A real and immediate evil
One of the BBC's most nightmarish and controversial dramas of recent years was swept under the carpet, yet is still discussed with awe and reverence, even fear. What are the reasons for its special power?
Revised version of 'Hunting Ghostwatch' published in HEADPRESS, no. 25.
Has it really been over two decades since the BBC broadcast Stephen Volk’s uniquely eldritch mockumentary-drama GHOSTWATCH (1992)? A special part of the Screen One season, the play was not and will never be screened again, at least not for the forseeable future. For years, the BBC remained silent on the subject of it's own The War of the Worlds-like event, notwithstanding a typically interesting piece about it on the blog of documentarian Adam Curtis. Interest in the programme remains high, though, as when I originally wrote this a few years ago a degraded pirated copy could fetch £50 or more as GHOSTWATCH was not available on any retail format (it is now), and its discussion on BBC online forums were consigned to the memory hole. A fictional drama by an established writer starring familiar faces from it’s own stable: how could the BBC view that as a taboo?
The story begins at the end of the 1980s when English screenwriter Stephen Volk proposed a six-part television drama, a ‘spooky Edge of Darkness’. He had written the feature films Gothic (1986) for Ken Russell (1927-2011) and The Kiss (1988) for William Friedkin, and the series he proposed was to end with a live broadcast from a haunted house. When the BBC passed on this, producer Ruth Baumgarten suggested repitching the project as a single 90-minute drama, concentrated on being what the original episode six was intended to be, blending documentary and drama. The BBC dithered during production, yet was finally coaxed into transmitting the result. When this article was first published and GHOSTWATCH was not available, and with no prospect of that happening I felt it behoved someone to make a synopsis of the programme. For those who have never seen or do not clearly recall what happened that Halloween night, what follows is a close look at a lost television masterpiece… *** MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD *** SKIP THE SYNOPSIS BY CLICKING HERE
Stephen Volk, screenwriter
Image: Jonathan Hall (Clerkenwell Films/ITV)
It is 9.25 pm on October 31st 1992, and you are watching BBC1, the safe and secure heartland of British television, the crown jewel of the British Broadcasting Corporation. The continuity announcer says, ‘Now on BBC1, Screen One presents an unusual and sometimes disturbing film marking Halloween. Over the centuries there have been countless reports of ghosts and ghouls, but the line between fact and fiction has always been unclear. Using the modern idiom of the outside broadcast, Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Mike Smith and Craig Charles star in.... GHOSTWATCH.’
Cut to the doyen of British tv presenters, Michael Parkinson, host of innumerable chatshows, standing in front of a fireplace in a studio. ‘The story you’re about to watch is a unique live investigation of the supernatural,’ he says without a scintilla of irony. And we believe him; the man has never ever told a joke on television, or made a single utterance known to be false. ‘It contains scenes which some viewers may find to be disturbing.’ He walks over to a wall of monitors displaying an ordinary English suburban house built in the 1950s or 60s. ‘No creaking gates, no gothic towers, no shuttered windows. Yet for the past ten months this house has been the focus of an astonishing barrage of supernatural activity. This footage was shot by a parapsychologist investigating the case. Now you’re about to see one of the incidents which have earned this house its reputation. Let’s see what you think.’
Cut to a CCTV shot of bedroom where two girls lay in separate beds. The caption says UNIVERSITY RESEARCH VIDEO 10 P.M. The video is date-stamped. ‘One of the girls turns out the light between the beds and they settle down. A few seconds later the one nearest the camera gets-up, turns on the light, leaves the room. A banging sound startles the girl in bed, the other reappears, and both are shouting for their mum. Something is thrown into shot, the girls scream, a metal object appears in the air. The camera pans to the corner of the room, there is nothing there. A woman enters and as the girls run to her the bulb in the bedside table lamp explodes.
The picture fades to black and cuts to a title sequence of an O.B. van being loaded with gear and driving away. Shots of a production control gallery, a crane shot descends the outside of the drama’s feature house, arc lamps light-up, and a group of people are dazzled by light, chilling wind FX, and the title card.
