by Allan Fish
(UK 1976 42m) DVD2
Hello, below there
p Rosemary Hill d Lawrence Gordon Clark w Andrew Davies story Charles Dickens ph David Whitson ed Peter Evans m Stephen Deutsch
Denholm Elliott (the signalman), Bernard Lloyd (the traveller), Reginald Jessup (engine driver), Carina Wyeth,
It was in Cardiffin 1869, if memory serves, when Christopher Eccleston’s 9th Timelord hailed a coach only to find that its passenger was one Charles Dickens, esq. Amid the usual pleasantries, The Doctor admits to being a huge fan, that he’s read ‘em all, paying special attention when observing “what was that ghost one?” “’A Christmas Carol’” nodded Simon Callow’s Dickens, only to be told “no, the one with the trains…’The Signalman’. The best short story ever written.” Sadly I remember from my eager reading of Dickens’ works in the old Penguin classics series that only his Christmas Ghost Tales were included; a pity, for when I eventually did get to read it, I found myself concurring with the Timelord.
The Signalman tells of a lonely eponymous worker for the Great Western Railway who looks after a signal box on a desolate stretch of track near a tunnel. One day he is startled when a traveller calls to him from above with the fateful words “hello, below there!” He’s at first petrified by the stranger, slowly engaging him in conversation, but holds back from telling him what’s perturbing him until their next meeting, which is arranged for 11pm the following night. Then the signalman takes the stranger up to his signal box home again and tells him of how he saw a visitation and then, but a few hours later, a terrible accident occurred in the very tunnel yards from his box when the engine driver seemingly ignores his waving of the red flag and the red danger light on the approach to the tunnel. The stranger tries to comfort him by saying it’s merely a coincidence, but then the signalman tells of how again, several months later, another incident took place where a bride fell from a train directly outside his signal box, once again following the visitation. Taking his leave for the night, the stranger once again agrees to come and see him the following day…
Looking at the credits today, the name of Andrew Davies, the small screen’s premier literature adaptor of the last 20 years, leaps out at you, and it’s a typically perfect, understated adaptation (moved forward a few decades to around the 1890s – note the signalman whistling ‘Tit-willow’, written by Gilbert & Sullivan in 1884) perfectly in keeping with the direction of the ‘Ghost Story for Christmas’ regular Lawrence Gordon Clark. Both central performances are flawless, with Bernard Lloyd effortlessly capturing the sense of withering scepticism and eventual horror, like Mr Lockwood stranded on the Yorkshire Moors and being regaled of spooky tales by Nellie Dean. And then there’s Denholm Elliott, an actor beloved by many, but despite a score of more famous, better known credits, I sincerely doubt he ever gave so absolutely right a performance. The look of utter terror on his face when the stranger calls down to him from above, responding to his calls only with physical gestures, standing perfectly still like a ghost himself, as if aware of his own doom, or the sense of impatience when the stranger tries to rationalise the events he’s relating, with his repeated cries of “I’m not finished”, as chilling as the sound of the wind and the “wild harp it makes of the telegraph wires.” When the stranger says, on first acquaintance, “you look at me as though you had some dread of me”, that’s exactly how he looks.
With the terrifying ending, the story literally comes full circle, as if time itself was in a state of flux, which rather brings us back to that encounter dreamt by Russell T.Davies in Cardiff. For Davies perhaps knew that the Dickens who wrote The Signalman would take the events of ‘ The Unquiet Dead’ in his stride, just as the Timelord would recognise in The Signalman the sense of premonition, not to mention the sound of a bell and a red light spelling danger. It’s a story to set the Cloister Bell in the TARDIS sounding the alarm. Just remember, whatever you do, “don’t call out!”