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Whistle and I'll Come to You is a classic BBC adaption of an MR James ghost story, was first produced for the BBC's Omnibus arts programme in 1968 and directed by Jonathan Miller. In Whistle and I'll Come to You, which is 42 minutes long in total, Michael Horden plays the crumpled Professor Parkins, an eccentric and solitary academic who arrives at a small seaside hotel in Norfolk for a walking and reading holiday. On one of his frequent brisk and breezy walks along the chilly, deserted coastline, Parkins discovers an old cemetery that is slowly sinking over a cliff and notices an object that appears to be a whistle of some sort made out of bone. "Finders keepers," mutters Parkins and promptly places it in his pocket to take home. When he cleans the whistle out later in his room with a penknife, the Professor notices a strange inscription which, once translated into Latin, seems to give a vaguely supernatural warning (Who is this who is coming?). Parkins blows on the whistle and thinks nothing more of it - until that is he starts to be plagued by chilling nightmares and finds his secure and logical outlook on life increasingly challenged in a terrifying manner...
A cult favourite, Whistle and I'll Come to You usually seems to make an appearance on those 'scariest moment' compilation shows and documentaries about spooky British television produced down the years and is generally thought of in fond terms. I've never read the story on which this is based but apparently the literary source featured a much younger and more precise Parkins rather than the wonderful Michael Hordern's enjoyably twitchy and slightly dotty character here. In the book Parkins was on a golfing holiday but Hordern's character comments that he never plays the game and spends his holiday reading, walking on the beach over the sand dunes in gusty winds and, most of all, eating voraciously throughout much of the film. The sight of Michael Hordern demolishing a grapefruit with relish as he discusses - with that great voice - philosophy and the supernatural with another guest at breakfast ("Delicious breakfast!" he murmurs to himself having moved onto the kipper) is always oddly compelling and rather good fun. Whether it's an apple and sandwich on the beach or a piece of toast in the hotel, Hordern brilliantly eats everything as if completely famished. Although shortish, the film is admirably unhurried and develops slowly at its own pace as Parkins settles into the sedate guest house.
Hordern's presence is a great boost to Whistle and I'll Come to You as Parkins wanders awkwardly through the story muttering to himself in a slightly befuddled manner, clearly uncomfortable with other people. There is a powerful sense of solitude and loneliness to Parkins, illustrated when the elderly proprietor (George Woodbridge) takes his bags up to his room at the beginning of the film and Hordern walks behind him, uncomfortably, with his hands behind his back, unsure of what to say. Woodbridge, in a minor comic cameo, then mutters something that is completely incomprehensible but Parkins is uninterested in seeking clarity and (we sense) wants to be alone instead. Parkins only really springs to life and talks expansively when at breakfast where he finds himself ruminating on existential matters with The Colonel (Ambrose Coghill). These scenes are very absorbing as Hordern, continually eating his breakfast, excitedly blabbers away though avoiding eye-contact with his fellow guest - who he deliberately sits far away from. "There are more things in philosophy than are dreamt of in heaven," says Parkins (after the other guest states the exact opposite) and is then unable to help himself from chuckling in a very satisfied manner at his own riposte. Although there is a bumbling quality to Hordern's character and we see he is a loner awkward with even the smallest human interaction, this is possibly a brilliant mind, if a rather self-satisfied one.
Miller is somewhat ambiguous in his handling of the material and the increasingly scary and strange happenings that atmospherically swirl around Parkins. It could be either supernatural or all in a mind that is starting to fray around the edges - perhaps from loneliness. Ultimately the audience has to decide for themselves. Perhaps the most salient element to any good ghost or horror story is of course atmosphere and Whistle and I'll Come to You understands this concept beautifully. The film has an incredibly rich and eerie air of dread, aided by the black and white photography, with the small hotel and its mostly empty rooms and numerous sequences of Horden walking the abandoned winter beaches, rubbing his hands together and shivering slightly as the wind whips around him. The bleak but interesting landscape makes for a wonderful backdrop as Parkins trudges about the sand-dunes, the sound-effects highlighting the almost ghostly moans and crashes of the sea breeze. Everything is seen tightly through Parkins and, thankfully, Michael Hordern really holds everything together. Even if nothing is happening you find yourself absorbed in his quiet world of reading, munching food and walking the beach alone. The film would even have worked as a small character study I think even without the ghostly capers although the apparent encroachment of these dark forces into such a serene and mundane setting gives Whistle and I'll Come to You a very unsettling quality in its best moments.
Miller was, I suspect, more interested in the breakfast philosophy discussions and atmosphere of the piece than ghosts although Whistle and I'll Come to You does have some very famous moments towards the end that have frequently been cited as some of the most spine-tingling in British television history. While the film is not quite as scary as legend suggests, there are undoubtedly a couple of highly creepy moments that will certainly give anyone who hasn't seen them before a mild chill or two. That these moments are isolated is a help and - although accomplished in a ridiculously homemade and inexpensive way - they are strangely effective with excellent use of mournful, slightly odd sound-effects, the film containing no music. The real chills here though also come from Hordern's bewildered reactions as Parkins begins helplessly muttering to himself, unwilling to accept that what he has seen is real but completely terrified nonetheless.
