Rating: 2.5 out of 5 (okay)
Veteran voice actor and narrator of ‘The Dead Room’ radio show, Aubrey Judd, returns to his old BBC recording studio. Yet more than happy memories wait for Aubrey in his old haunt.
There is a tradition, a very English and Victorian tradition, of telling ghost stories upon Christmas Eve. It was this tradition which spurred M. R. James, grandfather of the genre, to create ghost stories for his students at Cambridge University. Later published in printed collections, M. R. James’ works fed into the stories of H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King. Yet while Lovecraft’s cosmic horror and Stephen King’s unique voice predominate pop culture, ghost stories have begun to fade away. The BBC did adapt many ghost stories into made-for-television films through its A Ghost Story for Christmas series which sadly ended in the late 1970’s. Luckily a brief revival in the series occurred during my early teens, when I was terrified one Christmas Eve by M. R. James’ Number 13.
The premise of Mark Gatiss’ The Dead Room reflects the state of the ghost story in modern times, relegated to radio and lamenting better days. The Dead Room acts as a meta narrative about the archetypal ghost story descended from M. R. James and asks whether the genre remains relevant. Dialogue between Aubrey Judd and radio producer Tara highlight the ghost story’s transition from following over-curious English academics to more personal narratives of past trauma and guilt.
The Dead Room is a fitting analysis of the ghost story but fails to be fundamentally scary. Beyond the immediate frights and flitting tension, The Dead Room lacks the lingering dread of prior tales in the BBC’s tradition of ghost stories for Christmas. Ghost stories need time to build up to their terrifying crescendo and let fear seep into the viewer. The Dead Room’s brief time-span forces the story to hurtle along, robbing the tale of any sting as it concludes events.
The Dead Room’s cinematography plays well within the confines of the BBC’s cramped recording studio and the cast all deliver consistent performances. Yet the tale’s brevity, and Mark Gatiss’ insistence to show his understanding of ghost stories, makes The Dead Room feel like a clumsy addition into A Ghost Story for Christmas.
It is warming to see that the ghost story tradition is not quite dead so to speak, but future adaptations should look to Jeremy Dyson’s Ghost Stories to understand how the ghost story can adapt.
By Saul Shimmin
The Dead Room is available now on BBC iplayer