There are many things which sum up a 1970s British Christmas: film premieres that you wouldn't have seen before unless at the cinema, Morecambe and Wise Christmas Specials that half the population tuned into...and once a year from 1971 to 1978, late at night, what became known as, though not always on screen, as A Ghost Story for Christmas. The first five of them were adaptations of short stories by one of the masters of the supernatural tale, M.R. James. The series ended with a version from Dickens and two original screenplays. The name most associated with them was Lawrence Gordon Clark, who wrote the scripts of the first two and directed all but the last. In 2005.and 2006 the BBC revived the series and continued it in 2010 with Whistle and I'll Come to You, which had been previously adapted in 1968, that version in many ways setting a template for the 1970s films. The 1968 version and two of the original 1970s run were released on DVD by the BFI in 2001 and 2002, now long since deleted and fetching high prices as used copies. Now, 150 years since James's birth the BFI are releasing the whole run over five DVDs, with an eventual box set.
Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936) was a Cambridge don and later Provost of Eton, the school at which he had earlier been a scholarship pupil. His ghost stories started to appear in the last decade of the nineteenth century, with his first collection Ghost Stories of an Antiquary published in 1904. His work has been very influential to this day, with their “peculiar atmosphere of cranky scholarship” as the introduction to Jonathan Miller's Whistle and I'll Come to You puts it. As celebrated as the 1980 and 1970s television adaptations were, they were not the first times the media had drawn on James's work. On the big screen was the classic Night of the Demon (1957), based on “Casting the Runes”. On the smaller screen, the BBC had made versions of “The Mezzotint” and “Canon Alberic's scrap-book” as far back as 1954, both directed by Tony Richardson and both lost from the archives. On the other channel, the ABC series Mystery and Adaptation adapted “The Tractate Middoth”, “Lost Hearts” and “Room 13” (based on “Number 13”) in 1966 and “Casting the Runes” two years later, again all sadly lost. But the most famous James adaptation before the 1970s was Jonathan Miller's take on “'Oh Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad'” (as the full title of the story has it, a quotation from Robert Burns), made for the BBC series Omnibus.
1968 version (41:54)
James's story was written in 1903 and first published the following year in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. By this time, many elements of James's style and technique were in place: the scholarly middle-aged bachelor protagonist brought up against forces he does not understand, and the use of stories within stories. Whistle is a twice-told tale: the central character, Parkins (played by Michael Hordern) tells his story to an unnamed narrator after the fact. Parkins, a university professor, takes a holiday in Norfolk. While there, he finds an old whistle in the grass by the beach and inadvertently unleashes terrifying forces.
Jonathan Miller was a medical student who moved into entertainment at a propitious time. He was one of the 1960 revue Beyond the Fringe along with Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. He moved behind the camera to become the editor of the BBC's arts programme Monitor and began directing. His previous credits included a memorable if controversial version of Alice in Wonderland. Whistle and I'll Come to You was made for Omnibus, the BBC's long-running arts documentary strand, and in light of this Miller speaks a few words of context-setting, some of it quoted above, before the main title comes up.
Miller's version of James removes the story-within-story structure of the original in favour of a more direct presentation of Parkins's experiences. In fact we're inside Parkins's head to a greater degree than normal, with Miller distorting the sound to illustrate the character's solipsism. For example, in the early scene where he checks into the hotel, the manager's words are a low mumble with only the words “dinner at eight” audible. (I'd imagine this would have made a few demands on the capabilities of 1968 television set speakers and it makes it even more regrettable that the BFI have not provided hard-of-hearing subtitles.) A lot therefore is demanded of the leading actor, and Michael Hordern as the repressed (Asperger's?) professor is superb, making great use of his facial expressions and body language.
