Halloween 1992 was like most others of the time. Parts of the UK were having a storm, I was in Leicester at the time and around 9ish and my then-girlfriend and I got home with some beer and a takeaway to watch horror films, but instead stumbled across a programme on BBC One which remains one of the BBC’s most controversial in its history and to this day has never been repeated on any of the BBC’s various channels.
Ghostwatch was broadcast at 21.25, just after the watershed of 9pm (an agreement on British TV where potentially offensive, or more adult material can be broadcast) but the programme featured Mike Smith and Sarah Greene, both then popular thanks to their work on children’s television, as well as Craig Charles, a comedian who was well known for appearing in Red Dwarf. It did however star Michael Parkinson, the king of British chat shows and a massively well respected figure; not just on television but in general. His word was considered to have weight, so for him to front what was supposed to be an investigation into the supernatural was an endorsement of the programme itself; even if people hadn’t seen it. In this case, the show was to be an investigation into the supernatural shown in real time with the latest technology for viewers to marvel at.
In the early 90’s the BBC made a series of live events where presenters would be there live and direct as events transpired around them. They were early examples of reality television and very popular with viewers. Ghostwatch was to be set on Foxton Drive in Northolt in North London. Foxton Drive was like thousands of streets all over the UK; not run down enough to be deemed poor, but certainly not affluent either, striding that border between lower middle class and top end working class. The family at the centre of the ghostly events were the Early family, Pamela the mother and her two daughters, Suzanne and Kim, all of them living in the ‘most haunted house in Britain’. So Parkinson and his team, as well as experts like Dr. Lin Pascoe would, over the course of Halloween night, try to find ghosts and capture them on camera.
However, the whole thing was a staged hoax. It wasn’t real. Writer Stephen Volk wanted it broadcast without any warning to trick people into thinking the programme was real so it effectively lured people into the horror, but the BBC baulked at that so a warning was broadcast as well as brief opening credits outlining that Ghostwatch was part of BBC One’s Screen One strand of drama. But if you missed that opening you didn’t know what it was. You were taken in with it because Parkinson was there, oozing authority. Then there’s Craig Charles joking around, along with that nice Mike Smith and his wife Sarah Greene. She’s not going to lie to us as she’s on children’s TV being nicer than nice, is she?
Dr. Pascoe and everyone else were played by actors (of various quality it has to be said, but that adds to Ghostwatch’s realism) but as we were told about the malevolent spirit inhabiting the Early family home we started to be scared of Pipes, so named because of the noise the spirit would make on the water pipes in the house. The story was based round that of the Enfield Poltergeist which later became the basis of this year’s horror hit The Conjuring 2.
So on that Saturday night in 1992 myself and millions more were drawn in slowly with what starts as a fairly silly programme but gets more and more scary to the point where the producers of the programme decide to unleash the hounds (well, cats actually) of hell in order to scare the shit out of anyone watching. Ghostwatch is an amazingly effective piece of television horror that, even now 23 years later, still sends a shiver down the spine. But this is also a pivotal event in British cultural history.
That broadcast in 1992 was the only one shown for a decade, so the only way to see it again was to either be lucky enough to own – or know someone who owned – a first generation VHS copy. Or to lurk round comic marts or the ads in the back pages of the Fortean Times in the hope you’d be able to get a copy that was even remotely watchable. The reaction to the programme from some was harshly negative. People felt tricked as they didn’t grasp the grammar of the horror genre or what Volk was trying to do by mixing it in with the glamour of live television. Verisimilitude was everything here to the point where it caused Ghostwatch to be blamed for a tragic death by the press, even though it wasn’t the cause. Numerous complaints saw producers be hounded on live TV, and the result of all this was that Ghostwatch was forgotten by the BBC, but by that point the programme had taken on a life of its own.
A friend of mine would have Ghostwatch parties where we’d play the Ghostwatch game he invented (can you save Sarah from the cellar and the clutches of Pipes?). I’d go to people’s houses and spot a video of it pride of place on their shelves, ex-girlfriends would talk about it. The thing haunted me, but not until 2002 was there a DVD version which meant we could finally watch Ghostwatch with a nice clear picture, which meant the shocks were clearer, and we could see all the sightings of Pipes we’d perhaps missed previously.
Today there’s still a large fan base who have an annual National Seance, where everyone gets online and views Ghostwatch at the same time. There’s also an excellent making-of documentary, Behind the Curtains. What Ghostwatch did was to scare the arse off people on a Halloween which fell on a Saturday night so people were coming back from the pub, or had their guard down or just sat there being scared by one of the finest, and most effective bits of television horror there’s ever been.
Ghostwatch has aged very well. It works as a satire as well as a warning of what reality TV can do as much as it does as a horror film. Yes, some bits do look clunky now, but overall this is still such an effective drama that’s dropped its DNA in everything from the work of Chris Morris through to Hollywood blockbusters. It deserves its place as a benchmark programme that will also make you jump because it does feel real. After all are you really sure that noise isn’t Pipes?