Michael Parkinson talks over shots of the house: ‘So, welcome, this Halloween night to the first ever tv ghostwatch. That’s the scene in Foxhill Drive in Northolt. Our outside broadcast units are there. That’s the house where it might all happen tonight, or it might not, we shall see.’ Cut back to studio. ‘We’re going to investigate one f the most baffling and fascinating areas of human experience: the supernatural.’ By now he’s standing back in front of that obligatory backdrop for the supernatural/ Fortean / true crime show: the fireplace (complete with real fire and skulls on the mantlepiece). ‘Tonight television is going ghosthunting in an unprecedented scientific experiment where we hope to show you for the first time irrefutable proof that ghosts really do exist. I’m joined in the studio by Dr. Lin Pascoe to give her expert technical advice.’ Cut to Dr. Pascoe (Gillian Bevan) smiling modestly. ‘Throughout the programme I’ll be taking other expert opinions about the supernatural from both here and America. You’ll be telling us your ghost stories. And as our tale unfolds we’ll be taking your calls about just what you’re seeing. Well let’s go to the main location of our programme, the house on Foxhill Drive. Craig Charles, that well-known ghosthunter, is our reporter. Craig, how are you?’ A very chipper Craig Charles, stand-up comedian and star of the SF-comedy series Red Dwarf, is discovered in front of an O.B. van, sticking a finger in his ear to give the authentic feel of a talkback link to the studio. He says, ‘Yeah, I’m fine. [stoner voice] I’m takin’ the Valium, man.’ He walks past a crowd to the front of the house. ‘Later on we’re going to be interviewing the medium who’s unsuccessfully tried to exorcise the house behind me (wonder if he’s heard from Elvis, lately.) However! With me is Pam Early, the woman of the house. Hallo, Pam.’ Mrs. Early (Brid Brennan) gives no flicker of a smile at Craig’s lunges at humour. ‘And she’s going to be with us throughout the whole spine-tingling story. [sings Twilight Zone ditty.] And after that you can share with us your own supernatural stories on our very own Halloween witchboard - I mean, switchboard. Over to you, Smithy.’
Back to the studio, panning across to a large painted scrim. Mike Smith, ex-Radio 1 DJ, is talking offscreen: ‘Thanks Craig, we’ll come back to you later on.’ Lights fade-up behind the scrim neatly revealing Mike at the centre of several desks of telephonists. ‘Right, this part of the studio is your part of the studio this evening because this is the phone number,’ caption: 081 811 8181, ‘we’d like you to call us on. You can now see our GHOSTWATCH team are here ready to take your calls. We particularly want to hear from you if you’ve had any personal experiences of ghosts or the supernatural. Call us now.’
Parkinson: ‘As a matter of fact, of course, Mike Smith has a very particular reason for keeping a beady eye on proceedings tonight.’ Smith: ‘Well so would you if your wife had just told you she was going to spend the best part of a night in a night in the most haunted house in Britain!’ Parkinson: ‘Of course we’re talking about Sarah Greene, and Sar is our reporter who’ll actually be spending a night inside our haunted house. She’s very keen to do it I understand, Mike.’ (The two are married in real-life.) Mike, ‘Oh yeah, jumped at the chance. Actually so did I because we’ve both been interested in ghosts and that weird sort of stuff, and to be honest I could never have sat at home tonight on my own and watched this programme. I’m safer here!’…
So ends the show’s preamble, an object lesson in how to punt the television hoax. The continuity’s announcement that we were about to watch a ‘film’ is rapidly lost in a blend of seductive set-up techniques. The drama opens to no music, just Parkinson, Mr. No-Nonsense UpNorth himself, selling the concept with his implacable Yorkshire gravitas. His lines barrage the viewer with direct address, about how this is ‘your’ programme, how this ‘unprecedented’ event is happening ‘for the very first time.’ The tone and language capture that slightly overemphatic and patronising, slightly schoolmarmish BBC-speak we English all know so well. The setting, Northolt near Heathrow airport, is classic bland suburbia. Who’s ever seen a drama set in Northolt? The CCTV ‘evidence’ from the girls’ bedroom hints at darker things to come. Craig Charles - the ‘alternative’ antidote to the suitish Parkinson and Smith – fails to be funny. But it doesn’t matter, his nervy clangers heighten the credence of a live broadcast. Upcoming ‘technical advice’ and supernatural stories are teased: we can but only stay tuned. Then there’s the gently indulgent, insider chumminess of the banter between Parky and Smitty (his cocky and prophetic quip about being safer in a tv studio than at home a subtle set-up to what happens later). The screen is packed with the authority and technical magic that is television: O.B. vans, hand-held cameras, lights and cables, the video-wall, presenters with tie-clip mikes. The 'incident room' studio set is ‘Crimewatch Gothic’, expansive, important, in touch with the real world with its switchboard operators. Smitty’s phone number was – or was very closer to – the BBC’s regular phone-in number, flashed on hundreds of shows. So far, everyone that’s spoken has – thankfully – barely had to act. The illusion of a television vérité documentary is bedding-in nicely.
