Contains spoilers as to the original short story and the two adaptations reviewed.
I’d intended to do a little Halloween-themed run of reviews this week but sadly time and other commitments got the better of me. However, one did manage to sneak under the wire – a look at the two screen adaptations of MR James’ Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad made by the BBC 42 years apart and released again this month by the British Film Institute as part of its Gothic season.
MR James was an early 20th century medieval scholar and in his time provost of both King’s College, Cambridge and Eton College. Today he’s best recalled for his sideline of writing ghostly short stories, adaptations of which were for a time a staple of the BBC’s Christmas television schedule in the 1970s. They possess a rich nostalgic appeal to those who saw and loved them at a time, so that every now and then a revival of the spirit of retelling the ghost stories of Christmas past is attempted.
I should confess that I wasn’t one of those who avidly watched the dramas at the time. Some came along far too early for me, while even on reruns the late ones generally proved too slow and subtle for my young self. These are ghost stories for adults, and moreover for intellectuals, and not the Paranormal Activity, Insidious or The Conjuring sort of over-manic fare today that gets taken as horror. In fact there’s nothing really ‘horrific’ in these works at all, they are more accurately tales of the unsettling that may or may not send a chill down your spine, or perhaps leave you anxiously glancing behind you next time you’re out walking alone.
The 1968 version of Whistle and I’ll Come To You is possibly one of the most highly regarded television ghost stories ever filmed. It was made as part of the long-running arts programme Omnibus by Dr Jonathan Miller, who wanted to do a ‘ghost story’ but yet who himself had no time for the usual silliness of the paranormal. The cerebral style of James was perfect for Miller who found a story that could be used in many different ways to tell a real tale of substance and not simply get empty shock appeal for the sake of it from spooks and ghouls and headless horsemen.
In the original story, a philosophy academic called Parkins goes on a golfing holiday to the fictional coastal resort of Burnstow (James actually based the location on Felixstowe). On one walk along the coast he unearths an old metal whistle bearing the inscription “Quis est iste qui venit”, or “Who is this who is coming?” Naturally, after cleaning it up, he blows into it – and thereafter is disturbed by bad dreams, waking anxiety about someone following him, and strange scratching and rustling sounds when he tries to sleep that make him convinced someone is in the unoccupied second bed in the room. Parkins has always scoffed at any suggestion of the supernatural, and is now eventually unhinged by what his sceptical mind cannot explain or accept.
A physician as well as a theatre and opera director, Miller saw the story as an opportunity for a relatively clinical study on the effects of loneliness and isolation. The 41-minute film focusses on an elderly unmarried Cambridge academic called Parkin (the name, like the title, is shortened for the screen) as we follow him wandering around Burnstow making few human contacts. An oddball from the start – although admittedly no more so than many of the academics I knew while at university myself – his one substantial conversation with a fellow guest at the hotel sees him deliver a smug, self-satisfied and near-incomprehensible discourse about his disinclination to believe in anything paranormal; it’s not an experience either his interlocutor (or indeed we the audience) wish to repeat again. Gradually the collapse of Parkin’s mental state is mirrored by a similar decline in his linguistic skills and he ends up barely able to utter single word responses amidst the snorts, harrumphs, moans and sighs.
There is an additional layer to the story if you look for it, beyond the isolation/loneliness thesis – that of Parkin’s repressed sexuality, and specifically homosexuality. It’s not overt but then it couldn’t have been in 1968, but the adaptation certainly open to such a reading: the moment when Parkin blows into the phallic tin whistle is the most obvious clue, declaring it “Dirty” as he touches his lips to the tip. MR James himself would have recoiled from the very notion, mind.
Otherwise, much of Miller’s production is a long, unflinching look at how Parkin spends his days pottering about and talking to himself. There’s plenty of period treats as we’re shown how even a high-class hotel of the era (one that requires formal dressing for dinner served by maids and butlers on silver service) can’t boast hot or cold running water or ensuite facilities to the guest rooms. At the centre of it there is Michael Hordern’s performance as Parkin, and it’s an extraordinary meditation on eccentricity – possibly the actor’s finest work ever committed to celluloid. That said, it can’t truthfully said to be a scary ghost story; at best it’s mildly unsettling, but to be honest so little happens, and so slowly, that it spreads any chills far too thin for my taste which admittedly has quite possibly been ruined forever by more bloody and visceral modern cinematic horror pursuits. I found it, frankly, a little on the dull side outside of Hordern’s portrayal, but then Miller isn’t going for horror or even chills, rather a depiction of a man’s mental state subtly and steadily disintegrating.
The second version of the story presented on this BFI/BBC DVD release is much more recent, having been aired in 2010 although I’ll be darned if I can remember seeing it in the schedules at any stage. Written by Luther creator (and Doctor Who contributor) Neil Cross, it takes some of the same plot beats and key signature moments from James’ short story and from Miller’s production, but then pretty much reworks everything else in a way that completely overturns the author’s original intentions in quite spectacular fashion. This perhaps explains why James’ name appears only late in the final credits rather than upfront or as part of the title; one suspects that he would not have been impressed by what had been done to his work. However, the new version does pay a little post-modern mark of respect by bestowing upon Parkin (the name still curtailed) the first name of James.
In this production, Parkin is a retired astronomer. Far from being the haughty bachelor figure of Miller’s imagining, here he has been happily married for over 40 years to the love of his life, Alice (Gemma Jones) – so no room here for any repressed sexuality elements. Whereas in the 1968 version Parkin sought out isolation and duly paid for it with his mental collapse, in the 2010 iteration he has alienation thrust upon him by circumstances. His wife is in a catatonic state from advanced senile dementia and he has just moved her into a care home; they never had any children; and when he seeks to revisit a coastal resort that was special to them both as newly-weds, he arrives out of season in a hotel with no other guests with which to interact (and on one night, apparently not even any member of staff in the entire hotel.)
