Pity or Terror? MR James and Jonathan Miller

Screenshot 2015-04-01 09.53.02Since MR James is our most noted writer of ghost stories, Michael Hordern one of our finest actors, and the many-faceted Jonathan Miller among our most celebrated directors, it should be no surprise that a production combining the talents of all three should acquire ‘classic’ status; but that should not stop us looking at it with a critical eye.

I am speaking, of course, of the 1968 BBC production of James’s tale ‘O whistle and I’ll come to you my lad’ which – not for the first time – has been the subject of some discussion on the MR James Appreciation Society Facebook page: one strand was initiated by a question about the ending, and whether it might not be more conclusive and in line with James; another asked who from the present crop of acting talent might play Professor Parkins, who has always been portrayed on TV as an older man (Hordern in 1968 was 57; John Hurt, in the recent remake, was around 70) despite being termed ‘young’ in the original.

This prompted me to go back and look again at the Miller version, which is available in full on YouTube (click here). It is frequently quoted as a classic adaptation of James’s tale (full text here) : does it deserve that accolade?

The Miller production – including the introduction, a curious feature we must return to – comes in at a little over 40’ long. In my edition, the original story runs to 30 pages of rather large type and takes about as long to read as the film does to watch; so there is not the usual need for paring-down of substance, character and incident.

Yet pared-down this production undoubtedly is: it centres almost exclusively on Hordern (he is seldom out of shot and generally alone) and considerable portions of the original tale are jettisoned, notably the university scene at the start, the encounter with the small boy outside ‘The Globe’ and the final stage of the encounter with the ghost (and what happens afterwards). In addition, the role of the colonel is considerably reduced, some events are conflated (the original has two whistleblowings and two rumpled bed incidents, the Miller version one of each) and the order of events is revised.

Now all that may be justified in terms of the change of medium, to bring the main storyline out more clearly; but James is a careful craftsman and seldom writes without purpose.

The TV story proper starts with a bed. It is in the foreground of the shot, viewed from an angle, a little from above. Two maids in frilly caps are in the process of making it; there is another bed, already made-up, in the background. The camera lingers on the bed as the maid smooths down the counterpane and satisfies herself that it is ready for whoever is coming.

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This is good dramatic technique: under the guise of every-day activity, our attention is drawn to the bed as something significant in the story; in our minds, we are already forming the question that is explicitly articulated later in the tale: ‘who is this who is coming?’

The question seems to be answered in the next scene: the maid’s exit through one door blends into the opening of another, in the cab that collects Michael Hordern from the station. The vintage of the cab – a Morris 25, I think – and the maids’ uniform suggest a time between the wars, the twenties rather than the thirties*. The original story was written in 1903 and its setting is clearly contemporary, even though candles and rats in bedrooms are taken for granted as features of a provincial hotel. It is interesting that Miller has opted to set his story in the past, though given that 1968 was a time of great social and cultural upheaval, he probably thought a contemporary setting impossible.

Economy of storytelling in a TV production is often allied to drive and urgency, but that is not the case here: the pace is remarkably leisurely and the focus for a good ten minutes is entirely on establishing Hordern’s character: a man almost childlike in his lack of self-awareness and preoccupation with his own thoughts; he is, from the outset, an isolated figure – sitting at a separate table, put out of countenance by the overtures of an attractive single woman (later glimpsed with another, younger gentleman in tow), declining the offer of a round of golf, going for a solitary ramble.

Not till we are more than a third of the way in does Parkins, quite by chance and out of the blue, commit the act that precipitates the main action of the tale.

It is worth contrasting this with what James does. His Professor Parkins is first encountered in the hospitable surroundings of the College Hall, with the dons at table and looking forward to the break from academic teaching – it is the end of Full Term, and is either early December or early March (I incline to March because of the golf; but there is a reference to hotels being ‘closed for the winter’ which could be read either way).

In the first five pages (a sixth of the total) we establish not only Parkins’s character, but an important foundation for the rest of the story. Parkins is, like the character Hordern portrays, a recognisable type (and one does wonder if James had anyone specific in mind) but he is more subtly drawn than Miller’s and of quite a different sort. Far from being isolated, he is gregarious enough (‘my friends have been making me take up golf this term’) though his colleagues find him a bit of a pain: he is evidently one of those people who, having arrived at their own position on a matter and found it at odds with what is generally believed, feel compelled at every opportunity to ‘correct’ the popular notion. In Parkins’s case, the matter is the supernatural; he not only disbelieves in it, he actively deprecates it, and any mention of ghosts is guaranteed to get him up on his high horse, a propensity that some colleagues take advantage of for sport.

