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Whistle and I'll Come To You (1968)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Whistle and I'll Come To You (1968)
For Omnibus, BBC1, tx. 7/5/1968
42 mins, black & white
DirectorJonathan Miller
Production CompanyBBC
ProducerJonathan Miller
AdaptationJonathan Miller
StoryM.R. James
PhotographyDick Bush

Cast: Michael Hordern (traveller); Ambrose Coghill (colonel); George Woodbridge (hotel proprietor); Nora Gordon (proprietress); Freda Dowie (maid)

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On a winter holiday in Norfolk, a solitary, eccentric professor finds a whistle carved from bone in a graveyard. Back in his hotel room, gloating over his find, he raises the whistle to his lips, heedless of the terror it may summon...

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A masterpiece of economical horror that remains every bit as chilling as the day it was first broadcast, this was the first, and arguably the best, of the M.R. James adaptations that peppered BBC schedules during the late 1960s and '70s, and an advance warning of a new tradition of Christmas ghost stories.

Some James purists have been less enthusiastic, upset perhaps by director Jonathan Miller's complaint, in an otherwise respectful piece in Radio Times, that James' dialogue was "ludicrously stilted", but also by the other liberties Miller takes with the much-loved story, from pruning its title - originally 'Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad' - to recasting its protagonist, Professor Parker, as a bumbling, self-satisfied old academic so detached from everyday life that he struggles with even the most basic interaction with others.

A graver offence for some, perhaps, is the way that Miller introduces an element of ambiguity as to the truth of the Professor's supernatural experience - what we may be witnessing, he dares to suggest, is not a literal haunting but a clever mind teetering into madness. All the same, Miller's adaptation is not only genuinely unnerving but, in fact, remarkably faithful to the spirit of James, and the theme of an arrogant, self-absorbed intellectual being harshly punished for his dabbling in things better left alone is entirely Jamesian.

Absorbing the lessons of Val Lewton's legendary team at RKO Studios in the early 1940s - responsible for such low budget genre classics as Cat People (1942) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943) - Miller uses suggestion rather than direct representation, and builds and sustains an eerie atmosphere with a diverse array of stylistic devices - exaggerated sound and lighting effects, high and low camera angles, disorienting extreme close-ups, teasingly obstructing our view with trees, railings or other objects. The ghostly manifestations, particularly the Professor's dream/hallucination on the beach, conjure terror from the minimum of special effects.

As the unfortunate Professor, Michael Hordern - whose career more than once entered James territory - is glorious, with each line on his multi-furrowed face used to expressive effect. The drama's success owes much, too, to the gorgeous black and white photography of Dick Bush, whose previous credits included Peter Watkins' Culloden (BBC, tx. 15/12/1964) and Miller's own extraordinary Alice in Wonderland (BBC, tx. 28/12/1966).

Mark Duguid

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Video Clips
1. Who is it who is coming? (4:54)
2. Philosophy (3:57)
3. Nightmares (2:54)
Ash Tree, The (1975)
Hordern, Sir Michael (1911-1995)
Miller, Jonathan (1934)
Ghost Stories