In 1968, Jonathan Miller defined the traditional ghost story at Christmas on television with his adaptation of M.R. James’s ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ for BBC Omnibus. Miller was radical with James’s story, psychologising it and imbuing it with an ambience derived from the East Anglian landscape.
And yet, thanks to Screen Archive South East, we can watch a much earlier and, in some ways, astonishingly similar adaptation of James’s spooky tale, made in 1956 by the North Downs Cinematograph Society – more than a decade before Miller’s version.
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James’s narrative follows one Professor Parkins, an antiquarian on holiday near the coastal site of a supposed Knights Templar burial ground. Finding a cursed whistle on one of his walks, he foolishly blows on it, ignoring the warning engraved in Latin: “Who is this who is coming?”
By doing so, he summons a spectral being that follows him from the beach all the way back to his hotel room. The beachscape is key to the narrative, taking a major role in both versions. There is scant information available about the North Downs version, but the likeness between Miller’s beach (filmed at Waxham on the Norfolk coast) and the beach in the earlier adaptation (probably filmed around Kent) is uncanny.
Miller turns Professor Parkins (Michael Hordern) into a bumbling and awkward academic, a characteristic that hides both an intellectual arrogance and a slowly crumbling vision of his own superiority. In the North Downs version, Parkins is simply a suited man, enjoying a brief walk on the beach before having a pint and a chat with the locals at the inn.
Miller’s film is most famous for its brilliant dream sequence, one of the moments when it’s truly loyal to James’s text in its recreation of Parkins’ terrifying visions of a chase across the beach. Both film versions here have an interesting use of over-layered images, the landscapes coming to dominate the mind and worry of the main character.
It must be said, however, how effective Miller’s version is with its largely unseen spectre – an indistinguishable and brief fluttering of something organic giving chase before Parkins’ cries awaken him from the vision. The North Downs director opted for a more simple and charming approach of a man in a sheet running zig-zaggedly across the beach.
Where the North Downs version surprises is in its final sequence. This is the moment in James’s story where the spectre, taking the form of a bed-sheet, comes to frighten the prying academic one last time. In the North Downs film the bed-sheet contains a literal face that eerily flashes before Parkins and even claws at his own quilt. In Miller’s version, the sheet simply ruffles slightly before Parkins’ moans seem to become disembodied as his fear causes a breakdown, staying true to the psychological reading of the story.
Though it’s incredibly unlikely that Miller saw the North Downs film, the similarities show just how brilliant James’ original writing was. His terrifying visual language is effective enough to be translated with incredible ease, whether in the hands of a group of local enthusiasts or a fully manned BBC crew.