A few traditionalists might have sipped their glass of vintage port uneasily while tuned in to the BBC Ghost Story for Christmas in 1977. Previously these had all been classic adaptations of the work of M.R. James or Charles Dickens. This was a new script, set in the present day and had more in common with David Cronenberg than it did some earlier entries in the annual series. And it was about as Christmassy as strawberries and cream at Wimbledon.

Clive Exton supplied the screenplay. Best known for British serial killer film 10 Rillington Place, Exton had also written Doomwatch in 1972, which might be described as an eco-thriller with elements of folk horror. His script here combines body horror with folk horror, not that anybody would have used that latter term when Stigma was first shown on BBC1.

The Delgado family have just moved into a new picture postcard cottage in Avebury, Wiltshire. Katherine (Kate Binchy) and daughter Verity (Maxine Gordon) travel home in a car and Kate faces some low-level resentment from her daughter during the journey. Verity is hardly thrilled to be escaping to the country from London, sensing that teenage kicks will be hard to come by in a sleepy village.

When they arrive home, two workmen Dave and Richard are struggling to hoist a huge stone in their garden from the ground.

‘Why can’t you leave it there?’ Verity protests, and the workmen agree she has a point.

‘It’d spoil the lawn,’ Katherine notes, perhaps a little reluctantly.

You just know this is a bad idea, don’t you?

The camera pans across to the fields beyond the garden, the site of one of the Avebury stone circles that could be seen fleetingly moments earlier.

As she starts preparing a meal, a commentator on the radio outlines the progress of two Voyager spacecraft launched some months beforehand. This is the modern world, and the future is more important than the past, the mysteries of space more fascinating than the ancient mysteries on their doorstep.

Outside, she watches on as the men’s JCB crane finally lifts the stone, albeit only six inches or so above the ground. As it does so some wyrd forces display themselves but only to Katherine.

Wind gusts into her face. She is sent into a trancelike state. She traipses indoors where ornaments, a clock and framed pictures rattle. Small cracks run up a wall. A small mirror smashes. Katherine recovers somewhat.

Verity is unaware that anything strange happened, which the viewer might read as a strong indication that what just took place was only in Katherine’s head.

Soon, Katherine sees blood smearing a plate. She examines her hands but there’s no visible cut. Maybe it’s from the brisket of beef she has begun to prepare, but no – and I better warn you that some spoilers lie ahead.

Tiny droplets of blood begin to inexplicably ooze from her side and forehead for no identifiable reason.

It’s like a particularly distressing anxiety dream (and twice we can glimpse an etching of Fuseli’s famously disturbing image The Nightmare where an incubus sits upon a woman sleeping with outstretched arms). In her bathroom Katherine desperately attempts to wipe the blood from her torso. This is an uneasy, even harrowing watch. I would guess that some complaints were fired off to the BBC about the (semi) nudity but this can’t be viewed as salacious in any way. If anybody enjoys watching this then I’d advise them to seek professional help.

Eventually, the bleeding subsides, and Katherine is able to dine with Peter and Verity that evening.

That night, though, Peter is woken by the noise of a steady drip. Vague voices are heard and laughter. He gets up goes to investigate. An onion rolls off a table, a knife rotates, and some oven rings have been left on. Perplexed, he goes back to bed. 

The next morning, the workmen return with a larger crane. This time round the stone is completely dislodged. Dave and Richard find a skeleton underneath where it lay, and it’s surrounded by carefully placed daggers. Verity suggests that this means the burial was intended for a witch.

‘The old religion,’ she explains. ‘Read about it in a book. They used to bury them under big stones.’

She begins to peel away the outer layer of an onion’s skin, her nails bright red. Maybe she’s also read that onions help ward off evil spirits.

Meanwhile, very bad things are happening to her mother.

Directed by BBC Ghost Story for Christmas regular Lawrence Gordon Clark, Stigma lasts just over half an hour and is continuously engaging from start to finish.

Kate Binchy excels at portraying – without words – the growing panic of her character and there’s a great use of location. By a coincidence, 1977 had started with another drama filmed in Avebury, Children of the Stones on ITV’s late afternoon children’s slot (and believe me, they don’t make them like that anymore on children’s TV).

Most critics disliked Stigma, although surprisingly, the Daily Mail was impressed, their reviewer noting that it ‘worked on the imagination as well as the senses’. I agree, though why the curse unleashed by the stone’s removal only affected Katherine remains a mystery to me.

For more on Stigma, click here.