1 9 6 8 (UK)
1 x 42 minute episode
First broadcast as part of the BBC’s arts strand Omnibus, this show replaced the usual mix of interviews and cultural events with one of television’s most haunting hours.
Published in 1904, M R James’ Oh Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad tells the story of a professor’s holiday on a windswept British coast.
Finding a medieval whistle engraved with a warning, he blows it and summons something that confronts the formerly sceptical academic with absolute proof of the supernatural.
Director and producer Jonathan Miller’s adaptation distilled the story to its bare bones, dispensing with its wry humour and focusing on an atmosphere of sustained terror. Stark, static, black & white shots allowed the viewers to absorb the period details.
Miller used suggestion rather than direct representation, and built and sustained an eerie atmosphere with a diverse array of stylistic devices – exaggerated sound and lighting effects, high and low camera angles, disorienting extreme close-ups, teasingly obstructing our view with trees, railings or other objects. The ghostly manifestations, particularly the Professor’s dream/hallucination on the beach, conjured terror from the minimum of special effects.
The soundtrack consisted of whistling wind and the haunted professor’s mumblings, making the sudden, indistinct appearance of the ghost – accompanied by a weird, electronic screaming – horrifyingly powerful.
Michael Hordern’s performance as the bumbling, self-satisfied old academic Professor Parkins was inspired. Apparently improvising his limited dialogue, Hordern made him repressed, unable to relate to staff or guests at his hotel, and happiest in his own company.
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.
But he was helpless in the face of forces he could not understand, and his disintegration was more disturbing than the ghost itself.
Paving the way for A Ghost Story for Christmas, an annual series of James adaptations, and remade with John Hurt as Parkins in 2010, Whistle and I’ll Come To You remains a high-water mark in TV terror.