British Horror/Suspense

Whistle and I’ll Come to You

In my transatlantic existence, I’ve had many opportunities to observe the differences between British and American culture. One of the smaller ones: only the former have a broadly-shared tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas. A Christmas Carol is of course the touchstone of this British pleasure, but it apparently started centuries before Dickens’ classic.

BBC responded to and nurtured this tradition for a number of years by adapting a ghost story for television each yuletide season during the 1970s, reviving the practice a little over a decade ago. Most of them have featured the stories of M.R. James, though Mr. Dickens has also had his turn (An effective adaptation of The Signalman). James was a respected British academic and medieval studies scholar who famously had a sideline in writing chilling tales of the supernatural, most of which featured a central character from James’ world (e.g., a writer, professor, bishop, museum curator) who gets in over his head when encountering malevolent forces he cannot understand.

The BFI has a boxed set available with every BBC ghost story. Here, I am going to recommend the story that kicked it all off: Whistle and I’ll Come to You

Many people incorrectly recall the first BBC ghost story as being a Christmas special like all those that followed, but it was actually a springtime entry in the long-running series Omnibus, which more typically carried art-focused documentaries. But in 1968, legendary director Jonathan Miller gave Omnibus audiences a giant scare instead. The story centers on Professor Parkins, vividly portrayed by Michael Hordern as a near-autistic Cambridge Don who talks to himself more than the people around him. In a remote English seaside town, he checks into a bed and breakfast with a plan to do some reading and some “trudging” along the desolate beaches. His social awkwardness is extreme, positioning him apart from the other guests both figuratively and literally. But in this pivotal scene in which the hyper-rational Parkins puts a fellow guest who believes in ghosts in his place (“There are more things in philosophy than are dreamt of in heaven and earth”) we learn that it’s fundamentally smugness and not a sense of inferiority that separates Parkins from the rest of humanity. This is the classic M.R. James set up for a haughty intellectual to get his comeuppance via the world beyond.

And so it comes to pass. Professor Parkins comes across a grave that has been eroded by the sea and wind. Unwisely, he sorts through the bones to find a whistle with a Latin inscription meaning “Who is this who is coming?”. Of course the poor sod can’t resist blowing the whistle. Something awakens, glimpsed first as a distant, shrouded, figure silhouetted by the fading sun, then taking more form in pursuit during the Professor’s nightmares, and far too closer for comfort soon after that.

Like all of M.R. James’ stories, Whistle and I’ll Come to You is not a blood-spattered terror ride, but an eerie tale of foreboding, in which evil is often only glimpsed out of the corner of our eye. This is the artiest of BBC’s many adaptations of James’ stories, probably because of Miller’s presence and because the Omnibus audience would have expected nothing less (This also may account for the opening documentary-like narration by Miller, which might better have been dropped). Dick Bush does a tremendous job with single black and white camera set ups and long takes, including some effective low-angle and deep focus shots. He uses very few mid-range shots, mainly relying on distant, lonely, camera placement interspersed with a few well-chosen extreme closeups. The whole effect is admirably unnerving.

Were this constructed as a pure suspenser, the 40 minute running time would have been too long, but that’s why Hordern is such a treasure here. About half the story is a character study of an odd and indeed not particularly likable man, and Sir Michael carries that off in a compelling way until we get to the truly scary bits.

Whistle and I’ll Come to You is a worthy start to what became a beloved Christmas tradition in the UK (of the ones that followed, A View from the Hill is my favorite). Although the same story was re-adapted in 2010 by BBC with a bigger budget, the original is still I think the stronger piece of television and very much worth your attention this wintry season.

Action/Adventure British Drama Mystery/Noir

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They’re not! They’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives.

So says disillusioned British secret agent Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) in perhaps the best effort to adapt a John le Carré novel to the big screen: 1965’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. The serpentine plot concerns a burnt-out spook who enters a downward spiral of booze, self-hatred and lost faith after a disastrous mission in Berlin. But then it turns out that Leamas’ decline and despair is a ruse (?) play-acted at the behest of his superiors. As planned, he is recruited by the other side and ends up trying to discredit East German intelligence head Hans-Dieter Mundt (A cold, effective Peter van Eyck). Leamas undermines the ex-Nazi by feeding false (??) information to Mundt’s ambitious, Jewish deputy (Oskar Werner, very strong here). It’s a difficult, high-risk mission, but Leamas knows that his boss back home is 100% behind him (???).

