Jon Dear revisits 1995’s Ghosts, the short-lived BBC anthology show set in modern Britain…
‘Off-cuts of EastEnders rewritten by Edgar Allan Poe.’
– Private Eye
‘I’d always nursed the idea of wanting to do an anthology series of supernatural drama. It’s something I’ve banged the drum on ever since I can remember, and the door of broadcasters has always been completely shut on that subject. They don’t really like it as a concept.’
– Stephen Volk
Anthology series were everywhere in the 60s and 70s, and in pretty much every genre. The Wednesday Play/Play for Today were (usually) for contemporary drama. Out of the Unknown (BBC, 1965-71) was for science fiction. Comedy Playhouse (BBC, 1961-2017) and Hammer House of Horror (ITV, 1980) are both fairly self explanatory. They helped curate a wide variety of styles and often acted as pilots for series as diverse as The Onedin Line (BBC, 1971-80) and Gangsters (BBC, 1976-78). As the 80s wore on they became increasingly rare as television executives sought viewer loyalty with continuing drama and regular characters. By the 1990s anthologies tended to be the odd comedy series like The Comic Strip Presents (Channel 4, BBC, Gold, 1982-2016), which had been running since 1982 and Dawn French’s Murder Most Horrid (BBC, 1991-99), which had the same lead actress in every episode, or film series like Screen One/Two (BBC 1989-98/1985-98). The idea of an anthology of modern ghost stories, with different writers, directors and casts would seem somewhat unlikely, let alone two. But in early 1995 viewers who’d just finished with Ghosts could switch over to ITV for Yorkshire Television’s Chiller. So what happened?
In a word, Ghostwatch (BBC, Leslie Manning, 1992). The event television of 1992 that simultaneously traumatised and inspired a generation was broadcast as part of Screen One on Halloween. Encouraged by its success, the producer Ruth Baumgarten teamed up with producer Andrée Molyneux to producr a series of six standalone ghost stories. Unsurprisingly Ghostwatch writer Stephen Volk was commissioned for two episodes, as was celebrated playwright and theatre director Terry Johnson with the other two episodes were provided by novelist Monique Charlesworth.
‘It was really quite straightforward to see if you’d get commissioned or not in those days, if you had a producer that wanted to do something.’
– Stephen Volk
Broadcast over the January and February of 1995 (diplomatically earlier than the similar Chiller on ITV), the single season of Ghosts was made up of six episodes.
‘I’ll Be Watching You’, written by Stephen Volk and directed by John Strickland (who would later helm the fifth series of Line of Duty (BBC, 2012-21)), tells the story of imprisoned criminal Jack Rudkin (Derrick O’Connor) who after a near death experience is able to project on the astral plane and effectively haunt his wife, Suzi (Anita Dobson) and associates. It’s a chilling and effective piece that examines domestic abuse as haunting, an effective pairing of gothic fiction with the very contemporary and the very real horror of a woman living at home in terror. The story draws parallels between the fear caused by a ghost’s apparition and that of how a gangster rules their neighbourhood. When Jack is granted the freedom of traversing the astral plane, he just chooses to go home. That’s the size of his universe. The episode was originally called ‘Rudkin’s Patch’, Volk wanting to invoke Play for Today classic Penda’s Fen (1974). BBC One controller Alan Yentob was apparently slightly less keen and suggested ‘Life Sentence’ as an alternative. Volk rejected this as ‘one of those crap titles you get on Casualty’ and ‘I’ll Be Watching You’ was settled on as a compromise. They should’ve called the Police…
‘Blood and Water’, written and directed by Terry Johnson. Adapted from a short story by Ronald Duncan, this is a stylish World War Two drama concerning a love triangle between an exceptionally close brother and sister, Alex and Angela McLean (Ian Shaw – son of the legendary Robert – and Moira Brooker) and a man neither of them really knows, Peter Buckle (Paul Rhys). It’s the only entirely historical piece in the series. Duncan had form with writing menage a trois; his play The Catalyst (1962) was banned by the Lord Chamberlain. Both Alex and Peter are returning home from the war, burdened by trauma. They met on a train and Alex offers Peter his hospitality as he has nowhere to go. Peter falls in love with Angela. There’s a distinct lack of tension on display here, both with the effects of Peter arrival on Alex and Angela’s bordering-on-incestuous relationship, and his true nature. The episode starts with a man drowning, when we first meet Peter on the train he’s soaking wet, we soon learn he has no-one and nowhere to go. It’s not the greatest leap to realising he’s actually dead…y’know, the series is called Ghosts. The climax, where mortality finally catches up with Peter, is certainly impressive handled, although it helps if you’ve not seen the joke vomiting in Little Britain (BBC, 2000-07) and Team America: World Police (Trey Parker, 2004), otherwise this can undercut the visual horror of the death scene.
