Lot No 249 review: Mark Gatiss’s ghost stories are my Christmas TV highlight

Mark Gatiss worries this will be his last Christmas ghost story... I certainly hope that's not the case

It’s not easy to tell an entire story in just half an hour of television, but it’s certainly not impossible. Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith are masters of it on dark anthology comedy Inside No 9; macabre drama The Twilight Zone managed to scare viewers out of their wits in just 30 minutes. Mark Gatiss’s latest festive ghost story sat slap bang in the middle of the two – pacy, over-the-top spooky and camp as, well, as Christmas.

Unlike Gatiss’s previous five Christmas ghost story specials, which were based on MR James stories, Lot No 249 is an Arthur Conan Doyle short story first published in Harper’s Magazine in the late 1800s. It transported us to Oxford University in 1881, where student Abercrombie Smith (Game of Thrones’ Kit Harington) was becoming increasingly concerned with his classmate Edward Bellingham’s (Freddie Fox) studies.

According to another student, Monkhouse Lee (a permanently startled Colin Ryan), Bellingham had become overly obsessed with Egyptology – as had half the country in that period of history; it would only be a few decades until British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered of the tomb of Tutankhamun. Of particular concern was a rather gruesome mummy which Lee was convinced Bellingham was reanimating and encouraging to partake in murderous acts at night.

A Ghost Story for Christmas: Lot No. 249,24-12-2023,Bellingham (FREDDIE FOX),**STRICTLY EMBARGOED UNTIL 12TH DECEMBER 2023**,Adorable Media Ltd.,Colin Hutton
Freddie Fox as Bellingham (Photo: Colin Hutton/Adorable Media/BBC)

Turns out he was right, though Smith only believed him once Lee had been chucked into the Thames and another student had been garroted by an unknown assailant.

Mummies might be long-dead, embalmed humans, but in our modern age of horror, it’s hard to make them truly terrifying. They’re more reminiscent of Scooby Doo than, say, the monochromatic nightmare-inducing smile of the Babadook (though the reverence for Hammer Films’ 60s monster movies was clear). But the BBC’s make-up department did their best and, as with all things scary, the idea of the deadly mummy was more frightening than the thing itself – a good idea then, to keep the monster out of sight for the majority of the episode.

The true marvel here was Gatiss’s direction, blatantly going for an exaggerated, extravagant tone and hitting the nail on the head. It was at odds with the stuffy, wooden halls of Oxford, but the theatricality of Lot No 249 elevated the short from throwaway drama to a half-hour romp with a clear, subtly homoerotic point of view it was hinted at more than once that Bellingham had romantic designs on both Lee and Smith. With the sudden musical stings and lingering shots on a horrified Harington, it was impossible not to be swept away by the fun of it all.

A Ghost Story for Christmas: Lot No. 249,24-12-2023,Monkhouse Lee (COLIN RYAN), Smith (KIT HARINGTON), Bellingham (FREDDIE FOX),**STRICTLY EMBARGOED UNTIL 12TH DECEMBER 2023**,Adorable Media Ltd.,Colin Hutton
Colin Ryan as Monkhouse Lee, Kit Harington as Smith and Freddie Fox as Bellingham (Photo: Colin Hutton/Adorable Media/BBC)

Gatiss couldn’t have pulled it off, however, without Harington and Fox. Both sporting ridiculously posh accents, the pair made for excellent adversaries; Harington’s Smith an uptight, self-appointed hero, Fox’s Bellingham a slimy, faux-innocent snake.

Once Smith had decided he was going to do something about Bellingham’s mummy, he took it upon himself to consult an old friend – played by John Heffernan and listed only as “The Friend” in the credits – who had experience in such matters. It didn’t take long to work out he was actually Sherlock Holmes (he was, after all, about to move into a flat on Baker Street). It was a nice little Easter egg for fans of either Conan Doyle – the creator of literature’s most famous detective – or Gatiss, who co-created the BBC’s smash hit Sherlock series alongside Steven Moffat.

Ghost stories are commonplace at Christmas, and I’m pleased Gatiss stepped away from the spooky ghouls and goblins of typical horror to create something more distinctive and surprising. I’m even more pleased that he decided not to take the project too seriously, choosing not just to scare, but to entertain. The writer has said that he’s worried Lot No 249 will be his last Christmas ghost story for the BBC due to a lack of funding… I certainly hope that’s not the case.

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