Who is this who is coming?
Every Christmas I revert to habit and immerse myself in M.R. James. A recent bout of insomnia found me watching this television version of the short story Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad during the quiet and cold early hours. Filmed in 1968 for the BBC, it was directed by Jonathan Miller and stars Michael Hordern. A masterpiece of atmosphere, this is one of the best James adaptations ever; Hordern is excellent and the tale is genuinely creepy and unsettling.
Hordern plays Parkin, an eccentric academic, the kind of role he was born to play. Muttering to himself and breaking into half chanted songs, he is a distant and introverted figure who rolls up to stay at a guest house in Norfolk for a short holiday. He tends to shun the company of the other guests, walking alone on the beach during the day and sitting on his own at dinner. Whilst other guests are content to holiday around the golf course, Parkin prefers solitary walks along deserted beaches with only his muttering for company. During one of his outings he discovers a forgotten graveyard and investigates an ancient grave, half tumbling into ruin and down into the beach below. There he finds a small whistle…
Whistle and I’ll Come to You is the greatest of all M.R. James television adaptations, coming a few years before the BBC got into their stride with the A Ghost Story For Christmas series. It follows the best of all James’ themes, that of the warning to the curious. Parkin doesn’t believe in the supernatural, and as he dismisses anything ghostly over a breakfast conversation you can imagine James rubbing his hands together with glee. Once he inevitibly blows the whistle he is disturbed by vivid dreams, kept awake by images of dark figures following him across the beach. He hears rustling sounds, and the maids comment that both of the beds in his room have been slept in. He eventually has a chilling encounter that will leave him a different person entirely; if not a firm believer on the supernatural then positively disturbed for evermore.
Miller’s film is quite rightly hailed as a classic of British tv. Starting particularly soberly, a pair of maids arranging the stiff sheets of a bed, it develops into one of the most chilling films you’ll ever see. And the bedsheets .. such a prelude for what is to come. Hordern is in possibly his greatest role and, apart from some good support from Ambrose Coghill as a fellow guest, he carries the whole film himself. The photography is in black and white, beautifully shot. There’s no music and less than the usual amount of dialogue. It’s just brilliantly atmospheric, from Hordern’s trudging sound across the shingle to the groans of the ghostly disturbed. Fantastic viewing, especially in the twilight hours.