I am so sick of Charles Dickens. Admittedly, I can’t stand his works at the best of times. But Christmas is the worst of times for this tedious drivel. At this time of year, there is already an overabundance of those saccharine images of middle-class domestic perfection that he tried oh-so-hard to create. I don’t want my ghost stories with extra sugar as well.
Scrooge and Bob Cratchit celebrate Christmas in an illustration from Stave Five of the original edition, 1843, by John Leech. This image is in the public domain.
The only acceptable Dickens’ story is the 1976 TV adaptation of The Signalman for the BBC’s Ghost Story for Christmas series. This is because it is so so much better than the original text.
I watched this film again last night, and I was once again impressed by how brilliantly filmed and adapted it is.
In adapting the text for the screen, Andrew Davies has improved the structure of the story. The change of ending from Dickens’ rather dry version (where the narrator only hears about the signalman’s demise) develops the dramatic climax of the story. Davies has also added several dream sequences, which add to the general tension and mounting fear that the piece creates. Importantly, they also raise questions about the role of the narrator of the story and the place he has in the events.
The introductory commentary by director Lawrence Gordon Clark also brings out valuable additional insights. The director’s view emphasises the role of the railways as an impersonal, automated, and systematic machinery of destruction, which ultimately links the industrial revolution to the Holocaust. This is a symbolism that Clark explores through the open mouth of the tunnel, the spectre and the narrator. Although Dickens had an understandable fear of train crashes, this is, I think, to read too much into Dickens’ text. However, this sense of inevitability, of the hand of fate that cannot be escaped, adds an important dimension to the BBC version of the story. It allows the railway to become a symbol of the impersonal and automated structures of society that transform the signalman from an individual to a cog in the wheel of society. This links to the more overtly Marxist themes that the production explores.
One meaning that Dickens may actually imply, but that is greatly enhanced in this production, is that of class-tension. Dickens was not an overt Marxist, but this 1970s interpretations brings the class conflict to the fore of the story. Clark’s direction foregrounds the sense of the signalman as an individual trapped by economic forces of history. The signalman is a man interested in philosophy, but who finds himself physically confined to the signal box and mentally confined to listening to the ringing of bells and changing the signals. This depiction of a sensitive man brought to the edge by economic necessity is beautifully captured in Denholm Elliott’s gripping and powerful performance.
Through this subtle shift of interpretation, the narrator’s character then becomes much more than a witness to the events. His platitudinous response to the signalman that a man can only ‘discharge his duty’ seems to convey the patronising attitudes of the middle-class towards the working-class. Not only does the narrator fail to help the signalman, there seems to be some suggestion that his actions help to bring about events; the symmetry of his screaming mouth and that of the spectre suggests a level of complicity.
Overall, this remarkable production is well-worth viewing if you get the chance. Although Dickens could never rival M.R. James’ status as master of the ghost story, the BBC production of The Signalman can still send a chill through your Christmas-holiday viewing.