GHOST STORIES: Whistle and I'll Come to You / DVD Review

The venerated polymath Jonathan Miller had made several films for television by the time he turned his attention to the ghost stories of M.R. James, medieval scholar and provost of King's College, Cambridge and of Eton College.

After launching his career and those of Alan Bennett, Dudley Moore and Peter Cook with the celebrated Beyond the Fringe Cambridge Footlights and Oxford Revue show at the Edinburgh Festival in 1960, he opted to leave the show shortly after its transfer from London to Broadway. He briefly reunited with the Fringe cast for a final televised performance for the BBC in 1964 and then approached Huw Wheldon about applying for the BBC's director training course.

Wheldon had been presenting Monitor since it began in 1958 and had assembled a formidable production team, guiding the careers of Ken Russell, John Schlesinger and those who would go on to front their own arts documentaries, Humphrey Burton and Melvyn Bragg. In the autumn of 1964, he handed the role of editor and presenter to Miller. Miller's appointment and radically different outlook did not enamour him to critics at the time. He was interested in the process of art and 'also wanted to lever open a gap to make room for things which perhaps in the early 1960s were not considered respectable - all sorts of things like Pop Art, Happenings and the crude unfinished business of rehearsal where you see the creative process actually happening'. (1) In attempting to break down some of these distinctions, he was attacked by critics and viewers alike and would continue to divide opinion with the three television films he made subsequently.

'I've always been interested in examining just what it is that brings the hair up on the back of your spine'
One of the first films he completed after his tenure on Monitor was the notable The Drinking Party (tx 14/11/65), shown in arts strand Sunday Night. It was Plato's Symposium re-envisaged as an all-male graduate social gathering in the neo-Classical surroundings of Stowe School. Presented as a drama, it made playful acknowledgement of the Oxbridge tutorial, where, in a formal dinner for their Classics master (Leo McKern), each of the graduates became the characters in Plato's text, delivering his original speeches.

It was Miller's second film that more than demonstrated his abilities as a director. Alice in Wonderland (The Wednesday Play tx 28/12/66) is a 'vision of the Carroll story that is, in effect, made for adults' and is 'a film about the disaster of becoming an adult as seen from a child's point of view'. (2) Coupled with the music of Ravi Shankar, Dick Bush's deep focus, wide angle, black and white photography distorts the film's post-Empire vision in a suitably surrealistic fashion and allows the film to accumulate a feverish, dreamlike quality.

A desire to adapt 'Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad' for the BBC's arts strand Omnibus struck Miller as he watched John Betjeman discussing James' work on Take It or Leave It, the literary quiz fronted by Robert Robinson. Readings and adaptations of James' stories had featured on radio during the 1940s and 1950s, with the Light Programme presenting the first dramatisation of 'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad' in February 1949. Television adaptations had been appearing since the 1950s with the most recent transmitted during the first three series of ABC's anthology Mystery and Imagination (1966-70). 'The Tractate Middoth', 'Lost Hearts' and 'Number 13' had featured in the first and second series in 1966 and a version of 'Casting of the Runes' had appeared in March 1968, just two months before Miller's film was shown on BBC1.

Miller set out with a particular agenda for the film of Whistle and I'll Come to You (tx 07/05/68) when he and cameraman Dick Bush set off to shoot on location in Waxham on the Norfolk coast and in the Suffolk town of Dunwich. Although Miller admits 'I've always been interested in examining just what it is that brings the hair up on the back of your spine' (3) he had a more rationalist perspective on the uncanny and used the story as a vehicle to explore psychological states and the breakdown of the central character. He stripped back the story to its essence and purists of the Jamesian found something to grumble about in the transformation of the young Parkins (as he did with the title, Miller even shortened the character's name for the film) in the original story into the crumbly, bumbling old man Parkin of the film as well as the truncating and removal of several scenes from the story.
'the dangers of intellectual pride' 
Michael Hordern, cast as Professor Parkin, had previously played the role in a Home Service radio adaptation in Christmas 1963 and had perhaps already set a precedent for older actors to play Parkins. He was joined on location by Ambrose Coghill as Colonel Wilson with whom Parkin discusses metaphysics and the after-life over breakfast in the hotel. Coincidentally, Coghill appeared in 1971's The Stalls of Barchester as the museum keeper featured at the end of the film.