(there is some suggestion that his zeal is that of the convert – there is a reference later to his ‘unenlightened days’)

But alongside this character, Parkins is also given a motivation for his later actions. Rather like the bedmaking at the start of the Miller piece, it is introduced under the guise of everyday detail – a colleague asks him to look at the remains of a Templar Preceptory near where he is staying; but as with the bedmaking, the reader senses that this is something that will prove of greater significance in due course. The Templars, of course, had a reputation long before Dan Brown ever got hold of them, and James’s stories generally feature antiquarian things as key elements. (‘Oh Whistle’ first featured in ‘Ghost Stories of an Antiquary’ and the question about the preceptory is asked ‘by a person of antiquarian pursuits’).

So while the Miller character is still ambling about, absorbed in his own little world, we already know who the James character is, where he is going, and what he plans to do there.

At this point it is worth looking in detail at the introduction Miller provides. I have to say I find it rather odd, from its opening declaration ‘this is a tale of the supernatural’ – why is that necessary? – to the curious (and somehat disparaging) reference to James’s ghost-story writing as ‘a sideline’; (and is it accurate to describe James as ‘an archaeologist’?) but the bit I take real issue with is what follows, every part of which I think is questionable.

James’s tales, we are told, ‘have a peculiar atmosphere of cranky scholarship’ – do they, really? What follows deals with a cranky scholar, certainly, but he seems much more Miller’s invention than James’s; and I cannot really think ‘cranky scholarship’ is a significant factor in any of James’s tales.

And what are we to make of the claim that ‘O Whistle’ is ‘the darkest’ of James’s tales? The opposite is surely the case – for all its undoubted terror, it is conspicuously light, in several respects – the tone throughout is humorous, from the observation of the colonel’s ‘pronouncedly protestant’ views, the author’s self-depreciation of his knowledge of golf, to the touch of schadenfreude in the closing line; more importantly, the penalty suffered by Professor Parkins is light in comparison with those other James characters who are unwisely inquisitive, Mr Wraxall in ‘Count Magnus’ and the unfortunate Paxton in ‘A Warning to the Curious’; their ending is certainly dark.

And is it a tale of ‘solitude and terror’? again, that seems a better description of the tale Miller tells than of James’s: Hordern is very much alone throughout; the original Professor Parkins is not.

And does it have a moral? If the original has, it is lightly drawn – there is some suggestion (the reference to a surplice at the end) that Parkins has resumed the practice of his faith, but the main point of the story is a familiar one in James, that some things are best not meddled with; Parkins’s reason is not overthrown, but his rational certainties which were such an irritant to his colleagues have been considerably undermined. We are left with the feeling, in James’s tale, that Parkins is the better for his experience, at least in the sense that his colleagues will find him more tolerable company.

In short, then, Miller’s introduction is a piece of agenda-setting, which prepares the way for a tale quite different from James’s; but it also serves to disguise or distract from the weaknesses that arise in Miller’s version as a result of his deviation from the original.

As I have suggested, you tamper with a James tale at your peril: you will find little there that does not have some clear purpose. Miller’s omission of the Templar Preceptory is, to my mind, a blunder. As noted above, it is in many respects parallel to the focus on the bed at the start of the TV production: both prepare the ground for what comes later; but there is an important difference. James’s Professor sets out with a clear motivation.

The Templars are an odd lot and it would be no surprise if an object found in the ruins of one of their churches – in its own special place in the altar, mind – proved to be something out of the common run; and given that Parkins has undertaken to take a look at the preceptory, it is entirely credible that he would appropriate such an object out of legitimate antiquarian curiosity.

By contrast, some 13’ in to the TV version, the Hordern character is sketching out the itinerary for the ‘trudge’ he proposes in preference to a round of golf with the colonel: ‘take a packed lunch… take a look at the dunes… the beach… the cemetery.’ Why this rather clumsy addition? It seems an odd place to specify. Indeed, the main purpose seems to be to elicit from the colonel an equally improbable response: ‘oo-er – a bit too spooky for me!’ which Hordern echoes sceptically: ‘spooky? is it? (hmmm) spooky.’ In terms of subtlety, this is on a par with an elbow in the ribs; it also comes out of nowhere.

