“Whatever it is, it never starts out at Truro, and it never runs into St Anne’s. If it be a natural thing—where do it come from? Where do it go…?”
Director: Walter Forde
Starring: Arthur Askey, Richard Murdoch, Carole Lynne, Peter Murray-Hill, Kathleen Harrison, Herbert Lomas, Betty Jardine, Stuart Latham, Morland Graham, Raymond Huntley, Linden Travers, D. J. Williams
Screenplay: Marriott Edgar, Val Guest and J.O.C. Orton, based upon the play by Arthur Ridley
Synopsis: A train travelling through Cornwall suddenly comes to a screeching halt as someone pulls the emergency brake. The passengers and the crew look on in indignation as entertainer Tommy Gander (Arthur Askey) runs back down the track to claim his dislodged hat. As the train starts up again, Gander is admonished and threatened with fines. Unabashed, he eludes the crewmembers by intruding himself into the first-class compartment of sportsman R.G. Winthrop (Peter Murray-Hill) and his lovely young cousin, Jackie (Carole Lynne). Winthrop is infuriated by Gander’s gall—and even more so when another passenger, Teddy Deakin (Richard Murdoch), who is already smitten by Jackie, also forces his way in. Jackie is amused by the antics of the two, but the disgusted Winthrop throws them out. The train arrives at Fal Vale junction, where the alighting passengers – including secret drinker Dr Sterling (Morland Graham), spinster Miss Bourne (Kathleen Harrison), and engaged couple Edna (Betty Jardine) and Herbert (Stuart Latham) – are horrified to learn that thanks to Gander’s stopping of the train, they have missed their connection. Moreover, there will not be another train until the following morning. It starts to rain heavily. Everyone takes shelter in the waiting-room, from where, despite the strenuous objections of stationmaster Saul Hodgkin (Herbert Lomas), they refuse to budge. Winthrop argues that it must be possible to arrange the hire of a conveyance to take them all to the nearest village. Hodgkin agrees to try, but due to the storm, the phone-line drops out. Unable to convince the intruders to leave voluntarily, Hodgkin reveals the reason for his agitation: the junction is haunted… Undaunted by his listeners’ frank disbelief, the stationmaster relates the grim tale. Forty-three years ago that night – the night of the Diamond Jubilee – a chartered special was heading towards the junction on a now-abandoned section of the line that once crossed the river. The driver called ahead to the then-stationmaster, Ted Holmes, to have the bridge closed to allow for the passing of the train. But the dangerously ill Holmes collapsed and died before he could carry out the task. The speeding train crashed into the river, with all lives lost but that of the driver, Ben Isaacs (D. J. Williams), who lost his mind… Ever since, upon certain nights, the signal bell can be heard ringing, and a phantom train comes hurtling through the junction; and those that look upon it are doomed to die. With this final warning, Hodgkin departs…
Comments: The “horror-comedy” is always a perilous undertaking. The comedy can sometimes undermine rather than enhance the horror, often by implying that there’s really nothing to be scared of in the first place. And that, mind you, is when the comedy is done right. Done wrong—well, there are all sorts of horrors in the world, and when it comes to the world of film few things can inflict suffering like an unfunny comedy. In this respect, 1941’s The Ghost Train is one of the most astonishing things I have ever seen, a comedy that becomes almost hypnotic in its sheer inability to entertain.
The Ghost Train started life as a play penned by Arthur Ridley, who these days is perhaps best remembered for his role as Private Godfrey in the series Dad’s Army, but who prior to that enjoyed a long and varied career as a writer, actor and director. The Ghost Train, his most successful work, has gone through a remarkable number of permutations. First staged in 1925, the play was transferred to the screen as a silent UK-German co-production in 1927, then re-made in Hungary in 1929. This silent version was subsequently given a soundtrack and then re-released. The first true sound version of the story was made in Britain in 1931; warmly received by the critics of the time, only a portion of it still exists today (what there is may be found on YouTube). In 1937, a production of The Ghost Train was broadcast live on English television. It was filmed again in Germany in 1939; and, remarkably, once more in Denmark, as late as 1976.
(The 1937 Will Hayes film Oh Mr Porter!, which had the same three screenwriters as this version of The Ghost Train, also looks very much like an uncredited re-make, despite being officially based upon a story by Frank Launder.)
But the best known version remains that made in 1941, directed by Walter Forde who also helmed the 1931 version, and with the material re-worked to provide a vehicle for the popular contemporary entertainer, Arthur Askey. Askey got his start as a music-hall comedian, then moved to radio, where he formed a long-running partnership with Richard Murdoch (billed there, as indeed he is here, as Richard ‘Stinker’ Murdoch!). Their show, “Band Waggon”, was so successful, it was in time adapted to become one of the earliest series on BBC television. A further move by Askey and Murdoch into motion pictures inevitably followed.
For viewers today, the way in which they react to The Ghost Train will undoubtedly be governed by their reaction to Arthur Askey, whose contribution to this film is bizarre in the extreme. Though I confess I find his brand of humour unbearable, I can – sort of – if I tilt my head and squint – see how it might have worked on the stage, with a live audience to play off, or in the unstructured world of radio.
