Chilling British TV Ghost Stories: M R James, Mark Gatiss, Ghostwatch, Inside No. 9…

Curl up and get in the spooky spirit with these chilling British TV ghost story classics and modern greats

Steve Pemberton, MyAnna Buring, Jason Watkins in Inside No. 9 and Count Magnus
Photo: BBC (created by Chloe Lewis)

Be sure to lock your doors when you get home this Halloween, for a sinister, unearthly presence willing be walking the streets this All Hallow’s Eve.

We don’t mean actual ghosts, obviously, we’re talking about all those precocious costumed youths in shoddily applied face paint having the audacity to knock on your door demanding some of the multipack of snack-size sweets you got from Tesco on the way home from work. Bought them for trick-or-treaters? Pffft. Those Haribo were all for you, and you know it.

So embrace the darkness (and the sugar), draw the curtains, and shut out the world ready to scare yourself silly with these classic British TV ghost stories.

Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968)

A classic in the ghost story genre, this deeply atmospheric and unnerving production is Jonathan Miller’s adaptation of the 1904 M. R. James tale “Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”. It stars Shakespearean actor Michael Hordern as the too-clever-for-his-own-good professor on a solitary holiday in Norfolk, who finds a mysterious bone whistle protruding from a grave while on a cliffside walk. He takes it back to his hotel, blows the whistle (obviously), and things go south for him from there.

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Yes, it’s slow compared to contemporary horror, but it’s well worth sitting through the unsettling buildup (for example, a full two minutes of the professor eating a picnic in silence) for what comes after. Whistle and I’ll Come to You does an awful lot with not very much, to fabulous effect.

Inside No. 9: Deadline (2018)

Inside No 9’s live Halloween episode in 2018 was one of the most intricately created, devilish deceptions in TV history, and even watching it back after the ‘live’ mischief is a pleasingly spine-chilling experience. The episode first suffers from technical issues, then goes off air entirely, and then the audience is treated to a ghostly takeover that takes a very dark turn.

The clip above shows the lengths to which creators Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton went to maintain the facade of the live episode, even plugging it on The One Show and sharing their fears that something may go awry…

Ghostwatch (1992)

Over 25 years before Inside No. 9’s live shenanigans, the BBC aired Ghostwatch – and all hell broke loose. Although it was billed as a drama and the continuity announcer introduced it as such, the show’s convincing mockumentary format led many to believe it was a live broadcast, especially as the ‘presenters’ including Michael Parkinson and Sarah Greene were well-known faces playing themselves. 

The hunt for the deeply sinister ghost, a child molester known as Pipes (based on an alleged real-life ghost known as The Enfield Poltergeist), led to several bone-chilling sightings, and ends with Greene being pulled into a cupboard, a terrified crew fleeing the scene, and poor Parky getting possessed and singing nursery rhymes. The mayhem supposedly caused 30,000 Ofcom complaints as viewers panicked to the point of hysteria, including children suffering from PTSD and a woman going into labour, and resulted in the show being banned from re-airing for 10 years. 

You can watch the full episode (if you dare) on Archive. A limited edition Blu-ray was also released for 2022’s 30th anniversary.

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Marchlands (2011)

Doctor Who fans will thoroughly enjoy seeing the duo of Alex Kingston and Jodie Whittaker leading the all-star cast of this gripping supernatural drama about three families living in the same house at different points in history – the 1960s, 1980s and present day – all plagued by the spirit of a little girl who mysteriously drowned nearby. 

As it’s a full series, Marchlands is slower than the other one-off ghost stories listed here, but the payoff is the gently increasing malevolence creeps up on you, leaving you hooked to the story for the full five episodes.

The whole series is available to watch on ITV Hub and Britbox.

The Tractate Middoth (2013)

In another treat for Doctor Who fans, Sacha Dhawan stars in this Mark Gatiss adaptation of a classic M R James short story about a mysterious book called The Tractate Middoth, which is spirited away from a library by a terrifying cloaked figure. Dhawan plays librarian Garrett, who tries unsuccessfully to locate the book for a Mr Eldred (John Castle), with the creepy atmosphere lifted by comic turns from both Roy Barraclough (Coronation Street legend Alec Gilroy) as the academic Hodgson and Sherlock’s Una Stubbs as Miss Chambers. 

Garrett ends up uncovering an inheritance scam related to the book, and the wronged man exacts vengeance from beyond the grave. Delightfully spooky without being outright terrifying. Hear all about it from Gatiss himself in the above clip from the BFI screening Q&A.

Crooked House (2008)

Mark Gatiss took influence from his M. R. James adaptations to create his own supernatural horror series, Crooked House, which was also inspired by Amicus horror movies. The three-part BBC Four series centres on a door knocker from a cursed Tudor mansion, Geap Manor, which unleashes the house’s ghostly secrets, starting in the 1780s, then the 1920s, then the present day. 

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There’s a host of recognisable names in this deeply eerie production: Lee Ingleby (The A Word), Beth Goddard (X-Men: First Class), illusionist Derren Brown, Green Wing’s Julian Rhind-Tutt, and of course Gatiss himself.

