Whistle and I'll Come To You Review
Montague Rhodes James was born in 1862 and following an education at Eton and Cambridge, he was elected a Fellow of King's College, eventually rising to Vice Chancellor. Throughout his life, James was a brilliant linguist, medievalist and biblical scholar but was most well known for his ghost stories, becoming undoubtedly England's finest exponent of the form and truly he developed an accurate sense of England and being English for the time in which he lived. Each of the thirty-three short stories James wrote places the horrors within everyday environments. Through his mastery of scholarly detail, geography and his own imagination, James' invited readers into a world of country houses, seaside towns and churches, evoking the sinister out of the ordinary. Unlike other writers such as Lovecraft, James avoided obvious horrors, preferring instead to have his spectres flicker just out of sight, show themselves within dreams or through glimpses into history.
Legend has it that James would gather a small group into the study of the old Provost's Lodge at King's College Cambridge on winter nights and, with only a fire to light the room, recount the tales of horror for which he had become known. From these readings, his most famous stories were published and have formed a crucial part of the development of traditional English horror. Of these, 'Oh, Whistle And I'll Come To You, My Lad', originally published in 'Ghost Stories Of An Antiquary' is one of the most famous.
'Whistle...' is the tale of an academic, Professor Parkins, who travels to Burnstow on the eastern coast, to improve his golf. He is asked by a colleague to look at the site of the Templar's preceptory for a possible dig, to which he agrees. On arriving in Burnstow and checking into a Bed And Breakfast, Parkins does indeed investigate the Templar's preceptory and finds an old metal whistle buried in a patch of broken ground on which is written a phrase in Latin. Parkins translates this as, 'Who is this who is coming?' and blows the whistle. Within hours, the utterly rational Parkins hears the wind whistling outside his room and has terrible dreams of being followed by something or someone unknown. The true horrors have only begun.
In 1968, Jonathan Miller adapted 'Whistle...' for the BBC's Omnibus arts programme, not, as popular opinion would have it, for the BBC's annual 'Ghost Story For Christmas' in the late-1970's. 'Whistle...' would have been an obvious choice as, compared to many of James' stories, it is much less academic and rather more dynamic. In comparison to 'The Mezzotint', a personal favourite that is completely focused on the study of a wood engraving retelling the abduction of a child by a mysterious figure, 'Whistle...' features a strong plot, scenes of certain horror and a robust central character in Parkins, unsure when faced with growing terror.
Michael Hordern stars as Parkins, slightly different to the way in which he is presented in the story. In both cases, Parkins is entirely rational, dismissing the notion of ghosts completely and shocked to his very core when the spirit he has summoned has not only entered his room but has also occupied the second bed. However, the Parkins of the BBC adaptation is a more cantankerous man, arguing over breakfast on the existence of an afterlife, dismissing it with a single phrase and taking pleasure in the victory of his philosophy over his fellow diner. This is but one indication of Parkins' arrogance and lack of empathy, traits that were present but barely noticeable in the short story. The early scenes in the film, showing Parkins pointing out his bags to the aging porter to be brought up to his room, his dealings with the maids and the manner in which he enters the restaurant and sits on his own rather than at the main table with the other guests all indicate a man incapable of dealing with other people in any way but for speculative discussions. This is slightly overplayed, offering the theory that the presence of the spirit in Parkin's life is a result of a mental breakdown brought on by alienation in a hotel that is filled with sociable guests. Indeed, the constant grunting, the speaking aloud of simple phrases and mumbling in company indicates a man who has been alone too long and who has forgotten basic discourse. This is a slightly different interpretation to that in the short story, where James never forgets that a ghost can be real, rarely leaving his stories open to another interpretation.
The supporting cast are good but not outstanding. However, in a film dominated by a superb performance by Hordern, it is only right that he is given space and is not crowded by a similarly talented supporting company.
