Teddy Jamieson on winter chills, plus Susan Swarbrick talks to Sara Crowe, star of the new M.R James' adaptation

WINTER is the time for ghost stories. As the nights draw in, we gather to spook ourselves with what might be waiting for us out there in the dark.

And maybe they cut deeper in December than at any other time. Unless you are young and the very idea of Christmas is still shiny fresh and new, it’s impossible not to feel the shadows of the past around us at this time of year. It’s when we think of those now missing, those no longer with us. It’s the time of year when the veil between then and now is at its thinnest.

For so many of us, Christmas itself is a haunting. Of course, in Britain we tend to dress up our ghost stories in Victorian fog and Edwardian great coats, place them safely in the distant past. Echoes of Charles Dickens and MR James can still be heard a century and more later.

Indeed, James’s short story Martin’s Close (set even further in the past, in the 17th century) has been adapted by Sherlock co-creator Mark Gatiss for BBC Four on Christmas Eve, starring Scots Peter Capaldi and Sara Crowe.

Radio 4, meanwhile, has readings of stories by James and EF Benson planned. The ghosts of Christmas’s past spook us still.

Much of that might be put down to Susan Hill. When she sat down to write her hugely successful ghost story The Woman in Black in the late 1980s, the form was out of favour. “Nobody was writing them,” Hill recalls as she sits in her home in Norfolk.

“I wanted to write a traditional, classic ghost story. I wrote a list of ingredients like a recipe. These are the things that I want to read in a ghost story and I wonder if I can concoct something with these elements.”

Her “ingredients” included the weather (always important in a ghost story) and atmosphere (“atmosphere seemed to be the really important thing,” she says. “It’s your tool. It does your work for you”).

Oh yes, and you need a ghost. “And I defined a ghost as – people might think it’s a narrow definition, but it is what people think of – the presence or spirit of a person who has been a real live person and who is known to have died. And after death, whether it’s an hour or 100 years, they reappear in the form they were known in life, so they’re recognisable.”

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The Woman in Black also exploits isolation (it’s set in a secluded house on a causeway that is regularly cut off from the mainland by the tides) and a sense of danger, of course.

The ghost has to have a reason to haunt, to come back, Hill points out. “There are a lot of reasons why a ghost can come back in fiction. There’s the desire for revenge, which is obviously The Woman in Black. There’s the desire to impart a secret that only the ghost knows. That’s where your story comes in. Why is this ghost here?”

That question is also asked in a new Channel 5 adaptation of Hill’s novel The Small Hand. Retitled Susan Hill’s Ghost Story, it stars Douglas Henshall in a story of a malevolent spirit in a Scottish country house (Bannockburn House stands in for the “bad place” in this case).

It’s a film that swims in images of water and blood. And even though it’s set in contemporary Scotland, it has all the pleasures of the traditional ghost story. Like them, the past is constantly trying to invade the present.

And maybe that’s the point of ghost stories. They remind us of what has been lost. In his recent book Ghostland, Edward Parnell explored the landscapes that inspired writers such as James and Benson. The book is also, in a way, a grief memoir. Parnell’s love of ghost stories fuses with his own biography; it is also about the people he has lost. By the end, he has a realisation. “It’s not the house that’s haunted,” he writes. “It’s me.”

Isn’t that true of all of us? Earlier this year someone very close to me died.

For the first time in my life, stubborn materialist that I am, I found myself wanting to believe in ghosts. I found myself looking for a sign, wanting to imagine that shadow was not just the curtain moving in the breeze, hoping that the noise I heard in the middle of the night were whispered words. I was desperate for signs and meaning.

So often ghosts are fuelled by a desire for revenge. Or maybe hate keeps them hanging around. And yet, isn’t love as strong? Stronger even? Why can’t love bring our ghosts back? In fiction at least.

“Why doesn’t love fuel more ghosts, Susan?” I ask Hill. She can think of one example: AS Byatt’s The July Ghost, a story about a mother desperate to see the ghost of her dead son. It is a fiction that draws on fact. Byatt’s son was killed in an accident.

“It is the most moving story and it’s not remotely frightening,” Hill says. “But it is a ghost story.”