Miller also improvised much of the performances on location too, dismissing James's own dialogue as 'ludicrously stilted'. As Helen Wheatley notes, he used the production 'to explore new ways of working, mainly through the improvisation of dialogue, as well as the possibilities of the lightweight Éclair camera used to capture the haunting location filming of the Norfolk coastline'. (4)

The film opens with the Omnibus logo, reminding us from the outset that this adaptation is part of an arts series rather than a piece of populist drama like Mystery and Imagination or the Lawrence Gordon Clark films. Miller's opening introduction of James as a man 'who wrote ghost stories as a sideline' also suggests that this endeavour is not necessarily focused on these stories but on the moral of 'the dangers of intellectual pride' and man ignoring 'those forces inside himself which he simply cannot understand'. Right from the start, Miller is intellectualising the supernatural not as something extraordinary that stems from the external world but as a projection of a disturbed mind, as a phenomenon of the internal.

The opening sequence of the hotel maids changing the beds and unfolding clean sheets foreshadows the supernatural manifestations that Parkin will endure later in the film. Likewise, his cry of 'anybody there' as he arrives at his Burnstow (James' fictionalised rendition of Felixstowe) hotel is perhaps an attempt to exorcise the perception of the self-enquiring medium of popular pulp fiction. This opening scene is conducted with the minimal use of camera movement, offering a stillness and restraint as Parkin exchanges mumbled conversation with the hotel owner (George Woodbridge - who had played many similar roles in Hammer's Gothic horrors). An inkling of what is to come is suggested in one brief sequence as the camera pans from one bed to another in Parkin's room, marking out this troubled territory in advance.

That Parkin is an isolated, insular bachelor is clear. He sits apart from the other guests in the dining room and we observe him quietly talking to himself under his breath, lost in his own world even as a neighbouring guest greets him with a smile. The following morning this is emphasised again with an opening shot that has Parkin down at the end of the room, alone with his mental complexes during breakfast. When Parkin outlines his itinerary for the day to the Colonel and includes a walk to the cemetery, the Colonel declares 'it's a bit too spooky for me'. Miller immediately cuts from Parkin's repeated muttering of 'spooky' to his arrival on the beach, feet leaping into frame in a subliminal indication that this location is where Miller's disturbing forces will be released.

There is an acute awareness of the landscape, a quality that Wheatley refers to as 'what may lurk invisibly within or outside of the frame' and that this lonely, possibly disturbed man is about to project his anxieties onto that desolate beach. Bush's black and white photography and the roaring of the waves on the soundtrack convey something of this and a shot where Parkin walks along the beach and is reflected in the wet sand visualises the demon or shadow that the man carries on his back. These scenes also emphasise the thin separation between worlds 'that lie very close together, separated by an absolutely impenetrable barrier' that Miller was keen to break. (5)
'a case of severe sexual frustration leading to absolute dementia'
On his walk he uncovers the sacred object that is at the centre of most of James' tales. Here, it is a whistle buried in a coastal grave that tips the balance between these two worlds that Miller discusses. But it is also the first step of Parkin's journey into the unconscious. Brian Cowlishaw suggests 'that digging into the past/unconscious is a mistake… To dig into the past is to transport oneself back in time to a more superstitious, savage state of humanity and to uncover terrible things better left buried.' (6)

That something has been released is brilliantly suggested in the shot of Parkin looking over his shoulder, as the sun drops to the horizon, spotting a lone, unmoving figure in the distance. The reflection in the sand has been given separate life and it is invited into Parkin's conscious world through the sacred symbol of the whistle.

