Casting the Runes (TV, 2007)

A review of the 1978 Yorkshire TV adaptation of MR James’s ‘Casting the Runes’ from Death Ray 06.



1978/ 50 mins/15

Director: Lawrence Gordon Clarke

Writer: Clive Exton

Starring: Jan Francis, Edward Petherbridge, Iain Cuthbertson

Vintage Yorkshire TV version of MR James’ classic tale of magical terror

The work of Montague Rhodes James, renowned as the finest writer of ghost stories in the English language, has been adapted many times, and most of these have been attempts to move the grand old tradition of Yule-tide spook-stories from the fireside to the goggle box.

‘Casting The Runes’, one of a handful of James’ work to deal with magical misdeeds, concerns the antics of Crowley-esque figure Julian Karswell (Iain Cuthbertson). In this loose adaptation of the tale, he takes exception to people deriding his magical powers. The latest fixation for his malevolent will is Prudence, a cocky TV journalist. Once she’s slipped a scrip of paper covered in runes, she discovers she has only eight days to return it to him in person, or suffer the consequences of his deadly curse.

James’ spine-tinglers never work as well on screen as on the page, for much of his mastery of terror came from his great skill with language. Furthermore, this ITV Playhouse adaptation isn’t one of the best. Silly special effects take the place of James’s understated sense of foreboding, a frenzy of flautists pollute the soundtrack, and the ending is clearly signposted. Sound and picture quality is poor in places, with a pronounced buzzing over one scene.

Still, you can’t entirely strip away Monty’s sense of menace, and it remains an interesting curio

Extras: First, Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance (1978, 20mins). Another adaptation, created for educational series Music Scene, to demonstrate how music adds atmosphere to TV. Predictably, as its supposed to be creepy, the example soundtrack involves lots of random hooting from woodwind instruments. That aside, it’s scarier than the main feature, tellingly because it preserves extracts of the written story in voiceover.

Second is the documentary, A Pleasant Terror (1995, 50 mins). It’s got an excellent spread of contributors, and packs a lot in. Unfortunately it is undermined by the, even for the time, old-fashioned (and woefully transparent) conceit of the “questing narrator”. Henry VIII-alike Bill Wallis pretends very hard to play an academic detective by rolling his eyes and making heavy use of pregnant pauses, his journey culminating in a laughable narrative ending. They’d never get away with that these days.


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