At 9:25pm on Saturday 31st October, 1992, BBC One broadcast a piece of drama as part of their Halloween offering.
The 90-minute show was never presented as anything else. The Radio Times listing stated quite clearly it was a "Screen One Special drama for Halloween" naming writer Stephen Volk, producer Ruth Baumgarten and director Lesley Manning, and the guide said the show was "starring" — as dramas did, as opposed to factual programmes, which generally "featured" people — Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Mike Smith, and Craig Charles.
"Ghosts no longer inhabit stately homes and rattle chains. They live in ordinary council houses like that of Mrs Pamela Early," said the listing. "For months she's suffered strange noises, awful smells and bent cutlery, but is hers really the most haunted house in Britain?
"BBCtv turns the cameras on ghoulies, ghosties and things that go bump in the night."
This was Ghostwatch. Quite clearly, fiction. A drama. Not in any way, shape or form, real.
However, not all of the 11 million people who tuned in to watch it that Halloween night got the memo, it seems. The cast, crew and creatives gathered together to watch it together at a wrap party/live watch at a sailing club in Chiswick. All except producer Ruth Baumgarten, who had stayed at Broadcasting House while the show was on air.
When she turned up after Ghostwatch had aired, writer Stephen Volk remembers her looking a little ashen.
"We’ve jammed the BBC switchboard," she said to him, aghast.
"I remember laughing," Volk tells RadioTimes.com. "But Ruth wasn’t. She said to me, 'I’m serious, the switchboard is jammed. With complaints'."
Ghostwatch was structured like a live broadcast, with TV stalwart Michael Parkinson acting as anchor in the BBC studios, while Craig Charles played the part of roving reporter out on Foxhill Drive, in Northolt, north-west London. Sarah Greene was out on the scene, too, while her real-life husband Mike Smith backed up Parky in the studios.
It was the sort of One Show format that’s very familiar today, but was perhaps less so 30 years ago, save for special events or charity fundraising nights. There would be discussions in the studio, phone-ins, and then cutting to the outside broadcast. Things would go slightly wrong, or there would be interruptions, like a kid cycling past the live broadcast from the street. It looked exactly like what it purported to be.
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Around half-way through, things started to take a more sinister turn than the jolly Halloween japes that had led up to that point. Attention was focused on one house, lived in by a mother and her two young daughters. And the malevolent entity the children had nicknamed Pipes, because their mum had tried to explain away the mysterious noises in the house as the rattling of the central heating.
When the full on haunting began, it was terrifying. And the fiction of this being a live broadcast was maintained throughout, as the horror mounted and the viewers at home realised they didn’t quite know what they were watching… and whether it was real or not.
One of screenwriter Volk’s favourite moments was when the outside broadcast cameras showed a figure clearly standing by the curtains. In the studio, Parkinson peers at the monitor, and maintains he can’t see anything. But everyone at home had.
"With things like this, the audience really wants something to happen," says Volk. "And it never does. But in Ghostwatch, it did."
Things mount to a terrifying climax as the studio loses touch with the outside broadcast team. But there’s worse to come. The very act of broadcasting such a major paranormal event has in effect created a massive seance, all those homes and people connected to the haunting. And suddenly things take an apocalyptic turn as the studio darkens and Michael Parkinson, that most trusted of national treasures, frowns at his autocue and haltingly begins to read the eerie words of a nursery rhyme.
Then the screen goes black. There is a pause. And the announcer in hushed tones quietly says that Match of the Day is coming up.
The BBC switchboard lit up like a Christmas tree. Ghostwatch has the dubious honour of being the Corporation’s most-complained about show. Estimates as to how many complaints there were vary, but range between 20,000 and 50,000.
"The first thing people were told when they phoned the BBC was that what they had just watched was a piece of drama, it wasn’t meant to be real," says Volk. "But people were just… unsure. They didn’t really know what they’d watched. They wanted to know what it was, or were angry that the BBC had run it. The next morning the papers were full of stories about us."
