Whistle and I’ll Come to You is the title of two BBC television drama adaptations based on the ghost story “Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad” by the writer M. R. James. The story tells the tale of an introverted academic who happens upon a strange whistle while exploring a Knights Templar cemetery on the East Anglian coast. When blown, the whistle unleashes a supernatural force that terrorises its discoverer.
The story was first published in 1904 in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, the first collection of ghost stories that James published based on tales he had written as Christmas entertainments for audiences of friends and selected students at Eton and King’s College, Cambridge, where he was provost.
The first adaptation was made by the BBC in 1968. It was adapted and directed by Jonathan Miller and broadcast as part of the BBC arts strand Omnibus. This production inspired a new yearly strand of M.R. James television adaptations known as A Ghost Story for Christmas.
Ian McDowell noted that the adaptation itself changes a number of aspects of James’ story, turning the academic, described as “young, neat and precise of speech” into a bumbling, awkward, middle-aged eccentric. Polymath Miller was part of Beyond Fringe which also launched the careers of Alan Bennett, Dudley Moore and Peter Cook. A qualified doctor, he is now a leading director of operas.
The drama is rightly hailed as a masterpiece of British television, both Miller’s direction and Michael Hordern’s acting, in what is essentially a one-man show, both impeccable. Hordern’s persecution by the awakened spirit (or perhaps descent into madness) is deeply unsettling and relies entirely on suggestion and wonderful black and white cinematography (by Dick Bush who also shot Twins of Evil). The BFI have released a wonderful looking DVD which pairs it with the distinctly underwhelming 2010 version featuring John Hurt.
Hordern struggles with ghosts, Australia and a grapefruit: