Florence Smith Nicholls on our strange penchant for the macabre in the festive season…
“The next stage was that Parkins shut his eyes and determined to give sleep every chance. Here again over-excitement asserted itself in another form – that of making pictures.” Professor Parkins isn’t suffering from Christmas anticipation-induced insomnia with visions of sugar plums dancing in his head, but that’s because he’s the protagonist in the ghost story Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come To You, My Lad (1904) by M.R. James. You might find it strange that I make the connection between such a morbid tale and the festive season, but that’s because the BBC have twice adapted this work for the small screen in the spirit of their A Ghost Story for Christmas strand of annual television plays.
It seems almost perverse to broadcast with the intention of unnerving your audience just at the time when they most expect to be comforted, but therein lies the ingenuity of these plays. Initially running from 1971 to 1978, the shorts were sparse but atmospheric, benefiting from the unusual asset of being able to film on location. The no-frills approach to the adaptation of M.R. James’ works suits his straight forward writing style, which didn’t lend itself to the overbearing Gothic tropes we’ve become so accustomed to in this kind of fiction. Instead, James sets an uncanny scene with a far subtler sleight of hand. If this isn’t yet enough to sate your appetite then here’s an especially spooky link: M.R. James was a Cantabrigian.
In the literary version of Whistle, and I’ll Come To You, we are introduced to Parkins at Formal Hall with various other socially awkward academics in the fictional St James’ College, Cambridge. When an archaeologist at the table advises Parkins to visit a medieval site on his visit to Burnstow, this marks the inception of his entanglement with the spiritual world; their topic of conversation is an uncanny and unwanted presence at the dinner table. The premise of the short story, a lonely academic who cannot entertain any idea of the supernatural, inevitably lends itself to a comparison with the biography of the author. James, as provost of King’s College in the early 20th century, was a medieval scholar whose fascination with antiquaries likely inspired a tale of the frisson between scholarly intrigue and fantasy.
The original 1968 BBC version pre-dates their yuletide tradition, but it is often cited as a key influence on the later adaptations of James’ works. In this monochrome predecessor, the camera lingers on distant points and Parkins is often shown to us only through reflections. An interesting directional choice was to include a prologue in which a narrator calmly informs us of the “intellectual pride” which the protagonist unwisely exhibits, itself reminiscent of the omniscient narrator in the text. The film was highly critically acclaimed, not least because of Michael Hordern’s skilful characterisation of Parkins, laden with mannerisms and staccato conversations with himself.
Years later, scary Christmas is back in fashion. In 2005 A Ghost Story for Christmas was resurrected and five years later a modern take on Whistle was broadcast on Christmas Eve. With John Hurt at the helm, this was an adaptation of an entirely different flavour. The Cambridge connection has been cut. More crucially though, the supernatural threat is much less enigmatic, instead bound up with his abandonment of an apparently vegetated wife. In the 21st century, the unspoken ghoul is seemingly the spouse and not a faceless spirit.
M.R. James’ short story ends with an abrupt observation that “the professor’s views on certain points are less clear cut than they used to be.” Such self-doubt may seem more akin to the feeling you have on leaving a particularly rigorous supervision (which might seem like a horror story in itself) but perhaps the greatest thrills occur when you least expect them. James tenderly directs his readers through indistinct scenes with dangers they can’t quite foresee. These televised Ghost Stories follow his lead: Christmas presents, with a different kind of surprise.