James Swanton has more than Dickensian ghost stories on his Christmas plate as BBC appearance as bag of bones awaits

James Swanton: Ghost Stories for Christmas returns to York Medical Society

GOTHIC York York actor James Swanton is reviving his Dickensian Ghost Stories for Christmas trilogy at York Medical Society, Stonegate, from tomorrow.

Soon to appear in the BBC Christmas ghost story Lot No. 249 too, he will be presenting hour-long solo renditions of A Christmas Carol, The Chimes and The Haunted Man, before transferring to the Charles Dickens Museum, located at the author’s only London home to survive, 48 Doughty Street.

“I’m starting and finishing my run in York a little earlier than usual,” says James. “Mainly because there’s been such demand for the shows in London, 21 shows there from December 13 to 23, so the York run of ten feels fairly relaxed by comparison.

“York’s winding alleyways and tumbledown buildings are so beautifully suited to Dickens that it would have been inconceivable to strike it from my schedule. There really couldn’t be a more fitting venue than York Medical Society.

“Accordingly, I’ll be giving six performances of A Christmas Carol – you can never have too much of it, particularly with this year being its 180th anniversary – and two showings apiece of The Chimes and The Haunted Man, both lesser known but fascinating follow-ups.”

All three stories are richly rewarding, says James: “They brim with Dickens’s eye for capturing the weird, the strange and the odd, from human eccentricities to full-blown phantoms. Dickens’s anger at social injustice also aligns sharply with our own – and of course, there’s a lot to be angry about at the moment.

James Swanton in The Haunted Man. Picture: Alex Hyndman

“But beyond anything, these stories are masterful exercises in theatrical storytelling, with a real sense of joy emerging from the Victorian gloom.”

When did James first encounter A Christmas Carol? “I have a feeling that my first exposure was watching the rather exquisite Richard Williams animation from 1971, though I have no way of proving this. A particularly frightening Marley in that one,” he says. “The Muppet masterpiece won’t have been far behind. Two particularly musical Marleys in that one.”

Picking a favourite screen version of A Christmas Carol, James plumps for: “Alastair Sim’s Scrooge from 1951. The screenplay’s unusually sophisticated – and has the hubris to invent reams of credible Dickens! – but Sim himself is the reason it’s a cut above, because he was primarily a comic actor (and a comic actor of genius).

“It’s tempting to get an ageing Shakespearean titan to play Scrooge, but I think this misses the point of Scrooge, who’s hilarious even at his most wicked. He’s not King Lear – except to character actors!

“In more recent years, the one-man films starring Simon Callow and Jefferson Mays have thoroughly gripped me.”

Assessing why Dickens’s story still so popular after 180 Christmases, James says: “It’s that fool-proof structure that’s protected the material across constant (indeed, ongoing) reinterpretations. Provided you stick with the basic five acts – Past, Present and Yet To Come, as bordered by Scrooge’s before and after – you can play around with the details.

“York’s winding alleyways and tumbledown buildings are so beautifully suited to Dickens that it would have been inconceivable to strike it from my schedule,” says James Swanton. Picture: Jtu Photography

“For all their merits, both The Chimes and The Haunted Man lose their hold on the memory by this structure’s omission.”

Since last December’s run of Ghost Stories for Christmas, James has been hard at work on various filming jobs. “It’s been my year for Christmas ghost stories!” he says. “At the start of 2023, I made two short films, The Dead Of Winter and To Fire You Come At Last, that were indebted to the BBC’s legendary M. R. James adaptations from the 1970s.

“The Dead Of Winter was done in Farnham in January. I’m playing a rough sleeper who becomes a ghostly form of embodied conscience. To Fire You Come At Last was filmed in the wilds of Shropshire in March. I play an alcohol-ravaged wastrel who – along with three equally reluctant men – must  carry the coffin of the Squire’s son down the corpse road to the graveyard.