But in any case, the story this time around is not so much about loneliness, although though it certainly remains a factor; rather it is the guilt that Parkin feels about his having ‘abandoned’ his wife to the care home, which is presented here as a weirdly-styled nightmarish place but nonetheless one in which the chief carer (Lesley Sharp) can’t be faulted for her observed actions at any point, much through you expect the character to start abusing patients left, right and centre at any moment. The very real horror in this part of the story is of someone whose personality has died even though the body is preserved. As Parkin puts it: “That is far, far more horrifying than any spook or ghoul that you could ever hope to glimpse, believe me.”
Astoundingly, there is no whistle in the 2010 production, which instead justifies the title by crowbarring in Parkin whispering the quote from the 1793 work by poet Robert Burns into his wife’s unhearing ear as he takes his leave of her. Now, the found object that incites the ghostly happenings comes in the form of a wedding band that Parkin comes across in the sand which arguably intensifies his feelings of guilt and leads to his breakdown – although to be honest there is little interest in truly grounding the haunting events which ensue and which (with the exception of the ghostly pursuer on the beach) are shown in stark clarity compared with Miller’s implied impressionistic strokes. The latter scenes use conventional modern horror movie stylings and even borrow liberally from ‘J-horror’ in their style and execution – which as it turns out is actually rather fitting, as James’ stories genuinely do share a lot of ideas with some of the Japanese ghost spirit tropes that have been opened up to Western audiences in recent years through the likes of Ringu and Ju-On.
As a horror story, the 2010 production is hugely more effective than the 1968 story: there is a very real sense of unease throughout, rising to spine-chilling at points and at a couple of moments genuinely managed to make me jump (and for the right reasons – not just by a sudden loud bang.) At its centre the version is lucky enough to have John Hurt as Parkin. He’s every bit as good as Hordern in a very different playing of the role, and certainly compulsively watchable while also being much more identifiable and sympathetic than Hordern’s unlikeable oddball. Like the earlier version there is clever and effective use of atmospheric sound recordings, and while the locations are very different (and a long way removed from James’ descriptions of Felixstowe) they still have a certain effective eeriness nonetheless.
But as an adaptation of James’ original story, the 2010 version takes some serious liberties with the spirit as well as the detail of James’ work. In fairness, so did the Miller version – but at least in the earlier production Miller’s ideas augmented rather than displaced James’ own concepts, making it arguably a stronger end result overall. The newer version on the other hand feels like an act of more substantial grave-robbing and wanton vandalism by comparison, for all its undoubted successes as well.
Fortunately not only does the DVD contain both versions to watch and compare their strengths and weaknesses, there’s also a reading of James’ complete original short story by Neil Brand as an audio-only feature. (There’s a second disc of Classic Ghost Stories featuring an abridged 15-minute-version read by Robert Powell, which shows how much a story can be affected by its timing and rhythms being hacked about; and also suffering from some dreadfully intrusive background stock music which distracts from Powell’s otherwise exemplary delivery.) It’s surprising to hear that in the story Parkins is quite a young character, and while still introverted and far from garrulous he is also far from isolated or alienated from those around him; indeed he strikes up quite a decent friendship with another golfer at the hotel, and he is more articulate and therefore able to better convey the real ideas James was interested in – the disconnect between Parkins’ strict intellectual rationality and the events he is seeing before his eyes. The purpose and actions of the supernatural entity is also much more clearly laid out. These elements are still present to a degree in the two films, but they are overlaid and to a greater or lesser extent subsumed by Miller and Cross’ own preoccupations and treatises on the subject, which kind of makes you wish someone would come along who just wanted to make the story ‘straight.’
While you expect a television adaptation to make changes to source material, it’s surprising how many effective scenes in the book are omitted entirely from both versions. It’s almost as though the 2010 production was actually more a direct adaptation of the 1968 one rather than referring to the short story at all, so closely does it stick to Miller’s version for its basis before jumping off on its own ruminations and not picking up any of the extra cues from the source material omitted first time around. As a result, the 2010 version ends up more of a patchwork effort of different ideas and visions, topped off with an overriding need for the story to work as a modern ghost chiller.
And yet Cross’ version does work in that capacity for all its flaws, in exactly the way that Miller’s doesn’t for all its undoubted strengths. And most of all, at their heart, both productions also feature two of the best screen performances you’ll ever see from two of the finest actors of their respective generations in Hordern and Hurt. As a result, there’s plenty to recommend here and as a compare-and-contrast exercise this BFI/BBC DVD is a wonderful academic research tool well worth buying, watching and studying for anyone interested in ghost stories and also TV writing and production over nearly five decades.
Technical details: the 1968 version is a lovely black-and-white full frame (1.33:1) film version, although there’s some evidence of light film damage that at its worst is only mildly noticeable. The 2010 version is shot in full-colour widescreen (2.35:1) and as expected is pristine, although its colour palette is intentionally murky. Extras include the aforementioned audio reading of the full original short story, together with period footage of a discussion about the production between Miller and Sir Christopher Frayling; and a 15-minute filmed introduction to the 1968 version by James expert Ramsey Campbell who also reads his own James-inspired story The Guide in a separate item. There’s a terrific booklet with stills and essays on the discs’ content.
Whistle and I’ll Come To You is one of the discs in the BFI’s Ghost Stories for Christmas DVD boxset, originally released in 2012 and just reissued in 2013 with a new sixth disc as part of the BFI’s Gothic season. As well as MR James stories there are others, most notably the famous 1976 version of Charles Dickens’ The Signalman starring Denholm Elliott. All the contents are available as separate discs.