TV GEMS: Ghostwatch (1992)

Liam revisits one of the scariest television transmissions ever with the BBC’s infamous spook mockumentary. 

On Monday 2nd November, 1992, I awoke with a great sense of excitement. Usually, I hated Monday mornings (and still do), but every now and then, something memorable would happen over the weekend and I couldn’t wait to get to school to discuss it with my mates. Outside the window, I could see kids on their way to school and noticed that they all looked just as excited as I was, making scary gestures and growling at each other with frightful delight. It wasn’t because it was Halloween season; back then nobody really cared for Halloween in the UK. At least nobody I knew – it was still too American. The excitement was because, like me, they had just seen Ghostwatch. As I left the house, all you could hear was ”Did you see Ghostwatch?” coupled with bad impressions, re-enactments and bouts of laughter aimed at the kids who had been sent to bed early by worried parents. The discussion raged on all day, and for most of the week, we were either talking about it or doodling pictures of it. Later, all you could hear was ”Did you tape Ghostwatch?” or ”Do you know anyone who taped Ghostwatch?”

The BBC advertised the show as a one-off special as part of their Screen One series, and it was aired at 9.25pm on October 31st. Broadcast “live” from a real haunted house somewhere in London, it had special guest parapsychologists both in the studio and by live satellite feed from America. Viewers where encouraged to share their own ghost stories by calling the usual BBC phone number that any kid who watched Going Live on Saturday mornings knew off by heart. The show was fronted by respected broadcaster and journalist Michael Parkinson, with Mike Smith taking calls from viewers in the studio. On location, Red Dwarf favorite Craig Charles was the roving reporter interacting with people on Foxhill Drive who had gathered in the street, and former Blue Peter presenter and renowned “posh totty” Sarah Greene would be in the house with the affected family, two young girls Suzanne and Kim and their mother Pam.

The show starts out as harmless fun; Charles’ jokey behaviour, kids happily bobbing for apples, and Sarah inviting the camera and technical crew to appear on-screen, which was a clever way of blurring the line between reality and fantasy. In the studio, Parky and the paranormal expert Dr. Pascow discuss previous happenings in the house and listen to tape recordings of a frightening disembodied voice. As the show progresses, callers begin to ring in with reports of seeing a “mysterious dark figure” in the background of the house. The footage is rewound and it is put down to an optical illusion. Later, the family tell us stories about incidents that have happened, most notably one of hearing a cat’s screams from a cupboard under the stairs which has been boarded up and is actually referred to as a “glory hole” (snigger). There is also the presumed presence of a man that coincides with the banging and rattling of old plumbing, granting the specter the nickname “Pipes.”

Even later, the camera crew discuss hearing scratching and their watches have stopped! All very spooky but still a slow-burner. Things begin to hot-up when the elder daughter Suzanne is caught on camera banging the pipes, and for a moment, the whole thing appears to have been a hoax. Suzanne is then found in a catatonic state with scratches to her face and speaking in a demonic voice. From this moment on, the pace goes up several notches and the old revolving BBC globe appears with a voiceover stating that, due to the remarkable events unfolding on Foxhill Drive, the show scheduled for an hour will continue. A caller then rings in about a local tale of a mother called Seddons, a “baby farmer” who resided in the same locality in the nineteenth century. Then, another disturbing call comes in from a former social worker who, in the 1960s, had treated a child molester named Raymond Tunstall who committed suicide in that same house. Apparently, his body was then eaten by his pet cats! Meanwhile, back in the house, Suzanne is missing and things are going haywire with objects moving, lights flashing and the sound of cats screaming. Sarah and the camera crew identify the glory hole as the centre of the activity and attempt to gain entry in search of Suzanne, before being cut-off by technical issues. Back in the studio, Dr. Pascoe comes to the realisation that they have created a nationwide séance and the malevolent spirit Pipes escapes into the BBC studio, trashing the set and finally possessing host Parky who recites part of a chilling nursery rhyme in the same demonic voice we had heard earlier.

Many viewers believed the events were really happening, calling the number and jamming up the switchboard so they didn’t get the pre-recorded message advising everyone that it was all a fictional drama, which added to the panic. The viewing public believing that the BBC television centre had actually become haunted sounds ridiculous, but in the aftermath, the Beeb received a record number of complaints. The network, along with creator Stephen Volk, were the subject of extreme hate on shows such as Points of View and the audience participation series Bite Back, in which Volk was a guest. Was it a brilliant piece of entertainment, or a foolish mistake made by the BBC? Subsequently, they banned the show and it would never be aired again.

It became a real quest to see this again throughout my teens and early twenties. I even wrote a letter to the BBC asking if I could buy a copy after a drunken conversation with a university friend who had the same experience I did back in ’92. Then, one day in 2007, I was browsing through the TV section of a Virgin Megastore when I had what I can only describe as a Jaws moment; a brief second of dizziness that started in the stomach and ended in my head as if the Earth had stopped on its axis… it was Ghostwatch!

After viewing this as an adult, it was clearly an attempt at making a mokumentary which are common today with films like The Blair Witch Project (1999) and TV shows like Most Haunted (2002), and it is certainly influenced by the true case of the “Enfield Poltergeist” which occurred in the late 70s. The acting by the family and paranormal experts is very hammy to say the least, and Sarah Greene acts like a babysitter for most of the show, constantly cuddling the girls and running around getting drinks for them. Craig Charles, however, is excellent and should have been featured more. The style of the show is realistic, incorporating the technical guys who would normally be kept out of sight and using well-known TV personalities. Non-actors in the main roles definitely helped to make it more believable. Actually, Greene seemed to vanish from TV until popping up on Dancing on Ice in 2008; I presumed she was trapped by Pipes in the glory hole for all those years.

Ghostwatch was and still is a fantastic piece of televison that has certainly been an influence on today’s reality show-obsessed culture, and rightly takes its place as one of the great moments in television history.

Liam Brennan

Film buff, aspiring screenwriter and filmmaker.

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