Whistle Down the Wind (1961)

UK / 96 minutes / bw / Beaver, Allied Film Makers, Rank Dir: Bryan Forbes Pr: Richard Attenborough Scr: Keith Waterhouse, Willis Hall Story: Whistle Down the Wind (1959) by Mary Hayley Bell Cine: Arthur Ibbetson Cast: Hayley Mills, Bernard Lee, Alan Bates, Diane Holgate, Alan Barnes, Roy Holder, Barry Dean, Norman Bird, Diane Clare, Patricia Heneghan, John Arnatt, Gerald Sim, Elsie Wagstaff, Hamilton Dyce, Howard Douglas, Ronald Hines, Michael Lees, Michael Raghan. WTDW - cinematog b A number of movies have taken as their subject the mythopoeic tendencies of young minds, whereby they can generate fantastical explanations for misunderstood events, or even their own spiritualities—their own mythologies and religions, in fact. The Lord of the Flies (1963), based on the 1954 William Golding novel, is the example that usually springs most readily to mind; others include The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), Celia (1988), My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and, arguably, The Babadook (2014). First on the scene, though, and in my view the most effective of all of these—certainly the most poignantly beautiful—is Whistle Down the Wind.

In a small Lancastrian community, the three children of the Bostock farm—Kathy (Mills), Nan (Holgate) and the youngest, Charles (Barnes)—save a trio of kittens, the latest litter of farm cat Dusty, from being drowned in a sack by feckless farmhand Eddie (Bird). Charles tries to fob off one of the kitten on first his pal Jackie Greenwood (Holder) and then a Salvation Army street evangelist (Heneghan). The latter tells him that she can’t take the proffered kitten but that she’s sure Jesus will look after it. From this casual statement flows much later confusion.

WTDW - 6 Eddie

Feckless Eddie (Norman Bird).

Unable to give the kittens away and knowing that if their dad (Lee) or Eddie finds out the truth the creatures will face another death sentence, the kids hide their mewling treasures in the barn. It’s important, of course, that the kittens be named:

Charles: “I’m going to call mine Spider.”
Nan: “You can’t call a cat Spider.”
Charles: “I can call it anything I like.”
Nan: “You’re daft, you are. You’re soft in your head.”

WTDW - 1 Nan says 'You're daft'

“You’re daft,” Nan (Diane Holgate) tells her little brother Charles (Alan Barnes).

The conversation turns to how Jesus might look after the kittens, but Kathy derides the notion: Jesus is, after all, dead. The two younger children are horrified at the statement—”You just wait ’til Jesus cooms and gets yeh,” Charles summarizes—and, while Kathy is old enough to know better, we can see that at the same time she doesn’t: she’s definitely troubled that she might have committed some unforgivable blasphemy. WTDW - 4 Kathy spies on Dad

Kathy (Hayley Mills) spies on Dad.

The kids live with their dad, a widower, and his shrewish spinster (or widowed) sister, Dorothy “Dolly” (Wagstaff). Auntie Dorothy, who has a caustic turn of phrase, tries to keep everyone in line—not just the kids but Dad as well. That evening, as she finally gets the stud fastened in Dad’s overtight shirt collar so that he can go off to the pub . . .

Dad: “I can’t breathe in it.”
Aunt Dolly: “No. I expect you’ll get beer past it, though.”

After Dad’s departure, Kathy creeps out to the barn to tend the kittens. To her shock she discovers an injured man (Bates) lying in the straw and the gloom. She’s not to know that he’s escaped murderer Arthur Alan Blakey; when she timidly asks “Who is it?”, Blakey responds with a weary “Jesus Christ” and faints.

WTDW - 2 Kathy's first sight of Blakey

Kathy’s first sight of the man in the barn (Alan Bates).

After all that’s gone before, Kathy jumps to the obvious conclusion:

Kathy: “Jesus. He’s in our barn. He’s come back.”
Nan: “Kathy, are you sure?”

WTDW - 3 Kathy finds 'photo' of Blakey

Kathy finds a “photo” of Blakey.

WTDW - 5 Kathy shows Nan Jesus

Kathy (Hayley Mills) shows Jesus to Nan (Diane Holgate).

