Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Ghostwatch (1992)

I've covered a book and a movie, so it's time to cover a tv show. Ghostwatch is a seldom-seen one-off show broadcast by the BBC in 1992. It was so controversial that they pledged to not repeat or release it for at least ten years, even though its viewing figures broke records, and to this day it has still never been repeated. A dvd was put out on the 10th anniversary in 2002 - by the British Film Institute rather than by the BBC - but this is now out of print and selling for outrageous prices on the internet. As far as I am aware, the show was never played outside of the UK.

Ghostwatch aired as part of a series of one-off plays. It is a fake documentary, presented by real British celebrities playing themselves, in which a television documentary team goes to a house where a particularly nasty haunting has been happening for years, in an attempt to prove once and for all that the supernatural really exists. Legendary presenter & interviewer Michael Parkinson hosts the show from the studio, trying to be earnest but clearly skeptical; former Blue Peter presented Sarah Green is in the house, with the family; Red Dwarf star Craig Charles is outside the house, unable to hide his sarcastic contempt for people who believe in ghosts; and Green's husband, bland presenter Mike Smith, looks after the viewer call-in phones.

The show is a slow burn, playing nicely between Parkinson's good-natured "I can't believe I'm doing this" cynicism and Green's cheerful but slightly worried enthusiasm. There is also a British parapsychologist in the studio, and a video link to an American skeptic. There are phone call-ins from audience members (some of them apparently genuine, some definitely staged) and Craig Charles gets some disquieting interview footage with residents.

Then all hell starts to break loose, and by all accounts people all over the UK believed that they were watching a real-life horror story unfolding right before their eyes. The parallels with Orson Welles's infamous radio adaptation of War of the Worlds are obvious: despite being presented in a drama slot, with a scriptwriter's credit right at the start, and a "starring" rather than "presented by" credit for Michael Parkinson, people were so sucked in by the story and by the professionalism of the actors that they thought it was all real. And when people started calling in claiming that the poltergeist activity was leaping off the screen and into their homes, no amount of amused mockery by Parkinson could persuade the audience that it wasn't real.

This is bravura stuff. The script by Stephen Volk (who did not impress me with his work on Gothic or The Kiss) strikes just the right balance between the skepticism and the gullibility of different characters. The introduction of an element of genuine fraud at one point is a master-stroke, faking out the audience brilliantly. Director Lesley Manning does a terrific job of making it all look like it's really happening live, though it was not actually all shot in one go. Parkinson's genial, reassuring presence in the studio actually makes the scary bits more effective, and Green's children's show demeanour make her the perfect person to be right in the thick of it; when she gets worried, so do we.

The backstory of the ghost contains the kind of button-pushing guaranteed to worry a British audience, especially elements of baby-killing, animal mutilation and paedophilia. The appearences of the ghost itself are superbly managed and almost always completely ambiguous.

The storyline, of an investigative team into the supernatural getting more than they bargained for, obviously harkens back to The Haunting of Hill House. Similar ground was also covered by the BBC in their production of Nigel Kneale's teleplay The Stone Tape, which I will be tackling soon. the Steven Spielberg/Tobe Hooper movie Poltergeist (also coming soon to this blog) is another obvious reference point.

Here is the blog of Dr. Lin Pascoe, the fictional parapsychologist featured in the show.

Next up in this series, a ghost story that is not usually regarded as such, containing a whole lot more gore and violence than everything so far combined, and its link to the urban legends of Miami street kids. In the meantime, stay away from mirrors...


  1. Wow, that sounds incredible and incredibly good. Love to watch it some time...

  2. Rather better than such US cinematic attempts as THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and THE LAST BROADCAST, as well, I suspect...though there was an episode of the US radio drama anthology SUSPENSE that also took this tack, and a rather good one, with a small crew doing a live...and then not so very alive...remote from a haunted house...

  3. Bloody marvellous, this. I've only seen parts of it - a friend in the UK had the DVD but I never sat down to watch it all.

  4. It's up on Youtube, if you can stomach watching it at low-res. Starts here:


  5. I found your blog! I always wanted to see this but was too scared to watch when it was on TV I will look out for it at home.