Parkin's cleaning of the whistle, the blowing of which summons up these nightmares, is an interesting scene and it dovetails with what both Kim Newman and Ramsey Campbell have noted about the story's undercurrent of sexual repression and frustration. 'Dirty' mutters the repulsed Professor as he empties out the contents of the whistle and, as Ramsey Campbell notes, 'it may be worth considering the Freudian possibility of this film... he brings on nocturnal restlessness and an erection of the bedclothes by putting something long and thin and dirty... into his mouth'. (7) Newman concurs and suggests the unnatural threat to Parkin - 'because he sleeps alone...' - is 'a case of severe sexual frustration leading to absolute dementia'. (8) Prior to the nightmare proper, Miller repeats the shot which pans between the two beds and, later, a further scene, where the housemaid comments that both beds in his room have been slept in, suggests that the image of the unoccupied bed across from Parkin's is connected to this Freudian reading. His admonition to himself to 'straighten up' after the maids have reported the disturbed bed also carries a double meaning.

This reading could also support Mike Pincombe's view of 'Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad' as a narrative of homosexual panic wherein ghosts torment the living, usually eccentric, male academics and that these male ghosts embrace and kiss their male victims to death in both 'Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad' and 'A Warning to the Curious'. (9) The whistle yields an equally charged message when Parkin traces over it with paper and pencil - 'who is this who is coming' - and the blowing of it creates a vision of the lonely beach and its stationary figure that acts as a bridge between two scenes, one of waking and one of dreaming. We next see Parkin sat up in bed, anxious and disturbed, as the howling wind fills the soundtrack. The camera pulls back from him and he attempts to get back to sleep.

The next scene, between the Colonel and Parkin at breakfast, is quite clearly Miller's attempt to put forward his own case about rationalism and the supernatural, albeit in very abstract terms, while also retaining James' notion of punishing the overtly curious scholars for their intellectual vanity. Parkin thinks he's being terribly clever when he inverts the Colonel's quote from Hamlet as 'there are more things in philosophy than are dreamt of in heaven and earth' and this quote transfers from conversation to thought with Hordern's voice over of the phrase heard as Parkin tucks into his packed lunch on the beach. The fact that we are able to now listen to Parkin's thoughts heralds a switch in the subjectivity of the film. So far, we have watched events unfold and happen to Parkin but now we will get to see Parkin's view of them.

The mise-en-scène slowly shifts to a depiction of the interior of Parkin's mind and his view - 'who is this who is coming' - is heard on the soundtrack and also seen in the mind's eye when Miller dissolves to another close up of Parkin in bed, unable to sleep. A close up of Parkin's eyes leads us into his nightmare of a misty, Dreyer-like chase along the beach in slow motion with what sounds like a slowed down heart beat on the soundtrack. Strange roars and screeches on the soundtrack herald a shot where Parkin drops out of frame and a vague, swirling piece of material represents 'who is this who is coming'. As Helen Wheatley points out, 'this sense of understatement or restraint in Miller's drama can be seen as a direct transference of James' desire to "show less and suggest more".' (10) Indeed, it is the accumulation of jump cuts and the use of sound that generates the film's atmosphere rather than any sophisticated special effects.

The invasion of his bedroom seems to prompt a rethink about the Colonel's debate about the afterlife and when he spends his evening reading up on spiritualism, Parkin nods off in front of the fire. Again, Parkin's voice intoning 'who is this who is coming' is used on the soundtrack but here Miller suggests that it is also heard by Parkin himself as it actually starts him awake. Perhaps this is also acknowledging that what the Professor is experiencing is not a supernatural experience but a gradual breakdown in mental stability. This is certainly implied in the concluding moments of the film. Parkin wakes, the camera pulls back from a close up of his face and tracks back until he occupies the left corner of the frame and watches whatever is causing the disturbance in his room, heard only as rustling noises on the soundtrack. The rest of frame briefly shows a flicker of shadow, then Miller cuts to the next bed. We see what Parkin sees - the bed sheets taking on a form -  and then Parkin's reaction and disbelief.

