TNB Night Owl–The Signalman

A Christmas tree lit and decorated. Photo by Juliancolton.

The United States wasn’t the only nation with a tradition of holiday TV specials. In England in the 1970s (and recently rebooted) the BBC would run A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS to continue the tradition of telling tales of the supernatural to celebrate the season. All were stand-alone mini movies meant to creep Britons into the holiday spirit. Most were adapted from the M.R. James stories he wrote to tell friends and colleagues at Christmas parties. One, THE SIGNALMAN (1976), was based on a Charles Dickens story. While there is no reference to Christmas or any other winter holiday in the story and it’s subsequent special, it was part of the special series so I’m writing about it.

This intimate tale begins when a mysterious traveler stumbles across a railroad signalman. The stranger asks the signalman for guidance. At first, the signalman is scared by the unknown man. Partially out of kindness and partially out of loneliness, he quickly warms to the man an invites him into his stall to warm up and pass the time. He explains his hesitance–the signalman’s been haunted by an unknown spectre. This mysterious, whispering figure first appeared to him hours before one of the most horrific train accidents on the line. The second time the figure appeared, a young bride fell (or possibly jumped) to her death a the train passed directly in front of him. The spectre appeared a third time–just before the traveler arrived. The signalman has been anxious, knowing disaster was on the way. Will the stranger witness tragedy, or will he be the cause?

This is a tiny film, less than an hour, with two speaking roles, one indoor set and one outdoor. That’s exactly what the story needed to create the sense of isolation and, in that isolation, dread. The actors, British legends Denholm Elliott and Bernard Lloyd, carry the story with tragic grace. This “ghost story” is twice as effective as most studio films but with a fraction of the budget.

Question of the night: what’s the most memorable train ride you’ve taken?

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