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Here is the truth of it; the older we get the more the past haunts us. And sometimes that is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Why do we love ghost stories? Because sometimes we want to be haunted.


The Irvine-born actor on Christmas ghosts, festive traditions and her part in the recent Four Weddings and a Funeral reunion.

What’s your role in Martin’s Close?

I play the innkeeper Sarah Arscott. She is a caring publican/landlady who is protective of the young girl in the story who meets a grisly end. Martin’s Close has a traditional, nostalgic feel as a Christmas ghost story but has been modernised with Mark Gatiss’s twist on things.

The filming was special too because the location they found was so clever and meant it could all be shot in the one place, an Elizabethan hunting lodge in Essex.

They used the top floor as a unit base, the middle floor was set up as the courtroom and the ground floor was the pub. There were exteriors including woodland, a stream and the stable. It was like our own mini Pinewood Studios.

Do you enjoy a Christmas ghost story?

I love Christmas ghost stories and horror films, although I’m not so much into gory ones. I enjoy the jumping and being on the edge of my seat. The Christmas ghost story is a great tradition and I’m so glad it is being preserved by keeping stories like this one by MR James alive.

Will you sit down with family and friends to watch it?

I usually sit down with my dad. He’s 93 now and like me he loves a spooky Christmas ghost story. His eyesight and hearing aren’t the best which means we need to have the volume on the television turned up to 100. It is so loud that you can hear it at the shops.

Do you have any festive traditions?

As a family, we are traditionally a bit impatient and sometimes we can’t quite get to Christmas Day before the presents are opened. Generally, Christmas Eve turns into Christmas Day. We should show more restraint.

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How do you spend Christmas?

With my two sisters, husband, dog and dad. Sadly, my mum is not with us anymore and her absence is something I feel more at Christmas than any other time. In that respect, Christmas is hard because it highlights what’s missing.

Who does the Christmas cooking?

My mum was a very good cook. My big sister has taken up the reins of the cooking and she does a brilliant job. I’m the only vegetarian in the family. My tried-and-tested recipes aren’t so trusted among the carnivores. I can do a nice roast veg.

What is your favourite Christmas memory?

I was given a xylophone by my mum and dad. It had different coloured keys and I was picking out the notes by ear and playing it under the Christmas tree on my own late at night. I can still remember the lights of the tree and smell of the pine. I was probably in some unspeakable 1970s-style nylon nightie giving myself static electric shocks. It is a simple, but lovely memory.

What are you working on?

I’m doing a play next year called Sheila’s Island which is an all-female version of Neville’s Island by Tim Firth. Joanna Read has taken over as artistic director at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford. The first time I worked with Tim and Joanna was in Edinburgh when we did the Corstorphine Road Nativity. Sheila’s Island is about a group of women who go on a team-building work expedition gone wrong and end up marooned in a Lake District-type fantasy island.

Theatre is big passion. What do you love most about it?

I have always felt like that since the very first show I did at 14 or 15, an amateur production of Comedy of Errors at Yvonne Arnaud Theatre. When I realised that acting was something you could do as a job and get paid, I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

There is something magical about the live event nature of theatre and the interaction between performers and audience.

You credit a Philadelphia cheese advert for your early rise to fame.

I was very fortunate to be part of that long-running campaign. It never prevented me from doing different parts in the theatre. It was a very specific character, but I never felt pigeonholed.

How did life change after your role in Four Weddings and a Funeral?

I don’t think anybody involved knew what a big hit it would be. For me, life didn’t change that much because my part was a smaller, supporting role. But it was a wonderful surprise that it became such a classic British film. It is lovely to look back on and remember going to weddings all that summer.

Did you enjoy re-uniting with the Four Weddings and a Funeral cast for Red Nose Day recently?

It was fun and interesting to see how diverse and different people’s paths had been. Some of the cast I hadn’t seen for 25 years, while others I had kept in touch with and seen periodically. It was like going to a very, very camp school reunion.

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What was your favourite moment of filming Martin’s Close?

The courtroom scenes because it is always great dramatically to have that set-up. It builds the suspense beautifully.

Martin’s Close is on BBC Four on Christmas Eve, 10pm. Susan Hill’s Ghost Story is on Channel Five on Boxing Day at 9pm