Poltergeists, Panic & Parkie – Ghostwatch 20 Years On
By Ben Bussey
Gather round young ‘uns, and I shall spin ye a tale of Halloween night some twenty years past… yes, it’s another one of those retrospectives based in childhood reminiscence. What can I say? Writing this shit down and posting it on the internet is considerably cheaper and more convenient than psychotherapy. Anyway, given that I seem to have been one of the few original viewers of this notorious bit of TV history that did not require therapy afterwards – even though I was considerably younger and as such obviously so much more impressionable and susceptible than the many adult viewers who were so appalled by what they saw – I daresay my perspective on this matter might be worth something.
Halloween 1992 fell on a Saturday. I was 12 years old, clad in a hastily assembled zombie costume of sorts with streaks of my mum’s reddest lipstick crusting on my cheeks, and was hosting what I would optimistically class as a Halloween party; after all, what says ‘party’ like six or seven 12 year olds sitting in a living room drinking cola, eating crisps and playing Atmosfear? But not long after 9pm, all gameplay and tomfoolery was called to a halt as we flicked to BBC1 to watch what I told my friends was a drama about ghosthunting. Within moments they were telling me I was wrong, and that this was a real, live programme. It was cutting between a TV studio set and what appeared to be a real suburban house, and it had familiar TV presenters in it: long-established BBC stalwart Michael Parkinson, real-life couple Sarah Greene and Mike Smith, and Craig Charles, still our hero back in the days when Red Dwarf was good. They were all referred to by their real names, and were speaking directly to camera. The sound and camera crew often stumbled into shot. Perhaps most significantly for us at the time, the BBC phone number 081 811 8181, instantly recognisable to any child of the 90s from Saturday morning show Going Live (on which Greene was a host), was frequently being flashed up on screen inviting viewers to call in. It had to be real, my friends insisted. I proceeded to pick up that week’s Radio Times, in which Ghostwatch was the cover story, and flicked to the feature within the magazine which made it clear that the programme was scripted, pre-shot and 100% fictitious. No doubt I also proceeded to lambast my peers for not having the common sense and decency to read the Radio Times. Yep, I was a master of social graces even then.
However, perhaps I wasn’t vocal enough. Maybe I should have gone out into the streets and shouted out, “cool it everybody, Ghostwatch is just pretend; now take it easy and enjoy it!” Unfortunately, a few too many people did precisely the opposite. They believed that what they were watching was actually happening – not necessarily a problem for the first forty-five minutes or so, in which not a great deal of note happens. But then, in the parlance of our times, shit gets real. (Or not, as the case may be.) Weird noises from nowhere. Pictures flying off the walls. Scratches showing up all over the faces of the kids, and unnerving, unnatural voices coming from the kids’ mouths. Fleeting glimpses of someone or something who shouldn’t have been there; the sinister presence known only as Pipes.
Once the batshit finale gave way to a simple end credits sequence and BBC1 continued their evening’s programming as if nothing had happened, one can only imagine the split reactions. Many, like myself, were left exhilarated by 90 minutes of highly effective supernatural entertainment, and proceeded to flick over to BBC2 where a whole night of horror movies was lined up; ah, what a great night of TV that was. Alas, thousands more viewers were left feeling somewhat less cheery. On realising Ghostwatch had been scripted after all, many felt betrayed and humiliated. Others apparently went on believing it actually had been for real. And – of course – a buttload of the most uppity and self-righteous ones called the BBC and any/all media outlets at their disposal, and complained as loudly as possible.
What a lot of absolute pillocks we have in Britain. (Well, I shouldn’t be surprised really; they’d just voted John Major back in earlier that same year.)
Revisting Ghostwatch in 2012 is a curious experience. On the one hand it’s a time capsule of early 90s Britain, still caught in an 80s hangover a few years before that whole Cool Britainnia nonsense swept the nation, with countless relics of the era scattered here and there: shoulder pads under Sarah Greene’s T-shirt, Jason Donovan and MC Hammer posters on the girls’ bedroom wall, and what I think is a Commodore Amiga hooked up to the TV. On the other hand, it’s also a piece of drama that’s rather ahead of its time given the form and content. It was broadcast seven years before The Blair Witch Project hit cinemas, and well over fifteen years before the term ‘found footage’ became part of the venacular (and not long thereafter a dirty word for many). Subsequently it might not have aged all that well, but at the time it was truly unlike anything many viewers, myself included, had experienced before. Knowing it was not ‘real’ did not, and indeed does not diminish its power in any way.
