James Swanton’s Dickensian Christmas ghost stories return to familiar haunt of York Medical Society. Tickets at a premium

James Swanton: “Old-fashioned storytelling in a suitably atmospheric space”. Picture: Jtu Photography

AFTER the silent nights of last December, York gothic actor supreme James Swanton is gleefully reviving his Ghost Stories For Christmas trilogy at York Medical Society, Stonegate, York.

“What an enormous relief it is to return to live theatre,” says this former winner of the Outstanding Performing Artist prize in the now dormant York Culture Awards as he prepares for his Dickensian yarn-spinning residency on various dates from December 2 to 13.

Once more, he will be the black-clad, spindle-fingered gatekeeper for all manner of supernatural terrors after memorising three hours of wintery material for his “seasonal roulette of three Dickensian tales”.

Ghost Stories For Christmas comprises James’s solo renditions of A Christmas Carol, The Chimes and The Haunted Man, returning to life anew in York before transferring to the Charles Dickens Museum, in Doughty Street, London, in the run-up to Christmas.

James’s past Dickensian theatre work has met with the approval of notable fellow thesps Simon Callow and Miriam Margolyes, the former describing his West End show Sikes & Nancy as “startling and enthralling”; the latter finding his 2017 performances at the Dickens Museum “extraordinary”, “superb” and “pictorially vivid”.

‘I’m delighted to finally be getting back to live theatre in my home city of York, where it’s hard to imagine a more authentically Dickensian location than the York Medical Society on Stonegate,” says James.

“This year, I’ve scheduled extra performances of A Christmas Carol: the perfect cheering antidote, I feel, to the misery we’ve all been through over the past few years.

“But the two lesser-known stories, The Chimes and The Haunted Man, are also very relevant to our times. The Chimes is absolutely hilarious, but also overbrims with anger at the injustices done to the most unfortunate in society. And The Haunted Man is not only a chilling supernatural tale, but a portrait of a man wrestling with his mental health. These subjects have been much on our minds through the pandemic.”

James judges A Christmas Carol to be “one of the greatest things ever written”. “I’ve found there’s nothing more satisfying to perform as an actor. And there’s no story that audiences are more eager to hear to the end,” he reasons.

As in 2018 and 2019, Ghost Stories For Christmas is selling quickly. “I was shocked 36 hours ago to find that we’d sold 80 per cent of the seats – I think because York Theatre Royal put us in their email newsletter – so I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re completely sold out in the next few days,” says James.

“I’m hoping – if I give the shows next year – to do them at fuller capacity over a longer period. We’re up to seven nights this year, but I wonder if we might build on even that when we get to (I hope) post-pandemic times. Perhaps a bigger venue is something to look into too.”

James Swanton presents Ghost Stories For Christmas, by Charles Dickens, at York Medical Society, Stonegate, York, December 2 to 13. A Christmas Carol: December 2, 3, 6, 7 and 13. The Haunted Man: December 4. The Chimes, December 9. All performances start at 7pm and last approximately one hour. To book, make haste to the York Theatre Royal box office, ring 01904 623568 or head online to yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

“It’s ironic that the Victorian Christmas has come to stand for a fairytale vision of an idyllic past,” says James Swanton. Picture: Jtu Phoography

Ahead of his Dickens of a theatrical task in York, James Swanton answers CharlesHutchPress’s questions.

What form do your three shows take: a reading or rather more than that in each one-man show?

“I’m happy to say that these are fully fledged dramatisations rather than Jackanory-style readings. It is quite the Labour of Hercules: 180 minutes of text to memorise to cover the three one-hour readings! But it’s worth it to ensure these pieces are truly alive. My abridgements are closely based on Dickens’s own performance scripts, so their faith to their sources is absolute.”

Will you use a similar performance style for each tale?

“This is old-fashioned storytelling in a suitably atmospheric space. I’m hoping to use every physical and vocal trick in my repertoire to make the audience see Dickens’s pictures as clearly as I do myself.”

What are the storylines in The Chimes and The Haunted Man?

