Fearflix 3

The Signalman

BBC TV 1976


Many years ago when I was a young man I was obliged to return to England after Hogmanay in Scotland. The trains from Glasgow were delayed and packed. I shared an old-fashioned carriage with seven other people. The man opposite me was a Canadian who had settled in England. He was articulate, educated, intelligent and opinionated. His conversation kept the other passengers and me occupied for the journey. The Canadian worked as a signalman on the London Underground. I expected him to resent having to work at something for which he was overqualified, a consequence of him leaving his own country and sacrificing opportunities available to the natives that remained. The Canadian admitted that his work did not require skills but he did stress his responsibilities to the rail system and the safety of the thousands of passengers that passed through the station where he worked. These responsibilities were important to him, and he worried about the train being too delayed for him to make his shift.   People depended on him, and he was preoccupied by what might happen when he reached London.

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The Signalman BBC TV film is a flawless adaptation of a short story by Charles Dickens. In the story the signalman also has intellectual history. The signalman, like the Canadian I met on the train from Glasgow, fails to utilise his education. In the Dickens story the signalman drifted and lacked focus as a young man. For the film the scriptwriter Andrew Davies makes his only change to the story by Dickens.   Davies has the signalman reject what he was taught in natural history because he became bored by unconvincing explanations of the physical world. The signalman remains intellectually curious. In quiet moments he studies mathematics, ‘figures’. He asserts that the pastime will give him additional knowledge, not understanding. This strengthens a theme within the story, that open-minded superstition can be an alternative to the certainties of rationalism.

Dickens had an extravagant talent. He delivered complex plots and an endless supply of unforgettable characters. Such a talent could only be satisfied with the ensemble of the metropolis. His big baggy books brought him fame and money. When Dickens decided to do more than engage and dazzle his audience and pitch for poetry, he remembered that simplicity was important. The Signalman is sustained through just two characters, the traveller and the signalman. The traveller, who is boarding at the nearby inn, is rational and welcomes the future. He tells the signalman that he has known the confined life and routine but he is now free. Like many, he has been brought affluence and independence by the technology of the modern world. The signalman is different. He is trapped in repetitive work. ‘My face would be in the sun but my mind here in the dark.’ The ‘here’ he means is inside the signal box. The Canadian on the train worried about missing his shift and could describe in detail the consequences if he failed in his responsibility. Dickens signalman is the same. ‘It’s not the work, sir. It’s the responsibility.’ He mentions work more than once. ‘Always there to be done, never finished.’ For the peasant the land is not as relentless as the machine. There is the reward of harvest and less to be done in the winter.


Most ghost stories have characters haunted by the past but in The Signalman the warnings from the ghost are about the future. The signalman is not afraid of the spectre that has cried out to him, ‘Hello, below there.’ He does not need this spectre to disappear, the usual aim in a ghost story. The signalman is frustrated when the spectre disappears. He has demands for the spectre. The signalman wants more from him, an explanation of his warnings. The curse of the future is not just the individual tragedy of the signalman, a calamity caused by loyalty to industrial discipline and responsibility. Dickens understands that work is being redefined by industrial capitalism. Not all are as lucky as the educated traveller who enjoys strolling through the peaceful manicured countryside to visit his friend in the signal box and share thoughts in front of the fire. The peasant suffered endless toil and hardship. The industrial worker has mundane tasks and the increased responsibility that is facilitated by machines. This is the modern phenomenon and it creates the new alienation that alarms Dickens.   The signalman understands his position and he realises it even prejudices his relationship with the spectre. ‘Why can’t it go to someone who has the power to act?’ He means someone whose existence is not determined and controlled by machines.

Like all great writers, Dickens wrote about what was ahead. He does more than describe the changes in his society that he has observed. In The Signalman Dickens anticipates what will happen next, a mechanised world insisted upon by unseen entrepreneurs, all justified by a narrow utilitarianism that thinks growth in GDP is an adequate substitute for human progress. The signalman begins his shift at ten in the evening and finishes at dawn.   His working life is prescribed but he also has time between trains to study ‘figures’ and he is not as tied to his tasks as a modern worker committed to overtime. Dickens was not able to anticipate all that followed but his suspicions were alerted and they combine in a complex tale of fear, haunting and industrial tragedy.