Craig Charles and Pam Early (Brid Brennan)
The next sequence takes on a darker shift. With talk of supernatural encounters being ‘devastatingly real’ Parkinson throws to Charles who extracts fragmentary accounts of smelly taps and broken crockery from Pam Early. She is on the verge of tears when Charles throws back to Parkinson. After a respectful pause Parky interviews Dr. Lin Pascoe: ‘What can be done for people like Mrs. Early… clearly she’s shattered.’) Dr. Pascoe says that it’s ‘obvious’ people like Mrs. Early are ‘desperate for help.’ After making a sceptical noise, Parkinson throws to Sarah Greene (ex-children's tv presenter from shows such as Blue Peter and Going Live) who teases ‘getting to the bottom’ of the Foxhill Drive mystery and fessing-up her own personal ghost story before introducing ‘Alan Demescu’ (Mark Lewis) an ‘electronics engineer and a member of the Society for Psychical Research,’ a real organisation founded in 1882. In the outside broadcast van the suspiciously Rasputin-like Demescu leads us around various temperature and frequency monitors. Greene then flips the camera to focus on Chris Miller, the cameraman, who demonstrates a special heat-sensitive camera on various onlookers. ‘This means for us that nothing can lurk in the shadows,’ Sarah Greene says. ‘There’s no hiding place,’ agrees Chris. Normal vision resumes, and Mike the sound man does an atrocious Rik Mayall impersonation (despite Sarah's gaffe(?) that he’s the ‘unofficial chairman of the Adrian Edmondson Society’). Cut-away to Parky and Pascoe enjoying the joke, and the crew enters the house to settle down for the night.
Parkinson and Pascoe chat about the suitability of the house, Pascoe claiming that it had been ‘run through a computer’. Parky teases more evidence later in the show, then Pascoe says that being in the house was ‘like being in a circus or a war zone.’ Mike Smith turns up phone-caller ‘Emma Stapleton’ who says she could see a figure on the videotape. While they search for the tape, we cut back to Sarah Greene, apple-bobbing with the girls in the kitchen. There’s a strange knocking, and Craig Charles leaps out of a cupboard wearing a werewolf mask. What a wag. A full round of smirking in the studio, then back to Sarah who goes upstairs and interviews mum and the girls about noises in the house. ‘Terrible noises coming through the walls… like the whole room was going to come part,’ says Pam Early. Kim, the youngest daughter, leads the crew down to the understairs cupboard. She claims to have seen the ghost through the cracks in the door, and shows Sarah a picture she’s drawn of a snowman-like figure with a red eye - the ghost ‘Pipes.’ Pam show Sarah an school exercise containing pages of crazy writing.
Mike Smith in the 'incident room'
Craig Charles with Alan Demescu (Mark Lewis)
The Early family: Suzanne (Michelle Wesson), Pam, and Kim (Cherise Wesson)
Dr. Lin Pascoe (Gillian Bevan)
By now the tape has been cued. Callers are reporting a dark, mysterious figure in the corner of the girl’s room. A white figure can be seen standing by the girl’s bed, highlighed by Dr. Pascoe with a lightpen, citing ‘faces in the fire’, the natural human tendency to make patterns from chaos. Sarah Greene asks Pam about her worst moment and is led back to the boarded-up cupboard under the stairs. Pam speaks about being trapped in the cupboard, and feeling the presence of another person who the girls called ‘Pipes.’ Cuttings from local newspapers are shown. ‘I BELIEVE IN THE DEVIL SAYS SPOOK HOUSE MOTHER’ is one headline, ‘POWER OF EVIL’ and ‘WEIRD HORROR OF FEAR ESTATE.’ She shows a video of her and Kim on a tv talkshow. Pam is led to an O.B. van, and explains to Parkinson her reasons for allowing the BBC to trample all over her house. Wanting to bring back Blakes' Seven, is not among them, alas. ‘Sandra Hughes’, a phone caller offers sympathy. Parkinson shows Dr. Pascoe’s book ‘Angels of the Odd’ (terrible title) and V.T. of a student undergoing a white noise experiment. She and Parkinson move to a Revox and, after he gives the standard ‘viewers of a nervous disposition should not listen’ warning, listen to a recording from the house at Foxhill Drive. Crashes and screams lead into Dr. Pascoe attempting to talk to a mysterious throaty voice. As we hear this, a ghostly figure appears over her shoulder in the studio. She confirms the girls could not have imitated the voice themselves, supported by V.T. of her and one of the girls in the lab trying to imitate it. They rummage through a box containing broken objects, bent spoons, broken watches and on the video wall pictures of bloody scratches on Suzanne’s face and neck are shown. The make-up is mildly graphic. Photo evidence of a pillow floating above the two girls, both of who are in crouch positions on the bed. The picture is a homage to shots from the Enfield poltergeist case of 1977. Dr. Pascoe iterates that the introverted, prepubescent Suzanne is the classic poltergeist focus. Pam appears on the video wall, refuting the doctor’s suggestion that pressures inside the family are causing the phenomena. Dr. Emilio Silvestri (Colin Stinton) is brought in on a live link to New York, and gets into a mild spat with Pascoe by taking a sceptical stance against the evidence. ‘Show me falling in love in the lab, or poetic inspiration,’ challenges Dr. Pascoe. ‘You ought to be selling crystals on Venice Beach or palm reading,’ he retorts. Cut to a wryly amused Parky.
