Who Is This Who Is Coming?
Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without ghost stories, and 2010 was no exception. BBC’s Radio 7 broadcast a series of ghost stories from Walter de la Mare, interspersed with a set of rather weak parodies of ghost stories by M.R. James (meant, I assume, for the aficionados who know the originals rather than the casual listener, and all the more tiresome for that). Meanwhile, BBC2, harking back to its own tradition of adapting James’s stories for the festive season, offered a new version of 'Oh, Whistle, And I'll Come To You, My Lad', called 'Whistle and I'll Come To You', written by Neil Cross, directed by Andy de Emmony, and featuring John Hurt.
I wondered why we suddenly needed a new version of the story, and how this new version could possibly improve on Jonathan Miller's 1968 adaptation, also called ‘Whistle And I’ll Come To You’, which is still one of the two or three finest adaptations of James’s stories ever produced (up there with ‘A Warning to the Curious’ and ‘Lost Hearts’, both broadcast by the BBC in the early seventies). Matters were not helped when I noticed Alison Graham's preview in Radio Times: 'Silly me. Here was I thinking that the whistle in the title was the essential component in the best ghost story ever written', nor by A N Wilson’s revealing, in the review on Radio 3's Nightwaves on 22nd December, that the protagonist dies at the end of the film, when confronted by his wife's spectre, something that certainly didn’t happen in either Miller’s version or James’s original.
(And there will be spoilers)
In which case, I should begin by revisiting James’s story, which follows the fortunes of Parkins, Professor of Ontography at Cambridge, who travels to Burnstow for a golfing holiday. At a colleague’s request, he also undertakes to look at the site of a possible Templar preceptory and while doing so, he discovers a whistle concealed in a wall. The first odd event occurs as Parkins returns to the hotel. A glance behind him:
showed him a prospect of company on his walk, in the shape of a rather indistinct personage, who seemed to be making great efforts to catch up with him, but made little, if any, progress. I mean that there was an appearance of running about his movements, but that the distance between him and Parkins did not seem materially to lessen. So, at least, Parkins thought, and decided that he almost certainly did not know him, and that it would be absurd to wait until he came up. For all that, company, he began to think, would really be very welcome on that lonely shore, if only you could choose your companion. In his unenlightened days he had read of meetings in such places which even now would hardly bear thinking of.
Later, back at his hotel Parkins cleans the whistle and discovers the inscriptions on it, the longer one of which reads ‘Quis est iste qui venit’. “It ought to mean, 'Who is this who is coming?' Well, the best way to find out is evidently to whistle for him,” which Parkins duly does. The result is striking. As James put it:
He saw quite clearly for a moment a vision of a wide, dark expanse at night, with a fresh wind blowing, and in the midst a lonely figure – how employed, he could not tell. Perhaps he would have seen more had not the picture been broken by the sudden surge of a gust of wind against his casement, so sudden that it made him look up, just in time to see the white glint of a sea-bird's wing somewhere outside the dark panes. [...]
‘But what is this? Goodness! what force the wind can get up in a few minutes! What a tremendous gust! There! I knew that window-fastening was no use! Ah! I thought so – both candles out. It's enough to tear the room to pieces.’
The first thing was to get the window shut. While you might count twenty Parkins was struggling with the small casement, and felt almost as if he were pushing back a sturdy burglar, so strong was the pressure. It slackened all at once and the window banged to and latched itself. Now to relight the candles and see what damage, if any, had been done. No, nothing seemed amiss; no glass even was broken in the casement.
Subsequently, Parkins dreams of someone being chased along the beach by ‘a figure in pale, fluttering draperies, ill-defined’ while a local boy sees a similar figure apparently waving to him from Parkins’ bedroom window. The story culminates in the figure attacking Parkins in his room, having used the sheets of the spare bed to give itself substance. ‘[W]what he chiefly remembers about it is a horrible, an intensely horrible, face of crumpled linen.’ Parkins is rescued by Colonel Wilson who, having heard Parkins’ original story and seen the whistle, has clearly been expecting trouble.
James’s ghost stories, for all their inventiveness in terms of individual hauntings, follow familiar patterns. The ignorant or unwary meddle with the supernatural at their peril, and either meet with or narrowly dodge an unpleasant death. Alternatively, an ancient wrong must either be righted or at any rate be recognised for what it was. Often, there is also a mystery to be solved. ‘Oh, Whistle,’ falls into the first category, in that Parkins is engaging with something he simply doesn’t understand. This is made apparent in a number of ways, not the least of which is Parkins’ guileless decision to blow the whistle, presumably in a spirit of enquiry which fits with his position as a Cambridge academic, and indeed as Professor of Ontography, concerned as he is with describing the nature and essence of things. What is not clear is how this process of description might relate to matters of belief. Is it possible to describe something in which you refuse to believe?
