Lawrence Gordon Clark's made-for-TV adaptation of Charles Dicken's The Signalman scared the crap out of my brothers and I when we first saw it as kids in the late-1970s. It features Denholm Elliott as a railway signalman in nineteenth-century England, haunted by the repeated appearance of a specter at the entrance of a railway tunnel. Disaster follows each ghostly apparition until . . .
Well, I can't give too much away, now, can I?
What I will share is Helen Wheatley's observation that Clark's adaptation of The Signalman maintains the original story's "sense of decorum and restraint . . . withholding the full revelation of the supernatural until the very last moment, and centering on the suggestion of a ghostly presence rather than the horror of visceral excess and abjection."
And here's what John Coulthart's has to say about The Signalman in the anthology Horror! 333 Films to Scare You to Death.
The Signalman conjures a palpable quality of dread from a few simple ingredients – a dismal railway cutting with a baleful warning light, the black mouth of a railway tunnel and Denholm Elliot's haunted features.
When an unnamed stranger comes to visit Elliott's lonely signalman a series of fireside talks lay bare the workman's recurrent premonitions of disaster haunting his stretch of the line. The unpredictability of this setting works in its favor [with] The Signalman summon[ing] new fears for an industrial age, of sudden calamity and death delivered by an alliance of thundering steam engines and an implacable fate. The scenes in the dank railway cutting have an authentic, visceral chill and [the film] successfully withholds the tragic secret at the heart of the tale right to the moment of its shattering climax.
And so, without further ado, I present The Signalman . . .
So how are you enjoying it so far?
Before sharing the final two installments, here's the BBC's Simon Farquhar's appraisal of The Signalman.
The Signalman is the first evidence of [screenwriter] Andrew Davies' gift as an adaptor of literary fiction, as he transforms a Victorian page turner into the finest 40 minutes of supernatural drama television has ever produced. His script constantly refers back to the original story, tightening the screw by adding dream sequences, pindrop conversations and tantalizing hints of the terribly inevitable climax.
Director Lawrence Gordon Clarke cast Denholm Elliott in the lead. "Denholm was so wonderful in that role, like a tightly coiled spring. There was such tension in the character: he was always only a step away from insanity."
The railway itself becomes a character in the story, Dickens somehow managing to spot that beyond the shock of the new, there was already something eerily antiquarian about this strange new mode of transport that was roaming through lonely corners of the countryside. And despite an extremely arduous shoot, Davies and Clarke's fog-wreathed, flame crackling masterpiece manages something the production team could never have imagined: it's better than the book.
Recommended Off-site Link:
The Signal-Man by Charles Dickens.
See also the previous Wild Reed posts: