Dark tales for dark nights - ghost stories on BBC4 tonight

Mark Gatiss steps into the mind of MR James, the enigmatic English master of the supernatural story

Mark Gatiss steps into the mind of MR James, the enigmatic English master of the supernatural story in a special programme on BBC4 tonight - Credit: BBC

The tradition of telling ghost stories in the depths of winter is a tale as old as time. Tonight, BBC4 harks back to a time when the night before Christmas was when you'd count your lucky stars that it was a mouse and not a ghost that you heard in the house

It goes back further than Ebenezer Scrooge, further, perhaps than Christmas itself.

As the nights draw in and daylight hours dwindle, the tales around the fireside have traditionally been darker in nature to denote the death of the year and the desire to bring loved ones closer at the edge of a new beginning that must first be cloaked in shadow.

Although All Hallows may feel a better fit for ghost stories, traditionally it is Christmas when tales of the dead were told around firesides and when thoughts turned to those who were no longer walking alongside us on earth.

Shakespeare wrote, appropriately in A Winter's Tale: 'a sad tale's best for winter: I have one. Of sprites and goblins and a century earlier, Christopher Marlowe wrote: 'now I remember those old women's words, who in my wealth would tell me winter's tales and speak of spirits and ghosts that glide by night…'

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But it was the Victorians, who delighted in the macabre and bizarre, that fully embraced the somewhat Pagan tradition of sharing stories of death at the winter solstice and the beginning of Yule, a time when it was believed the dead had access to the living.

BBC4 will be celebrating the Christmas ghost story in a night of inspired programming which cuts through the sugary sweetness of the season with a healthy dose of fear and taps into our Pagan ancestry which sees shorter days linked with old customs and a sprinkle of religious admonishment.

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Jerome K Jerome, born in 1859, wrote a series of ghost stories brought together in a collection called Told After Supper, which begins: 'All these things happen on Christmas Eve, they are all told of on Christmas Eve. For ghost stories to be told on any other evening than the evening of the twenty-fourth of December would be impossible in English society as at present regulated. Therefore, in introducing the sad but authentic ghost stories that follow hereafter, I feel that it is unnecessary to inform the student of Anglo-Saxon literature that the date on which they were told and on which the incidents took place was--Christmas Eve.'

It'll be a merry scary Christmas indeed on BBC4 tonight. Don't have nightmares.

Ghostly tales on BBC4 tonight:

MR James: Ghost Writer, 9pm, BBC4: The wonderful Mark Gatiss steps into the mind of MR James, the enigmatic English master of the supernatural story. How did this donnish Victorian bachelor, conservative by nature and a devout Anglican, come to create tales that continue to chill readers more than a century on? Mark attempts to uncover the secrets of James's inspiration, taking an atmospheric journey from James's childhood home in Suffolk to Eton, Cambridge and France, venturing into ancient churches, dark cloisters and echoing libraries along the way.

The Tractate Middoth, 10pm, BBC4: The chilling story of Dr Rant, whose wicked streak continues from beyond the grave, is based on the festive ghost story by MR James. When a relative comes to find a particular book at the university library, young student Garrett is drawn into a family feud over a will and its legacy - with terrifying consequences. A rotting ghost, a cheated inheritance and vengeance from beyond the grave: we've all felt that way at Christmas, surely?

No 13: A Ghost Story, 10.40pm, BBC4: Dramatisation based on an MR James short story and in the tradition of the BBC's ghost stories for Christmas. Oxbridge academic Anderson settles into The Golden Lion Hotel in a small cathedral city to research its ecclesiastical history, when the subject of his research begins to disturb his slumber. Who, precisely, is staying in the non-existent Room 13?

The Signalman, 11.20pm, BBC4: Charles Dickens's ghost story in which a lonely signalman is haunted by a hooded figure who seems to warn of danger. Every time the spectre appears, a tragic event happens on the railway line – trains collide, a woman dies on her journey, a man is struck by a train.

The Stalls of Barchester, midnight, BBC4: Christopher Lee reads the disturbing Victorian ghost stories of writer MR James. A century ago, it was James's habit to read one aloud by candlelight every Christmas Eve to a select group of students in his study at King's College, Cambridge. Lee tells the fearful tale of intrigue, murder and the haunted Stalls of Barchester.

A Warning to the Curious, 12.30am, BBC4: Christopher Lee reads a chilling tale by Victorian writer MR James. A horrific account, based on a true story, of the discovery of the last of the legendary East Anglian Crowns which is set in 'Seaburgh', a disguised version of Aldeburgh. When an antiquarian digs up one of the crows which legendarily protects Suffolk from invasion, he is then stalked by its supernatural guardian.

A View from a Hill, 1am, BBC4: An adaptation of the classic ghost story by MR James. Ambitious archaeologist Dr Fanshawe is sent to authenticate the collection of his boss's old school friend and finds nothing much of interest except an 'odd couple' squire and servant, a pair of binoculars and a gruesome local legend.

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