Sunday, 16 January 2011

Ghosts of Christmas – Past and Present.

The BBC’s Ghost Story for Christmas series originally extended from 1971 to 1978. Highly esteemed by supernatural fiction enthusiasts, it is mainly remembered for its adaptations of classic tales by M.R. James, although 1976’s atmospheric version of Dickens’ The Signalman is often considered to be the finest. In recent years, attempts have been made to revive the series, with new productions of James’s A View from a Hill and Number 13 appearing in 2005 and 2006. Whilst these are enjoyable exercises in television nostalgia, there is an air of pastiche about them which means that they fall short of the original series’ level of excellence.

This year it was revealed that the Ghost Story for Christmas was to be a remake of Whistle and I’ll Come to You. Although Jonathan Miller’s 1968 Omnibus production of this pre-dated the series proper, it has joined it in popular memory as the first and most impressive of the BBC’s M.R. James adaptations. It is an extraordinary work that succeeds on many levels, and is a hard act to follow. I was thus mystified as to why the BBC should have chosen Whistle and I’ll Come to You rather than one of the many other tales by M.R. James and his Victorian and Edwardian contemporaries that have not yet been filmed.

Memories of pointless remakes such as The Haunting and The Wicker Man started to rise unbidden, provoking fears that were hardly laid to rest by an announcement that the remake was to be “a contemporary update, influenced by Japanese horror films and The Shining”, penned by Neil Cross. Oh dear. One bit of good news was that the star was to be John Hurt, surely an actor with sufficient gravitas to pull the pull the project through.

The issue of faithfulness to the original story is a complex one. Television and the written word and two separate media, and what works on the page is not necessarily going to be what’s best for the small screen. Jonathan Miller certainly didn’t take the path of slavish adaptation. However, although he was not afraid to make changes to the original, particularly in the area of characterization, he certainly took no liberties. His re-imagining of the story’s protagonist, Professor Parkin, as a bumbling old absent-minded don, played to perfection by Michael Hordern, was a stroke of genius.

Horden’s portrayal is a pleasure to watch in every frame. Here is a man fully at home with his own company and absorbed in his own mental processes to the extent that he has become somewhat disengaged with the rest of the world. As we observe his break at a desolate East Coast seaside resort, we become fully acquainted with the man and his habits. An amusing exchange with another hotel resident in which he applies linguistic logic to dismiss the notion of ghosts shows up Professor Parkin’s one big flaw; he is pleased to the point of smugness with his own arguments and formulations. In particular, he is delighted by his inversion of a famous quote from Hamlet: “There are more things in philosophy than are dreamt of in Heaven or Earth”.

Parkin’s faith in his academic superiority is threatened by the unaccountable events that take place after he discovers and blows and old whistle he discovers in an ancient cliff-top graveyard. Miller remains true to the story’s suggestion that the “ghost”, when it eventually appears, would not have had the power to physically harm its victim. The fear is not of violence or gore, but something far more powerful; the ease with which a logically constructed world-view established over decades of study and argument can be brought crashing down by a single anomalous experience. Jonathan Miller (no believer in the supernatural himself) has turned James’ comic-horrific tale of a conceited young don into a full-blown parable on intellectual hubris.

With this illustrious predecessor in mind, it was with some trepidation that I switched on the TV to view Neil Cross’s “contemporary retelling”. First impressions were not good; we are thrown head first into a scene not bearing the remotest resemblance to anything in the original story. The elderly Parkin (John Hurt) has been saddled by the screenwriter with a senile wife (Gemma Jones) and is shown depositing her into what can only be described as the care home from hell. Parkin (who we learn is a retired astronomer) appears to be a wealthy man, so why he has chosen to place his beloved spouse in this grim establishment, in which the inmates are sat in rows in high-backed chairs wearing identical white gowns, is not explained. To a critical viewer, however, the answer is obvious. This is not one of the quaintly observed social locales we might expect as a background to the chilling goings-on in a Ghost Story for Christmas; this is Generic Horror-Land. And thereby hangs the weakness of this production. James’ finely crafted tale has been hollowed out and used as the vehicle for another, different story entirely; a markedly inferior one. You wonder how this came about; presumably the piece needed the cachet of the original to reach production and attract a talent of John Hurt’s calibre. Surely, however, it can only suffer from comparison with the original?

John Hurt has, it must be said, a most impressive face. Deeply creased and furrowed, it ages him beyond his seventy years. He is made to star in a Samuel Beckett biopic and somebody should really get to work on this immediately. In Whistle and I’ll Come to You, however, the poor man is coasting. He has one direction, which is to look miserable, and he does this exceedingly well. Yet everything about this work is lifeless and depressing, with fifty-two minutes of it stretching out interminably.