When he does come on the cemetery, he shows no more than passing, slightly scornful interest, tramping across graves and throwing out a quotation from Gray’s Elegy; emerging onto the crest of the dune, he finds a grave in the process of erosion: a bone is protruding. Again, he is unsubtly disrespectful: ‘give the dog a bone!’ and for a moment it looks as if he is actually going to desecrate the remains (but why would he do that?). Instead, he reaches over the edge and roots around – again, why? – and finds an object which he puts in his pocket, saying ‘finders keepers!’

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Evidently, this is meant to be his transgression – he has robbed a tomb – though why he does so is unclear (he is not an archaeologist – his discipline appears to be philosophy, and unlike James’s character, he is not acting on anyone else’s behalf). Further, instead of clarifying what follows, this act obscures it. If we are now embarked on a course that leads to the sheeted figure rising from the bed, what is the cause? It would appear to be the theft from the grave; what, then, of the blowing of the whistle, which comes later? is that merely incidental? And why, it might well be asked, is such a whistle in a grave in the first place?

The James character is an unwise meddler, but neither an arbitrary nor ill-disposed one; Miller’s character, by contrast, does something improbable, finds something unlikely, and suffers inexplicable consequences: why should taking an object from a grave cause bedsheets to rise up from an empty bed? – for that is as far as the Miller version goes: Hordern regresses to infancy at the mere sight of it; there is no direct assault on his person, no threat to life as there is in the original, where Parkins is almost forced out of the window.

And here, I think, we come to the crux of the matter: for all its superficial resemblance, Miller’s tale is quite different from James’s and not, I think, as good: where the original gives us a genuine thrill of terror – we can feel with Parkins – Miller’s version shows us something that moves us to pity only.

Something that James is particularly good at is crescendo: in his own words,
‘Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage’

In many of his best tales this dictum is enacted by a steady convergence, as the threat, at first vaguely discerned and barely recognised, draws steadily nearer till it is in intimate and terrifying proximity (consider the ‘irish yew’ in Mr Humphreys, the progression from tram advert, man in the street with fliers, through removal of servants to the horror under the pillow in Casting the Runes; or the steady pursuit of Mr Wraxall across Europe to the terrible climax at Belchamp St Paul in Count Magnus).

And, as James observes, it is an important part of the effect that the protagonist is ‘undisturbed by forebodings’ – those are for the reader to feel. Thus, when Parkins spies a distant figure hurrying to catch up, it does not disturb his equanimity as it does ours; the moaning of the wind after he blows the whistle does not affect him as readily as ‘it might have… fanciful people’; and importantly the figure in his ‘waking dream’ of the lonely beach is a man whose pursuit he observes with some degree of horror but nonetheless the detachment of a spectator – he sees no cause to identify it with himself, though we do.

Likewise, the witness of the small boy the next day – ‘it wived at me out the winder’ – ratchets up the tension for us, but not for the pragmatic Parkins, who is more concerned that his room has been entered and his things interfered with. Likewise the recurrence of the curious rumpling of the other bed impresses us, but not him. When he does at last ‘see a figure suddenly sit up in what he had known was an empty bed’ it may be a complete shock to him, but we have been expecting something of the sort (with pleasurable dread) for quite some time.

By contrast, the Michael Hordern character feels apprehensions that we do not, because they arise, not from his circumstances, but the kind of man he is. Miller sets out to show (as he somewhat portentously puts it) ‘the dangers of intellectual pride and how a man’s reason can be overthrown when he fails to acknowledge those forces within himself which he simply cannot understand’. It could be argued that he succeeds, but the upshot is that the climax affects Hordern’s character much more than it affects us, and in a way that we may understand but do not share.

From the start, Hordern’s character strikes us as vulnerable, even childlike – everyday life could easily take him by surprise, let alone any supernatural manifestation. He is an unworldly man, wrapped in a cocoon of scholarship, quite out of touch with day-to-day reality, with little empathy for his fellow humans and no perception of how he appears to them, but at the same time completely assured in his learning – in short, he is something of a stereotype, the general public’s idea of an Oxbridge don, and by comparison to James’s version (intended, of course, for a university audience) the portrayal, though well-acted, is rather crudely drawn.

His intellectual collapse is not a crescendo but rather a slow appearance of stealthy cracks. We are shown him at his most secure in his breakfast-table lecture to the colonel on the matter of ghosts (though why, pray, has the colonel raised that topic with him at breakfast, a propos of nothing? the equivalent conversation in the original tale – about raising the wind – arises much more plausibly). The professor concludes the conversation by wittily inverting the Hamlet quotation that the colonel offers him: ‘there are more things in philosophy than are dreamt of in heaven and earth’ – but derives rather too much amusement from his own jest. This, then, is the eminence from which he is set to fall.

