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I recently discovered myself reading Charles Dickens’ ghostly short story, The Signalman. In fact, I have it now beside me, in a folding paper copy of the ‘Travelman Short Stories’ series. In this story a visitor to an unspecified railway cutting meets a signalman in charge of a box guarding the entrance to a tunnel. The man tells of an apparition that appears to warn him of impending disaster.

I’ve read the story several times. It is one of the writer’s better known short pieces, so well known in fact that in 1976 – the year of the Lynerd Skynerd air crash – it was turned into a BBC TV movie by Lawrence Gordon Clark.

It’s an almost ‘perfect’ adaptation, if by perfection you mean that it adds nothing to, and takes very little – save for the act of imagination, which Mr Dickens might have thought worth something – from the original. One curiosity, and an amusement to me, was the fact that in the shown story, the unfortunate signal man – and here’s a spoiler – is driven down by the engine whilst standing in the centre of the tracks and facing it. In the told story, we do not see the accident happen, but the narrator arrives afterwards, and has it reported to him -in the shown story, we get both the incident and its report – including the detail that ‘his back was towards her’, which seems to me to make the whole thing a little more believable, if not quite so dramatic.

There is another aspect of the adaptation that struck me as I watched. That was the detail of the train. I have a book on railways in film (Railways on the Screen, by John Huntley, Ian Allen, 1993). There, taking up a mere sixth of a page, is the information that the film was made on the Severn Valley Railway using the Kidderminster Tunnel plus a faux Signal Box. I would have guessed that it was a GWR engine – I know a little bit about that sort of thing – but the genealogy of the coaches would have defeated me (they were GWR too). Of course, in Dickens’ story no detail of coaches or locomotive was included. A problem of the shown story, is that it cannot be, where the told story can, non-specific, but must locate itself where, in this case, the stream train was to be had. Both the writer and the film-maker will strive to get in what they need to get in, and to keep out what they need to be out, but the wordsmith has an easier job of the latter than does the cameraman. The signalman in Dickens’ story refers to the train crash in the tunnel in a dozen or so words: the TV version has flames and wreckage and rescuers searching for bodies. We see the event (or at least its aftermath) directly, rather than getting the signalman’s report of it (and thereby its effect on him – how we describe a thing often tells more about us than it, as in ‘what sort of car was it? Oh! a Great one!’). As the story is about him, rather than about the train, this is a watering down that appears to be a beefing up!

More ghostly, perhaps, than anything in the short story, is the uncanny fact that Denholm Eliot, playing the signalman in the TV version, whistles the tune of Gilbert & Sullivan’s ‘Tit Willow’, which, of course, was not written until several years after Dickens’ death! Mind you, that would put the story (at 1885 or after), more nearly into the time at which that particular locomotive and carriages were in use! Another show/tell conundrum here, for you, as a writer can say ‘he whistled a sad tune’, and the reader will imagine it, but the filmmaker, must either leave it out or pick one – one that perhaps, who knows, following an unexpected event in a cinema, makes you laugh every time you hear it!

The told story, of course, is located in your mind, and on a railway of your remembering, as it no doubt was in Dickens’ mind, for we must not forget that he was involved in the dreadful rail disaster at Staplehurst in the summer of 1865, as it tells me on the cover of that Travelman sheet. What it doesn’t go into is the detail that he was travelling back from France with Ellen Ternan and her mother, whom, for propriety’s sake, he had to pretend during the rescue, were strangers whom he had merely encountered in the debris. Peter Ackroyd, in his 1990 biography of Dickens gives an account of this event stretching over several pages. He also, very briefly, mentions the short story as being included among the Christmas stories for 1866.

Yet the purpose and enjoyment of the two stories seems untouched by the adaptation. In both it is a mood piece, a shiver down the spine, as the fears of an isolated man in a shadowed cutting near a tunnel mouth are played out in reality.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve tried writing ghost stories myself, but they always disintegrate into comedy…some even start that way! Insubstantiality and The Hotel Entrance’ – that ‘ance’ and its pronunciation being significant – are the type, and both to be found in Other Stories & Rosie Wreay.

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD

 

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Penelope Lively, on Radio 4 last week to promote her new collection of short stories, her first for twenty years, remarked that you couldn’t just sit down and write a short story. You had to wait, she said, for them to come to you.

