It might still be a day or two early to be talking about Christmas, but one of the things I most look forward to this time of year is the seasonal tradition of telling ghost stories. So, after the passing of Jonathan Miller, I think now is the perfect time to re-visit what is arguably one of the British Writer and Director’s most under-appreciated works.
Traditionally, ghosts are usually the anonymised remnants of souls who perished unjustly. They often die in pain, misery and poverty, having been hounded to their graves by elites who see nothing monstrous in that – only normality. It is these same elites who refuse to acknowledge those forces inside themselves which they simply cannot understand – and who subsequently cannot foresee a backlash to their actions. In other words, they often underestimate that “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy…”
When, as so often is the case in classic and modern literature, a member of the ruling class is tormented by the dead, it is a paranormal reaping of what they have sewn, which traumatises them into facing the ignored oppression they benefit from. That’s why ghost stories like Whistle and I’ll Come to You are ever so essential ingredients to Christmas tradition – as a warning to those ‘more fortunate’.
The rich, powerful and academically privileged have grown to believe the tactics they have used to gain control of society are the be-all and end-all. Their hegemony is so great they have swallowed their own Kool-Aid, so to speak. Should you present them with evidence that genuinely shakes their belief therefore – they become quivering wrecks, trembling as their ‘natural’ is rubbished by something more… to them, something ‘supernatural’.
Montague Rhodes James was the Vice Chancellor of Cambridge during the First World War. Then, he was a noted archaeologist and scholar, and incidentally a colossal Tory. But while he might be what you would consider a quintessential ruling class stereotype, he also deployed his background of pomp and privilege to enable him to dabble in the macabre. The fusty and self-righteous society that he was a part of – ruled by an elite whose opinions were are starched in place as their impeccable white collars – gave James ample material for antagonists in the ghost stories he is now remembered for.
According to James, the story must “put the reader into the position of saying to himself, ‘If I’m not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!’” He would read his work over the Christmas period to his friends and peers – and while many of the privileged elite he was part of may have been revelling (even more heartily than usual) in their positions of seemingly unassailable comfort and power – James seemed determined to impart a very different holiday gift on those his stories reached. A story of humility – of reflection and critique of one’s own assumptions, delivered in a neat package of prose – and of terror.
Out of this ‘Christmas tradition,’ it is therefore not particularly surprising that film-makers would later go on to use his work to bestow seasonal warnings of their own, long after Rhodes himself had departed this spiritual plane. Perhaps the greatest of this feast of festive fear is Jonathan Miller’s celebrated 1968 adaptation of Oh, whistle and I’ll come to you, my lad. Miller’s version – not to be confused with the abominable 2010 remake, starring John Hurt, and a ghost impersonating Frank Spencer – makes a number of changes.
Whistle and I’ll Come to You transforms the Professor Parkin from a young, precise man into a bumbling, aged recluse (played by a pitch-perfect Michael Hordern) but still manages to keep true to the spirit of James’ source material. In the words of Miller himself, introducing the film, the “peculiar air of cranky scholarship” in James’ tales is the perfect backdrop for a warning about “the dangers of intellectual pride.”
The Professor, holidaying on the solitary East Anglian coast (filmed on location in Norfolk and Suffolk), routinely ridicules ideas of the supernatural – and indeed of ghosts. In doing so, in a phenomenal dialogue scene with Ambrose Coghill’s Colonel (the only other sustained screen presence) – he opens a door to us on the literal contempt of the ruling class towards ideas that are not their own. He pours scorn on the Colonel’s assertion that the human personality can survive death – not because he finds it infeasible, but because he has trouble envisaging the pain of people beneath his station. He even makes a point of making a mazy joke out of it – giggling at the idea that a man being very badly hurt by death would be impossible, while asserting mirthfully that death would hurt that man’s family.
He cannot or will not conceive of the suffering that others – in this case, others spirits – may endure as a result of the world within which he thrives – as it would completely compromise his supposedly normative world-view. And so, without ever really responding to whether ghosts could exist or not, he dismisses the debate itself.
I will leave my analysis here; this is a lesson best learned for oneself, and so I heartily watch or re-watch this film over the course of December’s festivities. However, before I leave you to the mercies of the film – posted in full below – let’s spell one thing out to those sitting all too comfortably in positions of power and influence. There are some things you can never control or understand – and the human spirit is one of them. To the port-swilling economist whose point of view doesn’t extend beyond their bulbous, scarlet nose; the aimless academic who has no respect for the theories of their students; or the blustering career politician who perceives himself as electorally untouchable by the unwashed masses, no matter how many times he openly sells their future short – let me issue a warning.
Ghosts may seem like anonymous statistics whose very power and presence seem impossible, especially to those who spend their waking time basking in the glow of ideological domination at the end of another year in charge. When the lights go out though, those you ignore; those damaged and oppressed by the way of life you see as common sense, bent and broken beyond recognition… they will be waiting in the shadows.
This article was originally published in December 2015, via the Hollywood Hegemony blog.