Mark Gatiss delivers sharp, old-fashioned thrills

It’s Christmas time: there’s no need to be afraid. But it’s quite fun to be afraid nevertheless, and so if you’re after some chills in the old sense, Mark Gatiss’s adaptation of MR James’s short story, Gatiss’s second ghostly TV outing on Christmas Eve, was the perfect way to bring in the big day.

Rory Kinnear starred as Edward Williams, a bumptious museum curator at an Oxford-style college who was presented with what he thought was merely a tolerable etching of a country house. Initially uninterested (mezzotints, he noted, are “the worst form of engraving known”), Williams soon noticed that the picture changed each time he looked at it. On one view a grotesque figure was skulking in the corner, shadowed from the moonlight. Then it approached the house. Now the window was open and the figure was gone. It was like a freaky flip-book done excruciatingly slowly, and, as events in the picture started to close in on events in real life, Williams found himself questioning his own reality in the best traditions of the psychological thriller.

Although The Mezzotint has been done at least three times on radio in the last decade, it works best on television, because there’s no better way to get people alarmed at a picture than showing it to them. The challenge for Gatiss, who both writes and directs, was more a challenge for Christmas television in general – how spooky can something be when it’s blaring out of the gogglebox, vying for attention with the charades and the fairy lights and Uncle Fred gabbing on after one eggnog too many.

But if you got to watch The Mezzotint in a room on your own, or better hunkered down behind cushions in a group that was all paying attention, it was a treat. Kinnear was perfect as Williams, doing very little except with his eyes, and they contained all the spiralling paranoia required.

Gatiss’s stratagem was not to do too much to James’s short story, retaining its concision (this was a short, sharp half-hour), leaving it in 1922 and running the stiff decorum of the time up against the weirdness of a static artwork that none the less appeared to be a time-lapse movie of its own.

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