Whistling Away

I watched some TV this evening.

No, in all seriousness, this is relatively unusual. I don’t normally have the time for serious televisionage. However, it’s the Christmas season, the dreaded paper is re-submitted and for a few short days, I have nothing at all to worry about!

Anyway, some time ago, I read a short story. It’s from the early 20th Century and it’s by M.R. James. The story is called ‘Oh Whistle, Boy, And I’ll Come To You.’ And tonight, there was a TV adaptation of it.

(TL;DR version: I sat, I watched, I enjoyed. More detail below the cut…)


The adaptation was very much a pragmatic one. They kept the mood and some of the furniture of the original story, but not the date or the setting.

Briefly, an elderly astronomer chooses to go on a short break. His wife of many years is in what appears to be the terminal ward of a home. She no longer recognises or responds to him, and he seems unsure whether to grieve. She’s gone, but she still lives.

Then he leaves for the hotel. It’s a place they stayed before. It’s also half-deserted; the implication is that it’s out of season. But, while he’s there, he goes to the beach. And he finds a ring. Shortly afterwards, he seems to sight a mysterious figure, which appears to pursue him across the beach. And then hilarity ensues. (I won’t spoil it any further.)

(If you want to read it – which I highly recommend – the original story is here. It’s well worth it.)

Anyway, some thoughts.

First off, there were several nods to the original. The professor’s terrifed flight across the beach, for instance, is straight out of the original. Also, the idea of a rationalist academic confronted by forces beyond his comprehension riffs off of James’s origianl construction. Also the show kept the idea of a mysterious artifact as the catalyst of ominous events, although this time the artifact was a ring, not a whistle. And the hotel and beach echoed the original too.

The mise-en-scene was well done. The hotel had the right half-abandoned, faded air with its clean-but-old fittings and its beige and grey palette. And the wide shots of the scenery, with its windswept emptiness, added to the eeriness. I liked the shot of the offshore windfarm in the distance, blurry and unfocused. This was just after one of the professor’s enigmatic encounters, and the implication was clear – he was gazing back at the familiar, rational world, remote and lost in the distance.

The show also made good use of sound. The rattling of the locked door during the intrusion scene, the moaning of the wind, the storm, the hiss of the pillow as it withdrew under the door … the sense of tension and barely-controlled fear was incredible. These were contrasted with quiet and silence, and making effective use of silence is a rare skill!

One thing that was new was the vaguely gothic undertones. The characters’ actions were stilted and uncertain, and they seemed uneasy. It was as if they themselves were unsure of their own place in the world, and were trying to grope their way back to somewhere familiar. And there was more than a touch of madness here and there, from the hotel that was left unstaffed to the professor’s failure to confront the shaking door. The hotel itself had a distinctly gothic air – its Victorian architecture broods atop the cliffs in many scenes, heavy and still and with the sense of a mausoleum about it.

There were also more than a few moments of pure horror, such as the porcelain head that shatters during the professor’s hallucination.

The ending – I shan’t spoil it, but it was suitably enigmatic. This was one criticism that I would make – I would have liked some more closure.

Overall, I enjoyed it. It was nice to see the BBC doing something new and I felt that the adaptation worked well. It was neither better nor worse than the original, but different instead. And I think I can recommend it for the iPlayer list!

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