Having left the catatonic wife at the Stephen King care home, in the hands of the patronising nurse who is on single-handed duty there, Parkin (in a rare piece of faithfulness-to-the-plot) makes his way to a seaside hotel. This establishment is equally short-staffed and, apart from one family, which packs up and leaves during his stay, Parkin is the sole resident. Jonathan Miller showed us exactly how Professor Parkin spends his solitary days by the seaside, conveying a fine sense of life of the hotel and the nature of his solitary rambling. By contrast, the 2010 version seems fractured and drawn out. The setting has been transferred for some reason from East Anglia to Thanet in Kent, so we are presented with chalk cliffs in place of flat sands and, most importantly, no groynes to act as hurdles in the ghostly pursuit along the beach. Continuity is poor, however, and we never get a clear idea of the landscape and how it stands in relation to the hotel. Cliffs appear first in one direction and then in another. We are never sure how far Parkin has walked or what time of day it is.

The two big scares are stolen from elsewhere. First of all, there is a fearsome, unexplained banging on the bedroom door while Parkin is trying to sleep. This scene is reminiscent of Robert Wise’s The Haunting, but that is rather a classy reference for this production. The pre-screening publicity suggests that this scene was intended to evoke memories of axe-wielding Jack Nicholson from The Shining. Unfortunately as Parkin cowers beneath the postcodes, the response is more likely to be “Why doesn’t he just open the bloody door?”

Scare no.2 (which sinks any pretence at subtlety the production may have had until now) is lifted direct from 1998 Japanese horror smash Ringu. Just like Sadako’s stylised ghost crawling from a TV screen, the wraith of Parkins’ senile wife crawls beneath the three-inch gap conveniently left for her beneath his bedroom door. Crawling up the bed, she screams manically “I’m here, I’m here!” into his startled face – a disruption which causes the poor old codger to expire on the spot. Given the idyllic loving relationship that we have been led to believe existed between the two, this occurrence is somewhat surprising. Is it supposed to be a manifestation of the mood changes medically associated with Alzheimer’s disease? Parkin has earlier expressed to the hotel manager his horror at witnessing his wife’s living body minus her personality. Presumably the idea is that, by appearing in the guise of a Japanese ghost, Mrs. Parkin is merely attempting to alert her husband to her continued existence. But wouldn’t a gentler, more loving reminder have sufficed? There is no law stating that ghost stories have to be about crude horror. This story could have concluded in a heartwarming manner, offering consolation to individuals and families afflicted by dementia.

The final scene contributes more confusion, leading many viewers on online forums to question what happened. The nurse at the rest home (yes, that nurse) glimpses Mrs. Parkin among the white-gowned upright-chair-sitters before glancing back to see she has disappeared, a fact she acknowledges with a wry grin. Obviously she has died and become a ghost, but why she appears in such a peaceful form to the nurse (who seems quite unfazed) after scaring her poor husband literally to death is a mystery, only explained by the reflection that this is just a clichéd conclusion to a generic plot.

The plot of M.R. James’s masterpiece has been mutilated to a ridiculous extent. Most bizarrely, some bright spark has decided not to have a whistle, rendering the title entirely meaningless. The only reference to one when Parkin sings the Burns song into his wife’s ear near the beginning, but the relevance of this is not explained and most viewers will probably have missed this anyway. Removing this key plot element has the sole effect of making the thing even more tedious and uneventful – the director clearly thinking that picture postcard views of the seaside are sufficient to retain our attention.

One of M.R. James’ strengths is the inexplicable nature of his apparitions. All that is known about the ghost (if that’s what it is) in Oh, whistle and I’ll come to you is that it is comes from far away and is connected to the Knights Templars, a mediaeval religious order associated with diabolism and forbidden practices. An air of antiquity and the arcane pervades his tales, infecting the cosy world of his protagonists with the miasma of ancient wrongs. By contrast, the 2010 BBC production adheres to modern Hollywood conventions. In a quote from 1999’s CGI-ridden version of The Haunting (the direst remake of all), “It’s all about family!” In other words, the Supernatural must play second fiddle to a tedious soap opera plot that attempts to put a “psychological” spin on everything that happens to make it “relevant to a modern audience”.

All in all, this was a tragically wasted opportunity. The ingredients for a top-quality production were there in terms of casting and cinematography, but it foundered on the rocks of a dumbed-down screenplay. Considering the rich tradition of British horror, it is difficult to see the relevance of referencing works such as Ringu. Presumably the intention was to be “with it” and fashionable, but the Japanese horror craze was ages ago now, probably when the people who produced this were still at university. This demonstrates the weakness of the whole thing; it was made by people with no sensitivity or feel for their source material, who clearly felt they could improve on the original. Given the story’s warning against hubris, this is ironic to the extreme.