I enjoyed this a great deal on the whole and would happily watch it again more than once in the future. I found Whistle and I'll Come to You very absorbing and quietly rewarding once I'd settled into it and the always very watchable Michael Hordern is superb as Parkins. A classic piece of spooky British television that is still well worth taking a look at today. There are a smattering of extras with this including a reading of the original short story (Oh, Whistle And I'll Come To You, My Lad) by Neil Brand and ruminations on the spirit of MR James' work by horror author Ramsey Campbell.
This is a review of the British Film Institute DVD release.
Oh Whistle and Ill Come To You My Lad is a short ghost story written by the great MR James. It was adapted by the BBC, oddly being broadcast as an episode of their arts show Omnibus, in 1968. Its absolutely great.
An eccentric middle-aged professor (Michael Hordern) goes on holiday to Norfolk. He finds an ancient whistle while walking along some cliffs. He (naturally enough) blows it, and is subsequently persecuted by unpleasant supernatural happenings. And thats the entire plot.
The short story is rather different the professor in the story is actually out looking for ancient artefacts, and is assisted by a colleague (this is typical of MR James his protagonists are almost always Oxbridge professors of archaeology who stumble across something nasty in the course of their research). The professor on the film is also far more rationalist the kind of man who scoffs at the idea of ghosts. It was directed by Jonathon Miller, who started out in Beyond the Fringe but went on to become a respected stage director. A few years previously, hed done a fascinating adaptation of Alice in Wonderland for the BBC, which was similarly idiosyncratic. He basically changed the focus of Whistle so it became about the effects of repression on a middle-aged man, and theres a strong implication that the ghostly happenings all take place in the professors tightly-buttoned mind. While this is certainly not what MR James intended, its still a successful adaptation, as its appropriately scary.
The frightening bits are genuinely very good. A few of the visual effects are a little disappointing, but theyre not seen for long enough to spoil things. But the sense of dread it builds up, and especially the sound effects, are superb. The professor lies in his hotel room drifting in and out of a brilliantly realised nightmare, which uses sudden, shocking, feral grunts to great effect. And Hordern is brilliant at acting the fear you feel when lying in bed at night and hearing totally inexplicable noises Im sure weve all experienced that at some point.
Its beautifully shot in crisp black and white. Its a TV film, so expect lots of nice close ups of faces Horderns face is fascinatingly craggy. His acting is superb one of the best performances Ive ever seen. His professor is constantly muttering to himself, humming tunelessly, over-emphasising words, and generally being incapable of interacting with other human beings. He has the bizarre, almost ritualistic tics of a man who spends far too much time by himself. Hes often laugh-out-loud funny, and you never really feel sympathy for him, even though youre scared by whats happening to him. Hes a man who misses the wood for the trees when asked by a fellow guest if he believes in ghosts, he smugly and pedantically dissects the question grammatically rather than answering it. He loves food, and there are many, many great scenes of him eating. The rest of the cast are barely in it, but theyre all perfectly up to the task.
Its only 45 minutes long. The BFI have put a few extras on the disk to try and make up for the shortness of the main feature. Contemporary horror author Ramsey Campbell gives us a little lecture about MR James, which is quite nice. Unfortunately, although Im fond of Campbells stories, I dont really think hes a very charismatic speaker. Hes also wearing a particularly silly T-shirt for a man his age. Still, its interesting if you like ghost stories. He then reads out one of his own stories, a homage to James. Its a good story, but again, his reading style isnt so great. They should have given it the proper Jackanory treatment and got someone like Ian McKellan to read it. That would have worked a treat.
The other extra, which goes on for 40 minutes, is a reading of the original MR James story. This is just audio (its illustrated by a still from the film), but at least its a professional actor reading it. I havent sat through it all, as Ive only just re-read James ghost stories anyway.
While its nice that they put these extra bits on there, I cant help but feel a little miffed at the DVD. Its really only 45 minutes of film, and BFI DVDs aint cheap. This will set you back £20 if you buy it new, although I think I got it on ebay for about half that. Obviously the BFI releases films that arent going to appeal to too many people, and its good that they do (although I think the BBC should release their own stuff it annoys me that they let some of their greatest work linger in the vaults while they churn out complete runs of feeble old sitcoms). But they could surely have put something else on this DVD to make it worth the money. The BBC did five or six ghost stories in the early 70s, and the BFIs released a couple of those couldnt they have got the rights to another one and slapped it on here? (Preferably The Ash Tree, which I managed to miss when they repeated it this Christmas if anyone has a copy, please get in touch, Id very much like to see that one). Five stars for the film, knocked down to three by the poor value represented by the DVD.
But if you can pick it up cheap, this is excellent. The film is genuinely spooky and Michael Hordern is great. I always seem to end up watching it just before I go to bed when Im alone in the house, which is sheer foolishness. But any horror story that can actually keep you awake at nights has to be worth a look, doesnt it?
Based on M.R. James's supernatural short story Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad, this black-and-white BBC film from 1968 tells the chilling tale of a hapless professor (Michael Hordern) on a winter holiday on the Norfolk coast. When he finds a mysterious whistle, an impending sense of dread soon follows.