The two sisters try to keep the news from Charles, whom they’re sure would blab it all over town, but of course he finds out . . . and tells his pal Jackie Greenwood, so that it’s Jackie who blabs the news to others. Soon there are nine extra kids who know that Jesus has returned and is hiding in the Bostock barn—making up a round dozen disciples. The Bostock kids sneak out food to their messiah, bread and wine being the first choice—the latter is Dad’s special port reserved for drinking while listening to the Queen’s Christmas Broadcast. And the kids really do believe:

Nan: “It’s stopped raining. D’ye think he stopped it, Kathy?”

This strength of belief is picked up by Malcolm Arnold’s score, which as one of its motifs uses variations on the tune of “We Three Kings.” The motif plays as almost a mad pagan dance as the three Bostock kids jig for joy in the knowledge that they’ve been blessed by the resurrected Christ. When they try to face down the almost menacing huddle of the nine new disciples the tune plays more like a military march. Arnold’s score is in general quite exquisite, sometimes making use of quasi-liturgical orchestration. The haunting theme tune, released as a single, was a smash hit in the UK. WTDW - 8 We Three Kings dance alt

Jigging for joy to the tune of “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”

Even though Blakey has some difficulty playing the role of Christ convincingly, the kids still retain their faith. After the disciples have presented him with gifts of a New Testament (something to remind him of home, as it were) and a trashy romance paper called Shirley (“It’s got a free gift inside it,” Nan explains. “An Arabian charm bracelet”), they beg him to tell them a story, expecting he’ll choose a parable or something of that ilk. Instead he gives them the torrid saga of “Ruth Lawrence, Air Hostess” from Shirley. They listen reverently. And much later, even after Kathy discovers that the hidden package Jesus sent her to fetch contains a gun, her faith is unshaken. WTDW - 9 It's got a free gift in it

“It’s got a free gift inside it. An Arabian charm bracelet.”

WTDW - 10 Blakey tells the kids a story

Blakey (Alan Bates) tells Kathy (Hayley Mills) and the other kids a story.

Of course, a dozen kids can’t keep things secret for long. In the playpark Jackie taunts the local bully, Raymond (Dean)—credited as such but called Fatto or Patto by the others—along the lines of “I know something you don’t know.” Raymond responds by tormenting the secret out of Jackie, and of course then refuses to believe what he’s been told. So now he starts tormenting Jackie into an admission that he was lying: “Have you seen Jesus?” On the third iteration Jackie “denies the Lord.” Just at that moment there’s the cry of a passing train’s whistle—or is that a cock’s crow? WTDW - 11 Fatto

The feared village bully Raymond (Barry Dean).

Charles is the first to become disaffected with the risen Savior. He entrusted Spider to Christ’s care but Christ allowed the kitten to die. When the gaffe is finally blown and Dad finds out what’s been going on in his barn—it happens at Charles’s birthday party (the Last Supper?)—the little boy spits out: “It isn’t Jesus—it’s just a fella.”

WTDW - 15 Dad at party starts to realize summat's up

Dad (Bernard Lee) finally realizes there’s something been going on in his barn — or stable?

That Blakey hasn’t been discovered before is in itself something of a miracle, in that Bostock’s isolated barn would seem to be precisely the sort of place the cops would check at an early stage in the manhunt. The closest direct threat of discovery comes when Dad and the vet, Mr. Weaver (Douglas), arrive to check a sick cow. Blakey has hidden under some straw right next to the calf. While tending the beast, Weaver repeatedly—and agonizingly—steps on Blakey’s hand. Somehow Blakey manages not to cry out.

Inevitably, there’s an arrest. Although he has the gun, Blakey, touched by Kathy’s fidelity and her essential goodness, decides to meekly surrender, even though he knows the gallows will be his fate. As Superintendent Teesdale (Arnatt) and Sergeant Frank Wilcox (Sim) frisk him, he holds his arms out to the side in standard fashion; the cinematography stresses the similarity of this pose to crucifixion. It’s interesting to reflect that, whereas in the Bible version it’s Christ who brings spiritual salvation to mortals, here it’s the other way round: it’s the mortals—the kids—who have brought spiritual salvation to Blakey.

