Tuesday 2 January 2018

We Don't Go Back #74: The Signalman (1976)

It's the season for ghost stories. It is.

The Signalman was broadcast on Christmas Eve 1976. It was adapted from Dickens's short story of the same name by now-legendary screenwriter Andrew Davies and directed, of course, by Lawrence Gordon Clarke. Denholm Elliot plays the eponymous signalman; Bernard Lloyd is the traveller. Those who care generally consider it the best of the BBC's Ghost Stories for Christmas, and in my opinion those who care are correct.

It's a simple, spare story. It takes its time.

A traveller meets a lonely signalman, manning the lights, preventing a disaster at the tunnel. At the traveller's approach the man appears shaken, looks at the traveller like he's taking the newcomer for a ghost. But the moment passes and the signalman invites the traveller into his box, lets him share an evening in his life. Despite the traveller's admiration of his simple task ("you are a contented man," he says) the signalman is in fact deeply troubled. The traveller comes back the following night, and the signalman tells of a spectre that has appeared to him twice, each time shortly before something dreadful happened. And now the ghost has appeared again, and several times. The signalman expects disaster.

The traveller tells the man that it will all be all right if he just continues to discharge his duties. And the signalman takes some comfort in this. But the following morning, the signalman sees the ghost again, and he forgets the traveller's advice, and it costs him dear. The ghost was a vision, a harbinger of doom for the poor signalman, and that doom includes his own.
One of the central truths of the classic ghost story is that the ghost is not always (or even very often) the spirit of the dead. People unused to ghost stories, in my experience, sometimes react with surprise or disappointment when a ghost does not behave like an insubstantial spirit (and I think of a reading I did myself not long ago where someone described the ghost story I had read as "something sort of like" a ghost story), but insubstantial spirits are, on the whole, in the minority. MR James knew this. Take the thing, part spider, part ape, that haunts Canon Alberic's Scrapbook; the cowled Messenger from Chorazin with its devil-fish tentacle that accompanies Count Magnus; the shuddery thing made of hair in The Diary of Mr Poynter; the moving wall in Number 13. In Edward Lucas White's colonial nightmare Lukundoo, the colonialist is eaten from within by the faces of the people he oppresses (and that's a story that says more about the milieu in which it was written than I think it intends). In Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper, a woman trapped in a room is haunted by the walls themselves. EF Benson, gives us the malevolent walking cancers of Caterpillars and the sluglike elemental of Negotium Perambulans. Benson also, significantly,  gives us The Bus-Conductor, which could reasonably be described as a partial retread of The Signalman.

I think that the signalman himself knows perhaps unconsciously that he is not haunted by the spirit of the dead, but a vision of the soon-to-be-dead. I think he knows it's his responsibility that haunts him the most.
Signalman: In the early days, I'd sometimes find a slack time to climb up into the sunlight, but the work was always here to draw me down. I'd listen for the bell, you see. My face would be in the sun, but my mind would be in the dark, and the shadows.  
(Although the dialogue from the short story remains intact and entire, this is an addition, as much of the script is, a window into the signalman's troubled heart.)
The traveller, it is implied (in the adaptation, but not the story), has been imprisoned in the past, and perhaps it's the loneliness and confinement the signalman experiences that keeps him coming back. The signalman tries to keep himself occupied, is teaching himself higher maths, but it can't distract him. He feels the responsibility of it, heavily. He admits its not a hard job, but if he doesn't do it, people die. He's seen them die, and he's shaken by what he's seen. Dickens himself survived a railway crash in 1865, the year before the short story was published. Uninjured, he took part in the tending of the injured and the collection of the dead. It affected him profoundly, and I think its horrors are a catharsis of his own traumatic experience.

No one else experiences what the signalman does: the ghostly ringing of the bell is something only he hears – the traveller doesn't hear a thing. The final revelation could be a coincidence – it depends upon a nondescript phrase, a common action. The haunting could be in the signalman's imagination, it could be that it's the weight of his responsibility that's hounding him, but as it is in many of the very best ghost stories (see The Yellow Wallpaper), it doesn't matter. The result is the same. And that goes double for television. What we see is the story, is the story, is the story.

The story of the signalman has something of the nature of folklore to it. The bell that rings by itself was always a portent of disaster in the English tradition. The persistent harbinger that pursues a doomed man, that's part of folk legend, too; Dickens took rural folklore and brought it into his present day. For us the steam railway and its workings is a signifier of the gothic, a potent symbol of a period piece.
For Dickens, the steam engine was the state of the art, the wonder of the modern age. He was showing that the modern, the Age of Reason, could be just as strongly affected by the stuff of folklore as any other age. Davies got this, I think, which is why the traveller in the adaptation exhorts rational thinking so repeatedly. The Signalman was folk horror: the modern man isolated in the countryside, his modern life besieged by the stuff of superstition.

Now of course, and even forty-plus years ago when the television adaptation was made, The Signalman is itself an artefact of legend in whole cloth. The signal box, once signified as a modern thing that was nonetheless as desolate as any haunted place, is now a haunted manse without any need of apology. The signalman, once the emblem of modernity, becomes a figure of the gothic past. He himself is the folktale now, no longer incongruous in a haunted landscape. All modernity tends to the past eventually. It all becomes part of the land, a land that has no untrodden places, only abandoned ones.

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