I meant to write about this at the time the episode appeared but never got round to it. So, belatedly, and just for the record, I am reviewing the 31st October 2014 episode of Doctors.
It’s called ‘Whistle …’ It was broadcast at Hallowe’en. I’m a great admirer of the work of M.R. James. You can see where this commentary is coming from.
The question is, as someone I talked to at the time noted, how do you smuggle a story by M.R. James into an episode of a soap opera? The answer is that you remove a character from their normal milieu – in this instance, Dr Al Haskey is off for a beer-drinking weekend with his friend the Rev. James Montague, known to his friends as Monty (Montague Rhodes James was called ‘Monty’ by his friends.)
As I’m not a regular viewer of Doctors, I don’t know much about Al Haskey, but he’s large, a messy dresser, with ‘social awkwardness’ written all over him. He seems to interact well enough with his colleagues, though in a ‘man child with decided opinions’ sort of way. Those opinions – in this instance, about the supernatural, ghosts, life beyond death – will lie at the heart of this episode. And there is a woman who says goodbye to him when he sets off but I can’t quite figure out their relationship. There is clearly affection tempered with a sort of amused mothering exasperation (and no, please don’t tell me; I don’t need to know, honest). And something oddly apprehensive about them, as though he doesn’t do this kind of thing that often, as though he might get lost in the world.
They both glance up at the trees, him as he gets into the car, her as he drives away. The trees, I’m here to tell you are ash trees. Those who know their James canon will recognise the significance of this. Those who don’t, won’t, but trust me, it’s the first indicator that the makers of this programme are very familiar with the James oeuvre.
We’re then treated to a shot of a woman making up a couple of beds, laying especial emphasis on the bed linen – anyone familiar with the story of ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, my Lad’ will immediately recognise this foreshadowing reference. And then we see Al arriving at a small country pub, the Globe, with a really rather strange inn sign – a dancing skeleton playing on a pipe.
It’s not a very welcoming sort of pub. Al manages to put his foot in it every which way. The locals stop talking as he walks in (odd if they take overnight guests), the landlord is forbidding, and the barmaid seems to be expecting something of him, but what is not clear. (I’m reminded here of endless horror stories where the stranger’s function is either to rescue the maiden, or to impregnate her and bring fresh blood to the local gene pool.) Others, like the elderly man sitting in the corner, are watchful. The booking has been mixed up so Al and Monty are sharing a room, and then, to top it off, Monty rings up to say he’s going to be delayed.
There is a sense already that Al doesn’t really like being on his own, among strangers. You might be thinking of Jonathan Miller’s adaptation of ‘Oh Whistle’ and his portrayal of Professor Parkin as a social maladept. It’s not so pronounced in this, or at any rate my sense is that Al is a talker, who runs into difficulties when people don’t understand his jokes and references, which can be obscure or offensive if you don’t know where he’s coming from – there’s still a flavour of clever adolescent college kid about him – whereas Parkin was unable to communicate even if he wanted to. (And this in itself is at variance with James’s original story, in which Parkin is only too articulate and decided in his views – which is why he seems to clash so often with his colleagues.) Nonetheless, there are links between the two plays.
In his room, Al is bothered by the tapping of tree branches against the window. You get to guess what kind of tree it is (see ‘The Ash Tree’). He’s clearly unsettled by Monty’s absence but determined to make the best of it. Given he’s not a solitary person, there’s probably a sense of relief when the old man – the Colonel, it turns out (and another reference to ‘Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad’ – strikes up a conversation. In the course of this, we learn from the barmaid that the Templar preceptory, the reason Monty wanted to be in Hordernwick, is haunted. In the original story, the place is Burnstow (based on Felixstowe), but this name again signals a homage to the Miller adaptation as Professor Parkin was memorably played by Michael Hordern. ‘You’ll know’, she says enigmatically, when Al suggests that ghosts are nothing more than natural sounds – insomniac mice, he suggests.
Then, back in his room – more trees tapping on windows – during the course of a telephone conversation with Monty, during which Monty reveals he can’t get there at all. Al’s laptop seems to malfunction. Instead of a document we see a picture which will turn out to be of the old Templar preceptory, and something dark suddenly looming into the screen. It reminds me very much of the Nigel Kneale adaptation of The Woman in Black, and the terrifying moment when the Woman appears at the bottom of Arthur Kipps’ bed and leans in closer and closer (this is still the single most terrifying moment I can think of in modern tv ghost story adaptations). On the other hand, this also seems to me to indirectly reference both ‘The Mezzotint’ and ‘The Haunted Dolls House’, with their use of other framing media to tell a story, quite apart from being a literal ghost in the machine.
