UK Teleplay Retro: Whistle and I'll Come To You
Based on M.R. James’ short story (Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come to You, My Lad) Whistle and I’ll Come to You revolves around an aging academic, Professor Parkin (Michael Hordern) who takes a modest vacation at a seaside retreat. Parkin is the embodiment of the stuffy “proper Englishman”; slightly arrogant and partially nervy his world is one of science and reason, although he can’t seem to make a human connection while he’s nervously buzzing and humming to himself. Parkin’s innocent getaway devolves into a veritable nightmare when he unearths a bone whistle that conjures recurring phantasmic apparitions.
The first word that comes to mind when I think about Whistle and I’ll Come to You is “smart”; any other descriptive keyword is merely a splinter from that central point. Helmed by Jonathan Miller, whose directorial credits are mostly teleplays, the economy of time, motion pacing and sound, and accumulative payoff of this film makes for a brilliantly effective atmosphere.
The story sounds basic, and in the all too well-versed world of horror overdone, but it’s a sedentary slow-burning pace that builds itself with dialed precision, and thanks to a 42-minute runtime never drag its feet. Grounded, textured, but removed and a little bit alien, you see and hear the ocean, wind, like a somnambulant time bomb of spectral terror.
Throw context and sub-genre aside for a second, and let’s pretend we can delineate horror into two schools of thought; the first being the more thrilling, bloody, jump scare reliant and the second the atmospheric, moody suggestive palette. One the one hand there's the Wes Craven’s and Lucio Fulci’s, and on the contrary you have the Val Lewton’s, and Roman Polanski's (and sometimes we get lucky with a masterful artist like John Carpenter working in both areas, but we only get one of him).
In revealing my bias I’m inclined to the latter, but it’s something like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones - both legendary, both classic, and you can like both, but you’re likely to gravitate toward one more than the other.
In tradition with the masters of atmospheric horror, Whistle and I’ll Come to You will appeal to the “less is more” school of thought. The terror comes in shadows, the inconceivable moments we’ve all experienced when what goes bump in the night sometimes rings a bit too loud to be rationally explained.
The most nerve-wracking suspense is emphatic suspense, the individual disintegration of mythic folklore grating against the current rationale burning the candle at both ends, the only problem being the nebbish professor is holding the stick of wax in the middle.
Against the theme of James’ original, Miller gives us room to interpret the events as supernatural or the result of a depleted mental state, regardless of the means of conveyance the journey is what matters, and for us, the journey is pants-shittingly scary.
In our director-centric movie vocabulary, it’s nice to have a break from studying the methods of an auteur. Perhaps Jonathan Miller is indeed an overlooked artist of stage and screen, but for now, I’ll just look at Whistle and I’ll Come to You on its own terms., Folky and unaggressively mercurial, the tightrope of hushed tension is terrifying in the most dissimilar times and places. Primal in some moments, the sonorous frights carry the same power in broad daylight on an open sunny day, or the intimate relatability of hiding under your sheets from an unexplainable terror. Before Rodney Ascher’s The Nightmare, this had been the closest realization of a waking nightmare.
When the BBC revived A Ghost Story for Christmas, they returned to Whistle and I’ll Come to You with the seasoned pro-John Hurt as Parkin, though shot in wide masters it failed to capture the dissonant tone of the original. I can’t say much about Miller’s direction, regarding his filmography. But I can recognize excellent cinematography, and Dick Bush knows how to fill a frame; despite being shot for television 1.33:1 aspect ratio never does the mise en scene feel truncated, the landscapes are expansive and the scope feels epic for a 42-minute feature.
Horror and television are no strangers, but in the states, it’s legacy was usually sci-fi hybrids mostly as a result of the cold war nuclear scare. Sure, some episodes of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, are nightmare inducing (The Twilight Zone more so), Dark Shadows was more of a gothic soap opera. Later we’d get some hammy (but fun) series’ like Tales From the Crypt, Twin Peaks, and sci-fi thriller tales in The X-Files. In terms of of versatility (or the lack of it) we even played toward kids, rememeber Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark? And Goosebumps? Strange that on television we are perfectly capable of doing everything with horror except play it straight! Recent cable shows like True Blood or American Horror Story can be scary but are also played for laughs, with more than their share of gory violence, while on the other the hand shows like The Walking Dead can be deathly self-serious and downbeat, not to mention repetitive (so much walking!). The UK series treats the supernatural as a matter of fact as possible. Whistle and I’ll Come to You is straight-faced and it benefits in doing so, a pattern that would not only continue in the A Ghost Story for Christmas series but continue in other BBC programs such as Supernatural, and the ITV Armchair Series, namely Armchair Thriller, one exceptionally creepy episode being 'Quiet as a Nun'.
Aired in 1968 as part of the BBC’s Omnibus series Whistle and I’ll Come to You has a secured reputation for spurning the superlative A Ghost Story for Christmas strand as well as being a paralyzingly creepy short. The yearly strand of M.R. James adaptations that was the body of their A Ghost Story for Christmas programs started three years after (running from 1971-1978, revived in 2005 for a brief period) the maiden broadcast of Whistle and I’ll Come to You. Commonly associated with the “first of best of” the series it inspired. However the most ironic note in the genesis of Whistle and I’ll Come to You is that it was hosted by BBC1’s Omnibus series which consisted of documentaries geared toward various artists, musicians, directors and so forth. For our collective benefit, it’s best to put aside the “hows and whys” residing in the conclusion that we’re all the better off having the feature make its way onto the airwaves.
As a director, Jonathan Miller is a few ranks above the point and shoot stock director, and Michael Hordern is perfectly cast as the lone professor. Three years afterward Lawrence Gordon Clark would helm the following A Ghost Story for Christmas episodes, despite being shot in color they adhered to the MR James adaptations to a varying degree of success, but more about those later.