Starring: Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Craig Charles, Michelle & Cherise Wesson
“What big eyes you have… what big eyes you have.” (Susie, Ghostwatch)
Picture the scene. It’s Halloween night, 1992, and the BBC has decided to present a live, hour-long broadcast from the most haunted house in Britain in an attempt to catch the first live, on-camera footage of ghostly events taking place. Well-respected presenter Michael Parkinson is hosting proceedings at a nearby studio, accompanied by parapsychologist Lin Pascoe (there to give an expert’s view), and TV host Mike Smith manning the call centre and taking calls from the public if they see anything odd.
But the real focus of the show is the outside broadcast live from the haunted house, as popular children’s presenter (and real-life wife of Mike Smith) Sarah Greene plans to spend the night with the Early family, who are being terrorised by a ghost going by the name of Pipes (so called because the noise he initially made sounds like old central heating pipes clanking and warming up). Finally, outside the house will be comedian and star of popular sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf, Craig Charles, who will be interviewing witnesses and generally adding some comic relief to what should be an otherwise nervy night. They are all expecting to have a laugh with the audience and make light of the situation, but that’s until things start to go wrong. The eldest daughter’s voice is taken over by Pipes, photo frames fly off the wall and Pipes starts taking over the studio.
Except he doesn’t really. The whole thing was a fake broadcast filmed in the style of Orson Welle’s famous War Of The Worlds radio drama, presented as genuine in order to terrify the audience into thinking it’s really happening. It was perhaps too successful, because it ended up with the dubious honour of being the first TV programme to genuinely inflict post-traumatic stress symptoms in children, and caused one mentally unstable viewer to kill himself.
As a result, the BBC has never shown Ghostwatch again in the eighteen years since it was released for fear of the same thing happening again, but it’s now available on DVD and while the acting is a little less credible these days it’s still a spooky little tale.
I vaguely remember Ghostwatch’s first broadcast in 1992. I never saw it at the time (I was only 9 and still kept my distance from ‘scary’ things), but my uncle phoned up my house, convinced it was real. These days it’s fair to say that Ghostwatch is not the most convincing ‘hoax’ of all time, primarily due to the poor acting ability of the actresses playing the mother and her two daughters. Despite the generally believable performances from the actual TV presenters playing themselves, these two actresses still manage to bring you back to reality as you realise this isn’t possibly genuine, simply because nobody talks like they do. The eldest daughter and mother in particular are unconvincing.
However, for those who missed the opening titles and tuned in halfway through, this could have very easily passed as a genuine piece of reality TV. Hindsight makes it difficult to determine whether people would have been gullible enough to buy it, because when I recently watched it I was fully aware that it was fake and was looking for signs of this. Perhaps it didn’t even enter the minds of people watching it at the time – bear in mind this was the early 90’s, long before the wave of both reality TV and famous hoaxes such as The Blair Witch Project, The Last Broadcast and (in my opinion) Living TV’s Most Haunted.
Nevertheless, there is no denying that regardless of its believability, it’s extremely well-produced and successfully mimics the format of real-life TV broadcasts long before Chris Morris and Armando Ianucci attempted it with spoof news shows The Day Today and Brass Eye.
The tension is well-built with the initially slight unease of members of the public phoning in and claiming they’ve seen a shadowy figure in some footage that was played earlier. This progresses to some subliminal appearances of a strange person in the background, in a number of blink-and-you’ll-miss-him shots. Eventually it all comes to a head, the audience gets the most blatant sighting of the figure, and from then on the viewers are hooked as all hell breaks loose.
To say any more would cruelly spoil things, and this truly is a DVD that has to be watched with as little knowledge of events as possible, but the internet is buzzing with those who have already seen it and are comparing sightings of the ghost, trying to get the definitive list of how many times he appears (the correct answer? Nine in total).
Ghostwatch may not be everybody’s cup of tea – the acting is occasionally dodgy, the ending is ridiculous and the whole thing smells faintly of cheese. But anyone willing to let that slide and consider that nearly two decades ago this scared the hell out of a gullible country (and unfortunately led to a suicide) will thoroughly enjoy watching this. If possible, watch it in a large group and play Spot The Ghost.
In short, Ghostwatch inspired a hell of a lot of ‘fake’ reality programmes that followed, and for this reason alone should be worth a view. At its best it’s a fantastic study in the human mind and how it deals with subliminal imagery and belief. At its worst it’s a bloody good ghost story. It’s a win-win situation!
Here’s a feature on Ghostwatch from Channel 4’s 100 Greatest Scary Moments, which helps explain why it’s so enjoyable: