Working class horror:
Govan Ghost Story
Duncan Gates examines the angry progressivism of the ghostly tale and explores BBC Play One’s 1989 effort, Govan Ghost Story…
All the best ghost stories are essentially left-wing. From the ‘worker’s collective action’ of Turn of the Screw (Henry James, 1898) to the simmering feminism of Shirley Jackson, and of course the straight-up ‘redistribute your wealth or go to actual Hell’ of A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens, 1843), there is almost always an angry progressivism at play for which the ghost acts as proxy.
Even so, horror has historically not been great at articulating actual working-class experience. The previous examples still largely award agency to a broadly white-collar demographic – *less* empowered rather than disempowered, possessed of the ‘social cache’ to be protagonists rather than functional and/or superstitious bystanders.
It’s pretty awesome therefore when one comes across an unapologetically working-class horror tale like Govan Ghost Story (David Heyman, 1989). Part of the late 80s/early 90s BBC ‘Play On One’ strand, it stars prolific late stage and TV actor Tom Watson (who died in 2001 around the peak of his powers), with a debut TV script by Bryan Elsley, later a writer on The Crow Road (BBC Scotland, 1996) and creator of Skins (E4, 2007-2013). It’s directed by David Hayman, now best-known as a quality Scots actor (and not dissimilar from the Watson mould) in the likes of Taboo (BBC, 2017) and Trial and Retribution (ITV, 1997-2009).
Watson is terrific as Clyde shipwright Jock McGinn, bereft of both his occupation and his wife, and forced to reflect on the gulf his years of workplace activism have created between himself and his grown-up only daughter Brenda (Fletcher Mathers). The narrative does a fine job of not judging either of them too harshly. Jock is a man doing the right thing by his movement, and carries a keen sense of regret for what it’s cost him, and how it’s failed. Similarly, Brenda seems to desperately want a connection with her father but lacks the language to articulate it, assimilating socially through sheer survival instinct, with a Tory boyfriend and painfully bourgeois dinner parties.
Alone in his austere Govan high-rise (Iona Court, demolished in 2013), Jock becomes increasingly aware of the empty flat next door, the young girl who appears to live there, and the elderly neighbour who doesn’t want to get involved. Hayman and cinematographer Gary Morrison create a superbly eerie early-morning barrenness around the tower block, highlighting it as a monolithic machine in which to bleakly live – or not. It’s aesthetically evocative of the big J-horror beasts of a decade later (Ringu (Hideo Nakata, 1998), Kairo (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001) and especially Dark Water (Hideo Nakata, 2002)), unnatural things lurking in middle-distance monochrome and feeble natural light, bound to communal places through private pain. The moments of clarity are fleeting and migraine-sharp; a bruised face through a doorway, a doll cracking into concrete, a phantom living room with too many lights on. Special mention should also go to the spare, unsettling soundtrack by idiosyncratic Glasgow group The Blue Nile, a great study in how to underscore moments without swamping them.
Jock, like all good protagonists in these situations, reaches out to various sections of the nearby community for answers, and his collectivist leanings make this a more acutely poignant journey than normal. He’s sacrificed a lot, and doesn’t see why solidarity needs to end with death – but this of course is industrial Britain in the late 80s, where the day-to-day is hard enough without indulging in an ‘ancient history’ battle over the immortal soul of a stranger.
It’s this that gives Govan Ghost Story a particular edge. The dead aren’t a diversion or an expensive hobby – they’re an extension of a class solidarity movement that doesn’t go away simply because society (or absence of) is progressively trying to break you, and if you’ve truly the courage of your convictions you make the time. There’s always someone needs more help than you, and in this case, it just so happens to be someone on the other side of the veil.
How the plot unfolds and how it ends isn’t substantially different to others of its basic type, but it still feels low-key revolutionary to see a horror protagonist uncovering vital plot intel in a dole queue. Jock is a quietly iconic genre creation, unable to give up on his latent moral courage even if he gives up on himself: ‘take it easy, son – wait ‘til morning’.