“It’s in black and white and feels like something out of [Samuel] Beckett; the best part I’ve had in years. Both films have been doing the festival rounds, and I know that at least one of them will be getting a physical release before too long.”

A few months ago, League Of Gentlemen alumnus Mark Gatiss asked James to play the ghost in Lot No. 249, his retelling of an Arthur Conan Doyle short story, as part of a cast led by Kit Harington and Freddie Fox.

Television viewers will see James as what the BBC press release calls a “horrifying bag of bones”.  Although the precise broadcast time is still to be announced, “this BBC Ghost Story for Christmas coincides very nicely with my ongoing commitment to Dickens’s slightly earlier Victorian Gothic,” says James. “Based on the past few years, I suspect it’ll go out on either December 23 or Christmas Eve itself.

James Swanton, left, and Mark Gattis rehearsing The Quatermass Experiment. Picture: Sonia Sanchez Lopez

“Obsessed with the Gothic as I am, it was a dream fulfilled to become a part of this great tradition. I’d just performed with Gatiss in a stage production of The Quatermass Experiment. He’s steeped in Conan Doyle, and his adaptation is at once gratifyingly faithful and wickedly surprising.

“I’m encased in particularly ghoulish make-up by Dave Elsey, who won the Oscar for The Wolfman. And I do the most dreadful things to Kit Harington! I’m tremendously excited about it all.”

James points out further opportunities to see him at work this Christmas.  “As well as Lot No. 249, my one-man film of The Haunted Man will be streamed by the Dickens Museum again on December 11,” he says. “And my on-and-off colleagues, the York Ghost Merchants, in Shambles, might have a few announcements of their own to come.”

More immediately, James has strategic advice for securing tickets for Ghost Stories for Christmas. “Early on is best. Most of my A Christmas Carol showings are crammed into the first week, and there are seats left for all of them,” he says.

“For reasons that remain unclear, November 30 has been a conspicuously slow seller, so I’ll be gladdened if people book for that! The second performances of both The Chimes and The Haunted Man have all but sold out (as of this moment, a single seat remains for each), but tickets can be procured for their first outings.

“With tickets being only £15 each, this could be the perfect way to kick off your festive celebrations. In any case, I look forward to gathering people together for some heart-warming storytelling:  traditional to the bones, but speaking to us just as powerfully as it did 180 years ago.”

What’s coming up for James in 2024? “So far, absolutely nothing!” he says. “My tendency has always been to develop pre-show rather than post-show blues, though, so I don’t find this too daunting. I’ll be glad of a slight rest, and perhaps a chance to read Victorian literature instead of act it.”

James Swanton presents Ghost Stories for Christmas at York Medical Society, Stonegate, York:  A Christmas Carol, November 27, 28 and 30, then December 1, 5 and 6; The Haunted Man, November 29 and December 7; The Chimes, December 4 and 11. All performances start at 7pm and last approximately one hour. Box office: 01904 623568 or www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Writer Ian Hallard and director Mark Gatiss team up for Abba tribute drag act play about friendship The Way Old Friends Do

The Way Old Friends Do writer and lead actor Ian Hallard and director Mark Gatiss. All pictures: Darren Bell

IN 1988, two school friends tentatively come out to one another: one as gay, the other – more shockingly – as an Abba fan. Nearly 30 years later, a chance meeting sets them on a new path, one where they decide to form the world’s first Abba tribute band – in drag.

So begins The Way Old Friends Do, Ian Hallard’s new comedy about devotion, desire and dancing queens, directed by his marital partner, Dr Who and Sherlock writer and producer and The League Of Gentlemen member Mark Gatiss, on tour at York Theatre Royal from June 6 to 10 in the itinerary’s closing week.

“I thought, if I’m going to write a play, there should be a bit of wish fulfilment with no-one to stop me,” says Ian.

Cue a play with an Abba drag act and questions of whether a revived friendship can survive the tribulations of a life on the road that embraces platform boots, fake beards and a distractingly attractive stranger.