After lunch, and still at a loose end, Al takes himself off to visit the tiny brewery, the reason for his visit to this place, only to find it closed. Eventually, he finds himself in the vicinity of the ruined church, pretty much the only thing left for him to see. To me, it is as though everyone and everything is conspiring to get him to that place. He has to go there. It’s spooky – there is a strong wind soughing through the ash trees. As he turns to leave, he trips over something, digs it out of the ground with his pen knife, and then discards it. He also, accidentally, discards his mobile.
Back at the hotel, he falls into conversation with the Colonel again while the barmaid hovers around. The strange atmosphere is really palpable now. The barmaid seems to be expecting something to happen; the same ‘locals’ have been in the bar for hours now, and one has the sense that the Colonel is orchestrating something. But what? The Colonel tells Al how the Templars who had lived in Hordernwick had returned to their mother church in France, only to be executed. The Colonel would have it that their spirits then returned to Hordernwick. Al the arch rationalist refuses to believe in the survival of the spirit beyond the death of the body.
Having realised he’s lost his phone, Al retraces his steps, notices the piece of metal again and this time picks it up and takes it with him. Back at the hotel, in his room, he keeps looking at the other bed but then turns his attention to the metal object. He cleans it up, finds it’s a whistle (a very clean and modern-looking whistle, I have to say), reads the writing – Quis est iste qui venit … Who Is This Who Is Coming? – and like so many before him, blows the whistle. In the original, it is the window that suddenly blows open but here it is the door (the most recent previous adaptation makes rather more play of the door in the story).
There’s a fleeting shot of a running figure out near the church and then we cut to the bar, where a thoroughly unnerved Al is having a late-night drink when the Colonel appears. Now he tells Al a story from his soldiering days, about the young soldiers trying to whistle up dust devils, and a soldier vanishing. Overhead, there’s a thump and when the two men go upstairs, they find the covers on the spare bed disturbed. The Colonel also sees the whistle and is concerned as to whether Al blew it. He tells Al that the Templars sold the whistles to pilgrims. To blow on one would be to summon assistance, the inference being that Al has also summoned something …
Rather like the original Parkins, Al then has a series of dreams in which he is being from the church by a figure swathed in grey cloth, like grave wrappings. This sequence is particularly interesting as it quite clearly brings together not only the original adaptation of Oh Whistle, in which the hapless Parkin dreams of being pursued by something cloth-like but indefinable, but also the 1970s adaptation of ‘A Warning to the Curious’, in which Paxton is pursued by what we are supposed to believe is William Ager. Even now, I can never quite untangle the two stories in my mind, and although the two adaptations are quite different, there is a certain similarity about the spectres that haunt them. And this version of Whistle seems very much to partake of the aesthetic of ‘A Warning’ with the church mound in the trees reminiscent of the barrow among the trees on the headland.
As to the ghost in this version, there is nothing left to the imagination at all. There’s little in the way of special effects. The ghost is mostly very solid, clearly someone swathed in a grey bed cover but it’s done incredibly well. The very solidity of the ghost becomes a virtue. The spectre is smack in the middle of the screen, very clearly visible, not at all imagined, particularly when it is at Al’s throat in the bedroom. There’s no face of crumpled linen, as per the story, but neither is there a disappointing dancing sheet, as per the Miller adaptation, just this figure rising up from the other bed. There is nothing psychological about this spectre at all. It’s real, and it’s chasing Al. And it is absolutely terrifying.
We know of course how this is going to end, and the Colonel is along in good time to rescue Al. The interesting thing is next day, when Al wakes up, to find that everything has changed. The landlord looks different, the bar maid looks different, while the Colonel, who also looks slightly different, shows no signs of recognising Al at all. Outside, even the pub sign is different. At which point we seem to have moved once again from a Jamesian milieu to something closer to other 1970s adaptations of ghost stories, or a particularly second-rate horror film.
There is no denying it was a bit of a hodge-podge of references in places but it was good fun at the same time. I caught an interview online (now alas taken down) with the episode’s director, in which he acknowledged the influence of Lawrence Gordon Clark’s seminal adaptations of M.R. James’s ghost stories for the BBC, including ‘A Warning to the Curious’. There was also a very interesting clip showing how the production team devised the ‘ghost’. Constrained by a very limited budget for special effects, it was, as I said earlier, mostly a man in a grey cloak, but while I was thinking about Clark’s tv ghosts, the production team was thinking ‘what’s the scariest thing any of us has ever seen? Ah yes, the Dementors in Harry Potter’. Though having looked at illustrations of the Dementors online (look, I got bored going to the annual Harry Potter film about three films in, so I haven’t seen them), I have to disagree.
I did also wonder what the Doctors audience would have made of this episode, but apparently the show has a history of doing this kind of thing, so it’s by no means unusual. However, it has not tempted me to start watching the series, just in case.