Ghostwatch was never meant to be a hoax, or a prank, or a skit. It was never meant to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. Volk is quite clear about that. In fact, it had originally been written as a six-part drama series, but the BBC wouldn’t commit to it. So Volk was asked to try to slim it down to a 90-minute film, concentrating on just one of the narrative strands — that of Pipes haunting the very normal suburban home.
"I came on board after it had been written as a one-off drama," says director Lesley Manning. "It was always meant to be a drama, but we wanted to blur the edges somewhat. But we never used the word hoax, or spoof, that was never what Ghostwatch was about."
That blurring of the edges Manning talks about was cemented with such familiar faces as Parkinson et al fronting them show, and the fact that Manning had sound and camera crew "play themselves" on screen. Manning says, "The whole thing was an adventure, technically and dramatically."
If neither Volk nor Manning were doing anything other than making a drama, producer Ruth Baumgarten maybe had a weather eye on what might happen. She was the one who wanted a wrap party on the same night as transmission, so the likes of Craig Charles and Michael Parkinson wouldn’t be spotted on the street when they were supposed to be "live" on air. And she stayed at Broadcasting House to monitor the phone calls that came in after the show was transmitted. But given her reaction when she turned up at the party, even Baumgarten seemed surprised at the actual response.
One genuine tragedy was linked to the screening. Martin Denham was an 18-year-old factory worker who had a mental age of 13. He took his own life five days after Ghostwatch was shown, and had apparently been worried because the central heating system in the home was faulty and had begun to make noises. His parents blamed the BBC but the Broadcasting Standards Commission rejected this among 35 complaints about Ghostwatch, though a later ruling did state that Ghostwatch was "a deliberate attempt to cultivate a sense of menace" and that the show was excessively distressing and graphic.
Was enough done to make it clear that Ghostwatch was drama? If you didn’t read the Radio Times and didn’t scour the TV listings where this was flagged up, is that necessarily the fault of the BBC? Or should a disclaimer have been made after the programme, saying it was purely fiction?
"I think a lot of complaints stemmed from the fact that the BBC was essentially the voice of the nation," says Volk. "It is an institution to be trusted. And suddenly people didn’t know whether they could trust what they had just seen.
"There’s also the fact that there was no announcement straight afterwards. People had been spooked by the show, and perhaps if the announcer had said something like, don’t have nightmares, that was just drama… I do know that Ruth Baumgarten had been pushing for perhaps a 15 minute discussion show about what people had just seen, maybe over on BBC Two, but it didn’t happen."
Ghostwatch has assumed a mantle of mythic proportions since it was broadcast, in part helped by the fact that the BBC has never shown it again since Halloween night 1992. For a decade it was completely unseen, until in the 2000s the BFI made it available on DVD for the first time.
"I’m not sure if it was ever formally banned," says Volk. "I never saw a piece of paper saying it must never be shown again. I don’t know if other people did. But it’s never been repeated on the BBC and I doubt it will be."
Despite that, here we are, talking about it 30 years later. "That does please and surprise me," says Manning. "Especially after all those dark years where nobody even mentioned it. I think everyone who worked on it is proud of what we did and it was an incredible piece of television."
Each Halloween, thanks to the DVD release, fans organise widespread viewings of the show, all pressing play on their DVD players at exactly 9:25pm. And this year, with it being the 30th anniversary, there have been screenings and panel discussions at cinemas and theatres up and down the country.
Ghostwatch has proved inspirational as well — Volk was contacted by Jed Shepherd, who made the lockdown Zoom horror Host during the pandemic, and cited Ghostwatch as a major influence. It would be another seven years before The Blair Witch Project revitalised the "found footage" horror sub-genre… and basically did what Ghostwatch had done "live".
"A mythology has certainly grown around Ghostwatch, perhaps helped by the fact it was suppressed for so long," says Volk. "Under the counter VHS tapes used to circulate, from those who had recorded it off the TV. It got a reputation as something subversive, and that persists 30 years on."