Although Whistle wasn't officially part of the BBC's Ghost Stories for Christmas (not being broadcast during the festive season, for one), it's often allied with them for good reason. In many respects it set the template for Lawrence Gordon Clark's own adaptations. A short-film length, anywhere from just over half an hour to around fifty minutes, is ideal to do justice to a short story without skimping or padding. (James's original is a longer short story at 8000 words, though not long enough to qualify as a novella.) Much TV drama of the time was studio-bound and aesthetically nearer to the stage than the cinema, Compare this with Don Taylor's single-set, principal-cast-of-four “The Exorcism” from 1972, one of the three survivors of the seven-story Dead of Night anthology series – very effective in its own way, but much more dialogue-driven. You can see how it would work as a stage play, which it has been performed as. Miller and later Clark and his followers shot on film (16mm, though the post-2000 items in this DVD series use HD) and on location. Distinguished character actors would play the lead roles. Miller and Clark were unafraid to take things slowly, concentrating on atmosphere and building up to one or two suitably chilly climaxes. And given a receptive audience, they still work.
Miller's Whistle was shot in black and white – as indeed were the earlier and now-lost James adaptations mentioned above. That's a historical accident in some ways, as in 1968 only BBC2 was broadcasting in colour in the UK, and BBC1 (which broadcast Whistle) and ITV would not start doing so until November of the following year. Once colour had taken a hold, there was no going back, and British black and white television programmes since 1970 are few and far between, leaving out some made that way due to a technician's strike. There's a theory that black and white suits supernatural horror particularly well (see for example Jeremy Dyson's book Bright Darkness), because the sensory incompleteness of monochrome acts as a stimulus to fill in what is not there, and that is ideal for stories that deal in the half-glimpsed, the uncanny. Of course, many viewers would have watched Clark's 70s ghost stories on black and white TV sets, especially the earlier ones (I know I would have done, if I'd been old enough – we didn't get a colour television until 1973), so they may have had this not-entirely-intended effect. But even in colour, Clark knows the power of the suggested and the half-glimpsed.
I'll go on to talk about the work of Lawrence Gordon Clark in my reviews of Volumes Two, Three and Four of this DVD series and eventual box set. The BBC discontinued the Ghost Stories for Christmas after The Ice House in 1978, the only one not directed by Clark. However, continued interest in the new century – maybe helped along by the 2001/2002 DVD releases of Whistle, A Warning to the Curious and The Signalman (which were all reviewed here at the time by Eamonn McCusker) – prompted the BBC to make two more James adaptations in the Clark mould, A View from a Hill (2005) and Number 13 (2006), which will make up the fifth and final disc in this series. In 2009, the BBC's Christmas ghost story was a feature-length version of the work of another James, Henry's novella The Turn of the Screw, another story-within-a-story in similar ways to M.R. James's work. Then in 2010, the BBC announced a new version of Whistle and I'll Come to You.
2010 version (52:07)
Miller's adaptation departed from James in a few ways, but Neil Cross's for the 2010 version goes further still. It is best seen as a semi-adaptation: a version that takes elements from James (whose name is relegated to the end credits) and uses them to produce a new story. Such an approach risks being neither one thing nor another, and that is a trap that this version, directed by Andy de Emmony, does not wholly avoid.
The first major change that Cross makes is to set the story in the present day. We're in the West Country rather than the East Anglia (based on Felixstowe) of James’s original. Parkin (John Hurt), now without the S, is no longer the bachelor of James's original, but a married man, a carer for his wife (Gemma Jones) who has dementia. And, despite the title, Parkin's find on the beach is not a whistle but a ring. All of this changes the dynamic of James's story, and you can't avoid the sense that Cross and de Emmony (and the BBC) are using a well-known title to give their story a heft and a cachet it does not fully earn. To be cynical about it, familiarity sells, in television as well as in the cinema, and a well-known title can sell this film rather than it being a wholly original work. (The last two of the 70s Ghost Stories, Stigma and The Ice House, were original scripts and are usually considered far less successful than the five Jameses and one Dickens that preceded them.)