“Just like A Christmas Carol, these lesser-known works hinge on disenchanted older men who must encounter the supernatural to change for the better. The Chimes is the exuberant tale of a lowly ticket-porter who finds goblins squatting in the bells of his local church.

“Meanwhile, The Haunted Man is a Gothic chiller about a chemist who hatches a bargain with his ghostly double to remove all of his sorrowful memories.”

What have you been up to since you were last to be spotted on a York stage pre-Covid’s grim clasp?

“Continuing my supernatural association, I’ve just been back on a southern stage, thanks to the London Horror Festival, with a very delayed revival of Irving Undead – a production that of course originated at York Medical Society.

“I’ve maintained the home connection by livestreaming M. R. James and Dickens ghost stories with the wonderful York Ghost Merchants throughout the pandemic, from their premises on Shambles to a global audience.

“People would tune in from the most astonishingly far-flung places: various different states in America, Canada, Australia! It was touching to know that people were coming together to share a moment in the middle of the pandemic.’

“And I’ve bashed out horror film after horror film, including the phenomenally popular Host, in which I make the cameo of the century – to absolutely nobody’s surprise – as the demonic spirit who crashes the Zoom call. Business as (un)usual.”

How did you make the Zoom-set Host under Covid conditions?

“The actors shot it at home on their mobile phones during the first lockdown. I struggle to think of any other feature film that’s been partly shot in Acomb – never mind one that went on to reach a global audience.

“Stephen King said he enjoyed it, which was a bit of a thrill, and it was heralded by many critics as the defining horror film of 2020.”

Does the miserable impact of Covid-19’s lockdowns and its refusal to die a death gracefully put the telling of ghost stories in a different light this Christmas?

“I’m sure it does. These tales are all rather death-obsessed beneath their jollier garnishings, though perhaps it’ll make us more inclined to go to these stories for escapism now.

“We only have a very, very little time to get life right; to leave this world fractionally better than when we entered it,” says James Swanton. Picture: Jtu Photography

“It’s ironic that the Victorian Christmas has come to stand for a fairytale vision of an idyllic past. Dickens was under no such illusions: The Chimes is especially furious – an unhinged rant in places – though A Christmas Carol isn’t far behind.”

How will the theatre-going experience at York Medical Society differ from the 2019 production? Masks on? Social distancing? 

“To keep everyone safe in these uncertain times, it’s primarily been a matter of reducing capacity to give audiences that vital breathing space, so we’re on course for a sell-out much earlier than usual.

“The dividend is that this should guarantee an even more intimate and special experience for those who are able to secure a ticket. But they better rush!”

What makes York Medical Society such a good setting for your performances?

“It’s a building that feels properly immersive: travelling down that alley to the door with the knocker feels like an approach to Scrooge’s house on that fatal night when Jacob Marley’s face put in an appearance.

“I’ve also been pleased to discover that Henry Belcombe, the second president of York Medical Society, was a social acquaintance of Charles Dickens.”

Were you tempted to look at doing any new additions to your Dickens’ Christmas repertoire? Might that happen in future?

“I think the present three work rather well in concert, each one shedding light on the others. Dickens’s other Christmas books can be terribly twee; I did all five at the Dickens Museum in 2017, and Michael Slater (our foremost Dickens scholar) came to The Battle Of Life on the basis that he couldn’t believe anyone had been mad enough to attempt it.

“Of Dickens’s spookier stories, I last year had a crack at The Signal-Man with the York Ghost Merchants – but a less Christmassy tale can hardly be imagined!”

As a performer, what changes when you revisit material you have performed previously? Do you tweak the text at all?

“The material changes as I change; little details leap out or recede every year. For instance, I’ve this time been struck by how Scrooge, like almost all people who pride themselves on ice-cold rationality, turns out to be a being of emotion beyond anything. He bursts into tears at the drop of a hat throughout his story.

“More practically, the text of The Haunted Man has been in a state of flux from the word go. It’s the only one of the three that Dickens didn’t perform himself – he started preparing a script before abandoning it – so I’m determined to one day crack it.”

