Whistle & I’ll Come to You

Dir. Jonathan Miller

‘Who is this who is coming?’

Based on a chilling short story titled ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ (first published in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, 1905) by the master of ghost tales MR James, Whistle and I’ll Come to You was adapted by the BBC for their arts Omnibus series.

The story revolves around the cranky and rationally-minded Professor Parkins (Michael Hordern) as he travels to the Norfolk coast for a brief holiday from his academic work. Out on one of his many perambulations, Parkins discovers an old whistle half buried in the grounds of an ancient cemetery. Reading the titular inscription carved into the whistle, Parkins is able to translate the latin verse and discovers it reads ‘Who is this who is coming?’ The professor dismisses it pompously and goes about his introverted daily routines of studying and hiking and further alienating himself from the other guests. Later that day though, as the light fades and the wind howls, Parkins hears a dreadful whistling coming from outside his bedroom window and dreams of being pursued by someone, or something, unseen.

The film devotes much of its brief running time to carefully establishing the character of the professor and all his bumbling pomposity. Awkwardness is rife as he starchly ‘interacts’ with the hotel staff and mumbles his way through a debate with a fellow guest, dismissing the other man’s arguments rudely while haughtily denying the possibility of the supernatural. It is testament to the focussed performance of Hordern and all of the subtle little tics and nuances he conveys as Parkins, that the character retains our sympathy and interest, despite his arrogance.

‘There are more things in philosophy than are dreamt of in heaven and earth.’
He is quite typical of many of the sternly rational, academic characters created by MR James. Scholarly men who exist in a world of reason, rationality and scepticism who experience something strange that has no logical explanation; jolting them out of the comfort of their bookish existences and into a world that seems to balance precariously on the brink of some vast unknown.

Director Jonathan Miller perfectly captures the quietness and stillness that exists within the stories of MR James. Horrors are suggested and fleetingly glimpsed; they hover creepily on the periphery of our waking world, but the impact they have is undeniable. The film retains a bleak atmosphere, saturated with solemn dread and steadily cranks up a consistent foreboding terror…

The stiffness of Parkins and the stifling confinement of the upper middle-class social conventions of the time are beautifully conveyed in a scene where Parkins joins the other guests for dinner. Decked out in full evening wear, he hovers uncertainly in the hallway before entering the dining room and self-consciously sitting by himself. His presence is enough to plunge the other guests into awkward silence. The social inadequacies of Parkins, who is unable to interact with people outside of dense academic and philosophical discussions, renders him something of an awkward outcast. His solitude, coupled with the crisp black and white photography of deserted beaches and bleak, windswept landscapes, makes for sombre viewing. The tension never lets up and the feeling that this tale will not end well is simply unshakable.

Unsettling and supremely creepy images pepper the film and everything hangs heavy under an air of dread and sadness. As Parkins makes his way back to the hotel from the beach, we can make out a mysterious figure standing ominously behind him further down the beach.

One of the most disturbing scenes occurs as Parkins sleeps restlessly after bringing home the whistle he finds on his walk: he dreams of running along the deserted beach away from ‘something’, while behind him, further down the beach, a shapeless mass of sheets hauntingly floats after him. There is something about this spectral image that implies so much threat and anxiety that it sears into the brain, lingering for days after viewing.

Another standout scene occurs when the now completely uneasy and panicked professor attempts to sleep after having another nightmare. Sensing something unshakably unnerving, the professor glances across his hotel room from his bed, to the spare bed and what he sees finally succeeds in pushing his already brittle mental state completely over the edge and into the abyss of madness… It also provides the film with one of its most enduring and unsettling images.

The ambiguity of the film is one of its many strengths. We are never certain if these sinister encounters are brought on by genuinely supernatural occurrences, or if Parkins is simply experiencing something of a mental breakdown due to being alone for so long and having no human interaction. Either way, the end result is one of the most uneasy and disquieting ghost stories ever filmed.


Colin said…
This is a great review that clarifies what I've always felt about the film. Thank you.
Unknown said…
This program sounds excellent; it sounds very faithful to the original story.

After hearing of it my whole life, I finally got around to reading "Oh, Whistle, And I'll Come to You, My Lad," last year. It was everything people had said it was, and probably the creepiest ghost story I'd ever read. The slow, almost boring start, and the familiar ordinariness of the main character's circumstances made the building tension and unease much worse than shadowy mansions and haunted abbeys. You sort of know where you are with them. With this story you're on familiar ground, but you don't know what's coming; only that it's menacing.

