Every year for the better part of the 1970s, the BBC turned it into something of a tradition that it should broadcast a specially filmed ghost story at Christmas, most of them being literary adaptations of celebrated tales by the Cambridge and Eton scholar, college administrator and renowned antiquarian, M.R. James: probably still one of the most highly-regarded and influential writers in the English language to have worked within the traditional supernatural short story format. Montague Rhodes James somehow found the time to write and publish four volumes’ worth of collected tales during his lifetime (which he claimed to offer only as ‘amusements’ for which he did not make ‘any exalted claims’) besides diligently pursuing more scholarly concerns which led him to publish a prodigious string of articles, books, reviews and monographs on a diverse range of arcane topics, ranging from medieval art and iconography to the analyses of ancient texts and manuscripts, particularly those relating to the apocrypha of the early bible -- a subject which became his speciality. James combined this almost relentless publishing output with a heavy administrative workload, becoming director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and attaining the post of provost at Cambridge and, later, Eton when he returned there in 1905 after also quitting the post of vice Chancellor of Cambridge University.
But it was while he was at Kings College, Cambridge that James first began regularly to compose and give readings of his self-penned ghost stories for a select gathering of friends and acquaintances which collectively christened itself the Chitchat Club -- this being an informal social group that would meet once a week, for whom James inaugurated what soon became a yearly Christmas ritual: reading a couple of his most recently composed tales by the light of a single candle, for the select audience which would gather for the event in his rooms. This is the tradition that the BBC’s “Ghost Story at Christmas” strand was attempting to resurrect when the first of them was broadcast in 1971. This collection has been much sought after for many years since by fans of the original annual series. Unless you managed to record them all off the television when they were repeated across several nights on BBC4 a few years ago, only three of them (two M.R. James adaptations and one Charles Dickens) could be obtained officially via now deleted discs released by the BFI. Fans can rejoice though, as the BFI is finally releasing all of these much loved classic tales, in combination with several recent attempts to revive the series, across five volumes (and one ‘complete collection’ boxed set, to be released in October) starting with an initial release which includes two versions of one of M.R. James’ very best tales, the first of which probably still stands today as the most successful attempt thus far to adapt any of his stories for the screen.
The M.R. James ghost story inhabits a distinctive and quite unmistakable niche in the genre, being centred on, despite apparent eschewal of any sort of psychological dimension in their rendering of character, the activities of cloistered, usually rather bookish individuals who can best be seen for the most part as surrogates for James himself: a man who spent the best part of his adult life wedded to the very same scholastic institutions that shaped him during his formative years as a student. The protagonists of his tales tend to be unworldly, emotionally removed academics, happily entrenched in the intricacies of their recondite historical studies until what once appeared to them merely to have been an engrossing intellectual pursuit is violently ruptured by the sudden intrusion of the supernatural -- which invariably takes the form of something hideous, atavistic and half-demonic in nature, that is unwittingly made to emerge again from the depths of history by reckless intellectual inquisitiveness, invading the once-contented smooth flowing tranquillity of the present. James’ tales work their effects by the incremental addition of telling details which are used sparingly but assuredly to evoke an atmosphere of mounting unease and vaguely defined dread. His scholarly background is used to add the patina of authenticity to each scenario, with the addition of recondite historical allusions and Latin addenda, etc.; while the supernatural pay-off, when it comes, frequently invokes the senses – particularly those of touch or smell -- and the contrast between the rarefied intellectual aridity of the world as it is usually experienced by the central characters in these tales and the vivid tactile descriptions of the sensory element involved in the horror of their encounters with the irrational, encourages a reading of the stories which, after first noting the almost complete absence of women in the them, goes on to ‘diagnose’ a deep-seated fear of sexual experience hidden away as a subtext, which many think shows through despite James’ conscious belief that any intrusion of sex should always be kept at bay in the traditional ghost story. Most of all though, James’ work is a function of the author’s dogged religious traditionalism and social conservatism, envisaging history and the past as harbouring a special weight that can never be shaken off and which is more alive in the surrounding landscape than can ever be adequately addressed by the donnish protagonists who inhabit nearly all his stories, and who are usually made to pay for their glib attitude towards its various manifestations in the form of the various malevolent supernatural encounters which feature in them.