Among Parkins’ most vehemently expressed convictions is a fervent disavowal of the existence of spirits, an irony not lost on the reader in the light of what is to come. His views stand in sharp contrast to those of the Colonel, who comments on the strength of the wind the previous night: ‘In my old home we should have said someone had been whistling for it’ and goes on to say ‘my experience is, mind you, that there's generally something at the bottom of what these country-folk hold to, and have held to for generations.’ However, I think it is worth going back to that part of the story describing Parkins’ journey back to the hotel after finding the whistle, and that brief reference to his ‘unenlightened days’. That, his loud rejection of the supernatural and his discomfort with the Colonel’s stout Protestantism and complex views on the local vicar’s ‘Papist’ practices suggests that Parkins’ philosophy is as much of an atheistical bent as it is rationalist. His rejection of superstition, most immediately embodied in his refusal to accept the Colonel’s belief in the possibility of whistling up a wind, makes him vulnerable when dealing with the whistle.
I’d also suggest that what has been brought back into play for Parkins is the world of the imagination. When the wind first answers the summons of the whistle:
Quickly as it had risen, the wind did not fall at once. On it went, moaning and rushing past the house, at times rising to a cry so desolate that, as Parkins disinterestedly said, it might have made fanciful people feel quite uncomfortable; even the unimaginative, he thought after a quarter of an hour, might be happier without it.
There is something so studied about Parkins’ ‘disinterestedly’ saying something, when juxtaposed with the ‘fanciful’ and ‘even the unimaginative’ as to suggest that Parkins ‘unenlightened’ self is being consciously suppressed by his intellectual training, with inevitable consequences. The Colonel recognises this when he observes that the creature’s ‘one power was that of frightening’ and that it could probably have done little else. But what effect might such a fright have on the suppressed imagination? Parkins’ nerves are said to have suffered: ‘he cannot even now see a surplice hanging on a door quite unmoved, and the spectacle of a scarecrow in a field late on a winter afternoon has cost him more than one sleepless night.’ These are surely the responses of a man whose imagination suppressed for so long is now in overdrive as a result of his encounter As the narrator drily remarks, ‘the Professor's views on certain points are less clear cut than they used to be’. The whistle can be thrown into the sea and the bed sheet that transformed itself into a figure can be burned but this in no way alters the fact of their having existed and been witnessed by Parkins. As a result his perception of the world must inevitably have altered; at what cost to his intellectual practice, we never learn.
James’s narrator described Parkins as young, neat, and precise in speech’ but also as being ‘something of an old woman – rather henlike, perhaps, in his little ways; totally destitute, alas! of the sense of humour, but at the same time dauntless and sincere in his convictions, and a man deserving of the greatest respect’, and the reader has a sense that for all his foibles, Parkins is a social creature and his colleagues and acquaintances appear to like the man. Jonathan Miller’s take on Parkins, now Parkin, is rather different. While his production substantially follows James’s original story, Miller is not interested in simply replicating the account of an unwary academic’s brush with the supernatural. Parkin is no longer an over-earnest but generally collegial figure. Instead, he has become a solitary, anxious man, staying in a hotel filled with long, silent, empty corridors; eating lonely meals in a deserted dining room, spending his days tramping along an equally deserted beach. Michael Hordern invests Parkin with the neurotic tics of a man who does not engage much with others, instead humming and muttering his way through his days, accompanied by a soundtrack of slight noises hugely amplified. He is, classically, a man who lives almost entirely in his own mind, his contacts with other people limited to stilted encounters with the hotel staff. There is one conversation, with the Colonel, about the possibility of an afterlife; yet even this the observer comes to in medias res, with no clue how it was originally initiated. Like his Jamesian predecessor, Parkin does not believe in such and rejects the Colonel’s arguments that there might be things that he, Parkin, cannot account for through logical explanations. We must assume that the need to explain is fundamental to the Professor’s life, and his inability to find an explanation for what happens to him is in its turn essential to Miller’s production. Parkin’s encounter with the sheeted figure creates a fatal undermining of his philosophy, and our final view of Parkin is of a figure who has retreated to an infantile state, sucking his thumb, repeating ‘No’, as if this can dispel the evidence of his own eyes.
The BBC’s 2010 production seems to owe more to Miller’s version than to James’s, not least in visual terms. We find the same empty hotel, the same long corridors; the broad, empty beach, the same small noises dominating the soundtrack. Here is also the same sense of isolation and of silence. In this production, however, Parkin’s experience in the hotel is mirrored by that of his wife in the care home to which he commits her at the story’s opening. In the home, which is as unhomely as you might care to imagine, there are endless doors, endless glass walls, endless rows of chairs, all of them occupied by silent, unresponsive women in identical white shifts. Is this how a distressed Parkin sees it or is it really as institutional as represented? The environment appears to be entirely stripped of warmth, and although the nurse (there is only one) appears to be sympathetic, she also seems disturbingly eager to remove Parkin from the scene, urging him to relax and take a holiday. The camera almost always observes Parkin’s interactions with his wife from a distance, through a window, through a doorway, placing the viewer in the position of a watcher, as though checking up on him, as though he cannot quite be trusted to be alone with her. (In the Nightwaves review of this production, Philip Dodd and A N Wilson kept returning to the close-ups of John Hurt’s face – which, lined and wrinkled as it is, seemed to me to stand in for the face of crumpled linen that will never appear in this version of the story – but never posed the question I felt to be most pertinent: at any given moment, through whose eyes are we watching?)
The introduction of a wife already indicates that Neil Cross’s script has moved sharply away from the original story. James Parkin is no longer a philosopher but an astronomer, although he holds equally trenchant views on the possibilities of the survival of life beyond death. In this instance, though, what most preoccupies him is not the absence of anything beyond death but the horror of absence in life. Parkin’s wife, Alice, obviously provides the focus for this concern, although the nature of her condition is not made clear; she is pale, still, always staring straight ahead, and almost entirely unresponsive to events around her. She speaks only once, to utter a few nonsensical half-sentences, and on another occasion, after Parkin has spoken to her, we see her wringing her hands as they lie in her lap. She is physically present but her body has outlasted her personality. For a man who lives by the intellect, this is clearly a devastating position to be in, but Parkin must, as he notes, reject the idea of the ghost in the machine. Matter rots, after all, but what happens when the issue is not death but disconnection?
We are given to understand that Parkin has been devoted to his wife but there is no indication of why he has suddenly relinquished her to the care home. He seems to have no family, no friends, no outside interest. Without her, he is utterly lost. What she thought of him, we can have no idea. There is the argument that an outsider can never properly understand the nature of a couple’s relationship, but the outsider can always surmise, and was observed on Nightwaves, the viewer inevitably fills in the gaps. One might suggest that Parkin’s apparent uxoriousness has somehow crushed his wife’s personality. A dream sequence which occurs after Parkin’s first overtly supernatural experience suggests that there is some unspoken tragedy in the couple’s lives. We see Parkin’s wife holding a posy, like Mary in a painting of the Annunciation, followed by her cradling an invisible something in her arms. The porcelain head of a doll explodes from within. The drama’s opening, as it focuses on the photos on the mantel-piece, does not show any family portraits. We are almost obliged to assume that Mrs Parkin has experienced at least one miscarriage and that the couple have been unable to have children. Whether Parkin blames her for this or not is not certain.
There is one curious moment when he finally leaves her at the care home. As he departs, Parkin says, ‘Call me if you need me’, not as crass as it might sound if one accepts he continues the pretence that she is alive, but he then leans close to her ear and whispers or, more accurately, quavers ‘Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad’. We might assume this refers to James’s story, in the light of what is to come, but we should also remember that James got his title from a poem by Robert Burns, in which a girl exhorts her lover to pretend that he is not interested in her if he sees her outside, and to visit her covertly, to ‘come as ye were na comin' to me’. That Parkin seems to be singing the words suggests that this refers to Burns rather than James. What it means is another matter; is Parkin commenting on his wife’s indifference to him, or is he simply saying that he is, as always, at her disposal? Is that a threat or a promise?
I think we are supposed to assume guilt on Parkin’s part for committing his wife to the home, and to read his concern as love. Perhaps this explains his attempt to reclaim something of their life together by revisiting some of the places they went as a couple, a refusal to let go. Thus Parkin finds himself staying in an empty out-of-season hotel, with corridors and stairs that seem to go on forever; walking along a deserted beach, past huge white chalk sea stacks, their weathered organic forms foreshadowing the white figure he encounters on the beach Whatever I might feel about the storytelling in this drama, it is impossible to deny the power of some of the images.
Then Parkin finds the wedding ring buried in a grass tussock – on Nightwaves Dodd and Wilson helpfully point out that this is suggestive of relationships as though the point might be lost on the viewer. Strangely, when Parkin cuts the ring free it proves to have something engraved on the inside – Quis est iste qui venit – and it is this which provides one of the few solid connections with James’s original story. And here I cannot decide whether it is a weak attempt to acknowledge the original, a showy piece of prop-dressing or a genuine attempt to say something about the nature of relationships. In many respects, this drama’s haunting is cruder than anything that appears in either the original story or indeed Miller’s production, and some of it makes little sense. James was always most rigorous in the working out of a haunting; everything happened for a reason and would, in due course, be explained, although on occasion ‘explanation’ is left to the reader, presented with a series of facts which could be construed a certain way, the implication being that this was precisely what James required. Similarly, while Miller takes a more psychological approach to Parkin’s experience, he remains faithful to James’s storyline, although for reasons that are quite obvious he edits out one particular manifestation because it would require Parkin to interact too much with other people.
