The Signalman (film)
|A Ghost Story for Christmas episode|
Title screen, showing the cutting and the signal box.
|Episode no.||Season 1
|Directed by||Lawrence Gordon Clark|
|Written by||Charles Dickens (story)
Andrew Davies (adaptation)
|Original air date||22 December 1976|
The Signalman is a 1976 BBC television adaptation of "The Signal-Man", an 1866 short story by Charles Dickens. The story was adapted by Andrew Davies as the BBC's sixth Ghost Story for Christmas, with Denholm Elliott starring as the signalman and Bernard Lloyd as the traveller, an unnamed character who acts as a plot device in place of the short story's narrator.
It was the first of the series not to be an adaptation of an M.R. James story, and the last adaptation of an existing story. The production was directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark and filmed on the Severn Valley Railway.
In a railway cutting, a solitary figure of a signalman is observed from above standing by the track by a man (referred to as "The Traveller" in the cast list) who, shielding the sun from his face with one arm, waves the other and calls down "Hallo, Below There".
The signalman seems fearful and makes no attempt to speak to the traveller. Observing the signalman's demeanour towards him, the traveller states that the signalman appears to be afraid of him. To put him at ease, he reassures the signalman that there is nothing to fear about him. Reassured, the Signalman welcomes the Traveller into his lonely signal box. In front of a fireplace, the two men speak of the signalman's work. His labour consists of a dull, monotonous routine, but the signalman feels he deserves nothing better, as he wasted his academic opportunities when he was young.
During their conversation the Signalman is repeatedly distracted by a ghostly vibration on his signal bell that only he can hear. The Traveller remarks on the bell and the red light at the entrance to the tunnel before changing the subject to how an accident in the tunnel must be a terrible thing, the Signalman looking slightly wide-eyed at this tells him that a tunnel collision is the "worst to be feared".
To comfort the disturbed man, the Traveller states that he almost believes he has met a contented man at peace as the Signalman does his duty no matter what and that he has no desire to be anywhere but his signal box. The Traveller agrees to meet the man the next night when the Signalman starts his next shift. Holding his light so that The Traveller can find his way back up the path The Signalman asks him not to call out.
At the inn later that night the Traveller hears the faint whistle and chuffing of a passing train before retiring to bed, and in his sleep dreams of The Signalman telling him not to call out and, even though he could not hear it as the time, of the bell bathed in the red light of the tunnel making its vibrating ring.
The next evening as the fog settles in, the Traveller returns to find The Signalman waiting for him. The signalman imparts the reasons for his initial fear of him; his waving action and word action mimicked a ghostly spectre which rings his bell and appears to him at the red tunnel light just before a series of accidents. The spectre has appeared to him twice; first before a tunnel disaster, the second before a young bride fell to her death from a passing train.
The signalman continues to tell the traveller that the "spectre" came back a week ago and has appeared in fits and starts always by the light at the tunnel and always gesturing with one arm across its face and the other waved in warning. Now frustrated the signalman states that he has no rest or peace for it and that it calls him for minutes together in an agonized shout of "Below There, Look Out, Look Out" as well a standing there waving and ringing his bell.
The Signalman imparts his dilemma; if he was to telegraph "danger" he would be able to give no reason why and if he should do this that he would surely be displaced or fired. He conveys his powerlessness to act to prevent a predicted calamity. The traveller assures the signalman he must remain calm and that there is nothing more that the signalman can do than discharge his duty. The reassured Signalman states that he is thankful for the advice and agrees to meet the traveller again.
After a troubled sleep the traveller journeys to meet with the signalman the following morning, but as he approaches, a train approaches through the tunnel and he realises he can also hear the ghostly bell ringing. Running towards the cutting, he attempts to warn the signalman, standing transfixed on the line by the red light at the entrance to the tunnel. As the spectre reappears, the signalman is struck by the on-coming train.
The engine driver tells the traveller that as they came around the bend he saw the signalman standing on the line, when he did not heed the whistle the driver shut it off and called out to him. The traveller gravely asks what the driver said. Turning around standing in front of the red light the driver tells him that he called "Hallo, Below There, Look Out" and that he waved to him, one hand covering his face and the other waved in warning, all the while shouting "Look Out, Look Out, For God Sake Clear The Way".
The Traveller looks horrified, as the actions of the driver are exactly the same as what the Signalman himself has told of the spectre's actions. He watches the crew carry the Signalman's body away before turning and heading back over the countryside in the thickening winter fog.
- Denholm Elliott as The Signalman
- Bernard Lloyd as The Traveller
- Reginald Jessup as The Engine Driver
- Carina Wyeth as The Bride
The original short story may have been influenced by Dickens's own involvement with the Staplehurst rail crash on 9 June 1865. While passing over a viaduct in Kent, the train in which he was travelling jumped a gap in the line where the rails had been removed for maintenance, and the cast iron viaduct fractured, causing most of the carriages to fall into the river below. Dickens was in the first carriage that derailed sideways but did not fall completely – it was suspended at a precarious angle by the coupling of the coach in front and held up by the remains of the viaduct masonry. Dickens helped with the rescue of the other passengers, and was commended for his actions, but the experience had a profound effect on his subsequent life.
In The Signalman, adaptor Andrew Davies adds scenes of the traveller's nightmare-plagued nights at an inn, and re-affirms the ambiguity of the traveller-narrator by restructuring the ending and by matching his facial features with those of the spectre. The film also makes use of visual and aural devices. For example, the appearance of the spectre is stressed by the vibrations of a bell in the signalbox and a recurring red motif connects the signalman's memories of a train crash with the danger light attended by a ghostly figure.
In his adaptation, Davies also changes a number of elements for dramatic effect; for example, the bride does not fall out of the train but dies instantaneously in one of the carriage compartments and is merely referred to as "A Beautiful Young Lady". The Traveller witnesses The Signalman's demise; however, in the short story, The Narrator (The Traveller's story equivalent) comes the next day to find a railway inspector who informs him of The Signalman's death.
A replica Great Western Railway signal box was erected in the cutting on the Kidderminster side of Bewdley Tunnel, and the interior signal-box pictures were filmed in Highley signalbox. The Signalman's speech about the tunnel accident and the subsequent depiction is likely a reference to the Clayton Tunnel crash that occurred during 1861, five years before Dickens wrote his short story.
The Signalman is perhaps the most critically acclaimed of the Ghost Story for Christmas adaptations. Simon Farquhar suggests that the film is the first evidence of Andrew Davies' gift as an adaptor of literary fiction: "despite an extremely arduous shoot, Davies and Clarke's fog-wreathed, flame-crackling masterpiece manages something the production team could never have imagined: it's better than the book." Dave Rolinson notes that while "the adaptation inevitably misses Dickens' nuanced and often unsettling prose ... it achieves comparably skillful effects through visual language and sound, heightening theme and supernatural mood ... The production heightens the story's crucial features of repetition and foreshadowing."
- The Signal-Man at bbc.co.uk.
- The Signalman at the Internet Movie Database
- The Signal-Man at the BFI's Screenonline