Christmas tradition returned with The Tractate Middoth

Tractate-MiddothTHIS CHRISTMAS saw the return of a lost tradition. During the seventies and eighties, The BBC aired some great ghost stories at Christmas, most of them adaptations of MR James’ classic tales. There have been recent attempts to revive it such as two years ago when Luther writer Neil Cross and John Hurt somehow failed to make anything interesting out of O Whistle And I’ll Come To You, Lad. The Christmas ghost stories were in their heyday unflinching, minimal and most importantly frightening television. This year saw Mark Gatiss attempt to revive this tradition with an adaptation of an MR James Tale, The Tractate Middoth. It was also interestingly his directorial debut. To say the least, you could colour me intrigued.

I’m pleased to say it was enjoyable. From start to finish it maintained the tone of the classic ghost stories but with a faint influence of how horror has developed. Anyone who’s seen Gatiss’ brilliant History Of Horror series knows that he knows his horror and it comes forward as what is presented is a piece that wears its influences upon its sleeve but never descends fully into pastiche. The most effective tool of it is to use the clouds of dust around the library and various other locations into a tool of fear. Like many before it, it uses something very mundane and makes it haunting and chilling.

The performances were strong throughout. Sacha Dhawan made for a quietly compelling lead presence and an entertaining double act with Nicholas Burns (I still yearn for Nathan Barley series 2). There were a lot of fun Hammer-esque ‘theatrical’ performances going on round the edges that despite being on television were still payed to the rafters but for the most part they never descended too much into histrionics and were never fully distracting.

If there was one major problem, it was length. At a very lean 35 minutes, multiple characters felt undeveloped, certain story beats un-fleshed out, the whole thing felt too heavily edited for a certain timeslot. Had it been extended to a full hour, it might have been able to fully extend to the potential it showed.

Still, it was a fun ride for the short amount of time we had it. Rumours are that Gatiss will be returning with another story next Christmas. Considering his work on Crooked House, I’d love to see him tell an original tale again but even if it’s another adaptation, it’s nice to have something to rattle your bones and chill your spirit on a Cold Christmas night again.

Sidenote: This adaptation was followed by a documentary by Gatiss on the author, MR James. Whilst Gatiss remains an interesting host and James is a compelling subject, the documentary for me fell flat. Overall, interesting enough but not worth bothering to seek out if you aren’t a complete enthusiast of either subject or host.