Studio: British Film Institute
Length: 95 mins
Region: Region 2
Released: 20 August 2012
Cat No: BFIVD959
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BBC Ghost Stories: Whistle and I'll Come to You
Double bill of BBC adaptations of M.R. James’s ghost story ’Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’, written in 1904. In ’Whistle and... Read More
As the sixties segued into the seventies, big-screen horror underwent a fundamental sea-change. Thanks to a relaxation of censorship on both sides of the Atlantic, the shivery yet subtle chills of The Innocents (1961) and The Haunting (1963) were abandoned in favour of as much graphic gore as special effects would permit.
But there was one regular producer of authentically old-fashioned horror during this period, offering scenes where the protagonist can’t quite identify the only other living thing on an otherwise deserted beach, where there’s unmistakable evidence that he hasn’t spent the night alone despite his hotel bedroom being firmly locked, or where he expects to touch stone but gets warm fur instead.
From 1971 to 1978, and again in 2005-2006, the BBC produced an annual ‘Ghost Story for Christmas’, all ten of which have now been anthologised in a new five volume DVD series. These are bookended by the 1968 and 2010 adaptations of MR James’s classic chiller ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ that comprise volume 1. The first was adapted by Jonathan Miller, and remains one of the greatest small-screen horror films ever made, with Michael Hordern’s fusty, mumbling academic uncovering a long-buried flute and making the mistake of blowing it to see what happens. The remake casts John Hurt in the same role, adds colour and widescreen and also a new subplot about his senile wife.
MR James also fuels the two stories of volume 2, both featuring Clive Swift as the researcher Dr Black. In the previously unavailable The Stalls of Barchester, he pieces together the tale of the Cathedral’s Archdeacon (Robert Hardy), and works out how he met his untimely death, while in A Warning to the Curious, he meets a clearly terrified archaeologist (Peter Vaughan) and learns of his discovery. With three further volumes coming out before Halloween, lovers of spine-chilling tales have plenty to celebrate.
Certain experiences are ineluctably burned into childhood consciousnesses, and these generational scars are remembered for the rest of the lives of those undergoing such an experience. Shortly after the television terrors of the original British Quatermass series had made its mark on many a viewer, another truly terrifying television experience was talked about for decades after by those who had seen it - and found it a cauterising experience. This was, of course, one of the famous series of BBC films A Ghost Story for Christmas, of which there were 12 - and Jonathan Miller's 1968 'Whistle and I'll Come to You' is undoubtedly one of the most famous ventures into the macabre ever shown on British television. With Michael Horden as a fussy academic who unleashes something supernatural and unspeakable, it raised the hair on many a neck in its original showing - and on the various occasions it has been repeated since. It is undoubtedly the centrepiece of the BFI's exemplary collection of all 12 ghost stories to be collected here in multiple individual volumes and a box set. Interestingly, a comparison may now be made with the 2010 adaptation of the same story, this time starring John Hurt and directed by Andy de Emmony. Inevitably, highly professional though the latter is, it offers no real challenge to the celebrated original which still works remarkably well in the 21st-century - although Michael Horden's excessively mannered performance has perhaps worn less well.
To impressive viewing figures in the 1970s, the BBC showed this succession of adaptations of the immortal ghost stories of MR James, the Cambridge academic responsible for the definitive eldritch stories written in English. The default director for many of these tales was Lawrence Gordon Clark, who supplies insightful interviews for the new introductions in this remastered series. A handful of these classic tales have appeared before, but it is particularly welcome to see them collected together -- and it is easy to see why the series was so influential, and continues to be; the writer and actor Mark Gatiss (responsible for the new Holmes series Sherlock) is an avowed fan. In such adaptations as 'Lost Hearts', 'The Treasure of Abbott Thomas' and 'The Ash Tree', the understated, allusive approach of the personnel involved here pays dividends, with a concentration on the slow accretion of atmosphere rather than any indulgence in more overt horror clichés. MR James is not the only author represented here: long before his fame for his work on such writers as Jane Austen and George Eliot, Andrew Davies supplies an impressive version of Dickens' 'The Signalman', perhaps being more faithful to the material than he was subsequently to be in the adaptations which upped the sexual content -- something which would hardly be appropriate here.
In 'Whistle and I'll Come to You', a sceptical academic (Horden) discovers an ancient whistle on a beach in Norfolk and ill-advisedly plays it, releasing a terrifying apparition. What is particularly intriguing about Jonathan Miller's adaptation is the suggestion that the monstrous thing (which appears chillingly - and simply -- as an ambulatory bedsheet) is a product of the professor's repressed psyche, representing an overlay of then-modern readings of psychosis (sexually-related or otherwise) on the chaste original material. However, of course, while James and the other great ghost story writers who followed him could hardly explore such regions, that is not to say they were not reaching into such dark channels, whether consciously or not. The savvy Miller never twists the material to make any particular points in this area.
'The Stalls of Barchester', directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark in 1971, has Clive Swift coming across a box of papers which were the property of the former Archdeacon Haynes (played by Robert Hardy), locked away since the 19th century. Inevitably, of course, they are released. All of the stories are about the unleashing of something unspeakable which wreaks chaos when it is brought into the light - in this case, a clandestine history of bloody malfeasance and supernatural revenge. Once again, a carefully maintained atmosphere is crucial in setting up the eruption into the presents.
If the following year's story, James' 'A Warning to the Curious' (also directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark) is a tad less effective (and hardly as creative in its use of unsettling mise-en-scene), that is as much a comment on the sheer adroitness of the earlier teleplays than on any shortcomings to be found in this adaptation. Extras, as might be expected from the BFI, are copious, and this is a particularly unmissable set.