That said, the 2010 Whistle, while let down by an unsatisfactory ending, still has points in its favour. John Hurt gives an excellent performance in a role which, like Hordern's, relies on him being onscreen solo for much of the time. And, in an era when increasingly “hot”, loud soundtracks are prevalent, de Emmony makes good use of silence. Ultimately, this Whistle doesn't entirely work, but is still of interest.
The first of the BFI's five DVDs of the BBC Ghost Stories is a dual-layered disc encoded for Region 2 only. Once all five have been released, there will be a box set available. The affiliate links on this review refer to the single disc; for those for the box set, go here.
For the benefit of parents looking to give their offspring a good scare, the 12 certificate refers to the 2010 version; the 1968 version rates a PG. (The box set will carry a 15 certificate, with Stigma earning the higher rating.)
The 1968 version was shot in 16mm black and white and is transferred at its original ratio of 1.33:1. I don't have the previous DVD release from 2001 to hand, so cannot compare it to that. Dick Bush’s camerawork uses deep focus and contrast, which is vital to black and white, seems right. There are however quite a few examples of print damage in the form of specks and marks, but nothing too distracting.
The 2010 version was originated in HD and is one of a mini-trend of television productions shot and broadcast in ratios wider than 16:9. Others include Parts Two and Three of Red Riding, United!, Page Eight, Holy Flying Circus and the Danish serial Borgen, all of which are in ratios between 2:1 and 2.35:1. To be fair, some of these were made with the possibility of cinema release, but some clearly weren't and the wider ratio does seem like an affectation. I can’t see 21:9 TV sets becoming the norm, or even widespread, any day soon. The 2010 Whistle is transferred in the correct ratio of 2.35:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. Given this material’s age and origins, you would expect this to look much as it did when it was broadcast, and it does. De Emmony and his DP Rob Hardy go for a muted and rather soft colour scheme. Blacks, and shadow detail, aren’t what they might be, but that’s how this is intended to look.
The 1968 version has a mono soundtrack, which is clear when it is meant to be – instances of muffled dialogue are intentional. The 2010 version is in Dolby Surround (2.0) but the rear speakers are used mainly for ambience and the spare music score. What is unfortunate is that there are no hard-of-hearing subtitles on this DVD.
Most of the extras are carried over from the 2001 DVD release. This begins with an introduction by Ramsey Campbell (15:39), one of Britain’s foremost horror writers and one influenced heavily by James. Also on the disc is his reading of his own story “The Guide” (26:45), which was written as a tribute to James for an anthology of traditional ghost stories, and is designed to demonstrate that James’s methods are still relevant for a contemporary horror story. The results are suitably creepy. In both of these, Campbell is talking to camera in what is presumably his home. The soundtrack was recorded live and is rather hollow-sounding but clear enough. Again, it’s regrettable that subtitles could not be provided, though there would likely be copyright implications for the story reading.
Also brought over from the 2001 release is a reading of James’s original story by Neil Brand (41:36). This is audio-only over a still image for the duration.
New to this disc is what is described as a discussion between Jonathan Miller and Christopher Frayling interview (3:24). This is actually material deleted from the 2012 BBC Arena profile of Miller. Given the short running time (which includes extracts from Whistle, this doesn’t go very far. Miller details that he had read James’s story as a child and had always been interested in stories of the supernatural. Frayling appears to talk about James’s way of presenting his horrors out of the corner of his eye and how Miller made the film about James and his world as well as adapting the story.
The BFI’s booklet begins with an essay, “Old Haunts: The Landscapes of M.R. James” by Mark Fisher, which discusses both versions (spoilers included). Reggie Oliver, also a distinguished horror writer much influenced by James, talks about the original story and also refers to both the 1968 and the 2010 version. The booklet is completed by biographies of James (also written by Reggie Oliver), Jonathan Miller (by David Thompson), Sir Michael Hordern (by Gosta Johanson) and John Hurt (by Sonia Mullett), plus credits for the films and the extras and notes on the transfers.