Victorian ghost story The Tractate Middoth set to haunt BBC Two this Christmas

It is a tale best told around the fireside on a winter’s evening; a story of evil lurking behind the pages of a Hebrew text. Now, more than 100 years on, MR James’s The Tractate Middoth is to be adapted by Doctor Who and Sherlock actor-writer Mark Gatiss.

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Due to air on BBC Two at 9.30pm on Christmas Day, the drama will retell the chilling Victorian story of a vengeful menace from beyond the grave.

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The drama will be followed at 10.05pm by a documentary about MR James, in which Gatiss will explore the life of the Cambridge scholar who never intended to become a famous ghost story writer.

We spoke to documentary producer John Das about The Tractate Middoth, to find out why the story continues to fascinate more than a century on.

Q: To start, could you tell us about MR James and what inspired him to write ghost stories?

A: MR James is regarded as the greatest English ghost story writer. He was a Victorian academic who spent most of his life in academia at Cambridge.

He was primarily a medievalist – he specialised in the cataloguing of medieval manuscripts. He wrote ghost stories for pleasure, to read aloud to his friends.

Ironically, for a man who dedicated his life to academia, he is best remembered as a ghost story writer. He wrote around 30 tales.

Q: And why did Mark Gatiss choose to adapt The Tractate Middoth? Was it one of James’s more popular stories?

A: The Tractate Middoth is one of Mark’s favourites, and it is also an example of classic MR James writing. It is set in a spooky library, and spiders are a recurring theme.

Many of James’s stories centre on scholars whose intellectual curiosity has got the better of them. It gets them into situations they should have avoided.

And the people in his stories are not dissimilar to James himself.

What is also interesting is that although in most cases James has fictionalised the locations in his stories, his tales are all steeped in historical detail. Their settings are all closely based on real locations.

James drew on his historical knowledge in his work, and on his own experiences such as his travels to France and Scandinavia.

James’s historical knowledge gives his stories a degree of credibility. From a historian’s point of view, you feel you are getting a strong historical ‘flavour’.

James also drew on his knowledge of medieval manuscripts – his stories contain the kind of detail only someone truly knowledgeable could include.

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Q: When did James start writing ghost stories?

A: He started writing stories to read aloud to his friends in the early 1890s – he unveiled his first story in 1893, and his first collection of stories was published in 1904.

He had no grand ambitions to become a ghost story writer – in fact, we think he allowed his first collection to be published primarily to help the career of his friend, who illustrated the book. 

But James was a bit of a performer – as a student he acted at Cambridge. He wanted to write the sorts of stories you would enjoy around the fireside on a winter’s evening.

Q: A ghost story isn’t something you would usually see broadcast on Christmas Day. How do you think it will be received?

A: Well, in the 1970s it was a tradition to have a BBC adaptation of an MR James story shown on Christmas Eve. This was actually what inspired Mark Gatiss.

So while it seems like we are doing something new, we are in a way returning to an earlier tradition. In the documentary, we have used clips from some of these earlier adaptations.

James’s stories lend themselves to filming because the kind of places that inspired them still exist – you feel like things have not changed, that much of the England MR James knew still survives.

While filming the documentary, we were keen to avoid anything that felt too modern, such as cars or shop fronts.

Q: What is it about MR James’s writing that continues to fascinate?

A: I think it’s his feel for history and atmosphere, and his style of writing is knowing and humorous. He is a superb prose writer, and his stories are very readable.

But he also wanted to create what he called “a pleasing terror”. His stories make you want to read them by the fireside. They are quite playful.

The appeal is also that his stories take you into this evocative world, inspired by the Victorian world in which he lived. Anyone who loves old buildings and is interested in the past will feel a connection with his work.

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Q: And how true to the original story is the drama?

A: The drama holds close to the original plot. The main difference is that while the original is set in the early 1900s, the adaptation is set in the 1950s.

This was done for a variety of reasons – firstly, it is practically easier to film something set in the 1950s than in Victorian Britain, given budget and time limitations.

And secondly, James himself once considered when was the best time to set a ghost story. He said it is not necessarily in the present, but that it should be set in a time recent enough to feel familiar.

By setting the drama in the 1950s, it is more meaningful to our own generation – it is easier to relate to, and allows you to ‘buy’ into what is going on.

Q: Was it difficult to condense the story into a 36-minute drama?

A: James’s stories were mainly around 15 pages long, so it wasn’t too difficult. But The Tractate Middoth is unusual in that it features quite a lot of action compared to James’s other stories. It reads almost like a Sherlock Holmes story.

Mark therefore had to be selective about what he included, and he changed the order of some of the narrative.

But I think this drama – with its rich sense of the past – will appeal to anyone who loves history, and has enjoyed James’s stories.

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The Tractate Middoth will air on BBC Two at 9.30pm on Christmas Day, and will be followed at 10.05pm by a documentary about MR James. To find out more, click here