BBC, Christmas, Dementia, Gemma Jones, Ghost Story, Ghosts, James Parkin, John Hurt, Jonathan Miller, M.R. James, Marriage, Michael Hordern, Neil Cross, Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad, Professor Parkins, Scrooge, Whistle and I'll Come to You
I do not care to undertake any further writing over Christmas, but before Tychy quietens down for the holiday, I will devote a few words to Neil Cross’ adaptation of M.R. James’ ghost story “Whistle and I’ll Come to You,” which has just been broadcast on BBC2. “Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” was, of course, originally published in 1904, whilst Jonathan Miller filmed the story for BBC television in 1968, making use of a particularly superb performance from Michael Hordern as Professor Parkins, and the eeriness of its desolate seaside setting, in order to create some of the most iconic scenes in British (sub)cinematic horror.
But this is 2010 and the days of great television are over. BBC Four’s recent adaptations of James’ stories – “A View from a Hill” (2005) and “Number 13” (2006) – were neither frightening nor even very interesting, and they can have been only conceived of as ghost stories for people who do not generally enjoy ghost stories. Neil Cross’ WICTY is a more thoughtful affair, which, if nothing else, successfully masters the necessary atmosphere of gloomy dereliction beside the seaside, and it can be also relied upon for the occasional good scare. Moreover, Cross has clearly learned from Miller’s adaptation that James’ tale can only be televised with the help of a good, watchable actor, in whose lonely company we will be spending a lot of time. This adaptation plumps for John Hurt.
Yet Cross has decided not to deliver a straightforward retelling of James’ tale, and his WICTY is apparently set in contemporary Britain, although as “Parkin” plods through his draughty hotel and along the empty beaches, it seems that the twenty-first century is more ghostly than the spirit world. Hurt’s Parkin is not a celibate bachelor on a golfing holiday, as James first had it, but a retired professor who has just dumped his demented wife (Gemma Jones) in a care home. At one point, this will allow for a particularly eloquent expression of Humean scepticism (as has been customary in Christmas ghost stories since Scrooge accused Marley of being a bit of underdone potato):
A ghost? A discorporate personality which has survived bodily death? Well… I have to admit that I’ve never seen a ghost so my empirical evidence is zero. But what I have seen is the opposite. A body which has outlasted the existence of the personality and that is far, far more horrifying than any spook or ghoul than you can ever hope to glimpse, believe me. There’s nothing inside us – no ghost in these machines. Man is matter and matter rots.
In the teeth of this, the ghost turns out to be none other than Parkin’s own wife, who appears at the climax of the story to proclaim in creepily stentorian tones that “I’m still here! I’m still here!” Contrary to the laws of James’ fiction, she is a curiously distant and unphysical ghost – more like a statue or an airy hallucination than a hairy, malodorous presence – and she ultimately affirms, rather than challenges, the bloodlessness which had always characterised James’ bachelors. There is almost a wink to the camera when it is remarked that the couple had “no children.” One thing which James’ horrors could never be accused of being, however, was politically correct, but this otherwise bloodcurdling spectre seems to be damned by her disappointing insistence upon remembering the elderly at Christmas. In this respect, she is almost as obnoxious and dysfunctional as the moralisers whom had haunted Scrooge.
The idea of somebody being haunted by the spirit of a living, senile relative strikes me as a genuinely original one, and this adaptation of James’ story would be considerably improved if it had shaken off the ghost of James and his whistle altogether, and instead concentrated on its own new and promising ideas. But presumably an original ghost story would never have been countenanced by the BBC, or else it would have not received a primetime slot on Christmas Eve, and hence some shrewd, fresh writing has been smuggled on to television within the only format now apparently acceptable to the BBC – as a pastiche, a remake. If you are going to frighten your viewers, then it does help to have a bit of balls, but I am afraid that this adaptation seems to be ultimately haunted by its lack of artistic confidence.