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The Signalman 1976

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  • The Signalman 1976

    RE: The Signalman (by Dickens); BBC 1976, Denholm Elliott and Bernard Lloyd. The best acting and direction ever!

    In 1977 as young nerd who didn't go out much I participated in an IQ test for the unusual. Two short passages from Dickens' "The Signalman" were given. The first passage was about a premonition that a railway signalman has about a bride being strangled out of a train carriage window, and then she is tossed onto the tracks. The second passage was about the signalman seeing a corps by a tunnel entrance and it's yelling "look out below". I downloaded this 30min short film several years back, and in hindsight, the bugger who set the question in the test had no idea of what Dickens was on about, and neither did I.

    You need to watch this short, but very complex, story a few times to get what Dickens was saying. During the opening, the taveller (Lloyd) yells out "hey below, look out" to which the signalman (Elliott) becomes highly suspicious of, and later he asks Lloyd if there was some supernatural influence that had prompted him to say this line. Lloyd says no, and insists that it was merely a normal question that anyone would ask (the signal box is in a deep cutting just before a tunnel). The signalman accepts this as an obvious and trivial coincidence. After much talking between the two the signalman admits to having many premonitons of pending disasters delivered to him by ghosts (or whatever can know the future) ringing bells and in dreams, but to admit to them, or act on then, would have him declared mad. Lloyd convinces the signalman that everything is logical and that all effects have real causes, and that there is nothing supernatural and that all these premonitions as just coincidence, such as his own line "hey below". All he can be expected to do is his duty as a signalman; nothing more, and nothing less.

    At the end of the film Lloyd has a mini premonition himself, and runs to the tunnel entrance to find the signalman on the tracks with a train coming. Lloyd yells out "hey below, look out", while the signalman is runover. Thus the most ambiguous and least believable premonition becomes true.

    What Dickens is discussing is the abiguity of language and meaning. Just how unique and unequivocal does a premonition, or any statement for that matter, have to be for a human to accept that it is converying real information from and extraneous intelligence. (I now count this story as a counter-proof of Turings human test!!!) In the signalman's case the vague "hey below" is a real premonition with real meaning despite the strong argument that it is merely coincidence. The premonition of the dead bride is highly specific, and a normal person would not dissmiss it as coincidence should it really happen.

    Anyway, the acting and direction is 100% spot on to the theme of this short story. The best Brit film ever, even though its only 30mins long.

  • #2
    I also saw it when first broadcast and absolutely loved it. Bought it as part of the BBC Ghost Stories for Xmas box set DVD, an excellent purchase which I highly recommend.

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    • #3
      I watched this the other nite and like you was both perplexed and intriqued by the storyline. Denholm Elliot was superb as per usual.

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      • #4
        Watched it on TV when it was first aired' It remains one of my Favourite Films' Many believe the Inspiration for the Story was the Staplehurst rail crash in 1865 in which Dickens was a Passenger

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        • #5
          The Signalman is on BBC4 on Christmas Eve.

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          • #6
            Originally posted by Big Figure View Post
            The Signalman is on BBC4 on Christmas Eve.
            Thanks for the info Big Figure

            http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0074ptz
            Last edited by jimw1; 13th December 2017, 08:32 PM.

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            • #7
              Originally posted by Big Figure View Post
              The Signalman is on BBC4 on Christmas Eve.
              In fact that whole evening is an M R James lovefest, https://www.bbc.co.uk/schedules/p00fzl6b/2017/12/24

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              • #8
                In fact that whole evening is an M R James lovefest, https://www.bbc.co.uk/schedules/p00fzl6b/2017/12/24
                I've got them all on disc, but that sounds like a great evening - a glass of port and a guttering candle....

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                • #9
                  Originally posted by agutterfan View Post

                  In fact that whole evening is an M R James lovefest, https://www.bbc.co.uk/schedules/p00fzl6b/2017/12/24
                  Cheers for the tip-off, Agutterfan,
                  Sounds like a fabulous evening - another winning line up from the mighty BBC4. Have been listening to many of MR James radio adaptations (as read by David Collings) and they are a delight to the ear.

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                  • #10
                    In the Christmas edition of the Radio Times, the TV critic does say that she loves ghost stories, and wishes that the BBC would make more of them for Christmas. I think we all agree, and I suspect that the BBC would like to do that as well - but budgets are tight. However, lets hope for next year, and what they can get from Europe - a bit of Scan. ghostliness would be interesting.

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                    • #11
                      Great news and thanks for the heads up, Has there been any write-ups in any of the magazines? Christmas ghosts and James oh my!

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                      • #12
                        Here's a 1956 adaptation of Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad":
                        https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/film/...ou-1956-online

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                        • #13
                          Thank you Robin you're a gent and I wish you and all the members a great Christmas and New Year.

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