OK, I’m going to ask a question which on the surface seems fairly obvious, but which, nevertheless, remains to my knowledge unanswered. Namely: just where exactly did the tradition begin of telling ghost stories at Christmas?
“What tradition”, exclaim a million youthful voices raised on reality TV and gangsta rap. “Fooey!”, say I, diametrically opposed to anyone unaware of the grand customs of the past. But that still doesn’t stop me from wanting to achieve a greater understanding of such things rather than taking them for granted. I mean, who initiated this particular rite? Was it Dickens, with a “Christmas Carol?” Surely not- far too obvious for one thing, and for another, I’m pretty sure the tradition was already well in existence when he wrote it. MR James, who gathered his students together each Christmas and read his chilling tales unto them? Not well known enough. How about Lawrence Gordon Clark, the television director who popularised the work of both James and Dickens onscreen in the 1970s with his legendary annual forays into the unknown entitled, imaginatively, “A Ghost Story For Christmas?” I would sincerely doubt it- the concept lent its name to the programmes, not the other way round.
Perhaps it stems from the Nativity, which introduces us to the most famous spiritual entity of all- the Holy Ghost- or maybe it dates even further back, to the pagan traditions that celebrated the night of the 25th long before Christians usurped the date for their own. Seriously, if anybody does know, answers on a postcard…but whatever the reason, a Christmas without the supernatural in some form would be like spotted dick without the custard, Morecambe without Wise (or vice versa) or a Friday night at the Crown And Sceptre in Uxbridge town centre without a punch-up. Nowadays, of course, it means less, as the broadcasters can’t seem to get hold of the rights easily enough (or so they’d have you believe) but there was a time when the festive season simply didn’t EXIST unless certain films were on television. And The Amazing Mr Blunden is one of them. Although for some reason they also used to show it at Easter as well.
Like another staple of my childhood Yules, The Railway Children (1970) the film is the directorial work of actor Lionel Jeffries, who knew a thing or two himself about appearing in movies (Whoever Slew Auntie Roo, A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court, Camelot) that tended to be shown between the 18th and 31st of December. Actors who direct (Roddy Macdowall, David Hemmings, Derren Nesbitt, Mai Zetterling) are sometimes uncertain which side of the clapperboard they truly belong on, the end result often a mixed bag, but Blunden is very much the complete article, loved unanimously by anyone who ever saw it- well, apart from Kim Newman, allegedly, but what would you expect?- and much missed in the schedules. Still, I’m sure we’ve all got it on DVD or video if we need it.
Writer Thingy Whatsit (in her original book The Ghosts) sure as hell had her grasp on one thing- even in Victorian times, Camden Town was a shithole. Sorry Suggs and the boys, but it is, and it always was. Neither James (Garry Miller) nor his sister Lucy (Lynne Frederick), who live with their put-upon, recently widowed mother Mrs Allen (Dorothy Allison) and youngest sibling in a squalid, tiny flat there, particularly care for the area, and aren’t looking forward to another miserable, cold Christmas in it- so when the mysterious and extremely old Mr Blunden (Lawrence Naismith) knocks unannounced at their door one snowy December eve, offering them the chance to go into service at a rambling country pile, starting immediately, they jump at the chance.
Coincidentally, this is almost exactly what I did in 2005- although only my office was in Camden, my flat being in similarly squalid Shoreditch- and I can’t help wondering if the film had more than a little to do with it. And which lover of British cinema hasn’t at some stage wanted to escape the dirt of the inner city, even though it may look attractive filtered through a layer of Victorian, Ripper-haunted, gaslit crime, and retire to a haunted mansion in the outer reaches? Only one who exists in denial. Granted, Frederick & Co don’t actually know the place is haunted yet, but they (or rather, the children- adults being deemed, once again, too ‘old and insensitive’ to notice any apparitions) soon will, as, after wandering in the garden for a few minutes, they soon encounter and befriend a pair of ghostly children, Sarah (Rosalyn Landor) and Georgie (Marc Grainger).
