Described by the Beeb as a thoroughly “modern re-working” (are there any two more hideous words in the English language?), this adaptation of the MR James’ Edwardian ghost story Oh, Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad shares little with the original in terms of plot.
So little, in fact, that the producers of this fine one-hour film could have got away with brandishing this 2010 “version” as its own entity; a new and original drama.
The tale here is simple enough: James Parkin (John Hurt) has travelled to an old seaside haunt as his wife, of many years, sits in the care of a nursing home. But it is during his time rambling on the beach that the eerie tone of the piece begins, following a monotone and sombre beginning. And it’s during these scenes that one witnesses, or hears rather, the magnificent soundscape.
Silence is key here, with only natural sounds playing their part in the orchestra of fear. Parkin sees the vision of a human on the beach, assumedly following him. Cutting short his “fun” time, this leads him back to the hotel, where the soundscape becomes even more intoxicating.
As Parkin lies alone in his bed, the noises of the night begin to terrify him. But these are no simple trees brushing against the window or the howling of the wind – the aural atmosphere consists of horrific scraping on the floor and equally unnerving taps at the door. These taps worsen as the door is physically forced and the rattling of the door becomes so chilling that you’ll be turning your head just to make sure your own door is secure…
These bedroom and beach scenes are universal and familiar, with the skillful direction and sound creating the uncanny world in which Parkin finds himself in. Hurt plays the character with a deftness not oft seen on the small screen. His terror is palpable as his imagination runs riot into the real world, though the scares are so tangible that you may not notice what is actually taking place onscreen.
It’s a great pity that the BBC decided to broadcast this without much fanfare before Christmas (not even as part of a ghost story season as before in 1968) – Whistle And I’ll Come To You would have been perfect Halloween fodder.
Airs at 9pm on Friday 24th December 2010 on BBC Two and BBC HD.