But on film, compressed and inescapable—“cruel and unusual” doesn’t begin to describe the punishment dished out here. Askey is no mere Odious Comic Relief in The Ghost Train: he dominates the film, with Arthur Ridley’s play becoming nothing more than a framework on which to hang a barrage of capering, silly voices, unfunny jokes and even a song-and-dance number. The cumulative effect is nothing less than excruciating—and not only for the viewer.
We’re all only too used to the Informed Attribute, which sees film-makers choosing to have supporting characters tell the viewer just how beautiful / smart / talented / deadly the central character is, in lieu of the far more difficult job of showing us. What we have here, however, is something far more perverse: the other characters in The Ghost Train find Tommy Gander completely insufferable as well, with his alleged witticisms falling flatter than lead pancakes, and R. G. Winthrop speaking for all present by repeatedly snarling at him, “Oh, shut up, you idiot!” It’s remarkably refreshing. You finally come away from a viewing of The Ghost Train feeling that you’ve just sat through, not a comedy, but rather some twisted, Andy Kaufman-esque piece of performance art, an endurance test for the audience, wherein the performer “wins” if everybody walks out.
Clearly, too, the makers of The Ghost Train recognised how thoroughly they were sabotaging their source material. It speaks volumes for everyone’s attitude to this film’s “star” that when it comes time for the first of the play’s two famous set-pieces, the recounting of the history of the ghost train by station-master Saul Hodgkin, Tommy Gander is banished from the room, so that the grim narrative can proceed uninterrupted. The scene is allowed to play out as originally written—and consequently is one of the few honestly effective aspects of this film.
The opening scenes of The Ghost Train introduce the supporting cast via the expedient of a conductor moving from carriage to carriage checking tickets: we visit with Edna and Herbert, on their way home after shopping for their future home and due to be married in the morning; spinster Miss Bourne, who has her pet parrot with her for no readily apparent reason (it doesn’t talk, let alone “comically”, thank God; though unfortunately I cannot say the same of its owner); and Dr Sterling, whose fondness for brandy is rather worryingly evident.
On the back of Tommy Gander’s stopping of the train to collect his lost hat, he and Teddy Deakin enter into a competition for the attention of Jackie Winthrop, which basically consists of seeing who can behave like the bigger idiot. We can only feel sorry for Jackie, or at least Carole Lynne, who is required to pretend that she finds their attentions flattering and their antics mildly amusing, and be grateful to R. G. Winthrop for intervening; though we do not disagree with Jackie’s contention that her stuffy cousin, “Sounds like something out of East Lynne.”
Upon arrival at Fal Vale Junction, the passengers are greeted with the news that thanks to Tommy Gander’s stopping of their train, they have missed their connection to Truro, and that the next train is not due until the following morning. Amazingly – and disappointingly – they do not immediately gang up and beat Gander to death; they’ll regret that decision before the night is through. A downpour of rain drives the stranded travellers into the waiting-room, where station-master Saul Hodgkin is locking up for the night. Hodgkin does his best to chase his unwanted guests away, but with no form of conveyance to hand, the nearest village four miles away and the rain getting heavier by the moment, they not surprisingly refuse to budge.
Hodgkin himself grows increasingly agitated—so much so, that he is eventually brought to reveal the real reason he wants everyone to go away: this section of the line is haunted.
With Tommy Gander banished to a back room, and briefly and blessedly silent, Saul Hodgkin begins his grim narrative…
The Ghost Train is unusually specific as to dates, with the action unfolding on the night of 22nd June 1940, forty-three years exactly after the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. (ETA: And more! – see comments below.) The telling of the tale – the death of Ted Holmes, who collapsed on the floor of the very room in which they sit; the devastating crash; the insanity of the lone survivor – is enough to sober the sceptical passengers; and if they do not entirely believe Hodgkin’s description of the phantom train that “comes a-screaming and a-tearing through the station”, on a line that has been closed ever since the night of the tragedy, the station-master’s tone of absolute conviction is at least enough to give them pause.
Hodgkin then warns the group that they are in grave danger if they insist upon staying at the junction: in the past, everyone who has dared look upon the ghost train has been found dead shortly afterwards.
With this final warning, Hodgkin departs – leaving the nervous passengers to assure one another that they don’t believe a word of it; but— But, but, but…
After horror, alas, comes comedy – or at least, “comedy” – as Tommy Gander returns with a vengeance, and dedicates himself to the merciless torture of his companions. (Dante was wrong: there are ten circles of hell, and being trapped in a confined space with Tommy Gander is the tenth.) This agonisingly drawn-out sequence is finally terminated in a most dramatic way, with the return of Saul Hodgkin, who falls through the doors of the waiting-room and collapses to the floor…on the exact spot on which Ted Holmes fell dead forty-three years earlier. The men carry Hodgkin into the back room, where Dr Sterling examines him and pronounces him dead…
(Miss Bourne is so shocked and upset by this turn of events that she breaks her temperance oath and has a drink of brandy—giving this film exactly what it needed most, a third Odious Comic Relief in the form of someone doing a drunk act…)
A second dramatic arrival follows shortly afterwards, when out of the now-raging storm appears Julia Price, who begs the astonished travellers to hide her. Agitated to the point of hysteria, Julia insists that she is being persecuted by her brother. The sound of a car nearby briefly raises the travellers’ hopes of getting away, but these are cruelly terminated when the driver skids and crashes.
