You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘railways’ tag.

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

 

Advertisements