However, it is carefully constructed so that a viewer could accept Parkin may be hallucinating and that it is simply another stage of his breakdown, symbolised in his regression to a child like state, wide-eyed and sucking his thumb as the Colonel bursts into the room. It is a simple and terrifying conclusion to a superbly atmospheric film, full of ambiguity and intangibility, where the Professor's cries of 'Oh, no. No' are either those of a man who has experienced something beyond the pale of his philosophy or of a neurotic aware that he has suffered a breakdown. Hordern is magnificent, his improvisation with Miller helping to create an unsettling performance full of physical detail.
... defeats the point of adapting the original story
BBC4 took up the mantle of Ghost Stories for Christmas in 2005 with an adaptation of A View from a Hill followed by Number 13 in 2006. Their last effort was 2010's re-imagining of Whistle and I'll Come to You (tx 24/12/10) written by Neil Cross and directed by Andy de Emmony and is presented with Miller's original on this disc. Whereas the two previous plays had returned to James' stories and captured much of their original intentions and atmosphere, Cross more or less reworked elements of Miller's film and told a completely new story, with very little of the original left intact.

James isn't even acknowledged in the opening titles (he appears in the end credits) which suggests that Cross set out to create an original tale and then found himself saddled by the BBC's insistence in linking back to James and Miller and the baggage of the Ghost Story for Christmas branding. He probably would have been better off not even attempting to link in with the original story because this version ends up as a halfway house between James, which has a specific milieu of oral storytelling traditions and the 'aesthetic of restraint', and modern psychological horror of the last decade, present in films such as The Sixth Sense (1999) through to Let the Right One In (2008 and 2010), which often depends on very different tactics to achieve its scares.

Cross, with a reputation as lead scriptwriter for series 6 and 7 of Spooks (2002-11) and the creator of Luther (2010 -), sets the tale in the present and recasts neurotic bachelor academic Parkin as a retired astronomer who has just handed over the care of his demented wife Alice (Gemma Jones) to a residential care home. Instead of Miller's and Hordern's essay on one man's repressions and hubris externalised as a supernatural event that drives him into a breakdown, Cross goes for dementia as a metaphor and explores materiality and eternal love. This sees John Hurt, as watchable as ever as Parkin, troubled by the 'ghost' of his wife's personality, now trapped in a still living but senile frame. However, the shift in period to the present day doesn't do the film many favours. The care home comes across as a highly sinister place - a locus of modern horror tropes - where all the residents dress identically and sit silently in a peculiarly empty space. There only seems to be one nurse on duty (Lesley Sharp) at any given time and she behaves rather idiosyncratically.

Parkin takes himself to the coast for a break, retracing their 'old haunts' and staying at the hotel where they honeymooned. Director de Emmony settles for a modernist mise-en-scène - washed out colour and a widescreen frame that isolates Hurt - very much in tune with the tones and palette of films such as The Others (2001) and The Orphanage (2007). The threat of the unoccupied bed in Miller's film is transposed here when Parkin accepts a double room he didn't book and this imagery is used to convey the current absence of Alice from their long marriage rather than the externalisation of the invasion of madness.

However, his director of photography Rob Hardy does conjure up some of Miller's magical imagery when he gets Hurt out onto the beach. The use of the Kingshead and Botany Beach locations replicate much of Bush's work and the desolation he managed to capture in the Waxham locations of 1968. The whistle is replaced by a wedding ring, which rather defeats the point of adapting the original story, and the only link with the title is Parkin singing the refrain from Burns' song of 1793 in his wife's ear as he departs for the coast and that is reprised over the end titles.

Again, the song's story of defiant lovers underlines this text's focus on fidelity between a man and his wife, a fidelity that continues beyond the grave. de Emmony's widescreen vision emphasises the landscape that is at the heart of much of James' fiction and Norwell & Green's music and sound design is highly reminiscent of the use of Ligeti in Lawrence Gordon Clark's A Warning to the Curious (1972).

