The Magic Of Ghost Trains
When I was a child, the ghost train on Brighton pier showed a carriage filled with nodding skeletons that disturbed me. As I got older they continued to be a source of fascination, from the Tobe Hooper movie ‘The Funhouse’ to the ghost train in Vienna’s Prater, with its disturbing images of Jack the Ripper’s victims painted across the outside. This spring I’ll head for the ghost train in Jerez, Spain, but the one I really want to go to next is Derren Brown’s reinvention of the traditional ghost train, designed to mess with your mind, although what his new ride won’t capture is the sheer ricketiness of ghost trains, the clacking and banging through doors, the momentary stalls and shunts, the ferrous smell.
For those who don’t know, Brown is a magician who tricks you into thinking he’s something much more – part mesmerist, part illusionist, part glib-tongued mountebank – a performer whose tricks veer from cheesy to utterly astounding, so he’s the perfect person to disturb you with this;
My fascination with trains heading for hell climaxed with ‘Hell Train’ (a lovely review of which is here.) It was a project I had long planned and fantasised might even get filmed – my idea was to create a number of never-before-seen monsters on a runaway Eastern European train, and I think I did a pretty good job of it, with tales-within-tales, gory shocks, in-jokes about Hammer horrors and a bit of a relevant message too.
I found myself drawn back to ghost trains again by author and film critic Kim Newman, who was planning a new anthology play, ‘The Ghost Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore’ here, and asked me to contribute the opening story – I can’t vouch for the rest of the play (I haven’t been to any rehearsals) but apart from having to cut down my section it’s pretty intact and I hope it turns out to be fun.
What probably appeals most about such attractions as ghost trains is their sheer disreputability, which the Thorpe Park ride can’t replicate (above). In ‘Calabash’, I stage a father-son talk against a fairground grotto that’s meant to be charming but is relentlessly grim. In ‘Paperboy’, I mentioned this about my childhood memories of fairgrounds;
I had only ever been on one Big Dipper, in the hellish death-trap that was the Sheerness Pleasure Garden, a funfair that my mother said was run by gypsies, or at least by people with curly hair, tans, gold teeth and earrings. The front car had part of its floor missing, so you needed to keep your feet raised to avoid having them torn off in the sleepers passing below. Fairgrounds provided a rich source of horror stories from my mother. ‘Mrs Reed’s sister was thrown out of the chain-chair roundabout just as it hit top speed,’ she told me once. ‘They found her handbag over by the United Dairies. Your grandfather was there the night a stray spark burned the ghost train down with children still inside, and the people in the queue outside thought the screams were part of the ride. Your cousin Brenda won a poodle at a sideshow and used to suck it at night to get to sleep. It turned out to be made of lead, and we think that’s why she went simple.’
All of this fed into the idea that fairgrounds were not fun, but were places where children might go missing. I returned to them again recently in ‘Bryant & May: London’s Glory’. So I’ll be there at the front of the queue when Mr Brown’s ride opens.
As for that film still at the top, let one of my Invisible Ink columns explain;
Arnold Ridley was a one-time Elementary School teacher from Bath, born in 1896, who fought in the First World War and longed to be on the stage, but suffered injuries at the Somme – his left arm was badly damaged, he was bayoneted in the groin and was prone to blackouts from a fractured skull. It seemed his injuries might end his dreams of a career treading the boards, but his passion for the theatre and its memorabilia remained, and he joined Birmingham Rep in 1918, taking a wide variety of roles before retiring when the physical wounds and mental trauma began troubling him again.
One evening he was stranded at Mangotsfield railway station, and was inspired to write a play about a mysterious train that appeared at night on a branch line, only to subsequently vanish. In ‘The Ghost Train’, the station through which it passes is considered to be haunted, and a group of stranded passengers have to solve its riddle. The comedy-drama was a massive hit in London and was filmed as a vehicle for Arthur Askey, who is so annoying in this that it was a wonder the rest of the cast didn’t make him vanish too. Encouraged by his success, Ridley became the prolific author of over thirty plays between the wars, including ‘Keepers Of Youth’, ‘The Flying Fool’ and ‘The Wrecker’, which concerned a train driver who comes to believe that his engine is possessed by a malevolent sentience.
After failing to establish a new British film company, Ridley rejoined the army in time for World War II and saw active service in France, where he suffered flashbacks and shell shock all over again. After, he adapted an Agatha Christie novel, ‘Peril At End House’, for the West End, and later returned to acting, appearing in ‘The Archers’ as Doughy Hood in the 1960s.
We remember Ridley now, not for his writing successes, but for his role in ‘Dad’s Army’ as the easily confused, mild-mannered Private Godfrey. It’s ironic to think that a lance corporal who fought in the two biggest wars of the 20th century should find his equilibrium playing a committed pacifist. He continued to appear in the show into his eighties – he even appeared in the stage version, which coincided with his 80th birthday – and was awarded an OBE. He married three times and died in 1984 at age 88. That’s him third from the right, top picture, with the new film cast recreating the same shot below.