Hallard himself will be joined in Gatiss’s cast by Donna Berlin,James Bradshaw, Sara Crowe, Rose Shalloo and Andrew Horton (understudied by Toby Holloway on June 6 and 7). The play also features the voice of Miriam Margolyes.

Here Gatiss and Hallard discuss The Way Old Friends Do, friendship, comedy and being Abba fans.

What appealed to you about this project, Mark?

“I knew Ian was up to something. I was away on holiday on the Isle of Wight with the rest of his family, and he was in a show in London and so couldn’t come. He told me, ‘I’ve been writing something’, and when I read it, I thought it was great.

“It was fully formed. It was very touching, very funny, very true. A delight really. Write what you know, as they say – it felt very authentic.”

[Editor’s note: The script was so “fully formed” that four years after that first draft, the finished version is “virtually unchanged”.]

After your online play Adventurous, produced by Jermyn Street Theatre, was premiered in March 2021, this is your first full-scale stage play, Ian. Discuss…

“I’d always thought it seemed to require a colossal amount of confidence, if not arrogance, to say, ‘there hasn’t been a play that’s sufficiently tackled this one particular topic, and I am uniquely placed to be the person to write this play’.

“Then I just got over myself, and once I’d decided to try and write something, it was motivated by what I myself wanted to be in. I thought, ‘well, if it’s the first thing I write, I’m going to write a part for myself. What would I be most excited about if my agent rang tomorrow with a script for me to read?

“It would be an offer to play Agnetha from Abba’. Then I just had to reverse engineer things and construct a storyline in which that could happen.”

What was the inspiration behind The Way Old Friends Do, Ian?

“It’s very easy to pitch in one line: two old school friends form the world’s first drag Abba tribute band. It does exactly what it says on the tin. When I told my friends, they got excited because, at first, they thought I was actually setting up a drag Abba tribute band.

“Then, once I’d had the idea, I did extensive Googling to see if such a thing already existed, and as far as I’m aware, it doesn’t. Who knows? It might give somebody else the idea now.”

Will The Way Old Friends Do provide much-needed escapism, Mark?

“Absolutely. It’s just the sort of play that people need right now. It’s extremely celebratory, it’s about friendship, about love, about fun. It’s also about life and about time and how it changes us. But principally, it’s just a really entertaining show.”

“I thought, if I’m going to write a play, there should be a bit of wish fulfilment with no-one to stop me,” says Ian Hallard

Is the play autobiographical, Ian?

“The background setting is autobiographical. It’s about a gay, middle-aged man from Birmingham who is a massive Abba fan. So that much is very much based on real life. But the actual events of the play are entirely fictitious.

“I was a teenager in the 1980s, a time of homophobia in the media; the rise of AIDS with that image of the tombstone in the advert, and Section 28 too. That’s all there in the background in this play and makes the lead characters what they are now.”

What can you reveal about Peter, your character in the play, Ian?

“He’s lived in Birmingham all his life. He’s 39; a big Abba fan, obviously. He got into them through his mum, who died when he was only a child. So, he was brought up by his grandmother, which mirrors the real life of Frida from Abba.

“Then a chance meeting via a gay dating app means he ends up running into the kid he was great friends with at school whom he’d lost touch with, and that sets the whole crazy series of events in motion.”

What about the rest of the characters, Ian?

“Well, they’re a pretty diverse bunch. There’s Peter’s old schoolfriend, Edward, who is played by James Bradshaw, best known for his role as Max DeBryn in Endeavour. Edward’s camp and waspish, but deeply insecure underneath it all.

“Jodie – as played by Rose Shalloo – is a young actress who you could say has more enthusiasm than talent. Then there’s the gorgeous Australian photographer Christian, played by Andrew Horton – who’s just finished playing a superhero in Netflix’s Jupiter’s Legacy.”

Who else, Mark?

