Sunday, 27 June 2021

Ghost Watch


Ceci N’est
Pas Une Pipes

Ghost Watch
BBC 1992
Directed by Lesley Manning
BBC/101 FIlms DVD Region 2

In 1938, Orson Welles scared gazillions of listeners with his fake documentary style radio broadcast adaptation of War Of The Worlds, presented as newsflash interruptions to scheduled transmissions and panicking half of America. By 1992 you would have thought that nobody could fall for such a stunt again and, to be fair to the BBC, when they broadcast Ghostwatch for the only time it’s ever been allowed on terrestrial TV, on Halloween of that year, it was billed as being a drama and the intro to the programme presented it as the same. However, for people like me and many others in the UK, some of whom were tuning into it a little way in after a movie on another channel had finished, Ghostwatch was what the narrative presented itself to be... a live broadcast transmission of a novelty Halloween programme, a vigil where the BBC were watching over a haunted house where two young girls and a mother were being terrorised by an angry spirit.

And why shouldn’t we trust what we were seeing with our own eyes... the whole show is done exactly as a live BBC event would be and it was fronted by some very reliable TV presenters. Indeed, it was headed up by one of the most assured and authoritative, no nonsense TV show presenters ever, Michael Parkinson (who’s interview talk show Parkinson was a staple of British TV for a very long time) and he was accompanied by famous TV show presenters Mike Smith (in the studio taking phone calls), Smith’s wife and fellow presenter Sarah Greene (actually going into the house to spend time there for the night via one of a fair few live links) and even a young Craig Charles (then better known as a presenter of sorts, before he found fame as the star of Red Dwarf) as the ‘man on the street’, wrangling the crowds of onlookers, well wishers and amateur specialists in all things most haunted... as one of the many diversions which the writers used to make this absolutely feel like a typical, BBC live show.  Complete with phone ins, interviews with guests (played by actors and also non-professionals) and the usual arguments about “Is it real?”, “Is it just the girls faking things?” and, importantly to hold the tension and build up to the point where things, inevitably, start to go wrong... “Is anything going to happen tonight while we’ve got the cameras in there or is it all just a load of nonsense?”

For the most part, they did really well at maintaining the illusion that, not only spooky things were beginning to happen in the house but also quite openly hostile, threatening and downright unpleasant things which, as the show builds to its inevitable climax, leaves no viewer safe. Parkinson is aided in the studio, in the chair next to him, by parapsychologist Dr Lin Pascoe (played by Gillian Bevan), to argue against the cynics and, in the house with Sarah Greene and her film crew, we have the mother, played by Brid Brennan, along with her two fictional daughters played by Michelle and Cherise Wesson.

It’s nicely done. Looking back on it now you can see that the presenters were much better at this than a couple of the actors and they really carry the feeling that you are watching a live event. The various viewers flooding the phone boards to tell their stories for the show (and there was a real live line running too while the show aired, although not an interactive one as was being depicted on screen) gives it a very naturalistic feel as viewers see figures in recorded footage and then the hosts cue up the videos again to see what it is the viewers are telling them they can see. It all leads up to a climax where things get very bad, leading on to stories from viewers who are starting to experience poltergeist style breakages and trance like states in their children as they are watching the show.

Then, after a clever piece of chicanery where the cameras catch one of the girls faking it and starting more arguments about the ‘reality’ of ghosts on the show, it turns out she was just faking it for the viewers in case nothing happened that night... and then the real fireworks begin as one of the girls gets trapped in the cupboard under the stairs where the poltergeist, child molester Mr. Pipes (named by the girls after the sounds of the heating system making noises, which the early apparitions were originally confused with) originally killed himself and was eaten by a load of his own cats. Then, shortly after that, the sound man is knocked unconscious (or possibly killed, we never find out) and the lights die in the house. We are soon presented with a recovered live feed (do not adjust your sets folks... a slight technical hitch) and it’s Sarah Greene and the girls playing a board game in the downstairs and all appears well again... until Dr. Pascoe realises that the live feed is just repeat playing footage from earlier in the night and that the ‘ghost’ has got ‘in the machine’ as it were... the TV cameras acting as a huge, 'national seance' and letting the ghost into the houses of all the viewers. The lights in the studio die, ghost winds whip through the set and by the end of the show, it’s just glimpses of the still stalwart Michael Parkinson trying to figure out, with no crew there, if any of the cameras are still broadcasting, before he himself is visited by the spirit of Mr. Pipes. It all gets a bit like Nigel Kneale’s chaotic conclusion to Quatermass And The Pit, truth be told and the events themselves are obviously based on the real life events of the Enfield Poltergeist (which was even the basis for one of the sequels to The Conjuring).

And, yeah, by this point you’d think people would have realised that this was a bit over the top and a dramatisation... and many did. I mean, there are laughable things in this show. The cats on the soundtrack seem a little too clear and well done and, well, I don’t know whose idea it was to have the characters continually referring to the under the stairs cupboard as ‘the gloryhole’ but it certainly brought a smile to my face. It’s an old term which has been in use for centuries but, possibly, the more frequent sexual usage of the term wasn’t foremost in the minds of some viewers (and whoever passed the scripts at the BBC) so, I think someone was getting away with something there. Back in 1992 I would have been none the wiser, I suspect.

However, clearly people did believe what they were seeing. The show prompted huge amounts of complaints, the possible cause of a suicide of a teenager a few days later and it is apparently the first TV programme cited in the British Medical Journal as causing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in children. Consequently, the BBC have never themselves aired the show again but, if you lurk in the company of various horror fans and creators on the internet, people are still talking about this 'one off' broadcast and how influential it was to this day. I suspect many of those modern day ‘ghost hunting’ reality TV shows would not be around today had this not inadvertently paved the way for them to exist and thrive in a TV format.

All said and done, you can laugh (comfortably, from this century) at the last ten minutes of the show being a little too over the top and ‘going for it’ way too enthusiastically to be really effective but, television and its reception by viewers was a different thing back then, even as late as the early 1990s and... if you sat through the thing from fairly early on in the broadcast, the brilliant slow burn makes it almost impossible to not take it seriously. And if you’re not looking out for writer’s tricks to try to fool the audience because you a) believe it’s real and b) don’t think much will happen except for maybe a few noises on the microphones... then it’s only natural that viewers would let this thing get to them. And get to them it did.

So there you have it. Ghostwatch is a show that is still thought of with a certain amount of affection by fans of ghostly tales and if you are in that camp then you probably should take a look at this one to try and get some idea of what all the fuss was about. And, despite our cynical, jaded view of such things now, I think there’s a good reason why the BBC have never aired it again on their own stations, effectively banning it for quite a while on the airwaves... I think there are still quite a few people who, if they tuned into this by accident nowadays, would still be forgiven for thinking something sinister and unholy was reaching out from their television set to come and get them. The DVD is completely free of any extras (aside from that old chestnut, a menu) and my only criticism is that it really needs to get a Blu Ray release, fully loaded with some decent bonus features... it’s fitting that a dark TV phenomenon such as this one should get such a thing.

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