‘Massage’, the second written by Stephen Volk, this one directed by Lesley Manning, their first collaboration since Ghostwatch, in which a stressed exec (Kevin McNally) starts visiting a masseuse (Patricia Kerrigan) with dark motives. A slow burner this, one that suddenly builds to a climax very quickly and very late. Less about ghosts and more about witchcraft, Massage plays on themes of identity and intimacy. People want to improve themselves but at what point does the new you subsume everything about the old you? If you stop being the person your family loves. Masseurs also occupy that select space for professions that you permit to place you in positions of vulnerability.
‘Shadowy Third’, written by Monique Charlesworth and directed by Carol Wiseman from a short story by Pulitzer Prize winner Ellen Glasgow. A manipulative surgeon (Tim Piggott-Smith) employs a new night nurse, Maureen (Georgina Cates) to care for his sick and bereaved wife (Cheryl Campbell). Interestingly this story has been adapted three times before in the US, where the original story is set. The decision to set the story in two different time zones may be trying to emphasise the indelible nature of abuse and grief but it also tends to remove the viewer from the drama, something that the decision to have a number of the actors playing dual roles only exacerbates. This was probably a story that had far greater impact in the American South of 1923 than it did over 70 years later.
‘Three Miles Up’, again written by Monique Charlesworth and the second to be directed by Lesley Manning, an eerie, ethereal piece set in the Norfolk Broads. It’s influenced quite heavily by M.R. James but is all the better for it. The story was adapted from a short story written by Elizabeth Jane Howard while she was working at the Inland Waterways Association (you can tell, it’s got houseboats in it) and published in collaboration with her then lover Robert Aickman (you can tell that as well, it’s got houseboats and ghosts in it). Two estranged brothers patching up their relationship after the death of their mother, decide to go on a houseboat holiday. Frankly that sounds like a terrible idea to me. Like most dramas where family relationships are at the core, ‘Three Miles Up’ examines the brothers’ fractious relationship and unhappiness with their lot as well as their resentment at their late mother’s shortcomings.
The younger brother, Billy (Douglas Henshall) has an old whistle that their mother said to blow if they were in trouble, and she would come. Against brother John’s (Dan Mulland) wishes he blows it.
Now one doesn’t have to have the widest knowledge of ghost stories to think that particular plot device may ring a slight bell from somewhere. This is hardly original nor subtly introduced, but it doesn’t try to be, it does however go somewhere rather more unexpected (rather like the houseboat).
Like all good rural ghost stories the story makes effective use of the landscape and the wide expanse of the Fens is both alienating and hostile. The recurring vision of the brothers as boys looking though a cellar door as someone drowns below them is a constant reminder to the viewer that madness is never far away.
The discovery of a young woman, Sara (Jacqueline Leonard), sleeping under a fallen tree brings an ethereal, Grimms’ Fairy Tale quality to an increasingly dreamlike scenario and as the brothers fall under her spell and she advocates taking a route unmarked on the map, into the unknown, you’re left in little doubt who the women is meant to be. Once again subtlety is in short supply and the viewer is being hit in the face with metaphors that are more obvious than something that’s very obvious indeed.
The conclusion when it comes feels sad and inevitable. Yet although this is a story where much is predictable, it’s what it makes you feel that is significant. You care about the brothers and their lives of lost moments and regret. You feel the loneliness of the little boat lost in the directionless waterways and featureless fenland.
The story plays with time and perception to good effect and wears its influences on its sleeve. A ghost story for a summer holiday more than a winter’s night and the best of the bunch.
The final episode is ‘The Chemistry Lesson’, an original piece by Terry Johnson in which a young teacher (Alan Cumming) uses witchcraft to attract his married colleague (Samantha Bond). He wants to be wanted by her, to have the power to choose or reject her, and in doing so destroys her life.
It’s beautifully paced and Samantha Bond gives a magnificent performance as someone driven mad by a power she has no way of comprehending. The misogynistic privilege on display brings to mind the incel culture and mens’ rights groups now so prevalent on social media. But this is 1995 and were in the middle of the post-feminist laddish backlash. Nevertheless the ending is pure gothic tragedy.
Despite the title, none of the six episodes are conventional ghost stories, each of them examines the nature of intimate and familial relationship and the strains unknown forces place upon them. Yet it’s interesting for a series where all but one of the stories have a contemporary setting that three of tales are adapted from older texts.
There was talk of a second series of Ghosts, with Stephen Volk developing a story about vampires on the motorway posing as the emergency services and preying on car crash victims. This eventually saw the light of day as the film Octane (Marcus Adams, 2003) with Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Norman Reedus.