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Spirit by the sea
A UK region 2 DVD review of WHISTLE AND I'LL COME TO YOU by Slarek
 
'It was at this point that Parkins always failed in his resolution
to keep his eyes shut. With many misgivings as to incipient failure
of eyesight, overworked brain, excessive smoking, and so on, he
finally resigned himself to light his candle, get out a book, and pass
the night waking, rather than be tormented by this persistent
panorama, which he saw clearly enough could only be a morbid
reflection of his walk and his thoughts on that very day.'
M.R. James – Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad

 

Montague Rhodes James was born in 1862 and remains to this day one of Britain's finest ever writers of ghost stories. Many of them have an autobiographical quality, often including an academic angle – James spent a good part of his adult life at King's College, Cambridge, eventually becoming Dean and later Vice-Chancellor of the University – and featuring characters who are prompted through experience to re-evaluate their previous cynicism about the supernatural, reflecting James' own detailed studies of the early history of the bible. James was primarily a scholar, a historian and a prolific writer, and regarded his ghost stories almost as a hobby. But his use of language, character detail and the manner in which the narratives unfold made them essential reading, and their influence on other genre writers and even film-makers has been considerable. Several of his stories have been adapted for television, usually by the BBC as part of the Ghost Stories series, but only one has made the transition to the big screen when his 1911 Casting the Runes became one of the cinema's best ever tales of the supernatural, Night of the Demon (it was also adapted for television in 1968 as part of the series Mystery and Imagination and again in 1979 as an episode of ITV Playhouse). But of the TV adaptations, the 1968 version of Whistle and I'll Come to You still stands as the finest.

Term has ended, and Professor Parkins arrives at a seaside inn on the East Anglian coast for a holiday of rambling and reading. During one of his walks he discovers a cemetery perched on the edge of a cliff that is in the process being reclaimed by the sea. Here he unearths an old metal whistle bearing a strange inscription, which he translates and acts upon, scorning its potentially supernatural overtones, but is soon given cause to question his long-held scepticism.

Whistle and I'll Come to You was produced for the BBC's Omnibus arts programme, which is why it opens with a spoken introduction by its director, Jonathan Miller, who provides a brief overview of the author's work and outlines the nature of the tale you are about to see. What follows makes a few small changes to James' original story, largely in the personality of Professor Parkins, who was described by James as being "young, neat, and precise in speech." Here he is almost the opposite – as played by Michael Horden he is middle-aged, eccentric and lost in his own world, a cinematic archetype of a Public School Professor. In most other respects, however, the film is remarkably faithful to James' original text.

To a modern audience, who have come to expect a big twist at the end of their ghost stories and are accustomed to being told loudly through music and editing when it's time to feel scared, the more subtle and uncluttered narrative of Whistle and I'll Come to You may at first glance feel a little primitive. But this simplicity allows Miller and Horden the scope they need to develop the film as a character study, with Dick Bush's immaculately framed camera observing Parkins with almost microscopic precision. The film is told very much told from Parkins' point of view, and thus never shows us anything he cannot see, hear or – in a particularly unsettling sequence – dream. Horden is an absolute joy here, investing so much into every line and action that the film demands repeated viewing just to watch and listen to him at work, whether it be his breakfast mutterings, his philosophical musings on seemingly simple questions, or the jovial manner in which he eats his packed lunch. There are precious few other characters of note in the story, but as the hotel proprietor, George Woodbridge has an irresistibly funny scene in which, exhausted from carrying Parkins' bag upstairs, he breathlessly mumbles a series of incomprehensible noises that stand in for a description of the facilities, punctuated by odd clear words like 'bathroom' or 'dinner at eight', all of which Parkins appears to understand.

Even at only 42 minutes in length, the film is in no hurry. With the pared-down plot and only one major character, Dr. Miller – a producer and director of considerable standing who has worked extensively with Shakespeare and was one of the original members of Beyond the Fringe – is able to really get inside Parkins' head, using his lead actor and some striking locations to create an unnerving sense of a disrupted normality in which undefined dangers are stalking us even in daylight. This is brought home through Miller's refusal to over-dramatise key moments, with the discovery of the whistle and the reading of its inscription presented in an almost everyday manner, with no dramatic music or creepy camera movements to hammer home their significance. With no music score to lean on, a sense of genuine menace is created solely through camera placement, Horden's facial expressions and a chilling and innovative use of sound effects, whether it be the rustling of sheets in a supposedly unoccupied bed, or the sharp noise that pulls Parkins out of his nightmare, one that was re-used five years later to equally jarring effect in William Friedkin's standard-setting The Exorcist.