Except that, in the true muddled traditions of British horror, the children aren’t actually dead- they are potentially about to die, 100 years ago tomorrow (?!*?), at the hands of their cruel guardians the Wickens (a superbly cantankerous, drunken Diana Dors and retarded, punchdrunk ex-wrestler David Lodge) who have discovered that the kids, rather than their new son in law Bertie, the children’s uncle (James Villiers,) are to inherit a small fortune, and are looking forward to getting their hands on “firty fahsahnd pahnds” once the littluns have been either frozen, roasted, starved or worked to death.
Luckily, the clever kiddiewinkies, after receiving a ghostly message written in the condensation on a mirror, have learnt how to escape this fate by drinking a brew of local herbs (good job they found them all growing in the nearby woods, I used to have to make do with Crosse & Blackwell nutmeg) which divorces their minds and souls from their bodies in time, thus enabling them to step forward into the “present” day (ie 1918, I think) and warn the living children that they must too take the brew, step back in time, scare the bejeebers out of Lodge and Dors by making objects float and acting generally all ghosty, and ultimately save them from their fate- in doing so also redeeming one half of the soul of family solicitor Mr Blunden, who is actually his own grandfather, and who allowed the children to perish in an alternate dimension. Confused? Of course you are. Excited? Who wouldn’t be? With a plot like that, you’d have to be dead yourself to not be enthralled.
Bertie, who’s sold off most of his furniture and possessions to pay debts, and is therefore more or less responsible for the schtuck the family are in to begin with , isn’t exactly a bad sort- just caddish, a bit daft, and more than willing to turn a blind eye to the evil machinations of his in-laws towards his own niece and nephew (claiming “over-active imagination” on their part) as long as his marriage to the beautiful yet vain Bella (Maddy Smith in a blonde wig- oh be still my beating loins) is unaffected. One could therefore possibly suggest that the best course of action would therefore be to go back in time and ensure he never gets involved with the Wickens family, but of course, it doesn’t say that in the script, so it doesn’t happen- instead we get the world’s longest flashback detailing their fate up to this point, subsequently contradicted by the local sexton (Reg Lye) who shows the “living” kids a gravestone and states that someone (young Tom, the gardener, who is more than sweet on Sarah) plunged to his death over 100 years ago from the top of the ramparts. And to add complications, the younger of the two “ghosts” can’t take the potion as much as his older sister, meaning he fades in and out of view more quickly.
At this point, you’d expect anyone with a remotely linear brain to give up, but the film is so compelling you just can’t. Part of the reason for this is Gerry Fisher’s photography: possibly our perception has altered over the years as the stock has aged with each screening, but even the ravages of time and tide can’t disguise the wonderful mixture of yellows, greens, browns and reds that create the picture, blending the best Victoriana with a genuine tripped-out early 70s feel. Whether this was intentional or not is debatable, but if it wasn’t, we can only, once again, return to the assumption that something magical was floating in the air at this point in cinematic history, as so many seemingly unrelated productions across many different genres from that time seem to bear the same stamp.
It also doesn’t hurt that everyone, from the youngest to the eldest, the famous to the unknown, puts in a blinder of a performance: Jeffries obviously knew how to coax the best from the cast. Everyone seems happy to have participated in the project, but we mustn’t let the rose-tinted Chrimble spectacles deter us from remembering that Blunden is also a story of unhappiness and suffering. The first thing we hear onscreen is a choir of voices exclaiming that “all little children are born to die”, and Mrs Allen, even once relocated from Royal College Street NW1 to the rural delights of Zone Ridiculous, is still condemned to a life of drudgery, cleaning, fetching and carrying, although once her employers discover she was appointed by “Mr Blunden”, who apparently in this day and age is bedridden, they treat her with a respect not usually reserve d for domestics. The plight of Sarah and Georgie, although easy to dismiss cynically now as a “Gawd bless us guvnor” costume drama cliché, was a very real one in the time described, and accordingly, a feeling of sadness, desolation and pessimism does hover over the proceedings, even when silly, amusing things, such as candelabras floating in midair, are happening.