Good review!
James Gracey said…
Hi Guinn, thanks for stopping by. Yes, this adaptation is quite faithful to the original story. It is certainly faithful in its recreation of that unmistakable quiet dread and menace that MR James so effortlessly conveys. The creepiness of this film is unshakable. I watched it again the other night and still got shivers... :)
Unknown said…
I was just wondering where you got copyright for the images - I'd like to use one of the stills for a free publication related to a Curating course I'm doing. Any advice would be much appreciated!
Thanks, Karen
Unknown said…
Hello, great review, the film and the story scared me half to death too - are there different versions of it? I'm sure I remember an ending where he gets on a train at the end and you're given the distinct impression that the ghostie has followed him on . . . this last scene isn't in the book though and isn't remembered by others I've spoken to who've seen the film - maybe I've invented it through paranoia?!
James Gracey said…
Hi Karen,
Erm I don't actually own the copyright for these images. I found them online and posted them without permission. Which is kinda naughty, but hey, it is the internet and no one has been hurt! I figured I'd just leave them here until someone asks me to remove them. Sorry I can't be more helpful! BFI or BBC probably hold copyright.

I'm afraid I don't recall that ending, either in the short story or the film! P'raps you're getting this film mixed up with another, similar film? Or p'raps you dreamt it!? Either way... spooky!
clergyman said…
Great review of a great programme.

Wish the BFI hadn't deleted this DVD and I also dearly wish all the Ghost Stories For Christmas were available.

Suisan, you're thinking of A Warning To The Curious!
Unknown said…
Oh! Thanks both :)
psynno said…
hi James,
Great review, agree completely. I still think of it as one of the best dramatisations of a ghost story ever filmed.

Have you seen the remake? Ihought it was trying hard to be dreamy and weird with no basis in reality - from the beginning. The ending had no real ambiguity because the character was not complex or realistic enough from the start. We just didn't care.

For a moment, I began to think I saw the remake trying something just as original and imaginative with a dark shape somehow manifesting in the dark corner of the room, but it was to do with how I was viewing it on my monitor, and it turned out to be his wife just sitting there, uttering some nonsense, attempting to be 'ghostly' and trying to look like Sadaka in Ringu, or the chilling Woman in Black in Nigel Kneale's adaptation...
James Gracey said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
James Gracey said…
Hey Paul, yes I watched the remake with baited breath. I didn't hate it, though obviously it didn't hold a candle to this one. I think they tried to give the remake a much more emotional centre that just isn't in the source material or the 1960s version - which is kind of what gave that version its power - the fact that it was so bleak and cold. The strongest emotion in it, aside from fear, was loneliness.
I like the idea of a dark shape manifesting in the corner of the room! Shame that didn't actually happen.

Alas, I have yet to see Woman in Black - though it does come highly recommended by a few blogging buddies. Must seek it out. Cheers!
psynno said…
Good point. It's as if it demands our investment in emotion right from the beginning , but it isn't really there in thr first place. Whereas, the Miller film engages us so completely we can't help but feel the loneliness and the weird sense of uncanny emerging out of the situation...

I don't like to slate anything like this as it isn't easy to make a good horror, and it is a very positive move from the BBC. I enjoyed some of the scares and John Hurt's believable reactions. I just wish they gave it to someone with a stronger understanding of the material.

You're in for a treat with Nigel Kneale's adaptation of Woman in Black! I won't say too much, but it's a fine example of a story told simply, without frills, well crafted and not at all wasteful.
Unknown said…
A good review. I personally love this adaptation. I've linked you to a new stage play of the story which im told will be similar to the 1968 adaptation in its atmosphere.

James Gracey said…
Thanks Dave, appreciate the linkage! :)
Unknown said…
Hi, James,

I've been trying to remember the name of an old episode (maybe 20 years) from an unknown British TV anthology. The story is about an author with writer's block who takes a holiday in the country and lodges with a farm couple who have a Dark Secret: their little girl, who is dead, haunts the place as a ghost, but won't appear to them because they inadvertently let her die. They were caught up in their own concerns and the child had a seizure while playing near water and drowned.

It's a sad story rather than a scary one, but still eerie when the silent, gray little ghost acts out things that happened during her short life, and climbs onto the bed with the startled lodger for comfort. That was where the practical nurse who took care of her and her severely depressed mother used to sleep.

The ghost child's name was Essie, and that's the only name I can recall. If this sounds familiar to you, I'd appreciate any info about the original story it dramatized. Thanks!
James Gracey said…
Hi Guinn,
Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately this doesn't ring any bells with me. I shall try and investigate though and if I can find anything out, I'll post it here!

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