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A Ghost Story for Christmas

Robert Weedon | Television | Tuesday 28th December 2010

Of all of the programmes that the television promised us over the Christmas period, the one I was most excited about was Whistle and I'll Come to You.

I'm a bit of an M.R. James fan. I like how (unlike most ghost stories), they're not sensationalist horrors or hoaky nonsense (not usually, anyway), but more about atmosphere and the threat of the undiscovered and unknown, often in a quasi-academic setting.1 The best stories by M.R. James are the ones which feature clergymen or medieval historians, probably because he was then essentially writing about himself. My favourites are "The Stalls of Barchester", "The Mezzotint" and "The Tractate Middoth".

Anyway, because they're so short and atmospheric, M.R James' stories have been adapted into some memorable television programmes over the years. The most famous of these is Jonathan Miller's black and white 1968 adaptation of "Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, M'Lad", filmed on the Norfolk coast and featuring a bumbly Michael Hordern. Everyone (i.e. TV critics) always bang on about how good this one is. I disagree. It's boring.

Much better than these are the 1970s colour adaptations made by Lawrence Gordon Clark, especially The Stalls of Barchester, A Warning to the Curious and The Treasure of Abbot Thomas. The sixth, The Signalman is also excellent, but is based on a Dickens short story so doesn't count. Like the short story, my favourite of these is "The Stalls of Barchester".

The plot revolves around an ambitious cathedral clergyman who arranges the demise of his agéd predecessor, and is soon troubled by what may either be his guilt or malevolent spirits which appear to be embodiments of 17th century carvings on the cathedral choir stalls. When put like that, it sounds a bit rubbish, but when shot on 16mm film in and around Norwich Cathedral, with a wonderfully unexpected cast, who are more familiar from comic roles - Robert Hardy (from All Creatures Great and Small), Harold Bennett (Mr Blewitt in Dad's Army) and Thelma Barlow (Mavis from Coronation Street) - it all seems to work somehow.

Mr Blewitt annoys Siegfried Farnon in Norwich Cathedral.

Like Whistle of 1968 it's quite a slow production, but, unlike that, it's not boring, as the frame narrative in which the archdeacon's diary is discovered in the cathedral archive by Clive Swift (Richard Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances) manages to keep an atmosphere of discovery right until the last moment. I especially enjoyed the little visual gags and repetitions, the nods to Anglican evensong services, and the gloomy, shadowy ambiguity of the spirit which plagues the archdeacon. The audience is never quite sure, even at the end, if it's simply the archdeacon's paranoia and guilt or a real black cat that's following him about.

That's the best M.R. James adaptation, but unfortunately, has not even been released on DVD.

Anyway, these M.R. James adaptations, which are collectively known as A Ghost Story for Christmas, were revived by BBC Four in 2005 and 2006, but then sadly went by the wayside (although to be fair, they did make Crooked House in 2008 and Henry James' The Turn of the Screw last year to keep up the "ghost story at Christmas" tradition). Therefore, it was quite heartening to see a new version of Whistle and I'll Come to You had been produced for BBC Two, even if they had decided not to place it within that canon.2

Like the best of those adaptations, it features a good character actor in the lead; for this production, croaky-voiced John Hurt filled the camera nicely as James Parkin, a retired astronomer. So, like the story and '68 adaptation, it features a lonely intellectual with a craggy face going on holiday to the coast. The added element is the introduction of his wife, who is evidently suffering from an Alzheimer's-like illness and whom he has placed into a care home while he goes on a respite holiday.

This is quite a big revision - all of James' characters (like him) tend to be "confirmed bachelors". Indeed, there aren't many women in his stories at all, come to think of it, and if there are, they're a bit sinister or peripheral. No women at King's College or Eton, you see.

During Parkin's holiday, instead of the ancient whistle of the title, he finds a discarded wedding ring on the beach. I'm not quite sure how he found it. That wasn't really made very clear. After picking this object up, he appears to be haunted by an apparition which eventually resembles his mentally ill wife. Played by Gemma Hunt, she was presumably meant to be both poignant and sinister at the same time, although the more I think about it, the character had the slight hint of the "mad woman in the attic" about her. There were quite a few more clichés on offer as well.

One thing that other reviews haven't pointed out in their fixation with the missing whistle, is that Neil Cross was evidently also basing his adaptation on the text of the Robert Burns folk song that James named his story after. Hurt even whispers a line of it to his wife before leaving her. If read with that lyric in mind, it perhaps makes a bit more sense. To be honest, I think it was probably a better approach to make a new version that was virtually unrecognisable, than simply remaking the 1968 version. I do wish, though, that they had stuck to Norfolk/Suffolk location, and not only because I'm an East Anglian myself.

The Kent coast around Broadstairs in which the story was reset was all very pretty, but looked a bit too much like a nice seaside resort, as opposed to a bleak, windswept, lonely location where something spooky might happen. After all, the original inspiration of James' story were the human bones that protruded from the graveyard of the former All Saint's Church in Dunwich as it slowly fell over the cliff. The cheery, touristy seaside of the 2010 adaptation looked a little less sinister, although perhaps that was the point.

John Hurt, as seen through a letterbox.

Having said all that, it wasn't a bad film. It just about managed to maintain suspense throughout, it was quite spooky, and I did like the final shot, which ultimately left several subjects ambiguous. Although this ambiguity may have simply been due to the story being poorly thought out, I think it was probably meant to be confusing and baffling, as I imagine being haunted by a manifestation probably would be.

In addition, it looked wonderfully cinematic. In fact, as we first saw in Red Riding and The Song of Lunch, this drama made for television was shot (or at least edited in post-production) in the 2.35:1 cinema aspect ratio, with a "television letterbox". I'm fine with this - it lends it a cinematic edge, and distances it from every other programme made in widescreen nowadays, although it annoys me that this is considered acceptable when the BBC tend not to broadcast actual feature films in that aspect ratio (although I've noticed this policy appears to be slowly changing).

Ultimately, adapting this story was always going to be a risk. A bit like David Suchet's Murder on the Orient Express shown the day after, the writers were perhaps haunted by a famous, and critically acclaimed previous adaptation. With that in mind, a tip for next year, producers - "The Tractate Middoth" would make an excellent TV detective story with a spooky twist, and there's no critically-acclaimed adaptation for people to compare it to.3 Can we see an adaptation of that, please?


1. I also have a pathetic attention span when it comes to reading long novels, so short story collections and novellas are rather more my cup of tea; my desert island book is J.L. Carr's tiny novel A Month in the Country, which I think I could convincingly argue is also a ghost story in its own way.

2. Incidentally, if anyone's thinking I've ripped quite a few of the descriptions and analysis in this article off Wikipedia, I wrote those articles, so I'm entitled to...

3. Weirdly, Leslie Nielsen of all people starred in an early 1950s American adaptation of this story called "The Lost Will of Dr. Rant".


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