Like many people, my first reaction upon hearing that BBC were filming a new adaptation of M.R. James’s Oh Whistle & I’ll Come To You My Lad was an incredulous “Why?” Not only does a version already exist, directed by Jonathan Miller in 1968, but it is widely regarded as definitive. When there are so many stories in the Jamesian canon crying out for adaptation (Count Magnus being an obvious example) this seemed like an utterly fatuous exercise. Even more aggravating was the promise of “a horrifying psychological twist in the tale”. The notion that the work of either James or Miller could be improved upon is arrogant in the extreme and the current belief amongst commissioning editors that every supernatural drama must come with a “psychological” angle to engage the audience is just patronising.
In this version, Professor Parkin is no longer an antiquarian, but a physicist. Nor he is a bachelor, but a man exhausted from caring for his dementia-stricken wife. Leaving her in the care of a nursing home, he travels to an out-of-season seaside resort they favoured as young lovers, where rather than discovering a whistle amidst the ruins of a Templar preceptory, he finds a wedding ring amongst the sand dunes. In the context of the adaptation, this makes thematic sense but it also renders the use of James’s title utterly redundant and like so many things in this production, leaves you wondering why the BBC didn’t opt to produce an original drama instead of piggybacking on classic source material.
To an extent, Cross provides an interesting variation on James’s original theme. Indeed, it is almost an inversion of it. In that story, Professor Parkins’ sanity is threatened by the prospect of an immaterial world, which his rigidly materialist world-view simply cannot accommodate. Here, the terror comes not from the possibility of the spiritual realm, but its demonstrable absence. It is clear throughout the script that Parkin is haunted not by ghosts, but the knowledge that whilst her physical shell remains, the spirit of the woman he loved for so many years is lost forever. It is a supernatural drama for our sceptical age, one of which you can imagine Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett approving.
Cross’s adaptation is equally an inversion of Miller’s perspective on the text. In that film, the protagonist is destroyed by his solitude. Here he is broken by his love. However, whilst Miller’s psycho-sexual interpretation was ambiguous enough to still allow for a purely supernatural reading, it is difficult to see how these modern ghosts can be regarded as anything other than manifestations of a trouble psyche. This certainly violates one of James’s own explicit rules of the ghost story: “It is not amiss sometimes to leave a loophole for a natural explanation; but, I would say, let the loophoole be so narrow as not to be quite practicable”. Again, Cross seems to be deliberately inverting James, leaving a loophole for a supernatural explanation and a very narrow loophole at that.
Meanwhile, the production itself is solid enough. John Hurt is as compelling as ever, giving an appropriately harrowed performance as Professor Parkin, but Leslie Sharp is wasted in a minor role. There are a couple of impressive set-pieces such as the revelation that Parkin had spent the night alone in the hotel and the scene in which hands grope under the door. Yet sound is rarely used as effectively as it was in the Miller version, whilst the beach scenes lack his directorial flair. Equally, the omission of the “face of crumpled linen” robs the narrative of one of its most original and iconic images, replaced by a predictable climax. It confirms the whole affair as an unsatisfactory bastardisation of James’s work, which in seeking to distinguish itself forgets the very factors which made the original story so powerful. Whatever interesting ideas it had, they should’ve been explored in another context.
Originally transmitted on 24th December 2010
Produced by BBC2