Perhaps the quintessential M.R. James story, embodying most of the qualities which have come to be associated with his work, is the subject of the two very different adaptations included with this first volume. First read to the Chitchat Club in December 1903 and later published in his first collection, “Ghost Stories of an Antiquary” in 1904 (then republished in “Collected Ghost Stories” in 1931), “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” (the title comes from a line in a song by Robert Burns) tells of one Professor Parkins, a disbeliever in the supernatural, who takes a room during the Cambridge half-term holidays at the Globe Inn, situated on the edge of a beach in the East Anglian coastal town of Burnstow in Suffolk (generally held to be a fictionalised version of Felixstowe, near where James grew up and where other Cambridge academics often holidayed in the late Victorian era); in-between rounds of golf with one of the other guests -- a Colonel Wilson – he finds an ancient whistle while engaging in a spot of local amateur archaeology on the site of a ruin which was supposedly once used as a rest stop for the Knights Templar in medieval times. Parkins amuses himself by translating the Latin text etched into its side (‘Who is this who is coming?’), but then foolishly blows into it and summons a supernatural entity which makes its presence increasingly apparent through visions and upsets (most disturbingly, the empty bed in Parkins’ room appears as though it has been slept in during the night), until a climactic encounter in the middle of the night in the professor’s hotel room, when something appears to stir from the depths of that spare bed opposite.
The much admired 1968 BBC adaptation of this tale -- with its title truncated to the more manageable “Whistle and I’ll Come to You” -- provided the template for the later series of BBC ghost stories that were to be broadcast throughout the 1970s, but it was not originally a part of it: in fact, this black and white version was made for the arts documentary series “Omnibus” and produced and directed by Jonathan Miller as part of a slightly different approach to its subject matter, which attempted to build on the acclaim for Miller’s 1966 adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”. Jonathan Miller is probably best described to a younger audience as the 1960s’ version of Stephen Fry, in that he was a celebrated writer, presenter and comedian (he was involved with the Cambridge Footlights and appeared in the celebrated revue “Beyond the Fringe” with Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore) and also a polymath, who could educate and inform on an endless variety of subjects, from philosophy to medicine. On the surface, Miller -- an avowed atheist and philosophical naturalist -- would appear to have been an unlikely admirer of M.R. James and his world; and certainly Miller’s treatment of the story, though utterly terrifying, manages the neat trick of being true to the spirit of James’ methods while at the same time satirising the Edwardian Cambridge academic and his milieu, and taking exactly the sort of psychological approach to supernatural phenomenon which James’ stories make a point of disavowing. But out of all James’ tales of encounters with the uncanny, this is probably the one that is the most autobiographical: not only does the tale feature a bookish Cambridge don as its central character, who holidays in an area of the country intimately known to James himself; but the instance of supernatural agency featured in the story is based on one that the author experienced himself in one of his own dreams as a boy (as is mentioned at the very end of the tale). With all that in mind, this particular story was perhaps felt by Miller to be a perfect way of exploring through the form of a subtle adaptation, the kinds of inner motivations which inspired M.R. James’ body of work in the genre.
We can see this in the many changes Miller’s adaptation makes to the story. Professor Parkins is no longer the youngish, fair-haired golf-loving academic of the page but is transformed into an eccentric, elderly don played by Michael Hordern, who arrives at the off-season boarding house at the beginning of the tale, much prone to mumbling to himself absently in a rather aloof but charmingly bumbling manner, and who establishes in the opening minutes that he actually hates golf and has come here merely to work undisturbed during the holiday season. The austere, leaden atmosphere of this starchy Edwardian environment, with its over-furnished clutter and the big brass bedframes in Parkins’ room, combines with the superbly evocative black and white photography of Dick Bush (who also photographed Miller’s adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland”) to emphasise the character’s complete isolation from the small number of other guests in this otherwise empty location situated on the edge of a desolate stretch of East Anglian beach in wintertime. Hordern gives a staggering performance, at once comic and often moving, as we see his character going through the motions of interaction and mimicking the forms of human sociability without the content: dressing for dinner but dining alone and separate from everyone else, and avoiding the glances of the small number of middle-aged female patrons also staying in the hotel while maintaining a self-denying, enforced chirpiness, often chuckling to him-self and repeating snatches of overheard phrases under his breathe.
