Ghostwatch (1992) – The Most Controversial Program Ever?

How long does jet-lag last for? I’ve seen 4 o’clock in the morning too many times this week. Anyway, the particular piece of entertainment that I wish to discuss this week is one that I became enamoured with in the States. I didn’t actually watch it over there, I had to wait until I got home for that because this one-off TV program horrified millions and was only aired once. It has since become available on DVD and on some international video services. Despite how far the BBC went to cover up this little incident and pretend it never happened, this show is worthy of examination to figure out exactly what the problem with it is and why people got so upset.

Airing at 9:25 PM on October 31st 1992, ‘Ghostwatch’ was portrayed as an authentic, one-off, paranormal investigation in which a presenter and a camera crew go into an average, everyday house on an average, everyday street with an average, everyday family who are supposedly being tormented by a ghost. Single mother, Pam Early and her two daughters, Suzanne and Kim have been slammed in the press after claiming that a ghost called ‘Pipes’, so named because it has a habit of rattling the central heating system whenever he’s around, has been freaking them out. They have called for help and it’s arrived in the form of children’s TV presenter, Sarah Greene as the ‘on the ground’ reporter; comedian, actor and TV presenter, Craig Charles as the interviewer talking to the neighbours and in studio there’s veteran broadcaster, Michael Parkinson, paranormal expert, Dr. Lin Pascoe and Sarah Greene’s husband, Mike Smith who’s manning the phones.

Things start off fairly bland and uninteresting but as the program continues, things begin to happen. Noises are heard, pictures are thrown off the wall, crew members are injured and it all leads to a grand finale which I’ll get into a bit later but this ending terrified the audience and led to one of the biggest backlashes in television history.

First things first. Ghostwatch was not real. In fact, all TV is faked to a certain extent and in Ghostwatch, it shows. Of course, I knew that it wasn’t real when I watched it for the first time but I tried to watch it as if I didn’t know that it wasn’t real. I’m not going to lie, the performances were very good but because the whole thing was scripted, that immediately brings the attempt at portraying something as ‘real’ plummeting back down to Earth. I think the most difficult thing to wrap your head around is that the presenters were playing themselves but their reactions were written down on a piece of paper rather than their own natural reactions to a scary situation.

This little issue was cleared up in ‘The Blair Witch Project (1999)’. For the making of that film, there was no script but more of a list of things that were going to happen in the film. The actors were sent out into the woods and given brief directions on what was going to happen at that point in the film. Because of this, most of the dialogue was improvised and gave a much more natural performance from the actors.

The one thing that I thoroughly respect from this program is that the makers tried something new and original in which to scare the audience. The concept of ‘real, but not real’ was something that had been done before for example the now and legendary Orson Welles’ ‘War of the Worlds’ radio broadcast which caused untold panic across the American nation. Even though the broadcast was preceded by the announcement that it was delivered by ‘Mercury Theatre on the Air’ and Orson Welles was mentioned by name not to mention the fact that the broadcast had been scheduled in the 1930’s version of a TV guide, Americans all over America took the broadcast as real and were convinced that aliens from Mars were coming to kill them. Pandemonium ensued. Much the same thing happened with ‘Ghostwatch’ but with a slight difference.

Whilst ‘War of the Worlds’ made no secret of the fact that it was a radio drama, ‘Ghostwatch’ was played as real. Meant to be broadcast ‘live’ to the nation, the show was actually filmed months in advance. In the ‘phone-in’ sections of the program, the phone number ‘081 811 8181’ was flashed up on screen and viewers were advised to ring the number with information about things they had seen in the show or their own ghost stories. Of course, the people who were spoken to by Michael Parkinson and Lin Pascoe were actors. As mentioned before, the show had been filmed months earlier but on that night, the phones were still manned. The number given was in fact the BBC’s own standard number which had been used in other shows. Once a viewer rang the number, they were met with a pre-recorded message telling them that the show was fictional. However, many people didn’t hear this message and here is where things started to go wrong. So many people rang in at one time causing the phone lines to jam and become unresponsive. As a result some callers were left with the engaged tone, only adding to the hysteria.

Speaking of hysteria, this is what happened in the grand finale.

During the program, a lot of focus had been given to the cupboard under the stairs which was where Pam’s ex-husband had placed a ‘dark room’ so he could develop photographs. This is also the place where the girls had seen ‘Pipes’. Since an incident when Pam had been locked in the cupboard by an unknown force, it had been boarded up. Despite in-depth research into the house in question, a disturbing phone call towards the end reveals an unsettling history.

The previous occupants had a lodger, their nephew, Raymond Tunstall who had been locked away for various unspeakable crimes involving children. It was insinuated that Tunstall suffered from some kind of a split personality as he claimed that a woman inside his head made him commit these crimes. Tunstall took his own life inside the house in the room where he kept his tools… in the cupboard under the stairs. He’d locked his many cats in the room with him and in the twelve days before his body was found, his cats had started eating his body.

