is in keeping a mood and managing to show the apparition in a way that causes the hairs on the back of your neck to stand on end, although admittedly Gatiss is broadly copying what worked for the 1970s adaptation he grew up on (lots of extreme close-ups, fleeting glances, and unnervingly prolonged silences). Still, I'd like to see what Gatiss directs next, and hope it's something where he can begin to put his own signature on things, rather than do a decent impression of Jonathan Miller (who directed the classic M.R James adaptation from 1968, Whistle & I'll Come to You).
25 December 2013 | BBC2
1. Although it's hardly a full-blown revival, as the strand has only actually produced four stories since 2005, the last being 2010's Whistle & I'll Come to You remake with John Hurt.