A Journal Of The Dark Arts
To whet your whistle for Mark Gatiss’ upcoming adaptation of this classic chiller by M.R. James this Christmas, we’ll begin our series of British horror radio with a reading of “The Mezzotint” by Robin Bailey from 2009.
When it comes to horror radio dramas, perhaps your mind might naturally gravitate towards Little Orphan Annie or The Shadow; of families gathered around neo-Gothic wooden General Electrics, perhaps seeped in sepia and swirling in mist.
Radio is as much an artform and a viable medium in the 21st Century as it was in the 1940s, even if it’s not as widespread or popular. This is especially true of the BBC, which has a long, rich history of broadcasting chills and thrills that often are genuinely creepy and unsettling, if not downright terrifying.
Nothing illustrates this quite as well as dramatizations of the works of M.R. James, which date back as far as 1946 and continue to this very second. Montague Rhodes James is synonymous with Ghost Stories For Christmas, in every and any medium. These dramatizations offer a compelling snapshot of the times from which they originate while steadfastly existing outside of them as well, like one of the sheeted spectres in James’ stories.
To launch this new series investigating British horror audio, we’re going to begin by examining a dramatization of M.R. James’ classic “The Mezzotint” from the series Classic Tales Of Horror which broadcast on BBC 7 in 2009, to offer some fodder for your Ghost Stories For Christmas playlists, celebrations, and to stoke the fires of anticipation for this year’s return of the televised Ghost Story For Christmas.
Without further ado, our synopsis and review of BBC Classic Tales Of Horror‘s “The Mezzotint”
“The Mezzotint” tells the story of a man named Williams, who procures architectural pictures and engravings for a British university. An art dealer acquaintance from London, Mr. Britell, sends him a small, nondescript mezzotint depicting an anonymous country estate. James initially finds the engraving underwhelming and not worth the 2 guinea asking price.
Trusting his contact’s taste, he agrees to take the piece but is even less impressed upon receiving the parcel. The mezzotint shows an 18th-Century country manor with three rows of windows. Clearly the work of an amateur, albeit a talented one, the picture can only be identified with a half-smudged caption “ngley Hall”, “ssex” and the initials “A. W. F.”
One of Williams’ friends and colleagues calls and comments on the picture. James remarks how he feels vaguely cheated as there’s not even a figure depicted in the engraving. James’ colleague disagrees, saying the engraving is actually rather talented and there is, in fact, a figure.
In the bottom right-hand corner, there’s a dark, skeletal figure – that hadn’t been there before. James, fully invested now and rather alarmed, elicits the help of his antiquarian friends including Nisbet, who offers to photograph the mezzotint,
Something eerie and uncanny is clearly amiss, which is verified when James’ servant, Filcher, comments on the chilling image of the gaunt, spectral figure dashing away into the night… with a baby in its grasp!
Disturbed and more than a little alarmed, Williams, Nisbet, and Garwood take turns monitoring the mezzotint to make sure no further changes take place while Williams digs through a guidebook to houses in Essex. Here, he discovers the strange tale of Anningley Hall, occupied by one Arthur Francis.
Desperate to know more, Williams inquires of a colleague steeped in Essex country history and folklore. Williams’ friend, Green, remembered the case vividly. Green tells Williams that Arthur Francis always dealt very strictly with poachers that he caught on his land. He always suspected somebody, a man named Gawdy who was the last surviving member of a once illustrious family, of poaching but could not prove it.
When Gawdy was eventually caught poaching on Arthur Francis’ land, he shot a gamekeeper. He was tried and sentenced to death. It was always suspected that Gawdy, whose death made sure that he had no descendants, took revenge by making Arthur Francis the last surviving member of his family too. It was previously believed that Gawdy had arranged for someone else to abduct Arthur Francis’ son after his execution. Arthur Francis’ mezzotint suggests that Gawdy rose from the grave and took the boy himself.
The BBC are legendary for the quality of their radio plays and audio dramas. “The Mezzotint” is no exception, thanks mostly to the charming, classy elocution of narrator Robin Bailey. Bailey makes a fine proper Jamesian gentleman, bringing to mind snug drawing rooms and elegant dressing gowns, the scent of brandy and woodsmoke.
“The Mezzotint” is more of a narration or a reading than a full dramatization, keep in mind. This is in no way a bad thing and, in fact, lends itself way to the Ghost Stories For Christmas ambiance of huddling around a fire.
“The Mezzotint” is a bit of a strange choice for an audio adaptation as it’s about a piece of visual art. While you may wish you could see the spooky picture in question, it’s no great loss and could even be a strength. Perhaps the strongest thing audio has going for it in terms of Horror is its internality, how it all takes place inside your mind, gracing your mind’s eye with all manner of ghoulishness and grotesquerie.
It’s always nice to know how older media holds up to modern standards and tastes. So if you’re wondering if BBC Classic Tales Of Horror’s “The Mezzotint” has weathered the test of time and is worthy of your consideration, the answer is a resounding “Yes!”
First and foremost, M.R. James’ works seem to exist outside of time. They seem equally at home in 1836, 1936, and will likely still be relevant in 2036. Robin Bailey manages to find a nice balance between Upper Crust propriety while softening up James’ sometimes over-starched collars just a bit. It makes for a fast, fun ghost train ride that is also legitimately frightening as Hell!
“The Mezzotint” originally aired on BBC Radio 7 on Oct. 9, 2009 as part of the Classic Tales Of Horror series