Nothing’s happening in the house so Sarah Greene tells a story about hearing harpsichord music in a 16th century house she once stayed in, and seeing the face of an Indian woman whose eyes roll back into her head. Cutaway of Parky wiping his glasses, chortling. Later she heard about the house belonging to a Viceroy of India who buried his concubines in the garden. Sarah pacifies the ghost by going ‘it’s all right, nothing going to happen.’ And then she feels the atmosphere is better.
After this dramatically tepid, but suspense-building vignette it’s bedtime, so Sarah and the kids go upstairs to be tucked-in (strangely, they can hear their mum bidding them goodnight from the O.B. van.) Dr. Pascoe assures Parkinson that the paranormal is ‘no more scarey than the weather or the tides.’ Sarah goes down to the kitchen, commenting on the eeriness of waiting with the crew during the prosaic business of making coffee. Mike the sound man says his watch stopped just before going on air. The elder girl appears and pitches-in with drink business.
‘So far, so good,’ says Parkinson, and introduces V.T. of a man with a chunky bitmapped head. He waffles on about shoes and excrement smeared on the bathroom door of his house, relishing the word ‘smeared’, doing it twice, with extra campness the second time.
Charles pops-up (‘Boo!’) and jogs over to a patch of waste-ground where two women who live opposite the house talk about ‘weird and horrible’ things happening in the area: missing children, pregnant dog mutilations with ‘foetuses scattered all over’ a local footie pitch. This finger-licking grisly detail is rapidly smoothed by the appearance of a spiritualist (‘By profession I’m a British Rail guard’...) who speaks of an ‘overwhelming sense of evil, of spiritual decay’ and of being ‘physically sick for a week’ after being in the house. Goaded by Charles, he says a bit more about evil houses. Children dressed as a red devil and a witch appear. But Parkinson cuts off the banter with them, handing to Sarah, who reports a dark circle in the living room floor, switches off the main light, sniffs a handkerchief pressed into the circle, and is taking a sample from it when Suzanne appears at the door. In the kitchen, Sarah is startled by the erratic pipes rumbling in the kitchen sink. Dr. Pascoe underscores all this as typical poltergeist shenanigans.
On the phone, a very comedy ‘Kevin Tripp’ from Neath in Wales talks about a cheese sandwich leaping in the air while the programme was on. Parkinson susses it’s a wind-up and ends the call with a line about ‘getting the picture.’ Not one to be fooled by a levitating cheese sandwich, is Parky, and the exchange marks a shift in tone with a levity indicating to those perhaps not yet aware that we are watching a fictional drama. Or indeed that everything's still all right with the world in the land of BBC1.
Sarah enters the bedroom now where there’s banging under the bed: rearranges furniture, tracing the noise. Now it’s in the wardrobe. No, the kids say, it’s in the kitchen. Cue hand-held running down the stairs. The girls pictures are scattered about the kitchen floor. As Sarah picks them up, a cat miaows, and the unaccounted figure of a burly man in a blue shirt can be seen reflected in the patio door.
Silence as Mike the sound man traces with his boom. Banging restarts from above. Sarah goes up and pauses at the head of the stairs. Parkinson begs her to stay where she is, telling us that Suzanne has got out of bed but hasn’t appeared in the hallway. Dr. Pascoe takes over the vision mixing, demanding cuts between the various cameras on the upper floor, revealing one of the girls banging on a door with what appears to be a red plastic hammer. Sarah charges. The girl throws a pillow at the camera when Sarah tries to calm her denials. It’s either a very hard pillow or a very flimsy camera because the instant the pillow touches the lens the picture goes to black.
Cut back to a dumbfounded Dr. Pascoe in the studio. Parkinson intones. ‘We set out to catch a ghost and what we witnessed sadly, very sadly, was the exposure of a hoax.’ Parkinson and the Doc fence, she resorting to jargon about sympathetic magic. Parkinson wants to talk to the elder girl, Suzanne, who’s hysterical. ‘All we were is noises to you,’ she cries. Pam Early repeats that they’re all telling the truth, leaving a crestfallen Sarah and crew in the kitchen.
