Over the centuries there have been countless reports of ghosts and ghouls, but the line between fact and fiction has always been unclear. Using the modern idiom of the outside broadcast Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Mike Smith and Craig Charles star in Ghostwatch.
(BBC continuity announcement prior to broadcast of Ghostwatch, October 31st, 1992)
I actually missed the very start (about a minute) of this controversial and seminal production, which was a stroke of luck, as it took away the spoiler-ish effect of the ‘Screen One’ production credit prior to the broadcast. ‘Screen One’ was the name of the BBC One drama strand at the time, and I also just missed the opening credits, which had the big spoiler ‘Written by…’ credit on it. Whether I would have picked up on either of those things is debatable. However, not having that information, now knowing it was a ‘mockumentary’ was a mixed blessing, as it meant the show turned into something of an unforgettable experience, but it also proved to be an unsettling one, one that I can remember vividly today. It is the little details that lure you into believing the ‘realness’ of the setup – like Sarah Greene, on the outside broadcast, introducing her cameraman, Chris Miller, as a Mike Gatting look-a-like (Gatting being a well known English Cricketer). It created a normal, typical Television atmosphere with light banter – a run-of-the-mill BBC production. Only slowly do the edges darken on the viewing experience, the first being when a woman calls into the studio claiming to have seen a ‘presence’ in a broadcast video of the haunted house shown a earlier on in the programme. Other highlights include voice recordings that are incredibly creepy (high pitched, almost electronic, very menacing) which evoke The Stone Tape in its use of sound as a terror tactic. The natural performances from the presenters lead you to believe that what you are watching is real. Michael Parkinson was the perfect host, his deadpan, calm and professional approach giving credence to the events, while at the same time giving added punch when things appeared to go awry. An example of this is when Pakinson announces that Ghostwatch will continue broadcasting past its scheduled slot because of the fast moving nature of the events that were occuring. In fact, the only criticsm is that some of the acting from the ‘Early’ family (the family whose house is the focus of the malevolent entities power) lacks the quality that the rest of the cast provide. Some of their scenes (particularly when the Early girls speak) can be a bit stilted, and in retrospect you can tell they are ‘acting’, performing lines. This, however, is a minor quibble.
The show is probably best described on its Wiki entry;
Ghostwatch is a British horror-mockumentary television movie that aired on BBC One on October 31 (Halloween), 1992. Despite having been recorded weeks in advance, the narrative was presented as ‘live’ television. Due to the furore that followed its first and only UK television broadcast, the film is now widely regarded as being one of the most controversial British television events in recent years.
taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghostwatch
To summarise the plot inevitably will spoil the enjoyment of the production if you have not seen it before, so it is entirely up to you if you wish to continue reading this section:
Plot Summary of Ghostwatch
On Halloween 1992, the BBC gave over its Saturday night prime time scheduling to an investigation of the paranormal. The centre-piece of the scheduling was Ghostwatch, which was a 90 minute production, written by Steven Volk and involving respected BBC presenters performing a live, on-air supernatural investigation of a house in Northolt, Greater London. The reason for the focus of the show being at that particular house was because poltergeist activity was believed to be taking place there. Through revealing footage and interviews with neighbours and the family living there, the existence of a malevolent ghost nicknamed “Pipes” is revealed. He is called “Pipes” from his habit of knocking on the house’s plumbing. As the programme continued, from work behind the scenes on the show, viewers learn that “Pipes” is the spirit of a psychologically disturbed man called Raymond Tunstall, himself believed to have been troubled by the spirit of Mother Seddons – a ‘baby farmer’ turned child killer from the 19th century. These manifestations became more bold and terrifying, until, at the end, the frightened reporters realise that the programme itself was acting as a sort of “national séance” through which “Pipes” was gaining horrific power. Finally, the spirit escaped and began to escalate its poltergeist activity in the BBC studios themselves, possessing the show’s host as a prelude to its unleashing on the world.
End of summary
Although I ‘knew’ it couldn’t be real, and I continued to convince myself of that fact, towards the end of the show I was feeling VERY uneasy – what began as a mild curiosity for me mutated into the horrible and incomprehensible feeling that something could be going wrong. All this while I sat in a dark and cold house (my mums). On my own. To re-iterate – despite the surety that this must be a set-up by the BBC, the production itself felt so real, and was so well executed, that it left you with the indelible impression that there are such things as ghosts, and their malevolence was a frightening and powerful force.
Ghostwatch caused all sorts of bother. No wonder – it was terrifying! It felt like a live transmission, not least because the production adhered to lots of the conventions of the live television formats (like established shows such as Crimewatch on the BBC). For example, a phone number was shown on the screen so that viewers could call in and discuss ghostly phenomena. The number was the standard BBC call-in number at the time, which was 081 811 8181 (which, tellingly, was also used on programmes such as Going Live! which was presented by one of the main Ghostwatch reporters, Sarah Greene. However callers who did get through were connected first to a message telling them that the show was fictional, before being given the chance to share their own ghost stories. Also, the set was a typical sort of BBC studio design and the filming methods, including shaky / ‘natural’ hand-held video cameras, gave Ghostwatch a documentary / live outside broadcast feel. As stated before, probably the key element in making Ghostwatch seem ‘real’ was the use of high profile BBC personalities playing themselves. Sarah Greene (who appears to suffer the most throughout the show) and Craig Charles were the reporters on the scene at the house in Northolt, while Mike Smith (who is Greene’s husband in real-life, and was a presenter on the BBC daytime show Pebble Mill at One) and the experienced (and big star of the show) Michael Parkinson linked from the studio. As I stated earlier, their presence gave credibility to the whole show, and therefore, as the tension and shocks began to mount, made the whole thing suitable terrifying as it seemed so believable. After all, why would people like Michael Parkinson want to play a hoax on the British public that involved poltergeists and unexplained phenomena?
