Whistle and I'll Come to You

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Whistle and I'll Come to You is the title of two BBC television drama adaptations based on the ghost story "Oh, Whistle, And I'll Come To You, My Lad" by the writer M. R. James. The story tells the tale of an introverted academic who happens upon a strange whistle while exploring a Knights Templar cemetery on the East Anglian coast. When blown, the whistle unleashes a supernatural force that terrorises its discoverer.[1]

The story was first published in 1904 in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, the first collection of ghost stories that James published based on tales he had written as Christmas entertainments for audiences of friends and selected students at Eton and King's College, Cambridge, where he was provost.[2]

The first adaptation was made by the BBC in 1968. It was adapted and directed by Jonathan Miller and broadcast as part of the BBC arts strand Omnibus.[3] This production inspired a new yearly strand of M.R. James television adaptations known as A Ghost Story for Christmas (1971–1978, 2005–2006). A new adaptation of Whistle and I'll Come to You, written by Neil Cross and directed by Andy de Emmony, was made by the BBC in 2010. Both adaptations use James' story as a basis, but alter a number of aspects of the tale.[4]

1968 adaptation[edit]

Jonathan Miller adapted his 1968 version as part of the BBC arts strand Omnibus, which consisted mainly of arts documentaries so the dramatic adaptation was an unusual move; David Kerekes notes that this probably explains Miller's documentary-like introduction to the film.[3] Ian McDowell notes that the adaptation itself changes a number of aspects of James' story, turning the academic, described as "young, neat and precise of speech" into a bumbling, awkward, middle-aged eccentric.[5]

This adaptation was filmed on the Norfolk coast, near Waxham.[6]


The apparition in the famous beach scene in Whistle and I'll Come to You was achieved with a ragged cloth suspended on a wire.[7]

Professor Parkin, a stuffy Cambridge academic, arrives for an off-season stay at a hotel somewhere on the English east coast. Preferring to keep to himself, Parkin spends his stay walking along the beach and visits a local graveyard, which has become overgrown and unkempt. While there, he spots a small object protruding from a grave which is partly undermined by the edge of the cliff. He uncovers it and finds it is a bone whistle, which he keeps. When walking back along the shore, he turns twice and sees a dark silhouetted figure standing still in the distance in front of a setting sun, appearing to watch him.

Later, in the calm of his hotel room, he cleans and inspects the whistle, revealing a carved inscription: "Quis est iste qui venit" ("Who is this who is coming?"). He blows the whistle and a windstorm begins outside. Later that night, Parkin is kept awake by mysterious noises in his hotel room.

At breakfast the following morning, another guest at the hotel asks Parkin if he believes in ghosts. Parkin responds in a typically academic fashion, dismissing such beliefs as little more than superstition. However, that night, Parkin appears to have disturbing dreams of a spectre pursuing him on the beach. His nerves are not helped when, the following morning, he is informed by a maid that both of the beds in his room have been slept in – even though Parkin only slept in one.

Increasingly disturbed, he searches a book for answers. That night, he is awakened by a sound like flapping sheets. As he sits up in bed, the sheets from the other bed across the room move and then rise up into the phantom from the shore. Waking another hotel guest who comes to his aid, Parkin sits in stunned terror at what he has just witnessed.

Cast and characters[edit]


This version is highly regarded amongst television ghost story adaptations, and described by Mark Duguid of the British Film Institute as "A masterpiece of economical horror that remains every bit as chilling as the day it was first broadcast."[8] A BBC Press Release for its repeat showing in 1969 stated that it was an "unconventional adaptation...remarkable, both for its uncanny sense of period and atmosphere, and for the quality of the actors' performances."[9]

The performance of Michael Hordern is especially acclaimed, with his hushed mutterings and repetition of other characters' dialogue, coupled with a discernible lack of social skills, turning the professor from an academic caricature into a more rounded character, described by horror aficionado David Kerekes as "especially daring for its day".[3] The stage journal Plays and Players suggests that Hordern's performance hints that the professor suffers from a neurological condition called the "idea of a presence".[10] Much of the script was improvised on location with the actors.[9]

2010 adaptation[edit]

"Whistle and I'll Come to You"
A Ghost Story for Christmas episode
Directed byAndy de Emmony
Written byM. R. James (story)
Neil Cross (adaptation)
Original air date24 December 2010
Episode chronology
← Previous
"Number 13"
Next →
"The Tractate Middoth"
John Hurt in the remake of the same scene. Note the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, which is unusual for a television production.[11]

A new adaptation was screened on BBC Two during the 2010 Christmas television season. This new version, written by Neil Cross and directed by Andy de Emmony, stars John Hurt in the lead role.[4] This adaptation removes the whistle of the original James story, but hints at Robert Burns' original Scottish folk song "Oh, Whistle, And I'll Come To You, My Lad", which Hurt's character recites at the beginning of the story to his wife and is played over the end credits.[11][12]


In this version, retired astronomer James Parkin goes on a respite holiday after leaving his aged wife (who appears to be in the advanced stages of senile dementia) in a care home. When revisiting one of their favourite coastal towns during the off-season, he goes for a walk on the beach and discovers a wedding ring in the sand, which he keeps. As he is walking back along the desolate beach to his hotel, he senses he is being followed and sees a motionless white-clad figure in the distance behind him. However, as he walks further, the seemingly motionless figure gets closer to him each time he turns to look back. Nervous, he runs back to the steps that exit the beach, but as he turns around again, the figure has disappeared. Back at his hotel room, he cleans the ring he has found and sees it is inscribed with the Latin words for "Who is this, who is coming?", which he reads out loud. Later that night, he is awoken by noises. Initially this seems to be caused by a storm outside, but he then hears scratching noises inside his room. He goes back to sleep with his bedside lamp turned on, but when he awakens again later, the lamp is inexplicably off again.

