I do love a good ghost story, for Christmas, don't you? Looking through this week's Radio Times (the BBC's definitive UK magazine for television listings) I was excited to see that there was to be a new dramatisation of M.R.James' classic ghost story: O Whistle and I'll Come to You. I won't spoil the denouement of this by relating the ending, but if you haven't read it, this is a tale about a loner, a university professor who, holidaying beside a remote stretch of English coastline, discovers an ancient whistle, tucked away among old ruins. The whistle has a Latin inscription which translates as 'who is this who is coming?' And yes - he blows the whistle. Even typing these words gives me a little frisson of pleasurable fright. By the end of the story he discovers who, or what, comes in answer to that whistle. And no - it isn't very nice!
Back in the late sixties, there was an excellent dramatisation of this same story, directed by Jonathan Miller, with Michael Hordern as the professor. The above picture is a still from that production. It was peculiarly atmospheric - deftly done - evoking the dreadful sense of nightmare that James so successfully creates in the original story. But reading about the new production, in the Radio Times, I was astonished to see that they seem to have decided not just to 'update it' which might have worked, but also to do away with the whistle. And as anyone who has read the tale knows, the whistle is the key. The whistle, with all that it implies in terms of history, belief, and reasons why, is absolutely central. To change that is to change the whole story, and that being the case, why not have the courage of your own ideas and write a completely new spooky drama? While I'm reluctant to pre-judge any drama without seeing it first, I don't think I'll be watching this one. Too afraid of spoiling it for myself. Instead, I'll give myself a Christmas treat and go back to the original story.
But it does bear out something I've noticed about dramatisations. They tend to fall into two sorts: first there are those where the scriptwriter clearly loves and understands the original, knows that changes must be made to recreate a story in a completely different medium, but never makes those changes just for their own sake. Emma Thompson's screenplay for Sense and Sensibility is as fine an example as any - not a word or image out of place, truly filmic, but also entirely true to the original.
Then - sadly - there are the dramatisations where the scriptwriter believes that he or she (and it so often seems to be a 'he'!) could make a much better job of it than the original writer, and proceeds to demonstrate that he or she can't. Into this category falls just about every attempted dramatisation of Wuthering Heights! I don't know about this version of Whistle, but I have my suspicions.
Back to Christmas spooks. If you want to terrify yourself, you could do worse that get hold of the collected ghost stories of M. R. James - read Whistle, and The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, and Casting the Runes (some excellent film versions of that, over the years) or the ghost stories of E.F. Benson. These were much overshadowed by his wonderful Lucia, but still fine stories. Or tell some real tales on Christmas Eve. Like the time I was walking down our village street, at twilight, and crossed over to speak to the old man on the other side - only to find that he disappeared, as instantly as though somebody had switched off a television picture. Later on, my husband said, 'That'll have been Jock. He always used to walk about the village in the evening.'
Jock was the village handyman, chimney sweep, blacksmith, who knew everything about everything. His picture is currently hanging in our village shop, which was once his workshop, keeping a keen eye on things. And there are those who believe he might still be around. Me too.