The introversion of Parkin in Miller's film is born out of his neurosis and self-imposed, scholarly isolation from other people whereas here Parkin is a husband missing his wife and preparing himself for loss. The character's isolation is depicted as much as a result of the hotel being off-season and his pre-occupation with his wife's state of health. The discovery of the ring acts as a foreshadowing of his eventual loss and the separation between his empirical world and the non-materialist extension of life. The animated bedsheets of James' tale become the scratchings and banging of this film's ghostly paraphernalia, the use of sounds reminiscent of many films including Robert Wise's masterful The Haunting (1961) and Nigel Kneale's 'During Barty's Party' (Beasts tx 23/10/76). That said, the attempted invasion of Parkin's room is still very unnerving.

Parkin's dream is also replicated but Cross and de Emmony use it to rather obviously point to the origin of the disturbances that plague him. They quantify the supernatural rather than leave it as an unknown, filling the dream with images of Parkin's wife and a shrouded figure. This figure rematerialises when Parkin is out for his coastal walk the next day and prompts Parkin to ring his wife, a woman lost to dementia but whom the nurse constantly claims is missing her husband. Hurt is fantastic in this scene, conveying the character's distress that the wife he knew is gone and that any amount of retracing their steps at a former holiday destination is not going to prevent her demise. This reaches a moment of crisis when, in one of the film's most unsettling moments, he wakes in the night to see hands reaching into his room from beneath the bedroom door.

Cross's script reaches its obvious conclusion when Parkin sees his wife materialise at the foot of his bed and, demanding 'I'm still here', crawl towards him. This is a woman trapped in a non-responsive body and desperate to communicate with a husband who has guiltily put her into the care of others. Is Cross saying he must pay the price for that with his life? It seems rather extreme and there is a strong intimation that she's a vengeful manifestation, hanging on just long enough to punish him. There's a final scene with the nurse that does underline this, her arrival in the room greeted by a look of expectation from the man's wife and then acknowledged with a nod, confirming she is free now that Parkin is dead. Are all the other incumbents of the strange care home out to do the same to their own relatives?

Despite its modest scares, Cross's intentions seem all too easily summed up in Parkin's rationalist observation to the hotel's receptionist, 'A body that has outlasted the existence of the personality, that is far, far more horrifying than any spook or ghoul that you could ever hope to glimpse, believe me'. James' stories were full of vengeful revenants but they were released through the hubris of those who upset some ancient order, imbued in sacred objects they attempted to disturb or steal. None of that spirit of the original haunts this particular and rather spiteful tale.

(1) Michael Romain (ed), A Profile of Jonathan Miller
(2) Alice in Wonderland review, Cathode Ray Tube
(3) Michael Romain (ed), A Profile of Jonathan Miller
(4) Helen Wheatley, Gothic Television 
(5) Michael Romain (ed), A Profile of Jonathan Miller
(6) Brian Cowlishaw, A Warning to the Curious: Victorian Science and the Awful Unconscious in M.R. James’s Ghost Stories
(7) Ramsey Campbell, Introduction to Whistle and I'll Come to You, BFI DVD 2001 and 2012
(8) Kim Newman, sleeve notes to Whistle and I'll Come to You, BFI DVD 2001
(9) Mike Pincombe, Homosexual Panic and the English Ghost Story: M.R. James and others
(10) Helen Wheatley, Gothic Television


About the transfer
If you've got the original BFI DVD of the 1968 Whistle and I'll Come to You, I might be tempted to say hold on to it. The new standard definition transfer on this new release does have its benefits. The contrast and brightness is an improvement on the previous DVD, which was lacking in highlights and all a bit too grey. Along with Hordern's performance, Dick Bush's cinematography is really the star of the show and deep contrast is definitely more evident here. The transfer has its odd sparkle and blob of dirt but from about 20 minutes in the image is plagued by white blotches and what looks like water damage. It's intermittent but the scene between Parkin and the Colonel often looks like it was shot in an out of focus snow storm and the weather on the location footage now looks rather inclement up to the 30 minute mark. A blight on an otherwise good transfer.