What can we learn as a modern society from social reformist Dickens’s ideal of a good Christmas?

“Focus on your family. The Christmas dinner served up by the Cratchits is impoverished indeed, but their delight in each other’s company makes it into a feast. 

“But Dickens also means us to acknowledge the entire human family. We are all of us connected and we only have a very, very little time to get life right; to leave this world fractionally better than when we entered it.”

O+M Snowhome design store launches £3,000 Kickstarter scheme for Alison Hardcastle to make Word Map of York

A teaser for a Word Map of York, the next project for O+M Snowhome and artist Alison Hardcastle, pending Kickstarter funding

MATT and Helen Harris are launching a new project tomorrow to create a Word Map of York at O+M Snowhome, Gillygate, York.

“Snowhome’s previous owner, Angus McArthur, developed the first Word Map – of the British Isles – ten years ago with Yorkshire artist Alison Hardcastle,” says Helen. “Ten years on, there’s been a Word Map of London and even one of the USA, but never one of York.

“Having spent a lot of time exploring the city over the past 18 months, we felt it was the right time to celebrate all the city has to offer with a Word Map of York. So, we’re setting up a £3,000 Kickstarter campaign from tomorrow (22/9/2021) to crowdfund to allow us to commission Alison to create the artwork and bring the maps to life.”

Independent design store Snowhome was founded in 2001 by artist and printmaker Angus McArthur, after he moved to York from London, and was transformed into O+M Snowhome by Matt and Helen in July 2020 once Angus decided to focus on York Ghost Merchants in Shambles.

“O+M Snowhome has a long tradition of creativity and collaboration and its popular Word Map series is a firm favourite among customers visiting the lifestyle store,” says Helen. 

“As the shop celebrates its 20th birthday, at a point in our lives when many of us have been staying at home more than we could have ever imagined, we’ve decided it’s time to celebrate the city with a Word Map of York.” 

Matt says: “Like many people, we’ve spent much of the past 18 months exploring the place we call home. Those daily walks took us on new routes and found us making unexpected discoveries, creating a new-found appreciation and gratitude for the city we live in. 

Mapped out: Alison Hardcastle at work creating her Word Map of London

“We were very aware of York’s rich history and well-known sites, but what we also discovered were the natural spaces, community links and little-known facts that, like so many places people call home, all combine to sum up the spirit of the city.” 

After researching the city and gathering recommendations, Matt and Helen now have more than 200 possible entries to form the content for a new Word Map of York, created once again with Alison Hardcastle. 

As with the others in the series, the map will comprise word entries hand-drawn by Alison to form the mapped shape of the city, creating a unique typographic artwork that celebrates the people, creations, events, culinary delights, fun facts and much more, all linked with the city. 

“At a time when many of us are enjoying the chance to explore new places once again, we hope the map will serve to share York’s hidden gems with locals and visitors to the city alike,” says Helen. 

Artist Alison is no less excited at the prospect of returning to the Word Map family. “Spending time hand-lettering the entries to form the artwork is always so therapeutic and I can’t wait to see how we can create a map that really celebrates the unique character of York,” she says.

Tomorrow’s launch of the Kickstarter campaign will seek to crowdfund the money to enable Matt and Helen to commission Alison to create the artwork exclusively for the shop and bring it to life in their next run of Word Map prints.

Like all Kickstarter campaigns, the project will need to raise its full funding goal to go ahead. To achieve their £3,000 target, the couple have created a range of options from single greetings cards to an opportunity to own the first copies of the map print. 

Helen and Matt Harris in the doorway of O+M Snowhome, in Gillygate, York

“As a special thank-you to anyone able to help make the map a reality, backers to the campaign will be able to enjoy early bird offers on the finished art prints, access to an exclusive 20th birthday colourway, plus the chance to own one of ten unique screen-prints of the finished map, which will include a bespoke entry of the backer’s choice, each hand printed, signed and numbered by Alison in her studio,” says Matt. 

