A Nationwide Séance:
The Unremitting Terror of
by Graham Williamson
John Kettley warned us first. “It’s a chilly Halloween at the moment, with temperatures down to zero”, the weather presenter noted. Ninety minutes later, an unearthly wind was blowing through the BBC One studios, Sarah Greene was missing presumed dead, and a legend was born. This is Halloween 1992 – the year of Ghostwatch.
Twenty-eight years later, and Ghostwatch is something close to canonical television, reissued by the BFI and the subject of a feature-length documentary. In 1992 it was pilloried by the tabloids, blamed for a suicide and rumoured to have been withdrawn from BAFTA consideration on the orders of a mortified BBC.
If the Corporation was worried about what it had unleashed, that was at least consistent with Ghostwatch‘s notorious ending, in which a televised investigation into the supernatural creates a ‘nationwide séance’, amplifying ancient evil with modern technology. As is now legendary, this was planned as the climax to a six-part miniseries; when producer Ruth Baumgarten suggested condensing it into a feature-length Screen One broadcast, writer Stephen Volk suggested doing the whole show in the mock-documentary style of the final episode.
In the years since Ghostwatch‘s first and only TV broadcast, Volk has been a fine custodian of his delinquent child. His interviews – and a 2012 TEDx talk – have been crucial in taking back the narrative, changing the perception of the film from tabloid controversy to horror masterpiece. A lot of his behind-the-scenes anecdotes have achieved the status of counter-myth, an inner trivia track that plays over every viewing. A necessary step in the show’s rehabilitation, certainly, but there is an understandable yearning to go back and enjoy the show in the manner of its first, unknowing, audience.
This isn’t as hard as you might think. On its initial DVD reissue in 2002, there was some concern that it might not ‘work’ now we all knew it wasn’t real, but this proved completely unfounded. Ghostwatch is not the simple, cynical prank its tabloid detractors branded it as, it’s a beautifully constructed, intelligent, well-paced and terrifying ghost story. Similarly, this century’s avalanche of found-footage horror hasn’t made it any less unique. The Paranormal Activity (2007 – ) series offers nothing like Ghostwatch‘s mastery of the language of factual broadcasting, its ingenious subversion of what would soon be dubbed ‘reality television’ to make the viewer question their sense of what is and is not real.
The most famous instance of this comes twenty minutes in. Here, (the real) host Michael Parkinson and (the fictional) paranormal expert Dr. Lin Pascoe rewind a surveillance tape after a call from a viewer alerts them to a mystery shape in the background. Now we, too, can rewind the scene, we see that the shape is clearly present when the tape is first played, and when it is played back it has disappeared.
As Volk’s stage direction puts it, ‘neither Pascoe nor Presenter see this. The audience will.’ Television horror is always interesting as a subversion of a fundamentally friendly, domestic medium, but this is a step beyond: television that actively gaslights its audience. This, at the hands of the BBC’s most beloved interviewer!
The subversion of Parkinson’s cosy image is, admittedly, one aspect of Ghostwatch that may resonate less with younger or non-British audiences. Yet even this still works, largely because Volk’s script – written before any of the hosts had been cast – delineates their roles so well. We understand Parkinson and Greene as figures cast for their reassuring air, not because we necessarily know who they are, but because of what they say and do. We also clearly understand the thinking behind getting Craig Charles to lighten the mood with a prank Dr. Pascoe is notably unamused by. Greene’s husband Mike Smith, despite having the least exciting role stuck at the phone desk, is also an identifiable television type.
The recognisability of other cast members could be more of a problem. Dame Judi Dench jokingly upbraided her friend Gillian Bevan for spoiling the show for her: as soon as Bevan turned up as Dr. Pascoe, Dench knew it was a drama. Brid Brennan, who plays the mother of the ill-fated Early family, has gone on to star in Brooklyn, Unforgotten and Peaky Blinders. Dr. Emilio Sylvestri, the sceptical counterweight to Bevan’s cautious believer, is played by Colin Stinton, who would later establish himself as British TV’s favourite ex-pat American in programmes ranging from Doctor Who to The Armando Iannucci Shows.