Dr. Silvestri returns. ‘I don’t get a any vicarious thrill out of seeing parapsychology crucified in public but it does validate my hypothesis... these are disturbed attention seekers… You play into their hands. Prime-time tv. Alice in Wonderland couldn’t take it anymore. End of illusion.’ Mike reports that callers are seeing an old man or woman with a bald, skull-like head, dark holes for eyes, wearing a robe or dress buttoned up to the neck. Dr. Pascoe requests to see the university lab tape again. To fill time, we get a haunted house story on the video wall, this time from ‘Laura’. The lacklustre story about a poltergeist suffers a technical hitch about 30 seconds in, slows to a stop, rewinds, and is pulled. The glitch catches Parkinson unawares, waving away a floor manager in shot, and throwing to Mike Smith who patches-in a caller who talks about her kids being hypnotised by the programme and how there’s blood all over her walls. Parkinson suggests switching the television off and sending the kids to bed. ‘We don’t want to give anybody sleepless nights,’ he assures. ‘We don’t want to start a panic. Don’t let your imaginations run riot. These things we’re talking about are very rare indeed, and the chances of them happening to you are exceedingly remote. Please believe us.’ This is one of the programme's instances of uncanny prescience.
The tape Dr. Pascoe asked for has been found. She’s seen talking to Kim who’s describing a bald old man with ‘blood all over his eyes and scratches over his head.’ Pascoe concludes that they’ve been looking at the wrong person. The focus of the activity is Kim, not Suzanne.
GHOSTWATCH presenters Mike Smith, Michael Parkinson, and Sarah Greene
Back in the house, Mrs. Early and Sarah can hear cats. Daughter Kim whips-up another charge up to the bedroom where Suzanne is lying in bed on her back in a state of shock, her face a rash of scratches. ‘What shall we do?!’ cries Sarah. Patrician Parkinson, ever rational, asks about the girl’s fingernails to which Pam scathingly retorts ‘Fingernails?! What fingernails?!’, pulling the girl’s hand to reveal nails bitten to the quick. Sarah goes to the bathroom to wet a flannel, and starts at the sound of breathing. ‘Behind the door!’ There’s nothing there. Mike wonders if they should ‘send someone in,’ but Sarah's against it. Suzanne appears to regain consciousness as Parkinson says ‘I should tell you if you joined to see the next programme that in fact we’re staying with what we have here from Foxhill Drive because the events are so remarkable and so dramatic that we’ll be staying with them for as long as we have to.’ Dr. Pascoe speculates that Kim is ‘creating the energy’ and Suzanne is directing the energy on herself.
Mike interjects with a ‘very important phone call which I think you should both take right now.’ ‘Mary Christopher’ talks about a homicidal child-minder who used to live in the Foxhill Drive area. In the girls’ bedroom, mum is readying them to leave. Kim shouts ‘I’ve got to talk to somebody!’ Sarah finds that she’s talking about ‘Pipes.’ Sarah asks, ‘where’s Pipes?’ ‘Here.’ ‘What does he look like?’ Sarah asks, and the girl, back to camera, appears to respond ‘somebody’s mum.’ Sarah and Pam wrestle the girl from the from the room while, over the scene, Parkinson says ‘Please, let’s have the kids out of the house, could we?’ As the kids are hustled from the room banging starts-up again. The camera pans across the empty girls bedroom, flashing past a dark, skeletal shape. Tracking a hand-held shot downstairs, where Kim is hysterical: ‘Look, everybody wants to see him!’ Cut to the outdoor crane shot with Craig chatting to bystanders as Parkinson says, ‘The children are on their way out of the house now. Once they are, I suppose, when they are that will be the end of our programme.’
Walking the phones, Mike reports that all over the nation clocks are stopping. A microwave is ‘pinging repetitively.’ The dog of a Mrs. Pinder from Chepstow won’t stop barking. ‘I’m sure we can assume,’ says Parky, ‘that most of these calls are jokes. I’m more interested in what’s happening at the house. Are they all out yet?’ ‘Wait, wait!’ cries Mike, ‘just in the last few minutes, a young lady, very distressed, in response to something we’ showed earlier on, and she hung up before we could talk to her.’ He makes to to-camera plea for her to call back, supported by Dr. Pascoe. Parky hands back to Sarah in the house…
Pipes (Keith Ferrari) in a behind-the-scenes shot
Back in the studio it’s blowing a gale. Has Parky just opened his wallet? No, ‘We’ve created a seance, a massive seance’ the doctor tells him. Cut to Mike, the sound man, being stretchered from the house into an ambulance ‘Is this live?’ Parky wonders. A police squad car arrives. Pam is chased by Kim, Craig, and police to the back of the house and led away. Over this Parky deduces that Sarah hasn’t emerged. Cut to images from the thermal camera, wispy blue shapes in black. Voices in the studio speculate, is this Sarah? Yes. Her figure rises from the floor and takes the cameraman’s hand. Very quiet as the camera pans for the girls. As Sarah flicks on a torch, normal picture resumes. Wild banging starts. Suzanne crying for help. Apples swinging on the kitchen. Sparks fly in the studio. A cup spins and breaks. A door to Pandemonium is yawning, threatening the unleashing of some Jacobean drama. ‘It’s okay, Susie, we’re here,’ cries Sarah, forcing the door under the stairs. ‘Get off me,’ cries Suzanne as the door flies open, blasting Sarah with howling wind. Cats wail as Sarah, seemingly in a trance, enters the cupboard, unstopped by the cameraman’s grasp. The door slams shut.
