Badvent Calendar Day 19

A far from indifferent ‘Mezzotint’

Last Christmas Eve, the BBC treated us to an adaptation of ‘The Mezzotint’ by M.R. James. In the story, museum curator Mr Williams receives the eponymous artwork.

“It was a rather indifferent mezzotint, and an indifferent mezzotint is, perhaps, the worst form of engraving known.”

Actually, the mezzotint has some very unusual properties, in keeping with this kind of tale of the cursed or haunted objet d’art. The story has been adapted before, but previously either as a televised reading such as Robert Powell’s in 1986, or as a modernised variation in such shows as Rod Serling’s Night Gallery (1970-73), in whose pilot episode it appeared in the guise of ‘The Cemetery’ with Roddy McDowall. ‘The Mezzotint’ is also probably an influence, along with other M.R. James tales, upon the seminal Hideo Nakata ‘J-horror’ movie, Ringu. The creative force behind the most recent A Ghost Stories for Christmas films, Mark Gatiss, previously adapted it for radio, with himself as M.R. James.

But this is the first time ‘The Mezzotint’ has been directly dramatised for TV.

It’s up on i-player, so acts as a welcome foretaste of the forthcoming version of ‘Count Magnus’ to be shown on Christmas Eve-Eve, so I took a second look at ‘The Mezzotint’ after enjoying tuning in to the original broadcast. I still found it an accomplished version, played with a commendably straight face, which was a relief, as I always have a sneaking suspicion that Gatiss puts on these TV horror shows with something of a tongue-in-cheek smirk, but that might be his own screen persona and his history of involvement with clever-clever Sherlock influencing my view. The casting of Rory Kinnear as the unfortunate Williams is an excellent choice, ensuring the balance between humour and terror is the right one.

For the most part, it’s a very faithful rendering of the story, with parts of the dialogue transferred verbatim from the story, but as with Lawrence Gordon Clark’s classic adaptations, what’s interesting is what’s added and what taken away. Take ‘A Warning to the Curious’ (1972). In James’ story, the working class bit-part players like ‘Boots’ at the inn are there for comic relief, ‘rude mechanicals’ with funny accents I can’t help feeling the author regards with a certain condescension that’s very much of its time. But in his spartan, minimalist version, Clark deliberately makes the doomed meddler, Paxton (Peter Vaughan), an unemployed bank clerk, and the only person manifesting contempt for him is ‘Boots’ himself, a deferential innkeeper who pointedly cites the other guest at the inn Dr Black (Clive Swift) as “a real gentleman” and looks askance at the battered shoes Paxton tries to hide. Eyeing the newspaper announcing three million unemployed, Boots acts affronted at his impecunious guest’s request for a bicycle. On his travels on the push-bike, Paxton meets a couple of eccentric middle class types, but also a young woman, like him working class, and driven out of London to the Norfolk coast by the need to find work.

At about half an hour, Gatiss’s ‘The Mezzotint’ is very brief, but nevertheless fleshes out Williams. Character is often cited as a weakness in James’s tales. Clark’s answer to this in ‘A Warning’ was to dispense with the usual scholarly milieu in which the central character moves, and replace it with impoverished circumstances that motivate him to embark upon the risky course he does. Gatiss’s approach is to give Williams a genealogical link to the tragedy that eerily plays out in the mezzotint, and the aridity of his characteristically Jamesian lifestyle as a confirmed bachelor “without issue” drives his increasingly obsessive researches into what becomes clear is his own family history, but also echoes the disquieting child abduction element at the heart of this story.

Williams’ story becoming entwined with that of Arthur Francis also prepares the ground for an ending that is arguably an attempt to compensate for the fact that the adaptation cannot fully show the horrors M.R. James describes as appearing in the mezzotint — the insect-like creature scuttling towards the house, disappearing inside and then re-emerging with its prey. It relies upon the reactions of the various characters to the uncanny changes to the landscape it depicts. But the conclusion allows these horrors to take on a more tangible form, which in style, theme and execution acts as a homage and nod back to Ringu. It is undoubtedly an effectively frightening climax, even if it feels a little tacked on, but the changes to the story and to Williams’ character help to stop it being too much so.

You can watch it here.

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