As Matt and Helen want to share the benefits of the project, they look forward to continuing the long-standing relationships with Alison and printers Wood Richardson in bringing the maps to life. 

“It’s been an economically tough time for many, so it’s especially important to us that if the project can go ahead, it helps to fire opportunities for other creatives and businesses,” says Matt.

“If the campaign is successful and the project can go ahead, the maps will all be ready for backers to receive in time for the Christmas gift season in December. The Kickstarter campaign launches on September 22 with some early bird offers until midnight on September 26. The campaign will end at midnight on October 7.” 

To find out more about the Word Map of York Kickstarter campaign, go to snow-home.co.uk/awordmapofyork or visit their Kickstarter page at  kickstarter.com/projects/wordmapofyork/york-word-map-a-city-celebration. 

The story behind O+M

HUSBAND and wife team Matt and Helen Harris took over ownership of long-standing York contemporary design shop Snowhome in July 2020 from its founder Angus McArthur.

“O+M Snowhome was born as we brought the offer from own own homewares and lifestyle shop, Owl & Monkey, in Heslington Road, to Snowhome, bringing together the shared values of creativity, collaboration, innovation and inspiration, where quality, good design and fairness were at the heart of the range and independent retail experience,” they say.

James Swanton to tell M R James tale at York Ghost Merchants’ storytelling evening

Gothic York ghost storyteller James Swanton

THE York Ghost Merchants, at No. 6, Shambles, York, will hold their inaugural storytelling evening on March 1, hosted by the ghoulish James Swanton.

At 6pm (sold out), 7pm and 8pm, he will read M R James’s ghost story Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book, written in 1894 and published in his first collection, Ghost Stories Of An Antiquary Of 1904.

In James’s story, a scholar travels to a small French town for a kind of working vacation and there he discovers a small, rather dissolute old cathedral. On entering, he meets with the sacristan, who guides him around.

Eventually, they make their way to the church library where the sacristan shows him all sorts of old and antiquarian books that peak the scholar’s interest. One in particular, the sacristan seems especially eager to show off.

The York Ghost Merchants: “the world’s first spook shop”, set up by David Bloodworth and Snowhome’s Angus McArthur

The scholar is captivated by the book, the personal scrapbook of one Canon Alberic, and duly offers to buy it. The sacristan sells it to him for a pittance and his desperation to release it from his possession is palpable.

On his way out, the scholar is given another gift, a crucifix, by the sacristan’s daughter, who insists he takes it free of charge.

Later that same night, as the scholar is studying his new-found treasure, he encounters a page with a disturbing illustration that is central to the story’s suspenseful narrative.

Actor, writer and storyteller James Swanton was born in York, the ghost-infested city that informed his lifelong passion for the macabre. Winner of the 2018 York Culture Award for Outstanding Performing Artist, he has been described as “remarkable” by Simon Callow, as “extraordinary” by Miriam Margolyes and as a “horror star of the future” by Kim Newman.

Gateway to the ghoulish: James Swanton on the ghostly streets of York

Whether playing Dracula or Lucifer in The York Mystery Plays in the Shambles Market or performing his one-man shows Irving Undead and Charles Dickens’s winter stories at York Medical Society, Stonegate, he continues to drive his critics to raid their Thesaurus. In times past, they have dismissed him as “a tattily dressed raven”; “a young Boris Karloff”; “positively stunning in his grotesqueness”  and “lanky”.

The £25 ticket price includes the 45-minute storytelling session and a limited-edition Canon Alberic ghost. Please note, these ghosts are available only to those attending the event and not without the ticket.  

“Use the word COLLECT at checkout if you would like to collect your ghost and ticket, rather than having them posted to you,” says Angus McArthur, of The York Ghost Merchants.

Tickets can be booked at yorkghostmerchants.com or on 01904 896545. Opening hours for The York Ghost Merchants, sited in the former Via Vecchia and Pinder and Scott’s bakery shop, are Monday to Saturday, 10am to 5.30pm-ish, and Sundays, 11am to 5pm-ish.