In any case, it’s not like Ghostwatch adds up to 90 minutes of utterly naturalistic drama. Some of the performances are pretty stagey, not least those of the two children; I mean, who’d be sitting around reading a magazine or changing into their pyjamas when there are TV cameras right in front of you? More to the point, since when was being enthralled by a horror movie or a ghost story contingent on believing it was real, anyway? That extra dash of verisimilitude just gives the action a bit of an edge, making the viewer that bit more receptive; lulling us to play along as though we really do believe what we’re seeing, much as how we might enter a ghost train or haunted house show knowing full well that it’s all staged but on some level allowing ourselves to make believe that it’s for real. And let’s face it: no one has ever picked up a copy of, say, Dracula, Carrie or World War Z – all of which take an epistolary form not entirely dissimilar to that of Ghostwatch – and mistaken them for actual historical memoirs, have they? And even if they did, have we ever heard them demanding such books be banned (for that reason at least)?
Unfortunately, a few too many pompous, miserable bastards did not take Ghostwatch in the spirit it was intended. For a taste of how hostile the reaction was (whipped up, as ever, by our beloved tabloid media), look no further than this panel show in which producers Ruth Baumgarten and Richard Brooke defend the programme against an audience of uptight fuckwits who are out to crucify them. If the attitudes on display there don’t make your blood boil, I don’t know what will. It should pretty much tell you all you need to know that these people knowingly allowed their children to watch a show that was broadcast after 9pm without bothering to read up about it first, yet feel no culpability whatsoever for how their children subsequently reacted. Well, once again, I was 12 years old at the time, I knew it wasn’t real, and I enjoyed it. Does that count for anything?
Unfortunately, the British news media can’t sell something if it doesn’t have an air of quasi-apocalyptic despair to it, hence Ghostwatch was written up as huge, cruel and irresponsible joke on the part of the BBC. Most heinously it was cited as the reason behind a young man’s suicide – despite the fact that, as writer Stephen Volk has long since emphasised, “the coroner at the inquest did not even mention the drama.” (Incidentally, his look back at the furore at the link above is well worth a read for detailing the length and breadth of Ghostwatch’s legacy.) Subsequently, although it is available on DVD it has never been repeated on British television, and apparently remains to this day something of a no-go area for the BBC. Still, I should think they’ve got rather bigger worries hanging on their shoulders at this moment in time…
20 years on, the landscape of television and the horror genre are somewhat different. Ghosthunting shows are now many, their veracity scarcely being an issue in their popularity, as Annie recently discussed. The content of TV in general is now a lot less restricted, and the concept of the 9pm watershed more commonly accepted; these days we’re well used to late night TV shows filled with blood, guts, tits, cocks, drugs, and people calling each other fucking cunts, and as such we can be forgiven for finding Ghostwatch a wee bit tame by comparison. On top of which, I find it highly unlikely such a programme could inspire quite the same reaction now, given that so many of us are prone to live-tweeting our thoughts on TV shows as they happen and Googling anything we see that raises a question the very moment that question comes to mind.
If we can disregard the question of whether Ghostwatch duped viewers and instead simply consider the programme as a piece of TV drama, there is much to appreciate. It’s certainly not short of flaws; as previously stated, the acting is variable, it’s sometimes a little overreliant on obvious jump scares, and not all of the key players are given much to do, with Mike Smith and especially Craig Charles generally feeling like fifth wheels. But in the midst of this, Ghostwatch does also raise some interesting questions on the subject of parapsychology, conveying points from both the side of the sceptic, embodied by the stoic Parkie and the blasé Charles, and that of the believer embodied by Greene and Gillian Bevane’s parapsychologist; which, knowingly or unknowingly, gives proceedings a perhaps somewhat cliched gender-based divide, particularly given the inhabitants of the haunted house are all female, abandoned by a similarly sceptical husband/father. There are also some intriuging suggestions as to what form the supernatural might take in the information age, particularly in the wonderfully outlandish ‘ghost in the machine’ climax.
Perhaps above all else for the devoted horror fan, Ghostwatch reminds us of the importance of being open to different and potentially interesting modes of storytelling. Yes, a great many of us (myself included) have long since fallen out of love with found footage, and not without justification; but in the right hands, a pseudo-documentary approach can prove highly effective for cooking up scares, as Ghostwatch demonstrates. The trick isn’t that the makers are deceiving the audience; it’s that the audience is ready and willing to be deceived, and within a fantastical context confront those tantalising and/or terrifying “what if?” questions, for 90 minutes or so at least. And what better time is there for that than the night of October 31st?
So, Happy Halloween to all, and to all a good night. Listen out for any strange noises in the witching hour; and be sure to keep a close eye on the cupboard under the stairs…