“The wonderful, Olivier-winning Sara Crowe is the eccentric Mrs Campbell, who among other quirks, has a deep-seated suspicion of Michael Palin. And finally, there’s their long-suffering, no-nonsense stage manager, Sally, played by Donna Berlin, who has to try and corral them all into some kind of order.”

What’s the result, Ian?

“A lot of the comedy in the show comes from flinging these six characters together and observing how they interact.

“As well as me and Mark, the producers had input into the casting and happily all our first choices said yes.”

How did Sara Crowe become involved in the production, Ian?

“Sara had done a couple of rehearsed readings with me in the past and is a friend of mine, so I was delighted when she agreed to be in the cast. The comic potential in that set-up – putting Olivier Award-winning Sara Crowe in a wig as the quirky Mrs Campbell – was not lost on me and now there’s a five-minute section that I can’t take any credit for that she improvised in the rehearsal room with Mark saying, ‘have fun with this’.”

Friendship is a major theme in the play. Why, Ian?

“I was interested in exploring friendship, as opposed to a romantic relationship between these two middle-aged, queer men. With The Way Old Friends Do, I had a ready-made title from Abba’s back catalogue, and I knew very early on that the final scene of the play would revolve around that song. So everything leads up to that.”

“Seeing each other for the five-week rehearsal period was a real luxury for us,” says Ian Hallard of working with husband Mark Gatiss

What’s it like working professionally with your husband?

Mark first: “We can compare notes at the end of the evening without having to organise a special notes session.”

Ian: “We’ve done it quite a few times before, but this has a slightly different dynamic because we haven’t worked together as director and writer, and certainly not on stage, so watch this space. But given past experiences, I have no cause for concern.”

Mark: “These things aren’t guaranteed to work, of course. A lot of couples never work together because they’d rather leave it at the door, but so far, so good!”

Ian: “Look at Abba. Romantic relationships kick-started the band, although admittedly it did all go awry subsequently.”

Mark: “Yes, we’d better not follow Abba down that line.”

Ian: “Ah well, if we do, we’ll just end up getting back together in 40 years’ time.”

Talk about your working relationship with Mark, Ian…

“We’ve collaborated on stuff before where I’ve been his sort of unofficial script editor. I’m the first person to read anything he writes.

“I trust him implicitly. We’ve acted on stage together, and everything went very happily in the rehearsal room this time. Seeing each other for the five-week rehearsal period was a real luxury for us.

“The very first draft of this play had a flashback to seeing the men as 15-year-old schoolboys and that was one of Mark’s biggest notes for script changes. He said, ‘that can be left as a back story’. We’ll leave adults playing schoolboys to Blood Brothers!”

Just checking, The Way Old Friends Do isn’t a musical, is it, Ian?

“That’s right, it’s a play rather than a musical. We’re not trying to compete with Mamma Mia! It’s a backstage play, very much in the vein of The Full Monty or Stepping Out: a bunch of plucky amateurs deciding to put on a show. It’s about those characters and their relationships.

“Although Abba is very much the setting, and it’s part of the show, it’s not a play about Abba, it’s a play about being an Abba fan.”

Did you acquire the approval of the Abba estate, Ian?

“Yes. They know about it and they’re happy for it to go ahead. I would have been devastated to be slapped down by my heroes because they didn’t want the play to happen. Happily, we do have their blessing!

“We have the rights to sing one Abba song. We’ll keep that as a bit of a secret but there may be a clue in the title of the play!”

Director Mark Gatiss and writer-actor Ian Hallard with The Way Old Friends Do cast members Donna Berlin, Rose Shalloo, Andrew Horton, Sara Crowe and James Bradshaw

Have both of you always been Abba fans?

Mark first: “Yes. They’ve had different phases of their existence which people can hop on at: Eurovision, the Abba Gold revival, Mamma Mia! and now Voyage! But they’re loved because they’re just so bl**dy good.