This may be the most magnificent performance in Richard Burton’s career, and will definitely please all fans of rotting charm. Drinking heavily in real life at the time, he was willing to expose his own capacity for ugliness and decay in a way that many glamorous stars of his era would not have dared to do. He exudes bone crunching hopelessness and isolation in shot after shot: Leamas alone on a park bench, alone in a bar, alone in his bed, alone chained in a cell. He’s devastated and devastating.

A 15 minute sequence of scenes in Britain is a masterclass in cinematic storytelling. It’s unsettling yet fascinating as Leamas repeatedly gets pissed and wanders through empty streets. Ultimately, he savagely beats an innocent man (Did the filmmakers cast for this part Bernard Lee — M from the flashy, unrealistic James Bond series — to make a point?). His copybook blotted, Leamas is judged “turnable” by the other side. After being released from jail, he is recruited by the Soviets in a sleazy men’s club by an unctuous businessman and a pathetic, gay procurer (Robert Hardy and Michael Hordern, respectively, terrific actors who clearly understood that there are no small roles).

The romantic aspects of the story also work well and become more important as le Carré’s ingenious plot unfolds. Claire Bloom is credible and sympathetic as the British would-be communist “who believes in free love, the only kind Leamas could afford at the time”. Leamas’ lacerating disdain for her naiveté reveals the depths of his own self-contempt: She may be immature in her politics but who after all is the one risking his life and doing horrible things in a struggle over the very same politics?

And Then There Were None, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold ...

Rarely has the look of a movie more perfectly captured its mood, and that’s a credit to Oswald Morris. Without any conscious intention, I think I have recommended more films shot by Morris than any other cinematographer. He was a remarkably unpretentious professional who maintained an astonishingly consistent quality in his work for 6 decades (He lived to age 98). It was a bold and brilliant choice to make this movie in black and white, which let Oswald create a washed out look that matches the bleak tone of the story. As much as the excellent acting, what stays with the viewer are Oswald’s shots of complete desolation both during Leamas’ alcoholic, putatively free, British wanderings and his time in East German captivity.

The other delight of this film is that it never condescends to the audience by over-explaining. With each double and triple cross, rather than clumsy exposition director Martin Ritt simply gives us Burton’s face, as the mind behind it struggles frantically to make sense of the latest shift in the icy wind. A small example of the film’s understated, even at times cryptic, storytelling style is the scene where Werner asks for some paperwork from his underling Peters (Sam Wanamaker, memorably creepy). The seated, lame, Wanamaker extends his hand but not far enough. Rather than step forward, Werner waits until Wanamaker struggles to his feet and hands it to him. Burton starts to laugh derisively. The subtext which the film expects you to understand: Werner is the boss but as a Jew, he will never be fully respected by his German underlings. A small moment, a sly moment, a powerful moment, brought across with no comment other than Burton’s mad laughs at Wanamaker’s expense.

Touches like that are a key reason why The Spy who Came in from the Cold is completely engrossing. Fans of espionage films simply cannot miss this landmark movie.

p.s. If you like this movie, you might enjoy my recommendation of the best effort to adapt le Carré to television (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) and Antonia Quirke’s elegiac FT essay on the battered, shattered Richard Burton and his iconic dingy overcoat.

British Drama


Scrooge is deservedly a beloved Christmas movie. Like the not dissimilar It’s a Wonderful Life, it came by its standing as a beloved film democratically: Long after it was released generations of people fell in love with it on television. And with very good reason.

The heart of this film is Alastair Sim, whose lack of a 1951 best actor Oscar nomination should make the Academy hang its head in perdurable shame. More than any other movie adaptation of Dickens’ novella, screenwriter Noel Langley’s treatment gives Scrooge a backstory that explains his nature and outlook, making him a more fully developed character. Sim must therefore portray powerful moments of grief, cruelty, pity, parsimony, regret, remorse and manic joy, and he does so in a profoundly effective way. He was so damn good in everything he did (e.g., Green for Danger, another of my recommendations) that it’s hard to say which is his greatest film performance, but this may well be it.