If warnings are always vague and incomplete, this does not invalidate them. The warning exists because the future exists. The future is a mystery, and mysteries hide the inevitable and the inexplicable. The future is beyond imagination and rationalisation. There is an eternal truth in The Signalman. When a warning is a mystery, it will only confuse and enfeeble us, and most warnings are mysteries because the future is unknown.

The blue filter, when the traveller returns to his inn, is probably used to disguise the morning mist and to create a night scene at reduced cost. The total budget for the film was £35,000 and well below what Davies charges for a script today. The blue mist does more than save money. It emphasises mystery and tells us that we are watching a man who has witnessed what he does not understand. We see him read a book before he goes to bed and are aware of the limitations of his rationalism.

The traveller is shocked by the outcome. He expected diligence to mean results and progress. His shock is captured in the film by the briefest and most subtle freeze frame in cinema. The traveller loses a friend and also his own certainty in empirical evidence and logical explanation. This man arrives at the beginning of the film looking for the path between the hillside and the modern railway line in the valley, as if he is someone who has the power to alternate between tradition and modernity.   At the end of the film the traveller leaves the tragedy and walks into more hillside mist and fog. He arrived thinking he was free, finished with a ‘life that was confined to narrow limits’ but leaves unable to understand what he will see tomorrow. Earlier he had insisted to the signalman that ‘any man who discharges his duty will do well.’ This obsession belongs to the rational and those who have faith in the future and progress, not men, like the signalman, that are curious about warnings and the potential for disaster.

Because he is without power, the signalman performs his duty, accepts the little that he has to do and acquits his responsibility as the traveller encourages. The result is tragedy for the signalman and the rest of us that will follow him, and disillusionment for the rational and trusting traveller.

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Both the actors in The Signalman are exceptional. The actors were attracted to a story they understood had exceptional merit and accepted modest fees so that the BBC could meet its parsimonious budget. Most of the dialogue is taken directly from Dickens and both actors catch the pitch. Dickens can overdo verbosity, especially when he is being comic. Here, though, the dialogue is formal and compressed. The actors add the pauses and heighten the poetry. ‘I was doubtful whether I’d seen you before’ is not grammatical but it reveals the awkward and wary signalman. Denholm Elliott is a walking mystery. He suggests more than is said and he lets the burr of a West Country accent intrude into his speech, no more than that. The accent makes us aware that the signalman has a complex identity. As the traveller, Bernard Lloyd is both harsh and sympathetic. There are two action scenes in the film. Simple filters are used to splendid effect. When required, the editing is sharp and fast. How the film was made for a mere £35,000 is as much of a mystery as the future that the spectre warns us against and it is a credit to the unpretentious application that existed in the BBC before it was ‘reformed’ by careerists. This is the final mystery. How an inadequate and often appalling past can tempt us with the virtues of what went before.

Howard Jackson has had four books published by Red Rattle Books. His 11,000 mile journey around Brazil is described in Innocent Mosquitoes. His latest book and compilation of horror stories is called Nightmares Ahead. Published by Red Rattle Books and praised by critics, it is available here.

If you want to read about his travels click here.




Fearflix No 1


Fright Night – The 0riginal 1985 version


The American TV series, Dark Shadows ran from 1966 to 1971 for 1225 episodes. A second series appeared twenty years later but lasted a mere 12 episodes. Dark Shadows was a huge success in the 1960s and a key element in the grooming of American children.

Fright Night begins with a camera tracking through an American suburb. The words we hear are sinister. An innocent woman is being prepared for seduction or something worse. The camera leads us into the bedroom of Charlie Brewster. He is on the floor at the side of the bed attempting to seduce his girlfriend.   As things can happen on a bed, Amy thinks the floor is safer but it is also where Charlie cannot see or be seen by the TV. When Amy relents and climbs on to the bed, Charlie is distracted by the sight of a coffin being carried by the new neighbours into the house next door. Amy loses her temper and leaves but not before Charlie and Amy are summoned by his mother. She is watching the TV. In this household, the television is both the missing father and husband.