His first inkling of doubt comes on the dunes, where the recollection of his witticism comes back to him, but then reverts to its original form. As he settles down to read that night, the camera lingers on the empty bed and for some reason Parkins recalls the words on the whistle: ‘who is this who is coming?’ It is only now – almost half an hour into the forty minutes – that the waking dream of the beach-sequence occurs, but with the crucial difference that Parkins sees himself as the one pursued. At this point, I would say that his anxiety now overtakes our own – whereas in the original we are fearful on his behalf because he is oblivious to the full significance of what he sees, in the Miller version we can see no reason why he should see himself as the object of pursuit by the rather abstract flapping thing in the middle distance. We do not feel, in James’s words, that ‘something of the kind may happen to me.’

The next morning, Hordern’s Parkins moves still further beyond our sympathetic range. In the original tale, there are two incidents of bed-rumpling, the first after his troubled night with the beach sequence, which occurs much earlier than in the TV version, and the second after the incident with the little boy, which Miller omits altogether. In both cases, Parkins is able to rationalise it; it is the reader who is disturbed. Now, Hordern’s Parkins is deeply disturbed by the sight of the rumpled bed because he cannot rationalise it. He is driven to seek solace and reassurance in FH Bradley’s essay on Spiritualism – not, I would suggest, a course that many of us would take in the circumstances. Having regained something of his equanimity, he reads and then dozes by the fire, only to be roused by a second repetition (for no apparent cause) of the line ‘who is this who is coming?’ At this point we do begin to feel that we are watching a man’s reason in the process of being overthrown, but the terror is personal to him: we do not share it.

Screenshot 2015-04-01 10.31.34

After bathing, Parkins retires for the night only to be wakened by noises close at hand. In a prolonged reaction shot – lasting nearly thirty seconds – he gazes at something in growing horror; then we are shown the stirring bedclothes. As they rise up, Parkins inexplicably gets out of bed and goes across to the washstand by the window, which takes him nearer the thing on the bed, though not by the most direct route – he is neither confronting nor fleeing it but sidling past it at an angle. In the James version, there is a reason for this movement – he is going for his stick, to use as a weapon (it has been used to prop up a makeshift blind to keep the moonlight out); in the Miller version, there is no reason for it at all.

In the James version, this move is a mistake, as it allows the thing to get between him and the door; what follows is a genuinely nightmarish sequence, a sort of macabre dance in which Parkins realise his opponent is blind and might be evaded if only he could find a way past; but the sight of its ‘intensely horrible face of crumpled linen’ roots him to the spot, then the accidental touch of its draperies forces a cry of disgust from him and the creature pounces in the direction of the sound, driving him backward though the window ‘uttering cry after cry at the utmost pitch of his voice’ – it is this that brings the colonel (who has earlier indicated that he fears something might occur) to the rescue: he is just in time to see the dreadful group at the window, though the sheet-thing collapses to nothing as he closes on it.

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In the Miller version, the mere sight of the rearing bedclothes – with no threat to his person – so unmans the Professor that he regresses to infancy and sticks his thumb in his mouth and begins to utter muffled sobs, which somehow are loud enough to attract the attention of the colonel who (despite having no reason to think Parkins in any danger) bursts into his bedroom and switches on the light; all he sees is Parkins, whose sobs have now evolved into repeated denials: ‘O, no! O, no!’ These continue for nine repetitions as the colonel folds the sheet in the background and the titles roll over Hordern’s disbelieving face.

And we, the audience, feel pity at most, but hardly (I would argue) terror.

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*The indefatigable Frank Badger has established that the registration of the cab indicates the 1930s – ‘APG 584, Wolseley (blue) registered in Norwich June 1933.’

5 thoughts on “Pity or Terror? MR James and Jonathan Miller

  1. This is a masterly analysis. You have succeeded in illuminating those essential differences between MRJ and Miller’s (to me) unsatisfactory version. What you have done is to crystallise those significant differences which are so apparent on screen but so difficult to verbalise. Thank you very much for your insight (and hard work!)

  2. Thank you! It is always interesting to start from an impression (I too felt the Miller version was unsatisfactory, for all the praise heaped on it) and then try to chase down what the causes of it are. I’m glad you liked it.

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