whistle michael hordern



M.R. James on his ghost story-writing technique:

‘Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment, let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.’

The 1968 version of Whistle And I’ll Come To You is probably my favourite of all the M.R. James ghost story adaptations by the BBC. Shakespearean actor Michael Hordern is superb as the doddery Professor Parkins, the Cambridge don positively steeped in dusty academia who comes to stay at an East Anglian guest-house for a holiday, during the early years of the nineteenth century. This sensible fellow doesn’t believe in ghosts, nor does he believe that ‘there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’

He goes for long bracing walks over the empty heaths and deserted beaches, with his little packed lunch in his knapsack. He doesn’t at all mind his own company, as it’s what he’s most used to.

One wonders what would happen if an actual human female crossed his path; Cambridge dons positively steeped in dusty academia aren’t generally required to interact with too many of these, beyond the woman who ‘does’ for them and brings the meals…!

While on one of his solitary jaunts, clad in tweedy knickerbockers and cap and carrying a stout walking stick, he discovers a filthy old bronze whistle with the following words engraved on it: Qui Est Iste Qui Venit? or Who Is This Who Is Coming?

You’d think that a scholar such as himself, who presumably would have had the old Latin drummed into him in school as a lad, would hesitate to blow on such a spooky artefact of uncertain provenance but, oh no, as soon as he’s given it a bit of an old rub with a clean hanky, he toots on it with gusto. From that moment on, like the poor amateur archaeologist in James’s other superb story, A Warning To The Curious, he’s never alone any more…

It’s a genuinely frightening story. We know that Parkins has brought something sinister back with him from his excursion to the lonely beaches. Are the dreadful things he sees and experiences afterwards real supernatural phenomena, or merely the signs of a mind closed to everything but narrow academic principles disintegrating under the weight of something he’s witnessed but can’t understand? Either way, this piece of vintage television puts the heart crossways in me anew every time I watch it.

Hammer actor George Woodbridge has a wonderful cameo here as the hotel proprietor, who’s even mumblier and more incoherent than old Parkins himself. It’s a joy to watch. I love Ambrose Coghill too, as Parkins’s fellow guest, the Colonel, who engages in intellectual conversations with the Professor over the breakfast kippers. (What is it with the English and their kippers, lol…?)

The 2010 version of Whistle And I’ll Come To You takes a different approach to the story. John The Elephant Man Hurt plays James Parkin, who comes to the deserted seaside guest-house because he and his wife, whom he’s just had to leave in a nursing-home, used to go there in their youth. He has a notion that he wants to re-visit some of their ‘old haunts,’ never knowing how prophetic the phrase will turn out to be.

His wife, Alice, played by Gemma Bridget Jones’s Diary Jones, has dementia. He feels terribly guilty about parking her in the nursing-home, but he also doesn’t feel like he has much choice at this point. Her ruined mind now occupies ‘a body that has outlasted the personality, more horrifying than any spook or ghoul.’

The rows of silent women sitting in identical night-dresses and slippers in the nursing-home are indeed like something out of a nightmare. Lesley Sharp as the nursing-home manager plays her role very strangely too, with a sort of robotic Stepford wife-type voice that churns out comforting words and stock phrases meant to console, but they’re spoken so softly and mechanically that we can’t quite believe she’s real. It’s a bit of a red herring here, us thinking that the nursing-home manager is evil, but in another film, perhaps, her sinister tones might mean something quite different…

I love the empty boarding-house where Parkin goes to stay, and Sophie Thompson as Carol, the harassed single mum proprietress who presumably depends on the guest-house for her and her children’s livelihood.

Parkin is a bit of a complainer, saying that the scratching and rattling he hears in his room must be a rat, and making out that another guest was trying to break into his room, when Carol is equally adamant that he, Parkin, is currently the only guest in the hotel…

It’s pretty clear in this film that Parkin’s overwhelming guilt and sorrow about his wife is manifesting itself as supernatural apparitions. He does actually find an ancient artefact on the beach, however (this time it’s a ring instead of a whistle, perhaps suggesting the joining of two people for life in holy matrimony), and, from the moment he finds it and brings it away with him, the hauntings begin, just as they do with our friend Parkins in the 1968 version.

The horror is more visible than suggested in the more modern version. Some may argue that this harms the film, but I still was pretty scared watching this one, especially when we discover that John Hurt has unwittingly spent a night alone in a completely empty hotel, empty even of the proprietress. The sheeted outline on the beach may at first appear as a sort of comic figure, but I still wouldn’t want to have one of those things following me down an otherwise empty beach, would you…?

The 1968 version of the story is undoubtedly the superior one (less is more, some people think: sometimes what the imagination can conjure up is more horrific than anything the screen can put in front of us), but the 2010 one has its merits too. It’s an interesting take on James’s original story, and another suitably fitting tribute to the great writer, who famously read some of his creepiest stories aloud in his college rooms as a Christmas present to his peers. Here’s what one of them said about these sessions:

‘Monty (James) disappeared into his bedroom. We sat and waited in the candlelight. Perhaps someone played a few bars on the piano, and desisted, for good reason… Monty emerged from the bedroom, manuscript in hand, at last, and blew out all the candles but one, by which he seated himself. He then began to read, with more confidence than anyone else could have mustered, his well-nigh illegible script in the dim light…’

Wizard, eh…?


Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, poet, short story writer and film and book blogger. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, women’s fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:


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