'Whistle...' is both a wonderful short story and, with Miller's adaptation, a film only slightly poorer. There are a number of liberties taken with the text but these serve mainly to highlight Parkins' isolation such as the removal of the scenes where he plays golf in the story with a friend but strolls along the beach on his own in the film, with Miller going so far as to say that Parkins does not play whatsoever. The overall effect is, however, much the same with the terror building slowly to a great conclusion, completely in keeping with the style of James' original story. Given that these tales are wonderful examples of English storytelling, so Jonathan Miller's film is a superb example of what British television is capable of.
The film has been beautifully transferred in its original 1.33:1 monochrome picture. Each scene is wonderfully vivid, with the cinematography capturing the isolation of the bleak Norfolk landscape, matched to the themes present in the film.
There are no chapter stops.
What is outstanding about the film is the soundtrack, with long periods of silence through which Parkins' voice crashes, breaking down as the spectre approaches but allowing space, when required, for the whistling wind and the wash of the sea along the Norfolk beaches. The sound is in 2.0 Mono, as when it was originally broadcast and all the better for it - a 5.1 remix would have detracted from the overall effect. The mix is very close to Parkins throughout, almost claustrophobic, bringing us closer to him and what he is experiencing. It is a great effect though I am not convinced it is deliberate.
The soundtrack is presented in English only and without subtitles.
As with other titles in this series, there are an interesting selection of extras, some only slightly relevant but they do at least, add value to the package:
Introduction By Ramsey Campbell (15m40s, 1.33:1 Non-Anamorphic, Mono): Filmed on fuzzy video and in what looks like his conservatory, complete with natural echo, horror author Campbell reads excerpts from a number of James' short stories and lists both those who influenced James and those whom he influenced in turn. As an introduction to 'Whistle...' it works well, spending up to twelve minutes on other stories written by James, examining his recurrent themes, earlier film adaptations including Night Of The Demon (Curse Of The Demon) based on Casting The Runes and those stories adapted by the BBC for the annual 'A Ghost Story For Christmas' in the 1970's.
The single, yet major, annoyance about this feature is that Campbell is filmed for only a minute at most, leading to major discrepancies in natural background lighting as the sun shines brightly and then disappears behind clouds. As a result, the video camera compensates, leading to moments when Campbell appears to be lit properly followed by times when he is half in shadow, half in light.
Ramsey Campbell's 'The Guide' Read By The Author (26m41s, 1.33 Non-Anamorphic, Mono): This was filmed on the same day as Campbell's introduction to 'Whistle...", in which he reads a tale written for an anthology of traditional ghost stories, influenced by, as well as name dropping, James.
Reading Of The Original Short Story (41m36s, 1.33:1 Non-Amamorphic Still Image, Mono): This is a complete reading of 'Oh, Whistle And I'll Come To You, My Lad' by Neil Brand, demonstrating the effectiveness of the original story in an excellent reading.
As well as the extras on the disc, critic Kim Newman supplies sleeve notes, which briefly analyse the film though I do have issue with the Freudian view, which states that the spirit in the spare bed is as a result of Parkins' repressed sexuality. Regardless of this single issue, Newman is a great critic and provides a short but useful opening description to the film.
There is also a weblink to the BFI website.
'Whistle...' has been reissued as part of the BFI Archive Television and is a perfect example both of the BBC's remit to provide quality public-service television and the BFI's restoration and archiving of classic television. It is a pity the two bodies do not collaborate more often as there is a wealth of television produced by the BBC, which should be transferred onto DVD in a similar manner as this.
This is really wonderful television and is certainly worth buying. Some people may find the short running time of the main feature, at just under forty-two minutes, too short to justify the price but the addition of a reading of the original short story as well as the extras feature Ramsey Campbell should assist any final decision made.
I cannot wholly recommend it to everyone - I am a fan of James' work and am biased towards him - but fans of traditional ghost stories and films, such as Robert Wise's The Haunting, will find much to please them here.