Dir: Lesley Manning, 1992
Okay, I know it’s not “technically” a film but the furore and controversy surrounding the showing and the subsequent refusal to ever broadcast the show again meant that I felt, it warranted inclusion.
And has been shown several times at the British Film Institute.
Stephen Volk’s television drama is one of, if not THE, most controversial programmes ever broadcast.
Ghostwatch was a one off live broadcast about an investigation into a supposedly haunted house.
Michael Parkinson and Mike Smith were in the studio taking phone calls and messages while his wife Sarah Greene and Craig Charles were on location at the house.
The occupants of the house were a mother and her two teenage daughters.
They reported instances of unexplained banging, chills and other, usual, activity associated with poltergeists.
Throughout the broadcast, the supernatural occurrences got worse and threatened the lives of all involved.
Of course, it wasn’t really a live broadcast. It was recorded months before it’s transmission. Today, you would call it a “mockumentary”.
The story was recycled from the famous Enfield poltergeist case.
It was scripted, it had actors, it was directed and edited. In short, it wasn’t real.
But, that didn’t stop it from scaring the shit out of you!
For a programme, it was unbelievably realistic.
It had a genuine working phone number which was, really, the phone in line for Saturday morning children’s show Going Live (“081 811 8181”). Anybody of a certain age will undoubtedly remember it and will be singing the numbers, now, to the tune that accompanied it, when it used on Live & Kicking.
Aside from Red Dwarf star Craig Charles, none of the presenters were actors and had never done any acting before.
But, they were so good, you wouldn’t think it.
The girls often refer to a mysterious figure known as “Pipes” because of his ghostly habit of rattling the water pipes.
Although you never actually see him, there are several fleeting glimpses of the ghost scattered through the show and this just makes it even more unnerving.
The character is said to be a paedophile who died in the house and eaten by his cats.
Despite never fully seeing him, the few milliseconds that he DOES appear are both creepy and uncomfortable. The makeup used on the actor, Keith Ferrari, is still unsettling, today. Here, have a look:
Now, when you add this in to the mix you’ve got a concoction of “I’ve just shit my pants!”.
The programme is jumpy, eerie and frightening.
In the twenty plus years that it was first made and transmitted, Ghostwatch has not lost any of its power to scare.
In all honesty, this really is one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen. That’s not hyperbole, it’s the god’s honest truth.
Maybe it all stems from watching it on its original, and only, showing. Being only 10 years old, this was like something I’d never seen before.
People talk about The Blair Witch Project being sinister and frightening. That film was dull and boring with only a modicum of creepy.
Ghostwatch just annihilates that.
The drama broke new ground. Nothing before or like it since has come close to the terror that this one-off created.
It was intended to give the impression of a real live broadcast but the bosses at the BBC were worried that it was too scary.
Right up until the last minute, there was debate as to whether it should be shown and the plug was almost pulled on more than one occasion.
Eventually, they compromised and demanded that the Screen One ident be shown before its transmission to alert viewers that it WAS just a drama and everybody was safe.
Screen One was a series of dramas written specifically for the BBC, much like Play For Today was in the sixties and seventies.
Another caveat was that the beginning had to have a writing and directing credit.
The BBC’s television listings guide, Radio Times, featured Michael Parkinson on its cover and had an interview with the cast.
They even billed it as a drama, ahead of the Hallowe’en showing.
But, this did nothing.
Viewers were left traumatised and shaken, children were left mentally scarred from Sarah Greene supposedly killed by Pipes and the oldest girl being scratched and then possessed.
Why they didn’t show it during children’s hour is still a mystery(!).
The station received thousands of complaints about the nature of the drama.
Children had nightmares and some, even, had to get psychiatric help for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the only time it has ever been recorded in children.
In a way, writer Volk, who was responsible for Ken Russell’s Gothic, and director Manning got everything they could have wished for.
It was hot news. The public was talking about it. It was in the papers, and critics spoke about how scary it was.
They’d made the perfect show.
However, there was a very unfortunate element as a result of the broadcast.
An eighteen year old boy with learning difficulties committed suicide after watching the programme.
The house he lived in had a few problems with the pipes rattling and believed it to Pipes haunting the home.
After this news was broken, the BBC needed to do something.
Greene appeared on Children’s BBC to assure the young viewers that it wasn’t real, and she was absolutely fine.
The suicide, though, caused the BBC to actually ban the programme from ever being repeated or talked about.
Ghostwatch was never released on video or made available in any other way. As of now, it has still hasn’t repeated.
But, the public’s memory is a strong one and everyone remembers it vividly. And with the World Wide Web being available to billions of people, interest was restoked.
Twenty years after its only showing, the BFI contacted the BBC about screening the drama at the cinema for a retrospective.
Surprisingly, the corporation was delighted to allow the Institue access to the programme and allowed them to release it on video and DVD.
Even more surprisingly, is that the British censors only gave it a ’12’! This is the company that demanded cuts to James Watkins’ remake of The Woman In Black, so it could achieve its ’12’ certificate and reach its target audience of young teens because it’s too scary.
If you’ve never seen it before and judge it by today’s standards, you might not understand what the fuss is about or appreciate the programme which is a shame but, for 1992, this was phenomenal.
Switch the lights off, and look at it for the time it was made and prepare yourself for some pants wetting.