Charlie and his mother are alike. They cannot convince others in conversation and they are inefficient voyeurs. His mother sleeps at night with a visor over her eyes. She misunderstands the conversations that exist around her and fails to notice the veiled threats that Jerry the vampire makes against Charlie her son. Meanwhile, the son believes that everything he sees on the TV is true. This is why he asks a TV actor, Peter Vincent, to help him destroy Jerry the vampire. The glamorous blonde who visits Jerry next door is a prostitute but Charlie only realises this when he hears news of her murder on the TV.

It is the mother that allows Jerry the vampire into the home of the hero. Charlie will fight to save Amy but he also needs to protect his mother. ‘And I’d have to kill her, too,’ warns Jerry. Not only has Jerry sharp dangerous teeth, he has a tongue that can reveal to his mother what Charlie fears most of all, the truth about his voyeuristic self.

In the initial struggle between Jerry and Charlie, Jerry makes the reasonable plea, ‘I can give you something that I never had. I can give you a choice. Forget about me, and I’ll forget about you.’   Jerry is like an elder brother wiling to become a malevolent father. He reacts with a temper when provoked. But, like most elder brothers, he restricts himself to a superior smirk and veiled threats when left alone. And he offers the young the opportunity to borrow wisdom. He says to Evil Ed, who is a friend of Charlie, ‘I know what it’s like being different. All you have to do is take my hand.’


Chris Sarandon in the role of the vampire is a handsome 43 year-old male and has all the traits of the elder brother. Jerry has money, the loyal but irritating mate, a superior sound system, a great car, flash clothes and confidence with women. When Amy meets Jerry, she describes him as ‘real neat’.  Amy and Charlie follow Jerry to the local discotheque. Obliged to visit discotheques in pursuit of sex the young male, like Jonathan Harker in Dracula, is enticed into the one location where his entitlement to male power and hierarchy is denied. Instead, rejection and humiliation by women has to be endured. It is different for men who have money and power. In the discotheque Charlie is humiliated by both Amy and Jerry.

When the vampire seduces Amy, he is naked to the waist. Amy wears a backless dress. Jerry is the object of desire. We see three lines of blood run down the back of Amy. The image suggests the breaking of the hymen but it is also a reminder that in the seduction by the vampire it is the woman who leaves fluid in the body of the man.


Before the seduction, though, Amy persuades TV vampire killer, Peter Vincent, to help Charlie. She does not recruit Vincent to fight Jerry the vampire as Charlie had originally intended. She concocts a scheme to deceive Charlie. This will be a charade with fake holy water intended to demonstrate that Jerry is not a vampire. Amy understands the difference between reality and imagination but is too pragmatic to be curious. In Fright Night, the woman is willing to manipulate what the male observes and to exploit his limitations. Few vampire movies are feminist, and Fright Night is no exception. The women are either uncomprehending mothers, beautiful prostitutes or Amy whose future will be determined exclusively by men.

Fright Night also reveals fears about the inadequacy of male decency. Charlie wants a decent partner to help build a future and provide nurture for the children, someone who can be loved. When Charlie sees Amy vamped into someone that resembles the girls who visit Jerry, he is afraid that Amy has his own weakness, that she is unable to resist the sex object who offers ecstasy, just like he could not when he saw the glamorous blonde prostitute next door. Bitten, Amy acquires great make up and fabulous hair. Charlie is tempted but the vampire monster that emerges within seconds is a warning what life will be like with a demanding uncontrollable fantasy.


Evil Ed, the friend of Charlie, is competent with symbols and data but inadequate with human reality.  Evil Ed is good at trigonometry. Charlie thinks everything is real including hammy TV programmes about the supernatural. Evil Ed sees everything as if it is all TV entertainment. He giggles at news of the decapitation of the first two victims of Jerry the vampire. The film uses TV clips and news items to help advance the narrative. There is no difference between reality and the imagined on TV. All is delivered by adult talking heads. Evil Ed will soon become a victim of Jerry. Charlie may have to understand that Peter Vincent is only an actor but at least he has faith in himself and his own optimism. Lacking faith of any kind, Evil Ed is destined to die, killed by Peter Vincent who has abandoned his role in the imaginary to deal with the real.

