101 Films – UK Distribution – 91 minutes
Starring Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Mike Smith & Pipes.
In the autumn of 1992, the BBC announced they would air a one off special on Halloween night in a prime time slot. It was titled Ghostwatch and would feature known TV presenters and personalities as they attempted to find undeniable proof that the super natural was real. Mike Smith, for it is he, and Sarah Greene were a popular husband and wife pair of presenters that had worked on various shows in the previous decade (Greene was still hosting the massive Saturday morning kid’s programme Going Live!).
Craig Charles was signed up, the actor behind ‘Lister’ in BBC TWO’s cult favourite Red Dwarf. The masterstroke that helped gain the show credibility was to hire Michael Parkinson. He had been a household name in the United Kingdom throughout the 70’s and 80’s. He interviewed many A-list stars on his ratings hit Parkinson. With someone as respectable and serious as ‘Parky’ involved added to an air of legitimacy that was beginning to appear around the show.
The BBC hyped the show up fiercely for weeks, again with the pretense that the show may just be real, and even gave Parkinson the front cover of Radio Times for publicity. Radio Times, back then, had long been a big selling TV guide in the UK (it took its name from the pre-TV radio-only BBC of a bygone era). This, much like the inclusion of Parky’, acted as a way of duping potential viewers due to RT’s trustworthy reputation. All signs were pointing to this being a real, factual and serious attempt to explore a haunted house where a single mother and her two young children were being terrified by some unseen force.
The cast, although never referred to as such, all spoke about how exciting it would be to help with such a massive and important piece of television history. It would be television history, but for all the wrong reasons…
The day of transmission was a ‘live broadcast’ featuring Michael Parkinson and an ‘expert’ named Dr Lin Pascoe sat in a TV studio that was made up to look ‘sinister’. This being the BBC it amounted to candles and fake skulls. They would sit and urge viewers to phone in about any ghostly experiences they might have had or witnessed during the show. Mike Smith would be stood with a clipboard in front of several people manning telephones and would let Parky’ know if anything interesting was happening. His wife, Sarah Greene, was actually at the address being haunted.
Most of the show was footage of her in the house, interacting with the poor family, or Michael and Dr Pascoe debating what was happening. Craig Charles popped up now and then as the cheeky, sarcastic skeptic that didnt take things too seriously as he interviewed other ‘residents’ outside in the freezing street. As Ghostwatch progressed a disturbing story of a long dead baby farmer and then a convicted child molester emerged as more and more unsettling events took place.
Brief sightings of a scarred man dubbed ‘Pipes’ (there is a simple yet brilliant explanation to this memorable moment of the show that wont be spoiled here) start to spook the brave presenters. One viewer calls in with some alarming news about who Pipes could be but by this point he is ‘too strong’ as all kinds of paranormal nastiness plights the family and even the TV studio. The ending of Ghostwatch caused many to believe something serious had actually just happened and the fall out would have fatal consequences.
Looking back on Ghostwatch now it is hard to believe a anyone fell for it. Unfortunately, a young man named Martin Denham believed the events on screen were real and became obsessed by it. After several days of worrying himself sick that ‘Pipes’ was going to come out of the TV and attack him he killed himself. He was just 18 years old. It emerged that Martin had learning difficulties and, as revealed in his suicide note, believed killing himself meant the ghosts would never ‘get’ him. This added to a record number of complaints the BBC received after the show. For days the switchboard at the complaints department was jammed as over 20,000 people voiced their outrage.
Despite being on after the 9pm watershed (in the UK, this signals more adult and serious programs being aired) many had allowed their children to stay up past their bedtimes. Lots of children had issues sleeping after witnessing the mad end scene of Ghostwatch and distressed parents wanted to blame someone (although not themselves, even though they deemed it suitable for their kids to watch it in the first place).
The as mentioned attempts at realism were the main cause of concern. Kids and even adults were shocked at the thought they had just seen something truly horrific and ‘legit’. The Radio Times cover and Parky’ involvement started off a sham that continued with the BBC’s decision to allow viewers to call in. The phone number read out on air was actually real and was jammed almost straight away. This stopped people from telling their tale but also, more importantly, stopped them from finding out the truth: it was all fake. Only a small number of callers made it through to the BBC where they were told it wasn’t real, all pretend, but they could still talk to someone about their ‘real experiences’.
In the days running up to the broadcast, people working on Ghostwatch approached higher-up’s at the BBC and expressed concern that they were going too far and should perhaps make it clear the show was going to be a hoax. The BBC felt they made it clear all along as, after all, their was a cast and crew listing in the Radio Times. They were talked into including a pre-show credit list and one at the end, too.
An ident for Screen Two was shown as well as it was part of that strand of programming usually seen on the channel. None of these things were enough and many still watched it believing it was real. When airing a brief cast list at the start of a 90 minute hoax, many will fail to grasp that the bulk of what they will see isnt on the level when it, and its company, had gone out of its way to convince them otherwise. As with a movie, once the main feature starts the patron doesn’t spend the duration thinking too much about the trailers just witnessed.
Ghostwatch itself, if all the hype and fallout is ignored, is not as entertaining.
It has not aged well. While it, at times, feels like the typical BBC live studio of the era (Pebble Mill, anyone?) it is this that works against it. The show often has no style, just a formulaic approach to direction, lighting and set arrangement. The segments in the house often feel a little too cosy. At first it is plausible as the viewer is shown the kids joking and playing around with Greene. As she was a popular kids TV presenter of the time this is a natural fit. It begins to grind however as the show nears its end. Greene seems overly nice and a little too professional while all manner of madness happens to her.
The only time the show doesn’t feel staged is when Craig Charles is ‘accidentally’ filmed while he mocks what is happening in the house. Mike Smith is fine in his role as the ‘man at the phone lines’ yet outs himself as a bad actor when more is demanded of him in the final 20 minutes. Most lines spoken were improvised but Smith fails to ad-lib anything at all when he is asked how he feels when something dreadful happens to his wife. It exposes the show for what it is, a complex fake.
While tension is built throughout and can even cause moments of fear today, Ghostwatch sadly throws away all its hard work for a totally bonkers final 5 minutes. Obviously they were trying to create a full on finale after teasing viewers for so long with too much talking and brief glimpses of Pipes. Something terrible ‘happens’ to Michael Parkinson as the spirits invoked become too powerful and attack the family, Greene, the studio and (more damning considering the fate of Martin Denham) the viewers ‘may’ be attacked too.
The end had so many people concerned with the fate of Greene and Parkinson they had to appear on (real) live TV days after the broadcast to tell everyone they were fine and to calm down. Dr Pacoe was revealed to be actress Gillian Bevan. The show was ‘banned’ for many years and hasn’t been repeated on the BBC since. The press, at the time, used it as proof the BBC were not fit to be trusted with the license fee payers money (today, they claim the same thing for many different reasons). In 2012 a documentary was released, Behind the Curtain, detailing the complex story of Ghostwatch.
Ghostwatch is interesting for its odd and controversial history that acts as a reminder that TV can sometimes be a very powerful medium. 6 out of 10.
About James Simpson
A freelance writer and lover of movies, James is a long term contributor to UK Horror Scene. He has a regular feature on UKHS, World of Horror, as well as reviewing and interviewing when he can. He also writes for Gore Splattered Corner and Space Monsters Magazine. He has previously written for Scream Magazine and Zombie Hamster. Twitter: @JSimpsonWriter