You can watch the full series on Amazon Prime.

The Enfield Haunting (2015)

As well as Ghostwatch, the real-life reports of supernatural activity in the 1970s known as The Enfield Poltergeist has inspired several fictional adaptations, including a brand new one for 2023 coming to Apple TV+, and the 2016 horror film The Conjuring 2. In 2015 it became the subject of Sky Living series The Enfield Haunting, which centres on the investigation into the north London poltergeist claims by the Society of Psychical Research. The series stars Matthew Macfadyen (Succession) as paranormal writer Guy Lyon Playfair, Timothy Spall (Mr Turner) as inventor Maurice Grosse and Juliet Stevenson (Truly, Madly, Deeply) as Maurice’s wife Betty.

While many believe the claims were an elaborate fabrication by two young girls, Grosse and Playfair were convinced it was at least partly true, and this series explores why. The Enfield Haunting is available on NOW.

The Signalman (1976)

This was the first time the BBC’s A Ghost Story For Christmas series in the 1970s strayed from adapting one of M R James’ stories – this time, they chose a short story written by Charles Dickens. Sadly, unlike the more famous festive adaptation of a Dickens ghost story, this one doesn’t involve Muppets. 

The Signalman is an eerily quiet production, all fog and low lighting, telling the story of a railway signalman haunted by an ominous spectre who forewarns of terrible accidents that he can do nothing to prevent. Starring Denholm Elliott (aka Marcus Brody from the Indiana Jones franchise), it’s full of suspense, and also apparently inspired by Dickens’ own experience in the deadly Staplehurst rail crash the year before he wrote The Signal-Man.

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You can watch The Signalman on Facebook.

The Secret of Crickley Hall (2012)

This BBC adaptation of James Herbert’s supernatural thriller novel of the same name tells the parallel stories of the Caleigh family, who move into Crickley Hall in 2006, a year after their youngest child goes missing, and the hall’s past as a home for evacuated orphans during World War Two.

It stars Vigil’s Suranne Jones and Lucifer’s Tom Ellis as the grieving parents searching for answers while experiencing Crickley Hall’s supernatural phenomena, with excellent performances from the likes of Maisie Williams (Game of Thrones), Douglas Henshall (Shetland) and Wallander’s David Warner. Read our spoiler-filled episode reviews here. You can stream the series on Hulu, or purchase it on YouTube, Prime and Google Play.

The Mezzotint (2021)

Another instalment of the BBC’s Ghost Story for Christmas series arrived in 2021, thanks once again to horror aficionado Mark Gatiss, this time adapting a 1904 M. R. James 1904 ghost story. 

“The Mezzotint” is about a university museum curator, Edward Williams (played by Skyfall’s Rory Kinnear), who receives an intriguing engraving (or mezzotint) of a country house, which takes a sinister turn when he sees a creepy cloaked figure has appeared in the engraving that wasn’t there before. 

Williams enlists the help of his colleagues (including Downton Abbey’s Robert Bathurst), who notice the figure appears to move closer to the house with nefarious intent each time they look at it. This pleasingly chilling Christmas special is available to watch on iPlayer.

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For more spooky fun, there’s a whole playlist of M R James adaptations as part of the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas on YouTube.

Count Magnus (2022)

Jason Watkins in Count Magnus (BBC Ghost Story for Christmas 2022)

Continuing a fine (revived) tradition, Mark Gatiss‘ 2022 M.R. James adaptation was “Count Magnus”, a half-hour film starring Jason Watkins (The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies) and MyAnna Buring (Ripper Street). Gatiss was in some ways righting an historical wrong with this one, as original M.R. James adapter Lawrence Gordon Clark, wasn’t able to create his own screen version of the story due to budgetary restraints.

It’s lighter on the scares than Gatiss’ previous entries, so could be a good way in for horror first-timers. Unusually for one of these, this story isn’t set in England but in Sweden, and tells the tale of a long-dead aristocrat who was a brutish landlord renowned for his cruelty. But is he really gone?

The Bones of St. Nicholas (2022)

Yes, this is quite definitely a Christmas episode – it’s set, after all on Christmas Eve – but it’s certainly spooky enough to bring out on Halloween. This 2022 festive special is in many ways, the perfect Inside No. 9 story – macabre, mysterious, funny, and with a little touch of pathos. It also has a terrific guest cast to recommend it, with Simon Callow used to full effect as a ghost story-declaiming church warden, and Shobna Gulati as a comedy chatterbox with her own painful history to tell.

The stars though, as ever, are Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, who’ve channelled the M.R. James tradition into an original half hour story that’s cleverly plotted and very satisfying to watch. Pemberton plays a man hoping to spend Christmas Eve alone in an historical church, but who is vexed to find himself sharing the experience with a married couple whose travel plans fell through at the last minute. But what explains the visions he keeps seeing…

“The Bones of St. Nicholas” is available to watch in the UK on BBC iPlayer.

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