This reminded me of Pooh Bear, talking about poems. But it also reminded me of Stephen King, remarking that he only wrote when he was inspired (adding that he made sure he was inspired at 9.00am on a working day morning!)

Dickens showed a similar sense of focus. He allocated himself several hours of writing time…and took himself off to his workroom (apparently with the kids in tow sometimes) to see it out. If nothing ‘came’ to him, he would doodle, or whistle, or pace, but he wouldn’t give up trying to face down the blank page. Samuel Johnson, an altogether grimmer character I suspect, had already told us that, if a man wants to write he will do it if he sets himself doggedly to it!

It all goes to show that there are many ways to skin that white paper, and that widely divergent writers recognise, not only that, but also what a struggle it can be.

So perhaps now is the moment to put Penelope’s assertion to the test, and without waiting, take yourself off to your writing place……and write a short story….(or a poem). You know you can do it!

I trekked down to Manchester a while back, to see Oliver, the Lionel Bart musical, in its current incarnation. A great show. Neil Morrisey, who I can remember from his days as Michael Elphick’s skinny sidekick in ‘Boon,’ as Fagin, was excellent. The kids ensemble was fabulous, and the production, from props, to sets, to lighting and sound worked amazingly and looked stunning. The theatre itself, The Palace on Oxford Street, was plush and truly traditional in red and gold – Dickensian in fact -with a Grand Tier at the top more steeply raked than the flanks of Hallin Fell.

There’s a but coming though, which is why, oh why, does this production feel the need to sex-up the action? A bit of gratuitous titillation is no bad thing. I’m usually ready to put my hand in my pocket for it, but in Oliver? Some tawdry simulated sexual horseplay, notably during the Oom-pah-pah number seemed uncomfortably out of place, and didn’t add anything to the story – though it did make me wonder if the producers doubted the power of the story…. after all it only has loss of parents, child poverty, virtual slavery, criminal exploitation, abusive relationships, corruption in public bodies and murder to offer. Georgian England, by all accounts, had been a much more rumbustious place. Fielding’s Tom Jones, written a century before Oliver Twist, has a much more prevalent violence, but one that is routine rather than shocking, and his Squire Weston, who is of the class above Dickens, has a mouth as foul as any of Dickens’ low lifes!

From the sublime to the black and white, I followed Oliver the musical, with Oliver the silent movie. Made by Jackie Coogan and released in 1929, preserved in a Czech film archive, restored and re-issued by the BFI, on dvd, this version of the tale is truer to the original than Bart’s enjoyable romp. It still cuts to the chase more simply than the novel, but retains the characters of Monks, and Claypole. The dog, is a star! But so is the young boy who plays Oliver, and the influence of live theatre is strongly there, that stage make-up, which turns all characters into caricatures is strongly in evidence. Beneath it though there was some serious acting, as well as theatrical projecting.

What struck me most though was the similarity of the costumes, and of the staging of many of the scenes, as if Dickens’ early novel has become almost a traditional tale, with a traditional presentation: the ambience and tone of the written work living on in its dramatic and technological descendants.

I’ve been watching the Muppets Christmas Carol, which I do around this time of year. It’s one of Mr Caine’s best movies, IMO! I like Gonzo as Dickens, and Rizzo makes an ‘ideal reader’ as Mr King might say.

Interesting how, like a very good stage version I’ve seen a couple of times at Theatre By The Lake in Keswick, those two orphans, Want and Ignorance, are left out…. which turns the story more towards the personal redemption of Scrooge, and away fro the wider socio-political focus of Dickens’ story. Maybe I should do an adaptation piece on that!

I’m reading Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Dickens (didn’t his brother have a spot of bother with Agatha Christie? – no, not Dickens’ brother!), and wondering what there is left for Claire Tomlin to say!

My other favourite Christmas story is The Tailor of Gloucester, whose little house in Cathedral Close I made a pilgrimage to earlier this year! There’s a good film version of that too…. but I can’t remember who by, (OK, by whom, then)because I only have it on video and nothing to play those on anymore!

May your Yule logs crackle and spit. A very Merry Christmas to you all… Maybe in 2012 I’ll get a keyboard with a proper M on it!

BHDandMe