Hordern’s character is only really in his element when embarking on his solitary ramblings along the featureless beach with his packed lunches, or exploring a nearby neglected and vine-laden graveyard which, in this version, is where he finds the spectre-summoning whistle. One of the features of James’ work that feels out of date today is the class conscious tendency of his stories to include working class characters only as a condescending form of light relief. Here, the maids and the hotel staff are treated with more respect and come to represent a world apart which, again, the absent-minded academic is unable to penetrate. This particular adaptation focuses on the gradual unravelling of the protagonist’s mental state and his inability to engage with life or to confront his own mortality: Miller famously directed Hordern’s performance as a parody of the elderly philosophy professors he knew while he was at Cambridge, and Parkins’ interactions with the Colonel (Ambrose Coghill) at the breakfast table, where the two discuss the definition of ghosts and the survival of the human personality after death, become satirical digs at a trend in British philosophy at the time which was to treat all metaphysical questions merely as a matter for the analyses of the sentence structures that were used to formulate them. Hench, Parkins’ long, rambling, logic-chopping digression on the conceptual underpinnings of the phrase ‘to survive death’ becomes a satire on the logical positivism of figures such as A.J Ayer and Bertram Russell – the kind of modern public intellectual M.R. James himself, with his hidebound religious and social conservatism, was implacably opposed to.
The dream sequences, in which Parkins is pursued along the beach by a distant figure that gradually gest nearer and nearer, are very effective and were achieved simply by suspending a piece of cloth from a wire; but with sound effects, judicious use of slow-motion and effective framing, such sequences become laden with dread and a sense of the uncanny, while also suggesting and hinting at Miller’s psychological additions to how one can interpret the story: here, by not confronting the issues raised by the arguments of spiritualists and the supernaturalism he rejects (‘there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy!’) , Parkins is failing to notice his own mortal unravelling. The end confrontation with the entity as it finally emerges from his nightmares in stark undeniable form is as raw a rendering of terror on screen as has ever been achieved anywhere; but ultimately this version of the tale becomes not so much about the reality of the supernatural as the inevitability of death and the slipping away of the mind into senility. Parkins’ eccentricities at the beginning of the film can be seen as the early stages of dementia and the conclusion finds him being consumed by the condition. In the text of the original story, Parkins’ is saved from the ‘thing’ which forms itself out of the bed sheets on the spare bed of his room by the Colonel, who stops him being pushed out of the bedroom window by rushing into the room at the last second. Parkins is left with shaken nerves, and ‘less clear on certain points than he used to be’, but is otherwise unscathed. But the Parkins of the film is clearly lost to the rational world at the end, and has slipped completely into the isolated headspace of dementia as the other guests respond to his screams but burst in only to find some twisted bed sheets and Parkins gibbering to himself in the corner of the room …
In 2010 the BBC screened a new version of the tale which controversially jettisoned almost everything from the original story apart from the image of someone being followed by a distant, shrouded figure on a lone expanse of isolated beach. Once again screened under the abbreviated title of Miller’s 1968 version, this heavily re-worked supernatural drama, written by “Spooks” head writer Neil Cross and unusually directed and shot in 2.35.1 widescreen by Andy de Emmony, only justifies its title with a throwaway line of verse from the original Burns song, intoned by eternally rumpled retired astronomer James Parkin (John Hurt) to his aged wife Alice (Gemma Jones) who is suffering from the late stages of dementia and has to be confined to a care home after Parkin had previously grown used to devoting his retirement to looking after her. It’s established that the couple were childhood sweethearts and have rarely been apart since marrying, the song being a favourite of theirs from early in their relationship. With Helen now in the care of nurse Hetty (Leslie Sharp) at the clinically neutral-looking care home, Parkin returns to the isolated Devonshire coastal town and the old beachfront hotel