Monday, 27 December 2010

A tuneless whistle.

I have said many times that I would love to see a return of the BBC's Ghost Story for Christmas strand. But they do say that you should be careful what you wish for. . .

Not only did the BBC show a ghost story on Christmas Eve, they showed an adaptation of M R James - Whistle and I'll Come to You. Starring the wonderful John Hurt! What could possibly go wrong?

Well, sadly, many things. First and foremost they decided to 'improve' on the original. There is absolutely nothing wrong with freely adapting a story - Lawrence Gordon Clark was hardly pedantic in his 1970s adaptations - but if you are going to change it, you had better make sure that those changes are worthwhile.

This film was very poor and an absolute waste of the undoubted talents of John Hurt. It had no sense of place - it seemed to have been shot in several contradictory locations. The East Anglian setting of the original had been swapped - for no apparent reason - for the south coast. The sky would be blue one moment and overcast the next. Wind whistled in our ears but did not move a hair on John Hurt's head or trouble the millpond ocean. And the title was made meaningless by an absence of a whistle (replaced - again with dizzying randomness - with a ring).

We were asked to believe that a huge hotel had only one occupant and only one member of staff (did the budget not run to more extras?). And nothing in the film compared with either Lawrence Gordon Clark's A Warning to the Curious (whose beach chase scene was appropriated to far less effect) or to Jonathan Miller's 1960s adaptation with its nightmarish vision on the shingle strand and the thing made of sheets that torments Michael Hordern at the end.

And why was the thoroughly decent John Hurt being tormented anyway? I know that there is not always a watertight logic to ghost stories, but I could not see why he was haunted. He did not seem to be in any state of denial about his wife's condition.

A major disappointment.


  1. You're not the only one to have been disappointed, Chris. I recently re-read the original story and was really looking forward to seeing what the BBC would come up with. But by the time the credits rolled, I was left feeling more than a bit let-down. As you pointed out, a lot of it really didn't make any sense. But it's not all bad news - watching this reminded me how good M.R.James was and I've set about re-reading as much of his work as I can get my hands on :)
    Oh, and Happy New Year :)

  2. Happy New Year to you too. And if it sent you back to M R James then it wasn't a complete waste of time. 'Whistle' is one of his best. But I wish they would commission new stories (by me, of course) rather than redo a story that has already been done and done perfectly well.

  3. I'd never really considered it from a writer's point of view before - it must be incredibly frustrating to have to sit through adaptations like this knowing that you (and I daresay a lot of other writers) could have created something original and potentially a lot more entertaining.
    Good luck with everything you have planned for the coming year :)

  4. Thanks! I have no problem with adaptations. They are hard to do well and they need a writer too of course. But a bad adaptation is possibly the most pointless thing you can do as a director, surely.

  5. I've been discussing this film on-line with other members of The Ghostly Company Society, Chris! Some of us feel there were some genuinely scary moments, others don't, but we're all agreed that it had nothing to do with M.R.James, whose name was taken in vain!

  6. Hi Sue. I thought your members would be made of sterner stuff! The beach scenes were almost there - but then they were simply a poor replay of Lawrence Gordon Clark (and the figure on the beach looked like someone wrapped in a paper towel!). The 'ghost' crawling up the bed? The Ring. I did like the hands under the door - they at least were unexpected, because we had been set up to expect nothing more than noises in the night. John Hurt could make anything work a bit - he is superb.

    I really don't mind that it wasn't true to M R James. We can read the story after all. But why not write something new if you are going to veer that far off? The basic idea was not unworkable. Far from it. Ironically there was a much better film there if they'd given up on the M R James story completely.

  7. Hi Chris, found your blog and excellent review of the Beeb's new version of "Oh Whistle.." by chance. Your critique was excellent: not just because I agree with you (and I do), but because you presented your criticisms considerably more eloquently that I can.

    I love MR James, and 'Oh Whistle..' is one of my favourite stories by him. James says in the preface to his first 'Antiquary' collection that the story was drawn from his own direct experience of a dream that he had as a young child. There is a primal, literally 'haunting' element to this tale - genuinely chilling. You'd be a fool to mess with it, but that's precisely what Neil Cross did in his BBC adaptation, which I found both hugely disappointing and strangely arrogant (as you say why a ring, for goodness sake?).

    Must admit, I was no great fan either of Jonathan Miller's 1968 adaptation of the tale, which many seem to revere. The ghost stories of MR James can be adapted successfully for TV (you mention Lawrence Gordon Clark's 'A Warning to the Curious', which was excellent), but this latest attempt was a travesty and an opportunity missed.

    Haven't come across your work before (to my detriment, no doubt). I look forward to checking out your books - you certainly seem to know your stuff.

  8. Thanks Maggie. I take your point about Jonathan Miller. I do really like it, but it is quite a self-consciously arthouse film. Lawrence Gordon Clark told me that he thought Michael Hordern went 'too far' in his constant mumbling and muttering - and maybe he did (though I enjoyed the performance). But I thought the stylisation actually increased the nightmare quality. The thing on the beach is particularly weird. It didn't go for the obvious - and seemed to have more in common with early Bunuel than with British TV of that or any other time. Having said that, it is a little cold. Clark brought far more warmth to the stories he adapted. But I think Miller's film sticks in people's minds.

    I hope you enjoy my stories if you track them down. Thanks for getting in touch.