But in the 201o version we are presented with curious scratching noises, maybe a rat in the wall (although, in fairness, one might note that the noises are similar to the much more appropriate sound of the rattling windows in Miller’s version). There is a bedside lamp which switches itself off when Parkin is asleep (and this preoccupation with the light can be clearly linked to Miller’s similar framing of Parkin in bed at night, with the light pull to one side). The viewer’s attention is also directed to a particularly unaesthetic white porcelain bust of a woman in the room which appears to alter its position of its own volition, although this is not directly commented on, and indeed seems to be an almost entirely unnecessary piece of business, except insofar as it is presumably meant to resonate with the whiteness of the figure on the beach and Mrs Parkin’s seemingly intrinsic paleness. That, on his final night in the hotel, Parkin locks the bust away in a cupboard indicates that we are supposed to invest it with significance, but what kind of significance remains unexamined.
More shockingly, and this is a genuine and memorable moment of horror that would, I think, have appealed to James himself, given how corporeal some of his hauntings were, someone comes to the door of Parkin’s room, turns the door handle and shakes the door violently, attempting to gain admittance. During this, the visitor’s feet are visible in the light streaming under the door. Afterwards, when Parkin sleeps, he experiences the dreams I mentioned earlier. Only on the following day does Parkin discover that he was in fact alone in the hotel that night, and he subsequently seems to have decided that his wife is calling him home. Yet, for his last night in the hotel he prepares his room as though for a siege, stuffing a pillow under the door to obscure the light, drawing the curtains tight and, as noted, shutting the hideous bust in a cupboard, before getting into bed.
After this, events unfold in short order. The pillow is sucked out from under the door into the corridor, another rather good moment of drama, then the fingers of a small pair of hands appear briefly, trying to work their way through the gap under the door, and the next thing we see is Parkin’s wife, spectral, still in a white shift, clawing her way up the bed, all the while telling Parkin that ‘I am still here’. A small coup de theatre perhaps, but I was reminded very strongly of the extended shot in the TV adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, where the Woman comes to Kidd as he lies ill in bed, and her face fills the screen as she looms over him for many seconds. It’s still the best and most frightening thing about an otherwise rather indifferent production. However, here, while Gemma Jones crawling up the bed is presumably supposed to play into the scurrying noises that have disturbed Parkin, it just seems somehow cheap, a feeling strengthened when those noises are finally shown to be an inept piece of foreshadowing: the movement of the now dead Parkin’s dangling arm drags his fingernails along the floor. The cause of Parkin’s death is not stated. One might, I suppose, look to others of James’s stories for clues; in ‘Lost Hearts’, Mr Abney is clawed to death by the ghostly revenants of his earlier victims, their fingernails having continued to grow in death, but I’m not sure this is really the answer, for this is not the end. The camera returns to Parkin’s wife who suddenly seems to have come to life. A tear slides down her face, she gets up from her chair and is gone. Has she caused Parkin’s death? Does this provide her with a release of some sort? We are, I think, supposed to meditate upon the nature of death-in-life, of the fate of the mind trapped in the body, unable to communicate, but I am not clear whether this drama is suggesting that the trapped mind can exact a distant revenge, confounding everything that the victim once believed in, killing him by confronting him with that which he cannot intellectually accept.
At the end, though, I still don’t quite see the point of this 'adaptation'. Its relationship to the M.R.James story is so slight as to be inconsequential, so it’s hardly an updating, and one almost wonders why the writer and director retained such connections as they did. There is clearly a stronger link between this and Miller’s production in visual terms (which, oddly enough, Dodd and Wilson never remarked on) but it still has little to do with it in terms of story content. Wilson can mutter as much as he likes about Sebald’s Rings of Saturn and the character’s constant perambulations (this also comes from Miller’s production) and make comments about the East Anglian setting (there are no chalk cliffs in Norfolk, and indeed the outdoor filming took place in Kingsgate Bay in North Kent) but he comes nearest the truth when he commented that nothing connects. Having said that, he did also observe that it is not a ghost story. Not, perhaps, in the classical Jamesian sense but I’d argue that there is enough of the supernatural as well as the psychological about it to give the viewer pause for thought. However, at the same time, it seems to be playing into that irritating late-1970s vogue for explaining away hauntings as externalised psychological experiences, something I'm not convinced the BBC has ever quite got over when it comes to dealing with ghost stories.