The next morning, he dismisses the scratching noises as a rat and the lamp as having a loose connection, both of which he asks the hotel receptionist to investigate. He begins to venture out to the beach again, but once he gets there he becomes hesitant and decides to spend the day elsewhere instead. That night, Parkin falls asleep while reading in bed. He is woken in the night again by strange noises, and finds his bedside lamp is once again turned off even though he fell asleep with it on. This time, someone tries to enter his hotel room. Though they are unsuccessful, he feels shaken by the incident. Eventually, he manages to fall asleep again, but has a disturbing dream that involves his wife, a young child, and the figure on the beach.

Early the next morning, he tells the hotel receptionist that he believes one of the other guests tried to get into his room but she tells him that he was alone in the hotel all night with no other guests or even staff present. Though his scientific mind refuses to acknowledge the existence of the spiritual or supernatural (he refuses to believe in the idea of his wife's spirit being trapped in her almost functionless body like a "ghost in the machine"), he becomes increasingly uneasy during the remainder of his stay at the hotel. Later that day, he is again followed by the ominous white-clad figure on the otherwise empty beach. Panicked, he runs back to the hotel and decides to leave the following day.

The night before he is due to depart, Parkin struggles to relax in his hotel room. He picks up the ring he found on the beach, but quickly tries to dispel any irrational thoughts he is having and eventually falls asleep. Later in the night, he is once again awakened by the scratching sounds and then something trying to enter his hotel room. This time, a spectral apparition enters his room from underneath the door. As his bedside lamp goes off again by itself, Parkin shuts his eyes in terror and implores the apparition to leave him alone, but as he opens his eyes he sees a figure sitting on the end of his bed. The figure appears to be his wife, who angrily says over and over again "I'm still here" as she crawls towards him. Parkin tries in vain to escape, his fingernails scratching on the wooden floor making a sound identical to the scratching noises he kept hearing. The following morning, the receptionist finds Parkin lying dead in his bed, while his wife seemingly vanishes from the care home.[13]

Cast and characters[edit]


The music for this adaptation was composed by Tristin Norwell and Nick Green.


As it was shown on Christmas Eve, there were few reviews. Sam Wollaston, writing in The Guardian was mixed in his review, criticising some of the changes ("His terrifying short story has been much tampered with. The whistle...is missing mysteriously...Even the shoreline is wrong; it should be the east coast: dunes, windswept. This looks like Dorset."). However, he praised John Hurt's performance, calling it "a masterclass in how to captivate" and noting that despite the changes "what survives...is the spirit of the story – a man, alone by the sea, haunted, pursued by something. It is terrifying."[14]

DVD releases[edit]

The 1968 television adaptation was first released in the UK on DVD by the British Film Institute in 2002, though has been out of print for several years.[15] The BFI later released both the 1968 and 2010 versions in a single volume DVD, and as part of an M.R. James boxset in 2012.

Both versions were released in Australia by Shock DVD in 2011 as part of a five-disc DVD set of the BBC's M.R. James TV adaptations.


  1. ^ Whistle and I'll Come to You on the Channel 4 film website
  2. ^ Pfaff, Richard W., "Montague Rhodes James", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Online Edition). Oxford University Press. September 2004. [1]. Retrieved 15 August 2010.
  3. ^ a b c David Kerekes, Creeping Flesh: The Horror Fantasy Film Book. London: Headpress, 2003. ISBN 978-1-900486-36-1. 42–44.
  4. ^ a b Press Release, BBC Press Office, 10 October 2010.
  5. ^ Ian McDowell, "It Came from the BBC Vault", H.P. Lovecraft's Magazine of Horror No. 4
  6. ^ Bleak and Solemn, Abstract dynamics
  7. ^ M.R. James: Supernatural Storyteller, television documentary, BBC Four, Christmas 2005
  8. ^ Mark Duguid, Whistle and I'll Come to You on the British Film Institute website
  9. ^ a b Helen Wheatley, Gothic Television Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0-7190-7149-2. 42.
  10. ^ Plays and Players, Issue 16, Hansom Books, 14
  11. ^ a b Whistle and I'll Come to You, imagedissectors.com
  12. ^ Olly Grant, "John Hurt interview: Whistle and I'll Come to You, BBC One", Daily Telegraph, 23 December 2010
  13. ^ Whistle and I'll Come to You at BBC Online. Retrieved 24 December 2010.
  14. ^ Sam Wollaston, "Review: Whistle and I'll Come to You", The Guardian 27 December 2010.
  15. ^ Eddie Dyja, BFI film and television handbook, Issue 2002, British Film Institute, 2002 ISBN 978-0-85170-904-8, 11

External links[edit]