WTDW - 16 fight twixt dad & Kathy

Dad (Bernard Lee) tries to stop Kathy (Hayley Mills) from going to Christ’s aid.

With the exception of Mills, the kids in the movie were amateurs, almost all of them recruited in the Burnley and Clitheroe regions of Lancashire. Another exception is Holder, who’d had a TV role before playing Jackie here, and who went on to have a very extensive acting career, mostly on TV. Most of the other kids never appeared on screen again, which is startling, because there are some brilliant performances on display from them in this movie. Dean is quite superb as the bully and Holgate is a sheer delight as Nan—by turns funny and affecting, and often both at the same time.

The focus of most attention among these amateur child actors has been, ever since the movie’s release, Alan Barnes as the splendidly adenoidal Charles. He had one small further role—in the 1963 war movie The Victors—but then evidently decided the acting life was not for him. This is quite in keeping with an anecdote director Bryan Forbes told much later, of how, when he was recruiting his youthful cast, he asked the little boy if he’d like to be in the movie. “I’m not bothered,” was the blunt response. Barnes seems, further, to have “disappeared” himself entirely from the IMDB.

Although I’ve been concentrating on the amateur actors, this isn’t to suggest that the professionals are less than excellent. The chemistry between Mills and her supposed siblings is tremendous, and she’s completely convincing as their big sis. Although it might seem paradoxical now, Mills was already an international star by this time while for Bates Whistle Down the Wind offered him a first big-screen starring role—his big chance. It was a chance he grabbed with both hands. He manages to exhibit extraordinary sensitivity in a part that was necessarily limited in its scope: even a slight shift of his gaze can speak volumes. From here on this most gifted of actors never looked back. WTDW - 17 Blakey realizes end is nigh

Alan Bates in his first starring role.

There are good cameos from Diane Clare, as the kids’ sunday school teacher, Miss Lodge, and especially from Hamilton Dyce as the vicar, Mr. Reaves, whose primary parishional concern seems to be that some of the local kids have been stealing the church guttering. There’s a scene both comedic and heart-wrenching when Kathy tries to worm out of him the reason why Jesus was not in fact able to save the life of Charles’s kitten Spider—the reason why there is such a thing as death. As Charles looks on skeptically, the vicar is swiftly reduced to woffling and to more whines about his guttering. WTDW - 14 Vic tries to explain mortality (goes w prev 2)

The vicar (Hamilton Dyce) tries to explain mortality to . . .

WTDW - 13 Kathy does likewise (pair these 2)

. . . an earnestly entreating Kathy (Hayley Mills) . . .

WTDW - 12 Charles watches Vic fail to explain mortality

. . . while Charles (Alan Barnes) watches, skepticism writ large on his face.

Whistle Down the Wind is often hilariously funny, yet it’s full, too, of tragedy. The kids have lost their mum, of course, and Auntie Dorothy can never be any sort of substitute. We can sense that their education will be rudimentary and likely short. And then there’s the final tragedy, the greatest of all, when Kathy must watch the Savior whom she loves, and in whom she has invested so much of herself, being led away to a dreadful fate. In the movie’s final moments we see the full force of her bereftness, the spiritual isolation into which she has been hurled—all the more horrific for the fact that briefly she believed she had achieved some kind of validation. Now she’s back to being stuck on a lousy farm with no one in whom she can truly confide, and looking forward to nothing but a dead-end life. She’s shattered by her collision with the adult world, and we’re shattered with her. WTDW - 20 Kathy bereft

Kathy (Hayley Mills), devastated by her loss.

WTDW - 19 the crucifixion

The “crucified” Blakey (Alan Bates).

WTDW - 18 The massed kids to see him go

Hordes gather to witness the “crucifixion.”

