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MR James's ghost stories as told by Robert Lloyd Parry
By Andrew Woodger
BBC Suffolk

Robert Lloyd Parry
Lloyd Parry has performed MR James's stories at Great Livermere church

A storyteller is attempting to keep the ghost stories of Suffolk's MR James alive with an autumn and winter tour.

Montague Rhodes James grew up in Great Livermere near Bury St Edmunds and based some of his tales in Suffolk.

Robert Lloyd Parry will be touring his Jackanory-style readings across the UK taking in Otley, Sudbury and Cambridge as well as The Lowry in Salford.

The show includes A Warning To The Curious which is set on a stretch of coast inspired by Aldeburgh beach.

"I think there's something very pleasant about the world in which the stories are set," said Robert.

"They remind me of Sherlock Holmes in the way they're very 'clubbish' in that they involve dons or antiquaries holidaying alone.

"Contrasted with that homely, humorous background you've got the genuinely terrifying - the blood-chilling, horrifying moments that intrude to the end of almost all the stories."

MR James
MR James was provost of King's College, Cambridge and Eton College

Robert's Nunkie Theatre Company is taking two of James's supernatural tales on tour.

They are The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral and A Warning to the Curious.

The latter is set in Aldeburgh and is arguably the most famous of James's works. It tells of a young archaeologist who is haunted and hunted by the guardian of an ancient treasure.

"There's a very vivid, recognisable description of the town which adds a lot to the horror which comes later on," said Robert.

The don of doom

MR James spent pretty much all his working life in academia. Although he was born at Goodnestone in Kent in 1862, his father became vicar at Great Livermere in 1865 and 'Monty' regarded Suffolk as home.

He went to school at Eton, studied at King's College, Cambridge and served as provost (head) at both places until his death in 1936.

Suffolk was the inspiration for several stories.

Whistle & I'll Come To You My Lad is set in Old Felixstowe (re-cast as Burnstowe) and it describes the bleak winter beach and north sea, the martello towers and the golf course.

Great Livermere was the model for the fictional Casteringham in The Ash Tree. It's about a witch called Mrs Mothersole and her name is taken from an actual gravestone at Great Livermere.

Michael Horden in Whistle & I'll Come To You
Michael Horden in the 1968 BBC version of Whistle & I'll Come To You

James's final story A Vignette takes us back to Great Livermere and Lloyd Parry believes it describes a haunting that the author believes he experienced in his childhood.

In 2009, the Reverand Tony Redman, assistant vicar of Great Livermere, said:

"MR James's ghost stories were primarily a form of Christmas entertainment for his undergraduates at Cambridge.

"As a committed Christian, I believe there is a spirit world, but the whole thing can be quite scary for some people.

"We've tended to make light of things like Halloween rather than looking at the serious aspect of what happens when we die.

"Rather than emphasising Halloween, the church sees the whole of November as a time of thanksgiving - remembering those who've gone before us.

"It's a thankful thing rather than a fearful thing that we would want to emphasise.

"MR James was also a committed Christian - he was making us aware of the possibility of there being more to life than what we can see.

"But on a simple entertainment level, I'm a great fan of him!"

Fitzwilliam and fear

It was while working in Cambridge that Robert Lloyd Parry rediscovered his childhood passion for MR James:

"I'm not an actor by any training. I'm an art historian and it was while working at the Fitzwilliam Museum around 2000 that I discovered MR James had been the director there about 100 years earlier.

"I went back to the stories which I hadn't read for about 15 years or so and I was immediately transported back to the pleasures I had when I first encountered them."

Adaptations for TV and radio

While never having the full movie treatment, numerous versions of the ghost stories have been on BBC television and radio including Jonathan Miller's adaptation of Whistle & I'll Come to You, although it was filmed in Norfolk rather than Suffolk.

Robert Lloyd Parry
Robert Lloyd Parry aims for an intimate setting for his storytelling

Robert said reading is obviously a different experience to watching film or theatre:

"You can certainly get a shiver down your spine [reading the stories in a book], but how truly disturbed you'll be - I'm not sure.

"It has a less immediate impact than film or television, but he does create a 'pleasing terror' which is what James described it as."

Robert's one-man shows involve him storytelling from an armchair in candlelight.

"MR James made no great claims to the stories himself in terms of them being literary works.

"It's fear in the cause of entertainment and that's what he had a knack for creating."

Robert said this is likely to be his last tour of MR James's stories, at least in this lifetime.

Find out where Robert Lloyd Parry is touring by visiting the Nunkie Theatre Company website.

Another storyteller, Ron Murrell is presenting two MR James stories at Moyse's Hall Museum in Bury St Edmunds on 6 December 2009.




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