that he and his wife once honeymooned at, to rekindle past memories of their times together. But while ‘rambling’ on the beach, he finds an old ring inscribed with the words ‘who is this who is coming’ in Latin. Thereafter he finds himself embroiled in a series of strange events, which first start when frantic scratchings from underneath his bed seem to suggest a rat trapped in the skirting; but the worst disturbance occurs when someone violently rattles and thumps on the door to his room in the middle of a sleepless night when there’s also a violent storm outside. The next morning, Parkin complains to the apologetic young receptionist/proprietress of the boarding house (Sophie Thompson) only to be told that there was no-one else in the hotel that night because the only other guests – a young family – booked out the day before; and even the receptionist herself was away, looking after her son who was suffering from the flu. Parkin was the only person in the building all night! Thereafter, the bewildered pensioner becomes increasingly reticent about continuing with his daily treks across the beach front: each time, the same shrouded figure appears to be trailing after him, getting closer and closer while always remaining vague and somehow indistinct.
The bleak atmosphere of this rendering owes much to the style of the modern-day form of supernatural horror that derives from Japan, and the creeping movements and spectral appearance of certain manifestations of the entity itself at the end of the film certainly take their cue from the vengeful folkloric figures found habitually to populate this particular sub-genre. The widescreen photography seeks to emphasis the enforced isolation of Hurt’s central character in a bleak winter landscape by the sea, an isolation which in this case has been brought about by physical separation from his wife and the character’s inability to cope with the loss which has already been anticipated by her dementia. The emptiness of the faded hotel and the vast stretches of unpopulated beach outside reinforce this sense of the character’s aloneness and of the vast, pitiless, mechanical indifference of the universe, as entailed by Parkin’s Newtonian view of the material Universe. The tone is detached and cold throughout; even before anything remotely supernatural has occurred, the drab greens and dowdy browns of the photography’s muted colour palette and the strange, silent, shadowy presences of the other white-gowned residents at the care home where Alice resides (who are ignored throughout as though they were already ghosts) make the psychological underpinning of this re-imagined tale all the more obvious. It has little to do with James’s approach to the ghost story in general, but as long as you accept this drama on its own terms it’s a perfectly effective vehicle for addressing the failure of the secular modern world to acknowledge and come to terms with the frailties of the human experience of ageing and of death -- with an odd, not entirely successful attempt at a twist ending, which feels somewhat unnecessary and forced, but is certainly otherwise in keeping with the opaque, frosty approach delivered throughout.
The hugely different approaches which are taken by each of the two versions of the story here help to justify their inclusion side-by-side on the same disc for this release, but the BFI have also loaded this first volume with enough extras to make it an essential purchase. The great British horror writer Ramsey Campbell provides an introduction to Miller’s film, but this is no brief few words before the main feature, but an engrossing 16 minute mini-lecture during the course of which Campbell reads extracts from James’ works to illustrate his approach to the genre, and also from authors who have been influenced by his style. He also talks about each of the two films and examines their individual approaches to adapting James. Elsewhere on the disc, Campbell reads aloud his own tribute ghost story to M.R. James: “The Guide”: in this story, a widower on holiday with his daughter’s young family finds an old guide book written by M.R. James in an old beachfront book shop and sets off in the author’s footsteps after discovering a strange, handwritten annotation inside (27 minutes). Next, there’s a short 3 minute extract from a 2012 Arena documentary on Jonathan Miller, in which he talks about the making of the film and about Michael Hordern’s characterisation. Finally, James’s original story is read aloud by Neil Brand (42 minutes).
Miller’s classic black and white version is clearly the main attraction here, but the extras and the creepy 2010 ‘spin-off’ make this a stand-out release, perfect for rapidly approaching winter nights spent indoors by the fireside.