Alan Morrison on

The Signalman (1976)
adapted by Andrew Davies from the short story by Charles Dickens
Directed by Lawrence Gordon Clarke 
BFI DVD

This is quite simply a perfect production, driven by subtlety, nuance and atmosphere, lifted to classic status by the supremely unsettled performance of the inimitable Denholm Elliott as the title character. The standout line for me is his ruminating comment about his routine-entrenched job: ‘it’s never done…’ This speaks volumes about the existential predicament of the signalman, one that is distilled to nerve-straining degrees in its sheer isolation and automatism. Inevitably for an obviously sensitive, thinking individual, the signalman fills up his seclusion with much speculative thought, which more psychoanalytical viewers might cite as the font for all the apparent phantasms that haunt him in his duties.

This is the line taken by his frequent visitor, played by Bernard Lloyd (scripturally, The Traveller), who tries to rationalise objectively the strange happenings about the spookily located signal box – but all to no avail, naturally (or rather supernaturally), this being a ghost story at heart. Certain shots, particularly of the bride falling from the train, twisted up on the rails behind, and the ghostly gaping face at the entrance to the tunnel, are still genuinely frightening 31 years on. The final twist is fairly gratifying, but unlike many of Tales of the Unexpected, its revelation does not in any way undermine re-viewings, since it is in the psychological ambiguities of the signalman and his spectral afflictions that the real enigma of the film plays itself out. This is a TV film to absolutely treasure, mainly for Elliott’s superbly nuanced central performance. Eerily directed by Lawrence Gordon Clarke and exceptionally scripted by Andrew Davies, The Signalman is an absolute must for any lover of vintage television.

Alan Morrison © 2008