This is also a very beautiful movie, as will be evident from some of the screengrabs here. For the most part Forbes’s direction is very careful to exploit visual opportunities, as when Blakey is being arrested and we see the silhouette of his “crucified” figure against the stark sky. But it’s Arthur Ibbetson’s cinematography that really takes the breath away. He somehow manages to extract almost symphonic qualities from the black-and-white medium, so that, for example, we look at what must have been in reality somewhat dreary urban vistas and see them as evocatively atmospheric. Some of Ibbetson’s work here seems quite noirish in inspiration, as when Kathy is chased out of the railway tunnel where she’s been retrieving the package containing Blakey’s gun. Who among us could fail to be reminded at that moment of the iconic concluding sequence, shot by John Alton, for The BIG COMBO (1955)? WTDW - cinematog d WTDW - cinematog a WTDW - cinematog c Famously, there are occasional hiccups in the movie. At the breakfast table, Charles has a boiled egg whose degree of consumption varies from shot to shot—here he’s halfway through it, there he’s finished it, then he’s halfway through it again, but, oh, look, he’s hardly started it . . . Elsewhere, Raymond seems to be simultaneously both inside and outside a building as a group of kids waits for Jesus to appear. These are, of course, very trivial flaws.

WTDW - 7 Charles's egg

Charles (Alan Barnes) and that notorious boiled egg.

Whistle Down the Wind is billed as an Attenborough–Forbes production, and the two men seem to have regarded it as a sort of family affair. Gerald Sim, who has a smallish part as one of the cops, was Attenborough’s brother-in-law, while Attenborough himself plays one of the extras (and, no, I didn’t spot him). Other bit parts went to Attenborough’s daughter Charlotte and to Forbes’s daughter Sarah. Another familial connection the movie has is that the novel upon which it was based was written by Hayley Mills’s mother.

That novel has also inspired two more recent stage musicals, both called Whistle Down the Wind: the first came in 1989, done by Richard Taylor and Russell Labey, with music and lyrics by Taylor, and the second in 1996, with lyrics by Jim Steinman (the man responsible for so many of Meat Loaf’s songs) and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

A few weeks ago I was asked which movie I’d seen that seemed most perfectly to me to evoke childhood, and unhesitatingly I named Whistle Down the Wind—even though it had been many years since last I’d watched it (for the purposes of John Clute’s and my 1997 book The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, in fact). Rewatching the movie a few days ago in order to write these notes, I felt that the rectitude of my immediate response was more than confirmed. As I noted at the outset, there are other movies that deal with the easy mythopoiea that pervades the fantasy worlds of childhood, but none of them seem to me to be so perfectly and convincingly envisaged and executed as this one. WTDW - 0 opener ==================

This entry is a contribution to The 2nd Annual British Invaders Blogathon, hosted by Terence Towles Canote at A Shroud of Thoughts. Postscript: I was intending to add a note to the effect that Whistle Down the Wind is far less noirish than even this site would normally contemplate for inclusion, but then I realized that, even leaving aside some of the cinematography, it does in fact have quite a few noirish tropes. One could think of it, perhaps, as something to watch alongside The WINDOW (1949), whose noirish status is rarely doubted.
On Amazon.com: DVD and novel.

40 thoughts on “Whistle Down the Wind (1961)

  1. Well John I would not myself rate it as a greater film than SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE or LORD OF THE FLIES, but it is certainly a great film and is fair enough for that designation. You have written one of your finest review ever at this site with this passionate masterpiece of an essay. You examine every component in this stark and atmospheric film, and your own relationship with it is a beautiful thing to behold. The film certainly deserved to make the Childhood Films countdown, but barely missed. That was a bad decision. In any case, I agree that Arnold’s score is wholly extraordinary, and the cinematography by Arthur Ibbetson is sublime as your grand display of screen caps attests to. Hayley Mills of course gave one of the childhood cinema’s most memorable performances. Just fantastic work here John!!!

    • To be honest, Sam, I’d defend it really quite vociferously as being a better movie than either of those, even though I hold Spirit of the Beehive in very high esteem. Lord of the Flies is, I think, as good a movie as it is largely because of the strength of its source material. Although there’s some great acting/casting, especially Piggy, the direction has always seemed a bit leaden and mechanical to me. (To be fair, it must be twenty years since the last time I watched it — how time, er, flies! — and I might change my opinion now. On the other hand, I’ve come away from each of three or four watchings with the same view.)

      Whistle Down the Wind, by contrast, despite the couple of silly little glitches I mention, is essentially flawless. (And, yes, I realize the seemingly self-contradictory nature of what I’m saying!) To me it’s a masterpiece on every possible count, from the performances to the cinematography to the casting to the direction to the pacing and just the whole overall emotional sweep of the piece. Every time I’ve watched it I’ve been in tears by the end, and there are damn’ few movies I can say that about. (Well, okay, Battlefield Earth, but that was for a different reason.)

