The next in a series of masterpieces of the small screen
by Allan Fish
(UK 1968 40m) DVD2
Who is this who is coming?
p Jonathan Miller d/w Jonathan Miller story M.R.James ph Dick Bush ed Adam Bosworth art Judy Steele
Michael Hordern (Professor Parkins), Ambrose Coghill (Colonel), George Woodbridge (hotelier), Freda Dowie (maid), Nora Gordon (proprietress),
In the early 1970s, Lawrence Gordon Clark undertook a series of adaptations of ghost stories for Christmas for the BBC. There was one each year, running throughout the decade, and fans will justifiably have fond memories of the Dickens’ adaptation The Signalman with Denholm Elliot and M.R.James’ adaptations A Warning to the Curious and The Stalls of Barchester. Yet it was several years earlier, in the days of black and white, that the best TV ghost story of them all, another James adaptation, was made for the BBC’s Omnibus programme. Whistle and I’ll Come to You was forty minutes that would stay for life with anyone who saw it.
The tale centres around a fifty-something Cambridge Professor who comes to a somewhat isolated seaside town at the turn of the century to get away from it all. He just wants to spend his time walking the coast, reading his books, and generally being left alone. He even eats at a small table alone, and spends much time muttering to himself. One day out on a walk along the beaches near the hotel, he finds an old whistle and, returning it to his hotel room, deciphers the engraving on it as “who is this who is coming?“ He decides to blow on it and, from that moment, is terrified with visions of being chased by a ghostly spectre along the beach front and even in his own room.
Whether one can call Whistle scary per se rather depends on the individual viewer’s constitution, but it does have a sense of real unease unparalleled on large or small screen. Nothing is quite as it should be. Miller takes great pains to arrange his camera so that the characters are secondary to the frame. Hordern’s placement within the shot is also deliberately remote, detached, not only emphasising the character’s loneliness, but also, in the use of deep focus, an exaggerated sense of perspective. Many shots are taken from unconventional heights; from a ceiling high shot of a bathroom, to the eerie crab’s eye views of the water-splashed sands on the beach.
On his arrival at the hotel, one quickly becomes aware of the professor’s demeanour, of a man fastidious in the extreme but given to mumbling inaudibly to himself, both in his room and over his breakfast. When asked “do you believe in ghosts?” he wants to seem very sure of himself, with proud chuckles at how clever he is, yet there’s a sense of nervousness in his every word. Miller exploits that very facet to Hordern sublimely in the pivotal graveyard scene. Here’s a graveyard unlike any other. There’s something deeply unsettling about it, namely that it’s so overgrown, with grass, skeletal trees. It’s abandoned, unkempt, and makes one wonder why it would be left so. And despite being so sure of himself, sitting down on the grass by the beach to eat his packed lunch, one can sense Hordern’s discomfort. He’s looking around, one can see in his eyes that feeling you can’t shake that you’re not alone. Then we see it, as he rises to return to the hotel; a ghostly figure on the horizon, as the sun sets, standing perfectly still.
Miller has been criticised in some quarters for changing aspects of the story, and though it’s true that he did, it’s rather a churlish complaint. In Whistle he created forty minutes that more than matches any episode of Boris Karloff’s excellent Thriller. At its heart he’s helped by the magnificent performance from Hordern, which is as finely woven as his tweed clothing. There’s something wonderful about watching him mutter much like he did voicing that bear returned from darkest Peru in a BBC children’s show I needn’t name, finally reduced to gibbering and sucking his thumb as the apparition appears to blow all his preconceptions to the wind. He felt so secure in taking Shakespeare’s quote in reverse – “there are more things in philosophy than are dreamt of in heaven and earth” – but by the end, he knows, and we know, ol’ Will was absolutely right.