Action/Adventure British Drama

Watership Down

All the world will be your enemy, Prince of a Thousand enemies. And when they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you; digger, listener, runner, Prince with the swift warning. Be cunning, and full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed.

These words are uttered by an unseen narrator (well-voiced by Sir Michael Hordern) in the magical opening sequence of writer/director Martin Rosen’s Watership Down. The opening presents a creation myth centered on a god called Frith and a prince of rabbits named El-ahrairah. The movie then turns to the story of some of the descendants of the Rabbit Prince, who live in modern day Sandleford and are about to embark on a perilous journey to find a new home.

A cartoon movie about bunny rabbits doesn’t sound like the sort of thing that would hold the interest of a thoughtful adult. But give this 1978 movie a chance. Like the Richard Adams book upon which it is based, the film is dark, dramatic, and in parts, engagingly philosophical. Although older children will probably like it, Watership Down is really an animated movie for grown-ups.

The story centers on a warren in which all the rabbits seem happy and safe. Yet a rabbit named Fiver has a prophetic vision of blood and destruction. He and his older brother Hazel cannot get the local rabbit chief to believe them about the danger; indeed the warren’s police (the Owsla) try to suppress their dissent. With a group of fellow rebels, including a powerful former Owsla member named Bigwig, Fiver and Hazel fight their way out of their warren to seek a new home.

Watership Down too violent for tots? Probably, but parents should take  control of the remote | Animation in film | The Guardian

Their journey is filled with hazards and some of the rabbits come to bloody ends. They encounter different warrens with different sociologies and politics, eventually establishing their own independent warren at Watership Down, which Fiver had seen in a vision. But they soon come into conflict with another, imperialistic warren run by the menacing General Woundwart (as scary a villain as one could ask for in a movie about rabbits).

I consider Watership Down the best animated film ever produced in the UK. The rabbits’ faces are expressive and their movements realistic. The story is exciting and contains moments of serious drama. As for music, Art Garfunkel fans will appreciate “Bright Eyes”, which is accompanied here by an appealing animated sequence. And the voice actors, especially John Hurt, are outstanding. My only complaint is the presence of a comic relief bird character voiced by Zero Mostel (it was his final film performance). I suppose that was put in to make the film more kid-friendly…I think it would have better to just go for it and target the film at adults, but YMMV. Even if you don’t like the bird, it’s a small annoyance in what is overall a very good movie.

The trailer is a bit long, but gives a flavor of the film.

p.s. Rosen (and Hurt) went back to the Adams well a few years later to make The Plague Dogs. It drew nowhere near the same audience, probably because it’s significantly grimmer than Watership Down. But it too is an accomplished work.

Drama Horror/Suspense

A Christmas Carol

One of the most memorable adaptations of A Christmas Carol is a short, animated film of the same name. Made in 1971 by animation icons Richard Williams, Ken Harris and Chuck Jones, this is by far the most eerie and dark version of the much-filmed Dickens classic.

Despite being condensed to 25 minutes, this Oscar-winning film’s storytelling will be comprehensible even to people unfamiliar with the original. Adding immeasurably to the production are the voice talents of two actors from the best live action version of the old chestnut (Alastair Sim and Michael Hordern, who reprise their 1951 roles as Scrooge and Marley, respectively).

But the real star here is the animation, which was inspired by illustrations in early editions of the book (especially the Victorian era drawings of John Leech). The images are lugubrious and scary yet hard to look away from, not unlike Goya’s Pinturas Negras. I first saw this film as a child and the visual of “ignorance and want” haunted my imagination for years. The film makers accentuate the power of the animation by employing arresting pan and zoom shots that are extremely effective both as storytelling devices and as setters of mood.

The threnodic tone of the film does not stop the essentially positive message of the story from emerging brightly in the end. Ebenezer Scrooge’s transformation to a life of charity and decency remains uplifting, perhaps even moreso for the considerable terrors of the night before.