      Pam and I are thinking of watching it again tonight . . .

      • John, I do love the film, but after what you say here you do love it more. And there ain’t anything wrong with that my friend. I have some films that leave me trashed in much the same way. 🙂

  2. Wonderful essay, John, truly excellent stuff. It’s been such a long time since I watched this film, but it’s lovely to relive here. You’ve captured the beauty, the comedy and the tragedy of this film so well.

    • Many thanks for dropping by, Jacqui, and for the kind words. As you’ve guessed, writing about this movie was a labour of love for me. I find it more splendid — and if anything more affecting — every time I watch it. I’m just appalled that I’d let such a long time go by since last I did!

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  4. Oh what a treat, John:) I’ve always loved ‘Whistle Down the Wind’ and reading your lovely, paen of praise about the film has brought back a flood of very happy memories. Thank you!

    • Many thanks for dropping by, Sarah, and for the kind words. It’s a delight to hear how many people have a special place in their hearts for this movie. It’s an unforgettable one, for sure.

      The past few days Pam and I have been calling all the cats Spider (she can’t do the accent, heh heh) and telling each other we’re “daft, soft in your head, you are”!

  5. Great to read your extended piece on this – marvellous movie and can’t wait to watch it again. Incidentally, as you mention the ‘familial connection, it was apparently Attenborough who whistled the them at the original recording session.

    • Many thanks for dropping by, and for the kind words. I hadn’t known that about Dickie being the “siffleur” (as IMDB prissily calls it) on the theme tune. (I’d add that in except that, the last time I did a minor edit on this page, WordPress’s darling beep beep boop editor made various changes like removing all the para breaks that in the end took me about an hour to sort out . . .)

  6. A marvellous film.
    Haven’t seen since 1970, but was struck by the sheer quality of the
    child actors especially Alan Barnes.who only acted in one other film.
    Incredibly, he walked away from it all.
    Superb camera work, plus an impressive script.
    I have nothing further to add.

    • Yep. When I rewatched it last year for the purposes of this essay I was astonished to find that it was even better than I’d remembered it. Definitely one of the highlights of UK cinema.

  7. I though this was a great review of a film I loved back then. Great British cast, wonderful child actors, and packed with atmosphere. Better than 50 Marvel Comics blockbusters, any day of the week.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  8. A fine piece of writing about a fine film. I spent New Year’s Eve watching it with my wife and her parents. Her dad’s fragmenting memory was touched on many levels. I was six in 1961 but didn’t see the film until a few years later, in a school hall with a noisy projector. A favourite scene is in the Sunday school class – the blank faces as the teacher asks what we would do if Jesus came back today, before parroting the answer in chorus, with a dawning quiet reverence, “Praise him”.

    • What a great way to spend New Year’s Eve! (Mind you, we spent it with <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nine_Queens&quot;?Nueve Reinas, so we didn’t do too badly!) It really is one of those rare movies that bears repeated rewatching and that’s worthy of being the centerpiece of a family gathering.

      I’m not certain but that I didn’t first see it in similar circumstances to those you describe — i.e., at school, except in my case it would have been in the gym. The only two of the rare “school movies” I can remember for sure they showed us are The Birds and, bizarrely, Freaks, but it runs in my mind that Whistle D t W was one of the others.

  9. Have just watched the film this afternoon at our church film club after not seeing it for many years. Being around the same age as the younger children and also living close to where the film was set, it brought back many fond memories of childhood in the 1960s (loved the bit where Dad was putting newspaper up against the kitchen fire and it set alight – remember it well!!). Diane Holgate who played Nan has visited our church socials before to talk about her role in the film and show some of the props she has kept. Full of nostalgia and charm mixed with tragedy and poignancy – a real classic!

    • Many thanks for the comment, Jean, and for the personal reminiscences — very valuable, I think, in assessing my own responses to the movie.

      I too remember the use of a newspaper to try to get a fire to draw properly . . . and the ensuing panic when, as sometimes happened, the newspaper caught light!

      I’m jealous of your personal interaction with Diane Holgate!

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