A lazier script might have made Sylvestri an M.R. James character, a fusty don whose rationalism is shaken by the unfolding chaos. Ghostwatch makes him one of the then-new breed of media-savvy professional debunkers, another example of how determined Volk and director Lesley Manning were to place their story in a recognisable modern world.
Volk has become the public face of Ghostwatch‘s creative team, but Manning deserves appreciation too. A lot of the show’s finest grace notes are down to her commitment to realism: insisting that the briefly-glimpsed newspaper clippings should have full paragraphs written for them in case, as Volk noted, ‘mad people might record this and pause it.’ (Guilty). Another director, too, might have ruined the subtlety of Volk’s script by insisting on a less ambiguous antagonist. Here, the ghost Pipes is such a subtle presence that Manning has plausibly claimed there are five appearances by the spook that no-one has spotted yet. She also provides Pipes’s distorted voice, which is a treat for auteur theorists: given the closing implication that Pipes has possessed Parkinson’s autocue, this is a literal instance of the director as the film’s voice.
The biggest barrier to appreciating Ghostwatch in the way its original audience did is not its quality, nor its age, but its medium: it is not on television. Marshall McLuhan’s oft-abused observation that the medium is the message has surely never been as relevant as it is here. Ghostwatch can, surely, only be taken as genuine if you stumble on it channel-hopping, after the Screen One logo but before the closing credits. The proof of this is the fact that, over three decades of growing renown and availability, it has never been rebroadcast.
Since 2002 Ghostwatch has been a BFI DVD and a top-selling download on the short-lived BBC Store; it must, surely, be under consideration for BritBox. Streaming audiences who have sought it out knowing of its history are free to watch it, but it can never be exposed to an unsuspecting television audience again. For all its artistic achievements, Ghostwatch‘s true power comes from being transmitted on the medium it undermines. It is, simply, too powerful a virus to be allowed to re-infect television.
Which is a shame, but it’s proof of the deadly precision of Volk’s script. In his TEDx talk, the writer recalls getting a letter from a vicar who was perfectly aware the show was fiction but warned that the evil they were playing around with was very real. Believers in religion and magick agree on this point: there are things which have power even if you don’t believe in them. To the usual grimoire, we can add the incantations of broadcasting that Ghostwatch uses; the opening warning that you may find some scenes disturbing, the phone line for viewers affected by these issues, and the most potent sigil of British television – the letters ‘BBC’.
Since Ghostwatch‘s broadcast, the BBC has been accused of loosing many other evils on the world, from sexually predatory disk jockeys to political bias. The biggest difference between those controversies and Ghostwatch is this: people now expect the government or the police to deal with them. The people who complained about Ghostwatch complained to the BBC – who, if Ghostwatch truly was a documentary, would surely have bigger things to worry about.
Nothing exposes the difference between the old media landscape and today more than this. There was no Twitter to rant on, few commercial rivals to gloat at their rival’s mishap – the BBC was the ship and the ocean. Yet the diversifying media landscape has offered some compensatory pleasures for Ghostwatch fans. The 2013 documentary Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtains began life as a YouTube channel which collected old and new clips related to the show.
YouTube also offered me the chance to see the clip of John Kettley I mentioned at the start of the article, as well as the delightful post-show continuity announcement where the voiceover sounds genuinely rattled by what just happened. It also provides the opportunity to compare Manning and Volk’s pastiche of 1990s paranormal documentaries with its real-life peers, like Beyond Belief, a 1996 investigation into parapsychology hosted by David Frost and Uri Geller. One of these shows feels like an absurd spoof, and it’s not Ghostwatch.
If Ghostwatch cannot be a television programme again, the internet can at least allow us to reassemble the world of its broadcast. And who’s to say you won’t see clips from it, one day, decontextualised and used as ‘evidence’ of poltergeists? Television is not the only medium Pipes can possess.
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