The genesis of Ghostwatch is especially telling. It was originally conceived by the writer Stephen Volk as a six-part drama in which a fictional paranormal investigator and a TV reporter investigate poltergeist activity at a North London housing estate, gradually discovering more elements of the mystery each week. Whether the TV reporter would have been an established personality is not known, though I suspect it would have been necessary to create the correct atmosphere, of lulling the viewing public into believing that it was fact not fiction. Then, in the final part of the series, a live TV broadcast from the property, things start to go out of control (much like the broadcast version of Ghostwatch. When the 6 part series was not followed through, Volk continued with the format, but only taking the final episode scenario, working on that until it became the finished article.
Just before broadcast, the BBC, however, started to get jumpy and became concerned over the effect the broadcast. This is understandable, as it has the power to disturb, but the BBC reaction was that severe that there were concerns that the show would be pulled the show shortly before broadcast. Though they relented, the BBC insisted on measures to make viewers aware that this was a fiction. They did this by adding opening credits (which included the writer’s name, which apparently caused Steven Volk much dismay as it effectively gave the game away that this was a fiction) and also ensured that there would be a Screen One title sequence (as stated before, Screen One was the BBC drama strand). However, despite these measures, there were lots of complaints to the BBC, and more seriously, claims that it caused Post Traumatic Stress disorder in some children, and tragically is alleged to have caused the suicide of one young man. Ghostwatch is about as controversial as the BBC have ever got, a hoax that is comparable to the Orson Welles ‘War of the Worlds’ broadcast. Kim Newman furthered explored the controversy and wrote about it in his engaging and authoritative style;
“The precedent most often cited in the flurry of controversy that followed BBC 1’s ‘live’ telecast of Ghostwatch on Halloween night 1992 was Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater on the Air’s radio version of H G Wells’ The War of the Worlds broadcast exactly fifty-four years earlier, on October 31 1938. Both fictions made great play of imitating the ‘feel’ of current events broadcasting. Welles captured the tingling sensation of ‘breaking news’ in uncertain times when war was looming abroad and the radio was the primary medium of mass communication. Ghostwatch perfectly mimics the tone of the slightly-sensationalised repackaging of the true-life sufferings of ordinary people in series such as Crimewatch or (as mentioned in the script) ‘Hospitalwatch’. As with The War of the Worlds, it is hard to get through the outrage in the press and the programme-makers’ discreet encouragement of tales of unwary viewers terrified into believing that they were witnessing real events.”
Taken from http://mssv.net/realityart/bfinewman.html
Effectively shunned by the BBC because of the controversy it caused, Ghostwatch finally got an official DVD (and VHS) release in 2002, released by the BFI to mark the 10th anniversary of its broadcast. This was welcome after years of only being able to watch it on Nth generation copies of video transferred on to S-Video or DVD and sold on auction sites. You can buy it at the usual places, like play and amazon, though it is has been discontinued and prices on those sites from ‘marketplace’ retailers can be a bit steep. Amazingly, and fantastically, you can actually watch it on Google video – but take this as a warning, it is NOT suitable for children or if you are easily scared;
Now this seminal piece of British TV Horror (surely amongst the greats alongside ‘The Stone Tape‘ and ‘A Warning To The Curious‘) is getting the respect it deserves (and is heartening) – a documentary, called Ghostwatch – Behind The Curtain is in production. There are 2 sites that can give you more information, and an opportunity to participate;
http://www.forteantimes.com/features/articles/220/ghostwatch.html – Fortean Times 10th Anniversary Ghostwatch article
Headpress’ Creeping Flesh Volume 1 article on Ghostwatch – Essential, informative and well written.
http://www.britishhorrorfilms.co.uk/tv/ghostwatch.html – A fine article on Ghostwatch from the British Horror Films site
http://mssv.net/realityart/bfinewman.html – Kim Newman tackles Ghsotwatch
http://www.screenonline.org.uk/tv/id/715896/index.html – BFI entry for Ghostwatch
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0200659/trivia – IMDB trivia page for Ghostwatch, and contains such gems as;
The writer was unsuccessful in his attempt to be allowed to put a high pitched sound over the recording which, while people wouldn’t hear it would cause household animals to go wild – something which happens in the pipes household and is frequently mentioned in the story. This sort of thing is what is key to the success of this production. The writer, Steven Volk, really did push the envelope with this, but the fact he wanted to go even further, to truly test the inclusiveness of the audience in the experience, is awesome.
Finally, it also worth considering the influence Ghostwatch had on the makers of ‘The Blair Witch Project‘, which had a similarly slow and creeping terror vibe, until the whole thing explodes into something very evil and very unexplained.