The 2010 version has a clean and blemish free image, perhaps a little soft in places, rather murky in the entirely deliberate aesthetic for the interiors but bright and sharp for the location exteriors.

Special Features
Well, all we get that's new is the brief extract from David Thompson's Arena on Miller (tx 31/3/12). The rest is material that originates from the BFI's previous release of Miller's version of the story and there is nothing at all to provide context for the 2010 version. An interview with Neil Cross wouldn't have come amiss. Considering the price point, either newer or other licensed material as special features would have been welcome. The BBC created a number of brief introductions to their re-runs of the stories on BBC4 in 2004 and a half-hour documentary M.R. James: The Corner of the Retina (aka Supernatural Storyteller) with views from Sir Christopher Frayling, Muriel Gray and Ruth Rendell. There are also several TV and radio readings - BBC2's Classic Ghost Stories by M.R. James with Robert Powell from 1986 and BBC1's three readings by Michael Bryant from 1980 come to mind - and it would have been great to see some of these included.
Jonathan Miller and Christopher Frayling discuss Whistle and I'll Come to You (3:24)
This is footage that wasn't included in David Thompson's recent and excellent documentary profile of Miller for Arena. At such a short running time this doesn't really afford an opportunity for Miller and Fraying to provide much in depth background material about the making of the film. Miller explains his 'romance' with the supernatural and his notes to Michael Hordern about playing the fusty academic in the film. Frayling picks up on the notion that this was not just a ghost story but was also about the world from which writer M.R. James originated.
M.R. James' original story 'Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to you, My Lad', read by Neil Brand (41:36) A decent reading worth listening to to understand how pared down Miller's adaptation was. Ported over from the BFI's original DVD release of Miller's version in 2001.
Introduction to Whistle and I'll Come to You by horror writer Ramsey Campbell (15:36)
Again, ported over from the 2001 release, this is an informative background to M.R. James, which authors influenced the writer and how he uses 'reticence to convey the horror' in his stories. Ramsey drops in extracts from Lost Hearts and The Mezzotint to suggest the tone of James's work and mentions those authors who were in turn inspired by him. He also covers cinema and television adaptations, including Miller's and those of Lawrence Gordon Clark and suggests a very Freudian reading of Whistle and I'll Come to You. The only drawback here is that Ramsey was filmed in a very echoy conservatory and the sound isn't as clear as it deserves to be.
Ramsey Campbell reads his own M.R. James inspired story The Guide (29:20)
Another extra from the 2001 DVD release. No disrespect to Ramsey but this is very difficult to concentrate on due to the poor acoustics. Still, the story has a very Jamesian feel to it and is decidedly unnerving.
Booklet
An excellent collection of essays by Mark Fisher and Reggie Oliver and biographies of M.R. James, Jonathan Miller, Michael Hordern and John Hurt. 

Ghost Stories: Classic adaptations from the BBC
BFI DVD Released 20 August 2012 BFIVD959 Cert 12
Whistle and I'll Come to You (1968)
UK / black and white / 41:54 / English / DVD9 / 1.33:1 / Dolby Digital mono audio 320kbps
Whistle and I'll Come to You (2010)
UK / colour / 52:07 / English / DVD9 / 2.35:1 anamorphic / Dolby Digital stereo audio 320kbps

Bookmark and Share

Viewing Figures

The Legal Bit

All written material is copyright © 2007-2017 Cathode Ray Tube and Frank Collins. Cathode Ray Tube is a not for profit publication primarily for review, research and comment. In the use of images and materials no infringement of the copyright held by their respective owners is intended. If you wish to quote material from this site please seek the author's permission.

Creative Commons License
Cathode Ray Tube by Frank Collins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.