When Amy asks Vincent for help, the actor imagines that the task will be accomplished with a typical hammy performance. Vincent accepts because he has just been fired and needs money. The ruse designed by Amy is successful but Vincent opens his cigarette case and observes that Jerry has no reflection. This moment of seeing is important to both the theme of the film and the moral progress of Peter Vincent.

Fright Night is a comic film. Yet director Tom Holland risks destroying the mood with three graphic scenes involving death and transformation. Peter Vincent witnesses these events and the camera cuts between the grotesque and his shocked incredulous stare, which never wavers. By refusing to avert his eyes, Peter Vincent acquires, despite his cowardly nature, courage and strength.   He is now able to witness real horror and be more than a fake and a substitute. Faith is important in Fright Night but it is not religious faith. It is a certainty based on a confidence in knowledge

The first task for Vincent and Charlie is to kill Billy Cole who is the servant and friend of Jerry the vampire. The smoke of the gun makes it difficult for Vincent and Charlie to see Cole and aim. After training their eyes to see through the smoke they will be ready to view horror.   Charlie and Vincent destroy Jerry by smashing the windows of his basement retreat. It not only exposes Jerry to the sunlight but also provides Charlie and Vincent with the light that helps them see Jerry.

The movie ends as it begins with a tracking shot to the bedroom of Charlie. Vincent has now been reinstated on his TV programme. Charlie and Amy are on the bed and, in his introduction to the weekly episode, Vincent acknowledges Charlie. Before Jerry the vampire, Charlie only had a box of technology for a father, a deceitful box. With the help of his new father, Charlie can distinguish between reality and imagination. He smiles at the TV screen and grins. Secure that he will have the support and approval of a father, he will consummate his relationship with his future wife. Charlie switches off the TV.

The strong patriarch is criticised in Westerns like The Big Country, and the male that is dominated by the wife is treated with contempt in teenage angst movies like Rebel Without A Caus’. Star Wars imagines a distant planet where American adolescents can live parent free. Charlie is a man of action and, as in Star Wars, adolescents are successful where adults have failed.

In a world of absent fathers, Charlie seeks help from the television. If Charlie thinks he is rejecting reality for Star Wars adolescent fantasy, he is mistaken. He will learn the truth about Peter Vincent. Because of the importance of the TV in his home, he is asking the one man whose gaze Charlie tries to avoid when he attempts to seduce Amy. After defeating the vampire he has an approving father and can cope with the critical gaze from the TV. Charlie has achieved this despite living in a house with the number 101, which represents the inadequate nuclear family inside, the mother and son and no father.

Although Fright Night is concerned with how the integrity of the voyeur is important to moral development, it does not neglect identity. All the characters have alternative identities. Amanda Bearse was picked to play Amy because she has the ability to appear both homely and attractive. The mother of Charlie has nightmares about being seen naked yet she can still contribute a worthwhile shift at the local hospital. Charlie is the seedy voyeur but hero.   Ed is clever albeit shallow and although irresponsible he is a decent friend. The greatest enigmas are the mature men.   The policeman is adult authority to Charlie but a submissive juvenile with Billy Cole. Jerry is charming and considerate until angered, and Peter Vincent is a hero and coward.

The film is positive. It argues that we need not look away from the complex or even the horror. We should not be afraid. The horror that is seen will not diminish those who gaze. Instead what they see will make them strong. It is why Fright Night warrants being called a feel good movie. Or, in the final words of Evil Ed from the unseen dark, ‘Oh, you’re so cool, Brewster.’

The above is an edited and abridged version of an essay that appeared in Telegraph For Garlic, a collection of academic criticism edited by Samia Ounoughi.

Howard Jackson has had four books published by Red Rattle Books. His 11,000 mile journey around Brazil is described in Innocent Mosquitoes. His latest book and compilation of horror stories is called Nightmares Ahead. Published by Red Rattle Books and praised by critics, it is available here.

If you want to read more about his travels click here.