Whistle and I'll Come to You is a marvellously executed tale of the supernatural, a genuinely chilling ghost story that also functions as a fascinating character study. It may lack the narrative complexity and big surprise ending of more recent cinematic genre outings, but it still delivers through its excellent central performance, its canny direction, its increasingly unsettling sense of foreboding and a final scene that, while refusing to provide pat explanations or even a real conclusion, still manages to send serious shivers up my spine.

sound and vision

How times have changed. Having had a letter published in Sight and Sound complaining about the quality of the transfer on the BFI's release of Kurosawa's Yojimbo, I have watched with real pleasure as the standard of their transfers has steadily improved, and this is one of their best yet. Shot 4:3 in black-and-white for television transmission, the print here has its share of marks and dust spots and the odd visible scratch, but on the whole this is a very fine transfer. Contrast is excellent throughout, and sharpness on the whole is first rate – the detail on close-up shots of Horden's face, or the plant-life or gravestones he encounters on his walks is exceptional, especially for a television film of this age.

Sound is Dolby 2.0 but is essentially centre-weighted mono, and though there is some hiss audible in places, most of the soundtrack is clean and clear, essential for a film in which silence and natural sound play such an important role. Towards the end the volume seems to drop for a few seconds – whether this was intentional or not is unclear, but it doesn't last long.

Surprisingly, there are no chapter stops, so finding a favourite section involves holding your finger on the search buttons.

extra features

An Introduction by Ramsey Campbell is a 15 minute long introduction to M.R. James' work by genre author Ramsey Cambell, which has been shot on DV with Campbell seated so that his face is in shadow, with the sound recorded on what sounds like the on-camera mic – the acoustics of the room are less than great and there is the sort of hum running quietly in the background that I tend to associate with camera noise. That aside, Campbell does deliver a useful history of James' work and his influence on later authors, as well as reading many key extracts from key works by James and others. Campbell is no actor and his readings are a little dry, and are done no favours by the room's acoustics, but his analysis of Miller's film adaptation is well worth hearing, and his suggestion of a Freudian reading for its imagery should raise a few eyebrows.

Ramsey Campbell reads The Guide runs for almost 26 minutes and delivers exactly what it promises, with Campbell reading his own story, The Guide, which directly references James' work. This was clearly shot at the same time as the introduction, and if Campbell is more animated in his reading here, the same problems with room acoustics remain. Attempts to provide visual variety with occasional cutaways of the book being read or imagery described (wheat in the wind, landscapes) add little, and the introduction of an oscillating sinister synthesiser note is equally ineffective. You might be better off getting your hands on the story and reading it yourself.

Listen to M.R. James' original story 'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You My Lad' is probably the best extra on the disk. Neil Brand delivers a nicely animated reading of the story on which the film is based, and unless you have a major aversion to someone else supplying voices to characters you prefer to create in your head, this is most enjoyable listen. It enables those new to James' work to judge how Miller's adaptation compares to the original text, and intriguingly, despite some key differences, the reading runs same length as the film, being just 18 seconds shorter.

BFI Weblink is just that – a link to the BFI's website, that is if you are running the disk on a PC and connected to the internet when you click on this option. If you have a Mac or a standalone DVD player you'll have to type the web address in yourself. Not a big problem.

Finally there are DVD sleeve notes by horror writer Kim Newman. Typically well written and informative, these provide useful background information on the film and the original story.

summary

Whistle and I'll Come to You hails from an age when British TV was at the cutting edge, when experimentation was encouraged, arts programming was exciting and innovative, and drama just oozed quality. M.R. James purists may balk at the liberties taken with the original story and especially the main character, but few other works have so perfectly caught the essence and atmosphere of James' stories. Horden's performance alone would make this disk worth buying, but to see archive TV of this quality receiving such a strong transfer fills my heart with joy. The BFI are doing a great job here, and if my complaints about Yojimbo still stand, I am happy to balance them with a recommendation for this disk and others in the Archive Television series.

Whistle and I'll Come to You

UK 1968
42 mins
director
Jonathan Miller
starring
Michael Horden
Ambrose Coghill
George Woodbridge

DVD details
region 2
video
1.33:1 OAR
sound
Dolby 2.0 mono
languages
English
subtitles
none
extras
Introduction by Ramsey Campbell
Ramsey Campbell reads 'The Guide'
Reading of M.R. James' original story
BFI weblink
Sleeve notes by Kim Newman
distributor
BFI
release date
Out now
review posted
29 December 2003

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Ghost Stories, Vol 1
Ghost Stories, Vol 2
Ghost Stories, Vol 3
Ghost Stories, Vol 4

See all of Slarek's reviews