Ghostwatch (BBC 1992)

ghostwatch

Althogh Ghostwatch was only screened once on British television (exactly twenty two years ago) it’s certainly a programme that remains lodged in the public imagination.  It was a drama, made for the BBC Screen One strand, but was recorded to look like a live, factual piece and this blurring between reality and fiction proved to be highly controversial.

Whilst there was a Screen One caption and a writers credit (for Stephen Volk) at the start, anybody who missed this and tuned in a few minutes later could easily have been forgiven for thinking this was a live broadcast.  It employed the narrative of a typical show of this type – Michael Parkinson is ensconced in the studio with an expert on the paranormal whilst Craig Charles and Sarah Greene are on location and reporting back events as they happen.

There are numerous examples of the television grammar that’s been employed to help “sell” the illusion that everything is happening live (although it was all recorded beforehand – and the location scenes were shot some six weeks before the studio action).  The camerawork is frequently out of focus, there are technical break-downs as well as several brief delays between the studio and location as communication is lost.

And like many live programmes there are periods when nothing much seems to be happening.  Essentially the first sixty minutes are all about establishing what we might see and the last thirty minutes ramp up the tension as the strange events start to happen.  During the final half-hour there’s an increasingly unsettling atmosphere as everything spirals out of control – this works so well because the previous hour was (deliberately) relatively mundane.

Sarah Greene is on location at a house in North London, where poltergeist activity is plaguing the Early family (mother Pamela and her two daughters Suzanne and Kim).  Craig Charles is also on the spot, chatting to locals whilst Michael Parkinson is in the studio, linking events and talking to an expert on the paranormal, Dr Lyn Pascoe.  Also present in the studio is Sarah Greene’s husband, Mike Smith, helping to field calls that Parkinson invites from viewers.

I remember watching this back in 1992.  I can’t remember if I knew beforehand that it was a drama, but for me this was very obvious as soon as the Early family are introduced.  There’s a certain staginess about their performances which made it clear to me that this was drama and not real life.  However, some people treated it as very real indeed and the atmosphere created was certainly vivid enough to generate nightmares.  There were reports that somebody committed suicide shortly after Ghostwatch was transmitted and the British Medical Journal reported that several children showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder after they watched it.

Writer Stephen Volk would later profess surprise that anybody was taken in by it.

One thing I can say categorically is that, in all our many discussions at the BBC, we never, ever used the words “hoax” or “spoof.” To us, Ghostwatch was a scripted drama that we decided to make in a certain form – that of a “live” TV show – in order to make it more effective. We thought that people might be puzzled for two, perhaps five minutes, but then they would surely “get” it, and enjoy it for what it was – a drama. The curious thing about Ghostwatch is that while one part of the audience didn’t buy it for a second, another part believed it was real from beginning to end.

It’s interesting to draw parallels between Ghostwatch and that other great controversial drama broadcast around Halloween time – namely Orson Welles’ radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds.  Like Ghostwatch, it was made clear at the start that it was a drama, but some people who missed that announcement were clearly fooled into believing that aliens had landed in Trenton, New Jersey. Although it’s outside the scope of this blog, if you’ve never heard it before then I recommend you have a listen here.

Given that nothing scary is ever really seen (the ghost, nicknamed “Pipes” appears briefly a dozen or so times, but each manifestation is only a brief flash so you really need to pause and rewind to spot him) the power of Ghostwatch seems to be derived from the performances, visuals and sounds.

Key to selling the idea that something strange is really going on is Sarah Greene.  By this time, Greene had been a familiar face on British television for over ten years (Blue Peter, Saturday Superstore) and her increasing anxiety is communicated clearly to the audience.  She’s somebody that the viewers know and trust, so to see her rattled and uncertain helps to sell the illusion.

The ending, with strange events happening in the studio and Michael Parkinson taken over by the ghost, should have signified to most people that this was very much a drama but it’s still a rather unsettling end.  Twenty two years on, Ghostwatch retains the power to chill and it’s recommended viewing – on Halloween or indeed any other dark night.

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