Schedulers' tales of the unexpected

Television's predilection for ghost stories, last aired in the Seventies, is back from the dead. Rhys Williams welcomes a classic end- of-century Gothic revival
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writing for the times literary Supplement in 1918, Virgina Woolf pondered the engima of "the strange human craving for the pleasure of feeling afraid which is so involved in our love of ghost stories", before concluding that "it is pleasant to be afraid when we are conscious that we are in no kind of danger".

Either the drama commissioning editors at ITV and BBC have been reading Virginia Woolf recently or, more likely, the message about the unending and increasingly stodgy diet of drama series about policemen or doctors, or doctors played by policemen (or is it the other way round?) appears to be getting through.

In the grope around the programme vaults for refreshing small screen alternatives to Inspector Morse and Dr Finlay, both networks have stumbled across a much neglected, but loved genre - the ghost story.

More than a decade after it ended the yuletide tradition of The Christmas Ghost Story, the BBC this year presented a well-received, one-off chiller, The Blue Boy, before wading in at the end of last month with Ghosts, a six-part series of specially written tales of the supernatural. Broadcast at 9.15pm on a Saturday night, the series demonstrates the peak-time faith the corporation is prepared to place in a format many thought had been consigned to the programming discard pile. Or grave, even.

Never knowingly outdone, ITV next week responds with Chiller - "five psychological thrillers from Yorkshire Television" (the company responsible for ratings bankers such as Emmerdale Farm, A Touch of Frost and Darling Buds of May). The series is produced by Lawrence Gordon Clark, who was responsible for Harry's Game and, as director of all the BBC's Christmas Ghost Stories, is steeped in the "Beyond".

"I think it's very cathartic and healthy to be frightened out of our wits," Gordon Clark explains. "People enjoy that up to a point - it's a fascination with the unknown and unpredictable and the inexplicable." It is a fascination, he says, that classically sees people sitting around a fire desperate to chip in their spooky encounter with the supernatural, only to regret it the instant they climb into bed and hear a clanky radiator.

Britain's reputation as a pedlar of terror owes much to Hammer films, the company which through the Fifties and Sixties carried the British film industry, churning out so many low-budget, high kitsch, phenomenally popular horror movies that it won a Queen's Award to Industry. Critics may have scoffed at the time at the company's cast of ghouls, werewolves, and vampires which tramped around dodgy, mock gothic sets dripping Kensington gore, but today they are regarded with a kind of respect and affection.

With a cinema adaptation of the landmark television chiller, The Quatermass Experiment, Hammer embarked on a course that included The Curse of Frankenstein, The Satanic Rites of Dracula and Plague of the Zombies.

By the early Seventies, however, cinema audiences had grown weary of the company's 19th-century settings and the endless recycling of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing as villain and adversary respectively. Once the big-budget, special-effect spectaculars such as Night of the Living Dead or the profoundly disturbing Exorcist arrived from across the Atlantic, according to one film critic, "Hammer films appeared stiff and parochial, dated in their stiff combinations of sensationalism and dignity".

The producers of Ghosts and Chiller are, needless to say, quick to point out that their tales do not come replete with spinning heads and bucket- loads of rhesus positive. "We don't have monsters, we have people," says Ruth Baumgarten, series producer of the BBC's Ghosts.

Gordon Clark adds: "The unseen is much more frightening than the full- frontal Hollywood splat. M R James, who was the master of ghost-story telling, allows the veil to be drawn apart for a second, so you can look into the abyss."

Instead of graphic depiction, they focus on suggestion. The aim, they say, is to chill rather than shock. Partly because television is not best suited to carrying off big-screen pyrotechnics, but mainly because they want to keep faith with the notion of a ghost story in its literary rather than cinematic tradition.

In their introduction to The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories, Michael Cox and Robert Gilbert chronicle a history of ghost-story telling that dates back to Horace Walpole's 1764 Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto. It had matured into a distinct literary form by the 1820s, and, popularised by writers like J S Le Fanu and Dickens, mushroomed with the spread of literary magazines by the middle of the century.

Cox and Gilbert believe the spread of spiritualism from the US led to a national obsession with "exchanging platitudes with the dead". They conclude that with the coming of theological doubt, "it may be that ghost stories, with their necessary insistence on the reality of life after death (however perverted and unfathomable), provided a buttress of sorts against materialism."

Above all, though, Cox and Gilbert say ghost stories were the supreme artistic challenge - "certainly the most exacting form of literary endeavour, and perhaps the only one in which there is almost no intermediate step between success and failure."

Baumgarten believes the attraction for both viewer and programme maker is the opportunity to explore confusing emotions and realities that naturalistic drama, such as Casualty or Peak Practice, in all their rational glory cannot. The concept of fate, for example.

"Ghost stories are often about not being able to understand what is going on - they occupy a territory at odds with the natural cases of most popular fiction. They are a fantastic poetic metaphor for all kinds of emotional states. Very often they are about the past having a hold on the present - that's a metaphor for relationships and for how the past is not always resolved."

The result, she says, unsettles, rather than horrifies. "It's like the Goya painting - when reason sleeps, the demons come out. Fear comes into being as soon as you cannot find rational explanations."

According to Baumgarten, ghost stories' prolonged absence from television is a result of the viewing public's appetite for naturalistic drama, packed as it is full of sane, rational mystery-solving folk like policemen and doctors, and the ease with which the networks can sate it.

Is television's renewed enthusiasm for ghost stories symptomatic of a wider resurgence of interest in the supernatural? Well, yes, says Peter Hutchings, a film historian at Northumbria University. "Coppola's Dracula and Interview with a Vampire both appear to be part of the classic end- of-century Gothic revival - there's something about the end of a century, the sense of ending, of decadence that inspires the Gothic art."

Chiller, 9pm Thur ITV