NOW SHOWING: Whistle And I'll Come To You (1968) / by Paul Pensom

Enjoy a proper seasonal shudder with Jonathan Miller’s masterly take on M R James’s eerie tale.


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Last week we hosted Dickens, who consolidated the ghost story as part of the English Christmas experience. This week we bring you M R James, whose Edwardian-era tales of the uncanny took that tradition into the 20th century.

Readers of a certain age will recall the BBC’s atmospheric early ‘70’s adaptations of James’s ‘Ghost Stories For Christmas’. Those TV plays added a welcome touch of the macabre to an increasingly gaudy celebration, and they were inspired by this 1968 Omnibus adaptation of ‘Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You My Lad’, one of James’s most effective tales.

The play was adapted by Jonathan Miller, who as an ardent sceptic chose to make the supernatural elements of the story far more subjective than in the original text. Be that as it may, he still produced one of the most frightening sequences ever committed to film; Michael Hordern’s performance of a man confronted with the impossible is horribly memorable. Modern film-makers should take note: to scare people you don’t need computer plotted jump-cuts and over the top fright makeup, you can do it with nothing more than a sheet, a great actor and a lot of imagination.