All hell breaks loose in the studio: lights explode, the telephonists duck for cover, Mike Smith refuses to leave. Hapless production staff stand around. An unmanned camera drifts across the studio floor. Parkinson, still trooping, keeps up a commentary as the lights fade. ‘Studio’s completely dark… just blackness now… all the lights have failed, the power’s gone off…’ Fade up on a portion of the very dim studio, the figure of Parky drifts past, oblivious to the one working camera. ‘We’ve got some lights… I don’t know… the cameras… I dunno which one’s working… there are no cameramen… difficult to know if anybody’s still with us… if they are, this is the scene in this studio, this totally deserted studio…’ He walks into shot, just about. Distantly, cats are wailing as he recites ‘round and round the garden like a teddy bear,’ his voice becoming unearthly. Ferocious cats-scrapping noises.
Silence and blackout.
From here events proceed apace. Sarah’s latest house report is interrupted by feedback in her earpiece There’s more banging upstairs. ‘Incredible noises coming from the walls and the from the ceiling,’ says a distressed Sarah. A picture jumps off a wall, the noises stop. Suzanne starts talking in a husky voice. Pam shakes her. ‘You mess things up,’ the girl quietly accuses in her normal voice. ‘You messed everything up. I hate you.’ What is she talking about? Her absent father? Sarah rushes around the house looking for Kim, tracked by CCTV on the landing and in the bedrooms. She ends up in the darkened kitchen where a toy bunny is in the washing-up bowl. Kim is found cowering by the fridge. She shows something to the camera (glass eyes?) A cat wails. Sarah and Kim embrace. A mirror shakes in the hallway. Lights flicker. Mike the sound man traces the wailing to the cupboard under the stairs as the wailing becomes very aggressive. Mike prises open the door. As it slowly opens we catch of a figure inside – the mirror falls and shatters - Mike falls unconscious. Sarah runs for help, stop by a scream as she touches the front door. ‘He’s touching me. He’s hurting me.’ It’s Suzanne’s voice. CCTV shots from every room. Where is she? ‘Get off me. Get away from me.’ Another scream, the shot from the landing turns to static, rapid fade to black.
A white-on-black caption appears: NORMAL TRANSMISSION WILL BE RESUMED AS SOON AS POSSIBLE over the voice of Mike Smith, ‘Have we lost something completely?’
Cut to a surprised Craig Charles in front of an O.B. van with Alan Demescu. Craig, Parkinson, and Mike overlap several lines - ‘we must be able to get it back somehow’, etcetera – then Craig shoves his mic at Alan who says, ‘Nothing to report so far. The house seems very quiet and peaceful.’ Craig fools around with van tecchies and a couple of kids in costume for about half a minute, then a CCTV picture appears of the girls, Sarah and the Chris the cameraman having snacks in the living-room. Huge sighs of relief in the studio. ‘Panic over, hopefully,’ says Parky, but Dr. Pascoe’s pen and clipboard are bristling. As they try to get back the sound from the house, another caller is patched-through.
‘I don’t want to give me name,’ it says, Yorkshire accent, ‘I have some information for you about the history of the house.’ Dr. Pascoe tries to brush him off: the building of the house, the site back to the Domesday Book, even the ley lines. The Doc has gone into everything, yet is tripped-up by the caller’s information about a unofficial lodger who lived there with his aunt and uncle in the 60s. The lodger, a convicted paedophile, was convinced he was being possessed by a woman ‘on the inside of his body, taking over his thoughts and actions’. With wire attached to a lathe and his neck he killed himself. This happened – as you surely guessed – under the stairs. The house cats, crazed with hunger from being locked in, ‘got to work… on his face.’ The caller hangs-up. Parky’s had enough of this. ‘No more calls. The switchboard’s are jammed. We’ve been inundated with hoaxes.’ The furious Doc shouts him down. ‘We need to know what’s happening out there. Parky calls her bluff: ‘You’re the expert. What IS happening out there?’ Turning away, the doctor flatly admits, ‘I don’t know,’ in what has to be the show’s weakest moment. Followed by a wobbly camera a pensive Dr. Pascoe approaches the video wall. She directs Parky to the shot showing the picture on the living-room wall. The picture that earlier had fallen to the floor! ‘This is footage from earlier in the evening,’ Pascoe says, ‘this is just a cover! It isn’t happening now,’ and at the instant Parky finishes saying, ‘So what IS happening now?’ comes a chilling montage: the picture breaks-up, an instant’s shot of an arm emerging from a door in slow-motion, some kind of tool or weapon in it’s hand, then a shot of one of the girls in bed overlaid with a slowed-down voice, a shot of Pam with Kim crying ‘we gave you what you wanted’ from earlier, replayed three times. The montage takes just moments and is one of the eeriest and unsettling sequences I’ve seen on any kind of screen.
