Monday, October 31, 2011

Ghostwatch - a controversial television event?

Before Most haunted came the BBC spectacular that was a cross between Crimewatch and Poltergeist.

Ghostwatch was conceived
by British screenwriter Stephen Volk.

At one time television in the UK on Halloween used to be the home of an event night, a show that would treat its viewers to something usual, atmospheric, intriguing, and most importantly, fun.

In 1987 we were given a fascinating October 31st with British magician Paul Daniels, who was at the height of his popularity and could do no wrong. Broadcast live from a "haunted castle", we got to see a ghostly apparition via a video monitor before the ultimate finale where Daniels, enclosed in an iron maiden-style torture cabinet, appears to die - the trick gone terribly wrong! The screen fades to black and over this we hear someone say: "Ladies and gentleman, please leave the room in an orderly fashion."

But, you guessed it, it was all a hoax, designed to scare. And it worked! Perhaps viewers were a little naive in those days but what followed was a tide of people jamming the BBC switchboard enquiring whether Mr Daniels was OK.

Following that were the predictable complaints: "My Chiwawa didn't sleep a wink afterwards for worry."

And so to Ghostwatch, the ultimate British television event, broadcast on BBC1 in 1992 as part of BBC Drama's Screen One series. Though it gave the impression that it was live, the mockumentary had in fact been pre-recorded. The stars of the programme - Sarah Greene and Craig Charles (yes, of Red Dwarf fame) - participate in a "live" investigation of a house in Greater London, while observed on screen by a studio audience and fellow presenters Michael Parkinson and Mike Smith.

There was a poltergeist haunting a family at their home; the young children refer to the ghost as "Pipes" due to its habit of banging on the house's plumbing. Gradually we are drawn in to the investigation as things begin to happen, witnessed by the family, presenters, film crew - and us, the viewers! There are loud bangs, objects move seemingly of their own accord, and one of the daughters is possessed by "Pipes" for a time; she is also the focus of the haunting, and receives scratches from... Cats? Meow!

There is no doubting the power of both television and radio; it is clearly reasonable to compare Ghostwatch to Orson Welles's Halloween radio play which fooled and panicked Americans in 1938. The War of the Worlds broadcast was presented in news bulletin-style, giving the illusion that an alien invasion was in progress. Outrage was the response, from listeners and critics alike.

And so fifty-plus years later. The cinéma vérité approach used by Ghostwatch, and the presence of respected broadcaster and journalist Michael Parkinson, did much to convince a large number of its audience that a haunting had taken place. Cue visions of moving shadows in the bedroom and a sleepless night, our imaginations really are the ultimate nemesis.

It is interesting to consider, how does Ghostwatch look from a modern point of view? In a world where we are used to seeing presenter Yvette Fielding and her team poltergeist hunting in a Victorian mansion - in fact, Most Haunted began its run in 2002, ten years after Ghostwatch - are we a far more sceptical audience?

For those who wish to revisit, or discover, this special event: the entire 90+ minutes of Ghostwatch was re-released on DVD in Oct 2011, perhaps not equipped with a proton pack and extras but still a fascinating insight into an experiment that caused national mayhem.

Writer and actor Mark Gatiss refers to it as "Genius" - well who can argue with a genius? For an interesting website, check out Ghostwatch: Behind The Curtains.

On the matter of Halloween television events in the UK, the last one (at time of writing) was Charlie Brooker's Dead Set, which aired in October 2008. Halloween in this part of the world still needs a firm grasp; shops are selling products more now than ever but the broadcasting networks fail to take advantage of the 'trick or treating' spirit.

Thank goodness for DVDs and Blu-rays!