Twenty-one years ago, on Halloween (31 October) 1992 I, along with a large portion of the British viewing public, was taken in (a la The War of the Worlds, as it was written and first broadcast on radio by Orson Welles on 30 October 1938) by Ghostwatch (1992), a British ‘mockumentary’ that was made before the term was even properly coined.
Regular readers of my reviews will know that horror is my favourite genre, and it was then as well so, with my university house-mates, I duly tuned in to the Beeb at the appointed time, genuinely excited about what I/we thought was going to be a genuine investigation into a genuinely haunted house in Northolt, London.
The show, as the title indicates, was set up like a Crimewatch investigation, and featured none other than Michael Parkinson and Mike Smith as its anchormen in the studio, with other stars of the time Sarah Greene (wife of Smith) and Craig Charles among the intrepid ‘ghost hunters’ on location at the house.
It was also supposedly being broadcast live, with the traditional ‘call us with your supernatural experiences’ number advertised to viewers. The family involved, a recently divorced mother and her two young daughters, had seemingly been beset by poltergeist activity caused by ‘Pipes’, the nickname that the children had given to the alleged entity, because of its tendency to bang and rattle the house’s plumbing system, but there had also been more frightening phenomena witnessed, such as scars covering the face of the elder daughter and levitations of objects.
In fact, the show had been recorded weeks in advance, both in the studio and on location at the house – initial callers to the program’s number were informed that the broadcast was fiction and were invited to share their own ghostly experiences but, such were the number of calls made (around 30,000 in just one hour) to the BBC (the number was the standard BBC call-in number at the time, 081 811 8181, which was also used on programs such as Going Live!), that subsequent callers were greeted only by an engaged tone, which only added to the sense that the show was for real.
Needless to say, the broadcast caused huge controversy, and to date has never been repeated in the UK, though a DVD is now available. Truth be told, as I was watching it for the first time, I began to get the sneaking suspicion that, while Parkinson, Greene, Smith and Charles all seemed to be for real, the utterances of the on-show ‘expert’, the mother and her two daughters had the feel of being somewhat scripted.
Thankfully, I dispelled such doubts fairly quickly, and that was only for the good, because the genuine descent into nightmare that follows worked so much better for feeling like the real thing. And, having now acquired it for myself on DVD, I can say that upon second viewing Ghostwatch stands as one of the very finest pieces of TV horror ever produced, with hand-held camerawork, subliminal flashes of the ‘ghost’ and a real sense of mounting dread.
In fact, it was written by Stephen Volk, directed by Lesley Manning, and was produced for the BBC anthology series Screen One – this information had been already provided to viewers but, such was the credibility of its set-up, with front cover of the Radio Times and prime-time advertising of the show as a genuine investigation, that excited viewers didn’t bother to check the details closely enough – we all wanted to believe.
So, dim the lights, suspend disbelief, and watch it for yourself here – you will never see its like again. Heh, heh, heh.