The second half, 'Act Two', of GHOSTWATCH still manages to be compelling, in spite of, or rather because of, calculatedly dull diversions into filler testimony and mundane business. The pacing is brilliant. (One of the most shocking things about The Exorcist (1973) is how very little we actually get to see of exorcism sequences). Odd spooky shots are interspersed. The moment in the kitchen where a figure is briefly seen reflected in the glass door standing behind the crew (image above) is a real chiller. There's another much more graphic look at the ghost in one of Craig Charles’ scenes, very difficult to spot.
We are being trained to look very carefully at the screen, to trust our own eyes and minds not what the presenters are telling us. The sacred covenant of trust between the broadcaster and the viewer is being undermined and reshaped.
The backstory of the child murderer is convincingly put across by the Mary Christopher character, and the girls and Sarah Greene act-up very well indeed. Volk is careful not to let the events be totally explained by the caller’s information about the murderer. The fact of Mrs. Early’s divorce is mentioned without comment, an event we can well imagine preying on the girls’ minds. Apart from the two-man male crew who do nothing except witness what’s happening, everyone in front of the camera inside this haunted house – Sarah, Pam, Kim, Suzanne – is female.
1. The influence of the famous Enfield poltergeist case on the production can strongly be seen in this sequence. The case, which lasted for two years from August 1977, centered on the Harper family, four children and their mother, who were disturbed by a variety of events including overturned furniture, levitation (seen in a famous series of photographs), apparitions, fires, apports, and visible assaults. A thirteen and an eleven year-old girl were the focus of the activity; one was even possessed by a disembodied voice described as ‘hoarse, rasping, and uncannily loud.’ The case was researched by Maurice Grosse, and Guy Lyon Playfair, who acted as ‘psychic consultant’ on GHOSTWATCH.
2. I think it was also used for Saturday morning children’s programmes and Crimewatch.
3. Grosse later qualified that GHOSTWATCH had done a disservice to poltergeists, presenting them as evil and demonic when in his experience ‘they are more mischievous than evil.’ Quoted in Fortean Times 67, February-March 1993.
4. Quoted in Fortean Times 67, February-March 1993.
From that time on noone was more disturbed by the programme than the BBC itself, the network which had seesawed right up to the last minute on whether or not to transmit it. According to Volk, the BBC has ‘categorically’ said it will not repeat the programme (on live television, not the same as offering it for download, which it does now). Even the mere mention of it was banned for years before its commercial rehabilitation in their online store. GHOSTWATCH, it seems, was just too successful in its aims. It's hard to see it being made today, not in the same way or with the same subject matter. The thread of child abuse runs deep in the programme, without becoming an hand-wringing, what-can-we-do-to-understand-it ‘issue’ as is the normal tv treatment. To hear a child being abused ‘live on tv’, as does happen in the drama, is disturbing enough. Yet this is much less shocking to network controllers than a programme using every tried method of seduction and trust-building only to dismantle that trust by the end, casting the viewer adrift from cosy, spoon-fed explanations and amusement.
Another aspect contributing to the special dark power of Volk’s vision, and the team’s cohesion in creating GHOSTWATCH, can’t help but strike me in revising this piece, an effect that has sustained this drama longer than most other horror genre outings trying and falling short of providing a memorable thrilling chill. GHOSTWATCH is in a different class, standing out as serious in its intents, and as disturbing in its effects, by not only convincingly reveal the presence of evil, real evil outside of the mythological framework of religion. It reveals an evil greater than it intends to, one peculiarly immediate and relevant to its real setting, the studio, and the entity of its production. This is about true prescience, that most precious and elusive gift of the dramatist or author. Volk's GHOSTWATCH is prescient to the same elevated degree as George Orwell's 1984 (1948), Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party (1958), Pierre Boulle's Planet of the Apes (1963), Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner, Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Dan O Bannon and H.R. Giger's Alien, even if for reasons not known to its creators.
