Friday 14 October 2016

Ghostwatch (UK 1992: Dir Lesley Manning)

People who talk of influential television refer to programmes which change the way we think, give us a different perspective, or cause us to re-evaluate our position on a given subject. But TV can work in other ways. The 'retina of the mind's eye', as Brian O'Blivion referred to the idiot lantern in David Cronenberg's 1982 film Videodrome, can also be a subversive force, whether by design or by accident.

Shortly after the screening of Ghostwatch on 31st October 1992, the national press ran the tragic story of 18 year-old Martin Denham from Nottingham, who, according to his mother, had hanged himself a few days after watching the programme, convinced that he was possessed. This news effectively ended the furore and urban myth making that had been growing in the media ever since the programme screening, making Ghostwatch one of the most controversial programmes ever aired by the BBC in terms of public impact. The news effectively drove Ghostwatch underground for many years until its reissue by the BFI in 2002. Now, 24 years on, Ghostwatch is ripe for re-evaluation. Put simply, did the programme really justify all the uproar?

In a word - yes.

Ghostwatch was arguably the first sustained pastiche of reality programming, in itself a genre in its infancy in the early 1990s, the premise being a live Hallowe'en event, hoping to catch a glimpse of the supernatural at work. The BBC outside broadcast team are set up in and around a house on the outskirts of London, occupied by the Early family, and which has been the focus of abnormal levels of poltergeist activity in recent months. The team are headed by Sarah Greene, popular TV presenter of the time and, like all the celebs in the programme, playing herself. Craig Charles is also around to act like an awkward pain in the rear, a role he seems to manage very credibly. Back in the studio, TV's 'Mr Congenial' Michael Parkinson presides over the evening with Dr Lin Pascoe, a dour psychic researcher who has been working with the Earlys, and Greene's real life husband, the late Mike Smith co-ordinating the phone lines, where viewers can call in and tell Parky and the world about their supernatural experiences.

Things start slowly - in fact almost nothing happens for the first two thirds of the programme. The plight of the family is explained, and Greene interviews the mother, Pam (who is divorced), and her daughters Kim and Suzanne, who recount the catalogue of events. The audience is shown footage of one of the poltergeist attacks in the children's bedroom, prompting a number of calls from the public claiming to have seen a figure in the corner of the room while the footage is being shown. Dr Pascoe remains unconvinced after reviewing the tape, and during the course of the programme, as much as there is any characterisation, we begin to understand that the parapsychologist has little sympathy with the plight of the family but is simply desperate to find actual existence of supernatural activity to support her rather wayward theories.

Greene begins to find out more about 'Pipes', the hideous figure reportedly seen on several occasions - but only by younger daughter Kim - and who is so named because the mother has tried to explain away the sharp knocking sound that accompanies his appearance by telling them that it's the fault of the central heating system. Kim has drawn a picture of him, telling us that he's "disgusting - really disgusting" and that he lives in the cupboard under the stairs. From the drawing 'Pipes' looks like a Doctor Who monster with leprosy. Sarah helpfully suggests to Kim that they should place the picture somewhere where everyone can see it. Pam shows Sarah letters sent to the Council, local press cuttings and even footage from a Kilroy-type show she and her family attended to get their case taken seriously.

With Greene and the rest of the technical team (a mix of real life technicians and actors) installed in the house, Kim decides to go to bed. We learn that elder daughter Suzanne has been the physical target of the visitations, not only receiving inexplicable scratches to the body, but also speaking in a strange guttural voice, captured on tape by Lin Pascoe while Suzanne was undergoing a sensory deprivation experiment, and played to the Ghostwatch audience in the first really frightening moment of the programme.

Outside, Craig Charles talks to local people and finds that the sinister events might not just be confined to the house. Several local children have gone missing, and a pregnant dog has been found butchered in the nearby playground. Back inside, things seem to be hotting up, the team picking up the sounds of scratching and later loud banging. Unfortunately the cameras inside the house spy the hunched up figure of Suzanne, making the noise herself - it would seem that it's all been a hoax brought on by a teenage girl's need for attention, but there's a certain "calm before the storm" feeling. Pascoe is mortified and attempts to change her rationale in the face of a scoffing Parky, who seems relieved that it was after all a childish prank. It looks like it's all over, but wait…the calls are still coming in thick and fast, all corroborating sightings in the footage of an old man with a skull like face, wearing a dress buttoned up to the neck. Back in the house, cuts have appeared all over Suzanne, who is now in a state of shock, and will soon start talking in a strange voice. Parky warns viewers that if they've tuned in for the next programme, it'll be late as they will be staying with events in Northolt. While panic begins to take hold amongst the crew, people who know Foxhill Drive begin calling in to tell the real story of the house, of the mad baby farmer Mrs Seddons, and the strange cross dressing paedophile Raymond Tunstall who killed himself in the house and was eaten by trapped and hungry cats in the cupboard under the stairs. Finally, Dr Pascoe, picking up on the fact that what they have been watching from the OB transmission is not real time but a loop from an earlier point in the evening, concludes with a look of horror - 'it's in the machine.' 'Pipes' has come to meet us.

"No creaking gates, no gothic towers, no shuttered windows," declares Mr Parkinson of the events we're about the see - and he's not wrong. This is a ghost story with the house lights left on, where the scares are not so much in what is seen but which arise from the deepening dread we feel over the unpeeling of the 'onion skin', as Dr Pascoe would have it, that reveals the true story of the history of Foxhill Drive. Writer Stephen Volk, who had also penned 1986's Gothic, had obviously been studying the Nigel Kneale plot handbook, to great effect.

Ghostwatch is not without its problems. While the real presenters do a fantastic job at remaining natural throughout most of the running time (only falling apart slightly when they are asked to emote), the rest of the non-technical cast are professional actors, which jars slightly. For example, Pamela Early, the mother of the family, is played by well-known TV actor Brid Brennan, who not only has to work really hard at not being an actor playing a working class mum, but also is asked to adopt an estuary drawl, fairly unconvincingly. Dr Lin Pascoe, played by Gillian Bevan, is similarly unbelievable as the needle butt paranormal psychologist, but these are small gripes really.

But there is so much that is right. The pastiche approach works fantastically, right down to the details: the prepared credits, the intercutting of the calls from the phone room, the taped accounts of ghosts played as filler, even the problems of cutting between studio and OB - all show a great knowledge of TV process. 'Pipes', or Mrs Seddons, or Raymond Tunstall, is only ever shown very briefly, and the sequence where he may or not be glimpsed in the CCTV footage, which changes when it's re-run, is excellent stuff. Above all, especially seeing it for the first time, it's bloody scary. Not only the sudden shocks, but the story itself is nasty and sordid, unfolding as it does under the sheen of the studio, and the switch from calm to gradual unease, to eventual panic and terror, is very well handled. Maybe it won't push everyone's terror buttons, but it sure did mine.

Ghostwatch, then, as well as being a fantastic piece of TV which bears repeat viewings, is incredibly important for several reasons. Firstly, it was produced by Auntie Beeb, the watchdog's watchdog, whom we expect to be more responsible than this. It's also self referential, possibly taking a critical swipe at its own roster of programmes - Crimewatch and Kilroy spring to mind - who generate ratings from the misfortune of others. Secondly, it came out of nowhere. The 1980s and 1990s were renowned as largely barren ground for TV scares - television had cleaned up its act - so unlike say the 1970s, where Ghostwatch would have fitted in nicely with a glut of like-themed programming (although arguably because of the technical set up the programme is very much a product of its time), this was a true one off. More importantly, Ghostwatch reminded us what TV could be like - TV with the brakes off, where children's presenters, the guardians of tea and crumpet family viewing, were seen scared out of their wits, where the very icons we trust not to give us sleepless nights do an excellent job of letting us down on that score, but creating great entertainment in the process.

A version of this article was first published at 

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