This proves to be the brother, Price, who is determined in spite of everything to take Julia away from the junction. He explains to the others that Julia is unbalanced and usually kept under observation, but that this night she managed to escape. The root of her problem is her fixation upon the story of the ghost train, which she insists she once heard, and has since become obsessed with seeing…whatever the consequences. However, she begs the others to go away before it is too late—or, if they will not, under no circumstances to look out at the train.
Price, dismissing his sister’s wild insistence upon the reality of the ghost train, demands to speak to Saul Hodgkin, which forces the others to confess that he is dead. When Julia hears that he died on the same spot as Ted Holmes – and at the same time, eleven o’clock – she entreats the others to describe Hodgkin to her. When they do she becomes completely hysterical, and even Price is disturbed—for they have not described Hodgkin at all, but Ted Holmes…
Price insists upon examining the body, but when the others take him into the locked back room, they discover that the body of Hodgkin – or Holmes – has vanished.
Suddenly, the lights in the waiting-room dim and flicker out…a distant whistle is heard down the train line…and the terrified passengers discover that all the doors of the waiting-room are locked, and that they cannot escape…
As a train comes tearing through the junction, ablaze with lights and its warning bells ringing, Julia leaps up onto a bench and smashes a window so that she can see out—only to reel back with a wild scream…
Teddy Deakin and Tommy Gander finally force their way outside, where in the long dark tunnel just beyond the junction, they see a ghostly figure carrying a lamp and singing to itself—just like Ted Holmes used to do…
The unseen passing of the phantom train, a deafening nightmare of flashing lights and screaming whistles, is undoubtedly the highlight of The Ghost Train. However—this is, after all, a British horror film of 1941 (allegedly, at least), so we are not altogether surprised when the apparently supernatural events that we have witnessed are revealed as part of an elaborate hoax; a hoax so very elaborate, in fact, that a phantom train and an undead station-master would have been a lot easier to believe.
Of course, given the lengthy history of the play on which this film was based, it is hard to imagine that audiences of 1941 were very surprised by this revelation; or even (as modern audiences may perhaps be) by the flurry of unmaskings that concludes the action, with a great many of the characters turning out to be somebody quite different from who they appeared to be.
(Though alas, Tommy Gander keeps right on being Tommy Gander, and is not revealed to be an unethical experiment in psychological warfare as we may have suspected.)
What is different about this version of the venerable tale is that it has been updated to fit in with the times in which it was produced. In the original play, and the earlier filmed versions, the “ghost train” is revealed to be a cover for the activities of a gang of smugglers; here, the bad guys are nothing less than a group of gun-running fifth columnists. And this is, I believe, where The Ghost Train continues to maintain a certain interest for modern audiences: not in the identity of its villains, necessarily, but in the wartime marginalia scattered about the edges of its story.
Contemporary audiences would have taken this stuff for granted, of course, but there is something quite fascinating in the film’s details, and the matter-of-fact way in which they are presented: the obsessive checking of the train passengers’ tickets, for instance; the removal of the place-name signs from the train platforms; the references to blackouts, and to rationing; and the willingness of these strangers to pitch in and share their limited resources with one another.
(On the other hand, there’s also Tommy Gander’s attempt to teach Miss Bourne’s parrot to say, “Heil, Hitler”, which sets up a Jewish joke…)
The Ghost Train was a wartime film in every sense of the expression. It was shot at studios in London at the very height of the Blitz – the actors’ dressing-rooms were positioned handy to the bomb-shelters, just in case – and its attitude is entirely typical for a British film of the time. Certainly, there’s a war going on; but you won’t find the characters of The Ghost Train letting that control their lives. There’s no grand-standing here, no compulsion to make a speech; just the quiet determination of a group of ordinary people, all of them set upon going about their normal business for as long as they are able.
In the course of the film we see these people angry, irritable, argumentative, frightened, panicky…yet when the circumstances call for it, they are able to pull themselves together and, despite the danger, fight back against the enemies confronting them—even Tommy Gander.
Yes, even Tommy Gander. If there’s a moral in this version of The Ghost Train, it’s that even a pathetic, annoying, essentially useless little twerp like Tommy Gander can, when the necessity confronts him, find a store of buried courage, rise to the occasion, and do his bit in the defence of his country: for British audiences of 1941, a comforting and reassuring message.
In fact, sitting through The Ghost Train has given me a whole new respect for British fortitude. After eighty minutes of Arthur Askey in full flight, the Blitz must have seemed like a doddle.
Want a second opinion of The Ghost Train? Visit 1000 Misspent Hours – And Counting.