If we see the house on Foxhill Drive, a place where young girls are in danger from a senior-age male who was a former inhabitant of the place, appearing only intermittently at the time the drama is set, as a metaphor for the BBC itself the mockumentary becomes a genre expose of a real situation within the corporation that was contemporaneous to the drama. For decades at the BBC, a DJ and television presenter who hosted hundreds of music programmes, and wielded an undue influence in social and professional circles extending into politics and royalty, despite his supposed popularity being almost completely illusionary beyond the small world in which he wielded his undue and bafflingly unaccountable influence, was exposed in a 2012 documentary as a serial abuser of hundreds of children. That person was Jimmy Savile (1926-2011), a rare and highly-conspicuous exhibitor-and-concealer extraordinaire of the dark triad of personality disorders (psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism), and whose victims could run into the hundreds. More despicable humans than Savile are few and far between indeed, yet he was – incredibly – feted at the BBC like a Pasha where he had the run of Television Centre to make shows for two decades (on the same stage as the GHOSTWATCH studio) as well as hospitals and prisons, where his lusts ran to the sick, the disabled, and it is suspected, the deceased. Savile’s monstrosity makes GHOSTWATCH’s Pipes look relatively benign, while Pipe’s mental problems, his confusion and toments are worlds away from Savile’s ultra-organised and professionally successful life. Yet at their dark core they are essentially the same figure, also the dark coincidence of how Savile served as a ‘pipe’ for music on the airwaves as disc jockey and a Pied Piper for his victims, hosting music shows during and after which he abused his audience. Less the Dickensian figure some have seen in him (noone in Dickens comes close to Savile's wickedness) than that most chilling of the malevolent figures of European folklore, the Pied Piper, a fraudulent and predatory entertainer of youngsters. GHOSTWATCH therefore resonates as a warning about a very real and present danger: the vile Savile whose husk of a personality stalked the very location where it was planned and performed.
The drama purports to be scientific and honest at its outset, packed with trustworthy faces, experts, and the latest technology. It finishes as a medieval pell mell, a prelude to a Grand Guignol blended with a game of psychology. A subtext of the play is don’t trust it just because television is telling you to, television is not reality, which is about as subversive as the medium can get. It’s my guess that this is why the BBC has not attempted anything quite so challenging since (although it has finally made the show available). Safer for all concerned if television is imagined as a window, not a mirror.
The darkness over GHOSTWATCH deepened in the weeks after the broadcast. On November 5th, five days after the broadcast, the body of Martin Denham, a timid 18-year-old of below average intelligence, was found hanging from a tree in Bestwood Lodge Park in Nottingham. Martin had watched the programme in a ‘hypnotised’ state and despite the entreaties of his parents could not shake the idea that knocking in the central heating pipes in his house was the rappings of ghosts. The tragedy stoked a negative media consensus. ‘I blame the BBC, it is all their fault. They said it was based on a true story but it was all a hoax,’ said Martin’s mother to the delight of the tabloids. Despite reporting that the teenager was already suffering from paranoid delusions the press reaction, led by the buttoned-up Daily Mail, grew increasingly hysterical. Genuine callers to the BBC worried about the fate of Sarah Greene, and there were sincere accusations that the BBC had summoned demonic forces. Producer Ruth Baumgarten and executive producer Richard Brooke were brought to book on the BBC’s in-house kangaroo court programme, Biteback, where viewers complained that their emotions had been toyed with. Brooke said that he was sorry children watched a unsuitable programme. An exasperated Baumgarten defended the right to make a disquieting viewing experience: ‘We can’t win. What can we do? Never make a programme about anything disturbing?’ Well, yes, since the Never Disturbing Approach is what the BBC has overwhelmingly taken with its programming since this drama was aired.
BBC switchboards fielded 20 000 callers over the next two hours, a great many wanting to know if the show, or rather the drama, was real. The investigator who has presided over the Enfield Poltergeist case which had been such an influence on Stephen Volk the screenwriter, Maurice Grosse (1919-2006) of The Society for Psychical Research, fielded calls, later recalling, ‘At first people wanted to tell of their experiences, but this quickly changed to an inundation of complaints… It was apparent that some callers were scared out of their wits… I got the impression this was very satisfactory. After all, that was the whole idea, wasn’t it?’ Readers of Radio Times magazine – which had made the programme a cover feature – were generally impressed (‘The should get a BAFTA award for it!’). But Michael Parkinson added to a growing antagonism with the comment that viewers who had been taken-in had been ‘living under a stone for the previous two weeks I have no concerns whatever about the show. You always get a certain percentage who believe everything on TV is real. If people were scared, we did our jobs well.’ The BBC issued a statement admitting how they grossly underestimated the ineffectiveness of the ‘warnings’ which had been built into the programme.