‘Ghostwatch’ finishes in all out chaos with maximum supernatural activity. Sarah Greene is dragged under the stairs with Pipes and in the studio, lights are exploding, things are being thrown about the place and Michael Parkinson ends up being possessed by Pipes, speaking strangely to the camera. That’s how it ends. It seems a bit crap with me just typing it out but I would suggest watching it because it is genuinely quite creepy.

One other aspect of the program that was criticised by viewers was the use of real presenters but I myself am smart enough to realise that the makers did this as to add to the realism of the situation. Casting Michael Parkinson alone was a stroke of pure genius. Michael Parkinson was and indeed still is a much beloved and well respected presenter and the very prospect that he would be involved in something that was anything less than ‘on the level’ is simply ludicrous.

I can only hypothesise that Sarah Greene was cast for much the same reason. Ms Greene had made a name for herself as a presenter on ‘Blue Peter’ and therefore was well known to children across Britain. She’d also acted a little bit, appearing in very British shows such as ‘Casualty’ and ‘Brookside’. Her husband, Mike Smith also appeared in ‘Ghostwatch’ along with some other projects in their professional careers. Sadly, Mike Smith passed away in 2014.

One other thing that people got pissed about and this actually pissed me off, not the aspect that they were complaining about but the fact that they were complaining about it. I’m going to say right now that I don’t have kids but if I did have very young children, I wouldn’t let them watch something like ‘Ghostwatch’. Do you know why? Even if it was the light hearted, easy, laid back kind of program that parents thought it was going to be, kids have wild imaginations and it doesn’t take a lot to freak them out.

One of the biggest controversies surrounding this program was the fact that parents had let their young children watch a show about ghosts and had actually complained to the BBC that their children had suffered psychological damage because of this show. In my view, the show is completely justified and should not have been blamed for that. For a start, ‘Ghostwatch’ aired after the ‘watershed’ at 9:25PM when the children who were affected should have been in bed. If ‘Ghostwatch’ had been aired at midday on ‘Nickelodeon’ then I would side with the parents but it wasn’t.

At the very start of the show, Michael Parkinson gives a disclaimer that the show ‘contains some material that viewers may find disturbing’ and there are more disclaimers throughout the show. I just want to say that if you let your kids stay up to watch something that’s inappropriate for children and they have an adverse reaction to it, then that’s your problem and you deal with the consequences.

Although it was never shown on TV again, ‘Ghostwatch’ became available on DVD and has become something of a cult sensation, so much so that fans of the program combed through the footage and posted the sightings of ‘Pipes’ that were scattered throughout the show. The makers placed in little brief glances of the ghost to make the audience question themselves. The best example of this is in one of the first clips of the paranormal activity in the children’s bedroom. When the lights are turned off, Pipes can clearly be seen in the corner of the room. A ‘viewer’ then rings in and tells the presenters of the sighting but when the clip is played again, Pipes isn’t there. But of course, Pipes is everywhere and detailed lists of the ‘Pipes’ sightings are all over the internet. I knew of this before I started watching it and quite enjoyed watching out for him. I checked the list afterwards and I didn’t get nearly as many.

In the aftermath of the show, the BBC received around 30,000 complaints from outraged viewers. Even though the show had been listed as a ‘drama’ and had an organised running time to fit into the schedules, people still thought it was real and complained for the reasons listed above.

My view? I think it was so badly received because nothing like this had been put on TV before. Of course nowadays, we’re immersed in the ‘Paranormal Reality TV’ culture with shows like ‘Most Haunted’ and ‘Ghost Hunters’ which could arguably have been influenced by ‘Ghostwatch’. But what I think is the most important aspect of ‘Ghostwatch’ is the legacy that it left behind which is the unique presentation and marketing of a property. ‘The Blair Witch Project’ is a big one. There are conflicting reports as to whether or not the film was directly influenced by ‘Ghostwatch’ but the film and the show have some similarities. ‘Paranormal Activity (2007)’ is another.

I’ll finish with this. Looking at it now, ‘Ghostwatch’ is a brilliantly written, beautifully shot, wonderfully acted and marvellously presented piece of fiction that did exactly what it set out to do, scare people. Maybe not in the way that the writers had intended but you can’t argue with the results. ‘Ghostwatch’ inspired a whole generation of horror writers who went on to make such great films as ‘The Blair Witch Project’ and ‘Paranormal Activity’ which led on to ‘Paranormal Activity 2’ and ‘Paranormal Activity 3’ and ‘Paranormal Activity 4’ and ‘Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones’ and ‘Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension’ and ‘The Gallows’ and ‘Grave Encounters’ and ‘Grave Encounters 2’ and actually, I don’t know how I feel about it now.

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