It was the pseudo-documentary that shocked viewers, garnered condemnatory headlines such as the News of the World’s “Parky panned for Halloween fright” and ended up with a BBC ban. But did those involved in the making of the now notorious Ghostwatch anticipate such a fallout when they went before the cameras?
“None of us thought we were creating something that would be one of TV’s most remembered programmes,” comments Michael Parkinson, just one of the famous faces who starred as themselves. “It was a simple ghost story based on a fairly ordinary premise that there’s a show on television and things start to go wrong. It was only when I saw it back that I realised it had a certain kind of power.”
Craig Charles, who was the drama’s roving reporter, felt that there was a heritage viewers would be sure to pick up on: “In many ways it was harking back to Orson Welles and his famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast. I hoped that the public wouldn’t figure out that it was fake, but assumed they would.”
Real-life husband-and-wife Mike Smith and Sarah Greene also took lead roles, he in the studio and she out at the house in Northolt, Greater London, where poltergeist activity was believed to be taking place. “We had a meeting with the BBC days before transmission,” remembers Smith. “And we told them that this was going to cause a fuss.
“They told us not to worry because it was being billed as a drama in the Radio Times complete with a cast list. But we felt that wasn’t enough.”
Greene adds: “We were informed that the BBC was thinking of airing a discussion afterwards that would dispel fears, so that people would understand the genesis of it. But that never happened.”
Creating the tension
For those unacquainted with it, Ghostwatch, written by Stephen Volk, purported to be a live investigation into paranormal phenomena at a suburban home. Efforts were made to blur fiction and reality through such devices as a phone number that viewers could call, shaky outside-broadcast footage and the use of parapsychology experts who were, of course, played by actors.
Director Lesley Manning explains what influenced the overall feel: “I’d been noticing shows like 999 presented by Michael Buerk that were dramatising real emergencies. Fact was feeding into drama, so why couldn’t it go the other way? I was very strict about the television language of the day and I remember saying in rehearsals, ‘The better we do this, the greater the effect will be.’”
Although the finished piece, which aired at 9:25pm on Saturday 31 October 1992, appears to show two-way conversations between the studio and those on location, these two sequences were actually filmed five weeks apart.
“We were shooting the exteriors during the day in July,” reveals Greene. “The whole house was cloaked in black felt to make it look like night-time and there was a heatwave going on outside. There’s a fantastic crane shot in one of the opening scenes and because it was summer, there are leaves on the trees. So there are a few little clues around the place that this wasn’t Halloween night.”
In order to create a level of believability, improvisation was encouraged. All the performers were given bullet points that had to be included in their various exchanges, but the way they navigated their way through was very much up to them.
“It’s wrong to say that I acted the part,” says Parkinson. “I just became myself and played it like I really was in charge of this programme.”
Yet despite efforts being made behind the scenes to inspire spontaneity, certain “accidents” were enough to give Mike Smith the heebie-jeebies: “I was so thrilled to be working in the same Elstree studio where they’d filmed The Muppet Show. In fact, Statler and Waldorf’s box was still on a wall in the corner. But then odd things started happening. Light fittings exploded, the fireplace that we had as a prop went haywire and a painting just peeled away from the wall and fell down.”
Did these events affect the general mood on set?
“I’m not a believer in the paranormal myself,” reasons Parkinson. “Others were more sensitive to all that than I was. The disconcerting thing for me was that nobody would tell me how it ended.
“They kept me in the studio once everyone else had left and these bloody cameras started moving towards me and this red light appeared at the top of the gantry. It was quite chilling to see what looked like large Daleks closing in.”
Terrorising the nation
The scene to which Parkinson refers unfolds in the closing minutes as a malevolent spirit nicknamed Pipes unleashes its power, kills Sarah Greene and takes control of the BBC studios, possessing Ghostwatch’s host in the process. “I was left gibbering away,” Parkinson laughs.
But as the credits rolled at 11pm, the off-screen controversy was only just beginning. RT’s reader services manager, David Hodges, who at the time was a BBC information duty officer and therefore one of the sole points of contact for viewers, recalls the reaction:
“It was a nightmare. The call counter used to go up to 20 and basically it was stuck on that level for five days after transmission. It was one of those pivotal moments that I always remember. People were ringing in concerned about Sarah Greene or saying that their pedal bin had just moved across the room or that their dog had gone mad. A man even said that his wife had been watching and had gone into labour because she was so spooked.
“At the time, it did feel irresponsible on the part of the programme-makers and we must have had about 2,000 complaints. But I also think there was genuine disappointment when people found out that it was fake.”
By the Monday, the Sun newspaper was running with the headline “Viewers blast BBC’s sick ghost hoax” and Sarah Greene, the then co-presenter of kids’ favourite Going Live!, was forced to make an unscheduled appearance on children’s BBC. “I had to go into the broom cupboard to show that I was alive and that it was all make-believe.
“Yet kids, who shouldn’t have been watching in the first place because they were too young, were sending me pictures of what they thought Pipes looked like. I don’t know whether my turning up unharmed was for the sake of the children or their parents.”
The trouble was that any reassurances that the show was pure fantasy failed to stem the tide of complaints. By 8 November, the tragic suicide of Martin Denham (who had seen the programme) gave ammunition to those who had Ghostwatch in their sights. The result was that the corporation effectively disowned the drama and, to this date, it has never been reshown in the UK.
“Stephen [Volk] and I were completely ostracised,” says Manning. “We thought we’d done something terribly wrong.”
Parkinson adds: “While feeling sympathy obviously for the young man, Mr Denham, who committed suicide, it was a kneejerk reaction to ban it. Ghostwatch was unnecessarily controversial because a lot of the hysteria had been drummed up by, in the main, the media.”
The spirit lives on
What nobody counted on was how this supernatural chiller would continue to resonate among audiences.
Craig Charles, for one, is pleased by the continuing interest: “People often mention it to me and I can see that there’s this cult following.”
Even now there are websites devoted to Ghostwatch, while YouTube clips chart the many subliminal sightings of the infamous Pipes. Dig a bit deeper and you’ll find that he even has his own Twitter account. In retrospect, was the programme ahead of its time?
“The actual device of cloaking drama in reality would seem to be ahead of the spate of films such as Blair Witch that followed on,” says Parkinson. “Just by chance it’s become a leader in its field.”
“It certainly foretold films like that,” comments Greene. “Even if people were watching Ghostwatch and thinking, ‘Oh yes, I’ve seen this in the Radio Times, I know it’s a play’, there’s still a desire for it to be real. We want to believe that it’s possible. It’s sort of like a reverse aspiration: ‘I don’t want to be in that situation, but God it’s fun watching them in it.”
However, such storytelling can backfire on those involved. Take Mike Smith, who reports that he recently went into hospital for an operation on his shoulder. As he was being prepped for surgery, a smiling anaesthetist in his mid-30s leaned over and said, “You did Ghostwatch, didn’t you? You frightened the f***ing life out of me when I was a kid and this is my revenge. Good night.” Now that’s scary.
Ghostwatch is now available on DVD on Amazon.