Friday, 18 November 2016

A Tale of the Supernatural: Whistle And I’ll Come To You (Jonathan Miller, 1968)

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2012)

The first of two articles about the films in the BBC’s ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’ strand. The second looks at Lawrence Gordon Clark’s adaptations from MR James that formed the core of the channel’s 1970s output, while this piece concentrates on one of the great small screen horror films, Jonathan Miller’s 1968 film, Whistle and I'll Come to You.

‘This is a tale of the supernatural,’ announces Jonathan Miller at the film’s opening. He continues, ‘it's a story of solitude and terror and it has a moral too. It hints at the dangers of intellectual pride and shows how a man’s reason can be overthrown when he fails to acknowledge the forces inside himself which he simply cannot understand.’ As he speaks, we see a man walking rangily across the beach towards us, casting a backward glance as he does so. There is a low, winter sun, immense in the sky above rolling North Sea waves. Before the spare credits show on the screen, the sound of a wind rises, the kind of wind that troubles the windowpanes of a sleepless night – only for it to be smoothed out by the briskly efficient maids, making the bed for a new arrival at the hotel, in this case Professor Parkin, arriving at that moment at the railway station. ‘Anybody there?’ he asks, twice, on his entry to the hotel’s morning emptiness. It’s a question to which he will soon find an unwanted answer.

Michael Hordern’s performance as the distracted, slightly impatient academic Professor Parkin, full of tics and mumbles, is fully engaging, his consternation growing as he is forced to turn his unpractised gaze inwards, away from the defences of his books and studies. Appropriately for the off-season hotel room in which he is to come face to face with the tangible form of suppressed fears, he is first seen in a mirror as he enters. The camera is no benign presence through the film either. In his room it subtly tracks his movements, observes him from behind the mirror, or a bedpost which partially obscures our view and gives a feeling of voyeurism in our gaze. It’s not much, but it’s enough to give the impression of his being watched, and that we are the ones watching his solitary performance, played out to himself for the purpose of keeping the silence at bay. His fussiness fills the emptiness of the room which even sounds cold in its silence.

Miller’s distaste for MR James’s prose, which he once described as ‘ludicrously stilted’ and the sort of writing that is savoured by ‘port-bibbers’, led him to strip away the dated affectations of his style, as well as some of the characters in the story, to get to the central psychological question of how a sceptical academic could be disturbed by this thing termed ‘the supernatural’ after he makes the mistake of blowing a whistle that he finds in a clifftop cemetery. In this light it’s as well to remember that in this programme, made for BBC’s Omnibus, Miller was using the skeleton of Oh Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad to create a film essay on the themes and preoccupations found in James’s writing; it’s not a straight reproduction of the story. This partly accounts for the character of Professor Parkin in his adaptation. Miller elsewhere has talked of ghost stories as ‘conundrums and jokes spun by clever boys,’ boys who remained top of the class in their lives, but who never grew into men. Much of Parkin’s characterisation derives from this. There is his garb for one. As he enjoys his packed lunch in the marram grass of the dunes while he replays his bons mots from breakfast (‘there are more things in philosophy than are dreamt of in heaven and earth’), his cap and satchel make him resemble an overgrown boy, albeit one who now has deep furrows in his brow, who has never lost the trappings of school. Nor the mannerisms of its speech: ‘finder’s keepers,’ he says when he comes across the whistle; ‘one hundred and one things a boy can do,’ he mutters when, alone in his room, he finds a way of making the inscription on the whistle legible with the aid of pencil and paper. ‘Dirty’ is the single word he utters in the same scene as he tips the years’ accumulated dirt from the whistle, hinting at another level of disavowal in his psychological make-up, one more connected with the crisp, clean sheets with which the film opens. Certainly fear of the opposite sex, whom Miller introduces in the form of a fellow guest and diner at the hotel, a woman who thoroughly discomfits Parkin’s composure merely by smiling languorously in his direction during dinner and walking past him in the corridor afterwards.

For all Parkin’s parsing of a question about ghosts with a guest at breakfast, coming to a preliminary conclusion that such discussions are based on nothing more than ‘a logical difference of usage’ in the terms, he is defenceless when it comes to facing his fears in the middle of a sleepless night as, eyes narrowed, he listens to the rumpling of sheets as the inhabitant of the other bed in his room tosses and turns. Nor do such niceties of argument avail him of much when it comes to his dreams in which he is pursued across the sand by a thing of rags accompanied by the trudging, pumping insistence of his own heartbeat. It’s a brilliant sequence in the film; first he is woken by the sound of a cough that disappears on waking, then to the sound of silence, and then, finally, to the walrus-like groans and honks that accompany his pursuer. He admits defeat, and turns on the light switch, which clinks against his metal bed frame. At the end of the film, his own voice approximates the inchoate sound of his nightmare, as his regression to childhood with his thumb in his mouth, is complete. Miller might have updated the story from the era of candles to that of electric light, but the cause of the disturbance is the same.

There are a number of nicely observed details in the film such as the maid shaking her left hand dry after testing the Professor’s bath water (she would never have dried it on her pinafore), but perhaps the best little trick of the piece is one that you only realise as the layout of Parkin’s room reveals itself through the course of the film – that the bed the maids were making in the opening scene was not the Professor’s, but instead that of his night-time visitant.

I’m going to look at Lawrence Gordon Clark’s 1970s adaptations of MR James’s stories in my next piece – And Yet, Traces of Uneasiness Impinge – so I’ll skip over them for now and instead give a few thoughts on the versions of his stories that were made in the 21st century.

After three decades of sleep, the annual ghost story was briefly revived with James’s stories, A View from a Hill in 2005 and Number 13 in 2006. Watched in the light of hazy memories of the 1970s output, I can see how they would have been hailed as a films in the mould of the originals – albeit with a few contemporary modish filming tics – but viewed soon after the earlier films, they seem a little second-hand. They’re not bad, just weightless.

With its concentration on the shoes of the visiting antiquary and the man’s orderly laying out of his washkit in his room in A View from a Hill, the film checks off elements of Clark’s A Warning to the Curious and Miller’s Whistle and I'll Come to You in its first few minutes. And then there is the obligatory restless night in the presence of undefined scratchings or rustlings in the bedroom. Of course, the inclusion of such elements is part of the reassuring enjoyment of the genre, but after a while – especially when you are watching another man, this time Andersen in Number 13, laying out his washkit and books with punctilious precision in another bedroom – then it does begin to look derivative, as if Miller’s singular interpretation of James’s words in his adaptation of Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad, namely, ‘he was made welcome at the Globe Inn, was safely installed in the large double-bedded room of which we have heard, and was able before retiring to rest to arrange his materials for work in apple-pie order upon a commodious table which occupied the outer end of the room…’ had somehow become source material itself. Number 13 also has another direct nod to Miller’s Whistle and I'll Come to You in the dining scene, when we see another fussy professor, breakfasting alone, so discomfited by the arrival of two women at breakfast that his chewing is interrupted and his sausages left uneaten on the plate. In this case it is filmed from almost exactly the same angle, and with the same intention, as Miller’s film from 38 years before. Number 13 has also been filmed with that curiously unsatisfying period drama lighting that brightens and cleans everything, making even mighty edifices such as Winchester Cathedral appear rather artificial.

Another entry in the series is Andy De Emmony’s 2010 film of Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad. Based on Neil Cross’s radical revisioning of James’s story, it leaves only its barest bones of a man visiting the seaside out of season, entwining it with a tale of dementia, care, guilt, and that most un-Jamesian of concepts – love. Gemma Jones plays the woman who is no longer reachable either by kisses or tender words; John Hurt her husband of many years who has left her in a weirdly lifeless care home while he revisits an old seaside haunt of theirs, where he has to face his loneliness and lack of direction without her. ‘Call me if you need me,’ he says, perhaps unwisely, before he leaves her. There are a number of borrowings from the earlier version here – Hurt snacking in the marram grass, the obscured views of him in his hotel room – with these added to more contemporary stylings taken from, for example, Japanese horror films such as Ring. However, the biggest difference seems to me that it is set in a much changed, crueller world, in which the trappings of professional service and so-called care mask a nullity and deep indifference. The tragedy is that the one relationship of any depth and meaning here is also the one that is most destructive.

Accompanying the films on the BFI DVDs are notable extras in the form of Christopher Lee’s Ghost Stories for Christmas, which see him reading The Stalls of Barchester, A Warning to the Curious and Number 13 in the personage of a Cambridge don to a select group of students at Christmas. Although Lee claimed not to be playing MR James, through him we do have a valuable direct link to the original storyteller, Lee having met James when he took his scholarship exam for Eton in the early 1930s. His dark and mellifluous tones have an edge of sly mischievousness that is persuasive, and helps to reclaim James the storyteller, and his stories, as tales to be read, and listened to (Jonathan Miller might not agree).

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