“Quality will out. They have just an astonishing range of hits and styles and genres. They’re both gloomy Swedes and insanely infectious disco-mongers.”

Ian: “My mother was pregnant with me when they won Eurovision in 1974. Although that makes it sound as if it was some kind of immaculate conception via the magic of Waterloo. I should add that I wasn’t actually conceived at that precise moment.

“But yes, it’s been a lifetime of devotion for me. I have an old university friend who I’ve known since I was 21. I hadn’t seen her for years, but just after the pandemic she came down to visit.

“We went for dinner and we were chatting about my play. I said, ‘I don’t know if you remember, but I’m a bit of an Abba fan’. And she just looked at me and said, ‘Ian, it’s literally the first thing that comes to my mind when I think about you’!”

So, Ian, why do you like Abba?

“I guess that’s the 64 million dollar question: why do you like a band or a football team? But there are certain things you can talk about objectively. The music has stood the test of time after 50 years, and though the songs are deceptively simple, there are flourishes you don’t notice on a cursory listen, but you would miss them if they weren’t there.

“Their ability to interpret the language of pop is almost second to none, writing in their second language, and they were quite experimental in going from glam rock to pure pop to disco and embracing digital technology in the early 1980s.”

What do you hope next week’s audiences in York will take away from the play?

Ian first: “Just a great night out. If you love Abba, there are plenty of little Easter eggs and moments for you. But if you don’t know anything about them, or don’t even like them – yes, there are such people out there! – it speaks about being a fan. We’re all a fan of something. That level of devotion and ownership is universal.

“But I also think the six characters are fun people that audiences will enjoy spending time with. I hope people will laugh and be touched – and then rebook!”

Mark: “It’s truthful, it’s moving and it’s joyous – that’s what I like to see in a play. Like Abba, it’s bittersweet, but ultimately very, very upbeat, and a joy to be around.”

Have we reached Abba saturation point yet, Ian?

“It was something I was aware of, that question, but I thought, write what you know, and it’s different. It’s a play, not a musical, and it’s not about Abba but about the characters in the play and the journey they’re going on.”

The Way Old Friends Do runs at York Theatre Royal from June 6 to 10, 7.30pm plus 2pm Thursday and 2.30pm Saturday matinees. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Shearsmith and Pemberton to give the inside story on Inside No. 9 at York Barbican

Steve Pemberton, left, and Reece Shearsmith: Giving the inside story on Inside No. 9 at York Barbican

ARE you ready to step through the door marked No. 9, ask Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton as the Inside No. 9 duo invite you to join them at York Barbican on December 10?

To celebrate the release of The Insider’s Guide To Inside No.9, Hull-born Shearsmith and Pemberton will take to the York stage at 7.30pm for an informative, humorous guide to the creation of their dark-humoured BAFTA-winning BBC comedy anthology.

Prompted by host Mark Salisbury, author of The Insider’s Guide, they will share behind-the-scenes stories and shocking secrets from memorable episodes.

“There may be singing. And dancing,” say Pemberton and Shearsmith. “And as we respond to fan questions, every night [on the tour] will be completely unique.”

Pemberton and Shearsmith forged their comedy partnership in student days at Bretton Hall College, near Wakefield, West Yorkshire, where they first linked up with League Of Gentlemen cohort Mark Gatiss, being joined later by Leeds-born Jeremy Dyson.   

First aired on BBC2 on February 5 2014 and now running to six series, Inside No. 9 comprises self-contained stories with dark themes that centre on different characters, each one set inside either a mansion, a dressing room or a flat numbered No. 9.

Tickets for the inside track on Inside No. 9: An Evening With Reece Shearsmith & Steve Pemberton go on sale on Friday at 10am at yorkbarbican.co.uk. Further Yorkshire shows: Hull City Hall, December 14; Harrogate Convention Centre, December 19; box office: ticketmaster.co.uk.

The tour poster for Inside No. 9: An Evening With Reece Shearsmith & Steve Pemberton