Similarly, while a certain comfort can be taken from the fact that it’s Diana Dors we’re watching, complete with werry werry strange comedy speech impediment, there’s still a callous, sharpened sadism to the characters of the Wickens (or rather, to affect the correct pronunciation, the WIIIIIIICKEEEEEENS!!!) family that lends the film genuine horror credentials, and elevates it above standard kids’ fare. Then again, aren’t all the best fairy tales a little on the dark side, and hasn’t that very fact been the basis of 60 percent of ‘fantastic’ cinema since it began? And do we not delight, even though we also love a good baddie, in seeing the underdog rise above such adversity? Mind you, to divulge any further on that subject would be to give the game away, and I’d still like to leave a surprise for those of you who haven’t seen it yet: let’s just say, once you have seen it, you’ll never be able to hear the phrase “We three kings of Orient are” again without a slight lump in your throat, even if, like me, you actually support the Hammers….
Despite such accolades, the film, it should be stressed, is far from perfect- the constant backward and forwarding between the two timelines is a little muddled (trust me, I’m not the only one to be flummoxed by it, although I’d prefer to believe that the fault lies with me rather than the writers’ inability to logically explain their story), and one requires a massive suspension of disbelief to take for granted that not only would Mrs Allen, even in 18-something, allow a complete stranger into her home on Christmas Eve, but leave him alone with her offspring while she nipped out- and that the kids in question wouldn’t be fazed or slightly worried by questions like “Do you think you’d be afraid if you saw a ghost? These ghosts would appear very much as ordinary people, children like you or an old man like myself” when asked them by a mysterious, even if friendly and kindly-looking, elderly man they’d never seen before. Still, maybe it was a more innocent time after all- even if they also say the same about the 1950s and every time period more than 3 decades in the past.
No matter how innocent the era, though, the one thing that does take some believing is the idea of Lynne Frederick as an innocent child, considering she’d already been seen asking Anthony May to “make her a woman”, as well as being the victim of a sordid rape scene, in Cornel Wilde’s No Blade Of Grass (1970), and was in real life already dating Peter Sellers. Her own eventual sordid fate, of course, is one film buffs are more than aware of, and like the similarly tragic end that awaited Jack Wild, Michael Holden of Owl Service fame and Simon Gipps-Kent of Lost Hearts and Midnight Is A Place, adds to the “curse” legend attached to child stars, therefore tinging Blunden with a further sadness, a peculiarly British strain of melancholy. Still, maybe this is the best way to remember her, although her later performance in Pete Walker’s Schizo (1976) is probably the best he ever coaxed from any of his leading ladies: The Amazing Mr Blunden, while an overly sentimental slice of slush on one hand and complete gobbledygook on the other, is a film of incredible magic and atmosphere, and an antidote to the eeriness and ennui sometimes engendered by watching more esoteric, multi-layered (or sometimes just downright trashy and exploitative, not that there’s anything wrong with that) productions from the same era.
As with its predecessor The Railway Children, critics have often taken issue with the film’s end credits, in which Jeffries has the entire cast (and several members of the crew in period costume, it would seem) turn and wave goodbye to camera, inferring this somehow destroys the “seriousness” of the production and relegates it to the realm of fantasy, an accusation also levelled at, coincidentally, Peter Sellers when he chose to show the outtakes during the closing of Being There (1979) and which some believe robbed the film of its deserved Oscar. In both cases, but with particular reference to Blunden, I would say: “of course it’s in the realm of fantasy!” Seriously, what on earth were they expecting? Alan Sillitoe? It’s a kids’ semi-horror film about ghosts from the future, set in a country house at Christmas!! Presumably these are the same individuals who claimed that Back To The Future was scientifically implausible because Christopher Lloyd’s calculations didn’t make mechanical sense, or something else equally pedantic. To paraphrase Genesis P Orridge’s description of record executives in Dig: “one can only imagine how awful these people must be in bed…”
And while I’d be the first to admit that The Amazing Mr Blunden has As many plot-holes as At The Earth’s Core had potholes, not least of all its title (there’s nothing that amazing about the titular solicitor, even in an alternate dimension, considering he’s equally culpable in the first place by refusing to believe Sarah and Georgie and having them locked in a cellar) it’s unabashed joy and ‘larx’ still resonate with a certain audience as strongly now- if not more so- as when they first saw it. And Marc Grainger, wherever you are today- I’m still with you, sonny. I don’t want to go back to Camden Town either, if I can help it.
PS- Anyone with an answer to the question regarding ghost stories, do get in touch.
PPS- This review is dedicated to Lionel Jeffries, who passed away several months ago.