A Ghost Story for Christmas
Whistle and I'll Come to You
Graham Williamson examines Whistle and I’ll Come to You, the unofficial first instalment in the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas series…
Asked about the Golden Globes’ puzzling decision to nominate Get Out in its category for musicals and comedies, Jordan Peele joked that Get Out is, in fact, a documentary. That’s literally true in the case of Jonathan Miller’s 1968 adaptation of ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’, which was produced for the BBC’s arts documentary strand Omnibus.
Omnibus (1967-2003) was created as a replacement for the BBC’s previous arts series Monitor (1958-65), which Miller had produced the final series of. These days Monitor is best remembered for giving Ken Russell his big break, so it was clearly no stranger to maverick directors pushing the boundaries of documentary television. It is still strange to consider, though, that this film – retrospectively canonised as the first of the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas series, and included as such in the BFI’s series box set – was made for the 1960s equivalent of Alan Yentob’s Imagine (BBC, 2003-).
Why did a documentary series air a fictional ghost story? The quick answer might be that it was Christmas and they wanted to let their hair down. Moreover, Miller’s work on Monitor had made him a trusted name in British television. His last TV directing job was another festive special, an extraordinary 1966 version of Alice in Wonderland.
Miller’s Alice – for my money, the best screen version of Carroll’s oft-filmed books – took a radical approach to the text, getting rid of the profusion of special effects and creature costumes that most adaptations indulge in. Instead, Miller’s all-star cast wore dinner jackets and casually insisted they were dormice and turtles. This wasn’t a cost-cutting measure. Miller’s Alice was a lavish production – the Queen of Hearts’ palace was, at the time, the largest set in BBC history. Miller chose to remove the animal costumes in order to focus on what he felt was the emotional truth of Carroll’s books: a young girl looking at adult careers and power structures, and finding them incomprehensibly ridiculous.
This subversive aspect is carried forward to Miller’s take on M.R. James. ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’ posits that the difference between a respected scholar and an insensible lunatic is down to the confidence with which he mumbles. James’s Professor Parkin is described as “young, neat and precise of speech”, three qualities which cannot possibly be applied to Michael Hordern’s performance. Outside of silent comedy, to which the film is often compared, there can be few lead characters who have less comprehensible dialogue than Parkin. His incoherent terror is no more intelligible than his civilised conversation.
In order to fulfil Omnibus‘s documentary remit, the adaptation begins with Miller himself explaining James’s worldview. This passage is not inaccurate, but it would be fair to say it foregrounds the aspects of James’s work that Miller has emphasised in his adaptation. It describes James’s source as “a story of solitude and terror”, with a moral criticising the arrogance of reason.
James’s stories are anti-rationalist inasmuch as they generally resolve themselves with a supernatural event. They are also shot through with a deep love for the antiquarian and scholarly, which doesn’t make it into Miller’s film. The historical background James gives to the cursed bone whistle – it is found in a Templar graveyard – is barely detectable in Miller’s script. When Professor Parkin’s speech can be understood, he is rarely saying anything insightful. His repertoire extends to little beyond bland pleasantries and cliches, unearthing the whistle with a self-satisfied “Finders keepers!”
Miller, who died in 2019, was frequently described in his obituaries as a public intellectual who had the misfortune to live in a country that rarely celebrates its intellectuals. He came to prominence in the groundbreaking political comedy show Beyond the Fringe (1960) with Alan Bennett, Dudley Moore and Peter Cook. He would later drift away from this scene, particularly after Cook’s magazine Private Eye dismissed him as a “pseud” for his involvement with Monitor. On the subject of Private Eye, the hardiest product of the 1960s satire boom, he could be vitriolic, describing its former editor Richard Ingrams as a “leather-elbowed thug”, whose job involved “making sure we don’t bring too much sensitivity into the country.”
Viewed in this context, ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’ is a very strange project for him to take on: a criticism of the intellectual class from someone who was himself the target of anti-intellectual criticism. The missing piece of the puzzle, though, is that word “class”. The Cambridge-educated Miller wasn’t exactly a poor boy made good, but he was from a Lithuanian Jewish family whose money ran back a mere two generations to his grandfather. He often seemed more annoyed by the complacency and idleness of the aristocracy than his working-class colleagues Moore and Bennett. Professor Parkin is his take on England’s old money dons: blithe bumblers and mumblers, guaranteed a life of minimal effort unless something unseats them – and this being a ghost story, it promptly does.
The thing that makes ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’ a great piece of television, rather than just an interesting one, is that it remembers to function as a ghost story even as it deconstructs the form. There is an element of genre parody in the design of the ghost, which is just a sheet. The apparition’s first appearance in Parkin’s nightmare, though, is as scary as a sheet can be; a ragged shroud, filled by some invisible shape, remorselessly making its way across the beach. The muffled sound design and use of motion blur in this sequence are also hugely ahead of their time.
Miller’s later career as a director of operas and presenter of documentaries can lead to his skills behind the camera being underrated, as though television masterpieces like this and Alice in Wonderland were just a staging post between Beyond the Fringe and Glyndebourne. But every frame of ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’ deepens the sense of unease. The characters often appear trapped, in mirrors, in landscapes, through tunnels, behind trees. They come from behind the camera with disconcerting swiftness, drawing your attention to how little of the scene you’re seeing.
‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’ remains a deeply relevant film. Its use of location bears comparison to modern nature writing by authors like Robert Macfarlane and Rob Cowen, both of whom include plenty of the uncanny and folkloric in their non-fiction. And by making James’s story one about belief, rather than ghosts, it stands as an ancestor of modern horror movies like The Babadook (2014, Jennifer Kent), The Witch (2015, Robert Eggers), Hereditary (2018, Ari Aster) and Under the Shadow (2016, Babak Anvari), all of which leave open the possibility that their apparently supernatural horrors might be all in the mind.
In this way, Miller’s version of James’s story might be more disturbing than the original. James’s Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad is about an educated man driven to madness by a ghost; Miller’s ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’ suggests that even a well-trained human mind needs no paranormal assistance to break down.
In an interview for Ronald Bergan’s 1989 book Beyond the Fringe… and Beyond, Peter Cook suggested his old colleague’s decision to move on from comedy was down to guilt, that his father, a doctor, had instilled “a very early, established feeling… that medicine was what was worthwhile” and no artistic vocation could match it. ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’ is a funny film, and a chilling film, and a very entertaining film, and in its own way it contributes something for the public understanding of mental health. At the time it was broadcast, the magazine Plays and Players suggested Professor Parkin was suffering from “the idea of a presence”, a condition proposed by the neurologist MacDonald Critchley in 1955.
Critchley described the condition as “a feeling, or an impression – sometimes amounting to a veritable delusion – that the person concerned is not alone”. This raises the irresistible question; if the feeling of not being alone is a delusion, does that mean the truth is that we’re always alone? Better, perhaps, to be Professor Parkin, chased across the windy dunes by a tattered rag, than to acknowledge the “solitude and terror” Miller diagnoses at the heart of polite society.