Twenty-four Hallowe’ens ago, BBC1 broadcast Ghostwatch to a minor furore. Ostensibly a live documentary presented by Michael Parkinson, it examines a supposed haunting in suburban North London, only for the poltergeist at work to use the broadcast as a nationwide séance, terrorising a family and seeking manifestation. The drama follows the narrative path of the climax of Quatermass and the Pit (1958-59), as a live TV broadcast, and the gaze of the masses upon paranormal events, inadvertently causes catastrophe.
Ghostwatch was billed explicitly as a drama, with a cast list, writers’ credit and an ident revealing it to be part of the BBC’s Screen One strand – all within the opening titles. Coming to it fresh today, it’s sometimes hard to see it as a 1990s answer to Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds (1938). For one thing, we can only watch it retrospectively, not as a live event, but also we now live in an age when viewers are more regularly alerted to the vocabulary of TV programmes and genres. (We live in a post-Screenwipe age, is perhaps what I’m suggesting.) If we’re familiar with the grammar of live TV, the nature of its mistakes, the occasional bouts of dead air, then the artifice of Ghostwatch becomes easier to spot. Yet for its flaws by today’s standards, the programme still has the capacity to spook nearly a quarter of a century on.
Unsurprisingly, the strongest and most convincing performances come from those cast members who work primarily as presenters. Watching it, I found some of the ‘civilians’ of the piece to give too refined a performance – knowing, affected, not rough enough around the edges. It wouldn’t be an issue if we were watching a programme working on the vocabulary of a fictional drama, but Ghostwatch’s script is designed to follow that of live television, inarticulate warts and all. When an ordinary person articulates themselves so clearly, so apparently effortlessly, we sense preparation. The frisson of live television dies a little.
I wondered at times whether the studio segments of the programme might have benefitted from an audience – not necessarily a vocal one, but one that might energise the performances within the studio, helping the programme escalate to its climax. Regardless, Michael Parkinson steers the programme very effectively, always maintaining the right tone. Special mention too should go to Craig Charles, sidelined towards the end, but displaying a very clear understanding out on location of just what kind of performance, and what kind of energy, the programme needs to succeed.
Technically as well, Ghostwatch seems just a little too competent for its own good early on. Even now, we tune in to live TV almost hoping for a few cock-ups here and there. As audiences, we quite enjoy disasters like One Direction’s appearance on Doctor Who Live: The Afterparty. Glitches like those, including those far less laughable, are part of the joy of a live broadcast – they remind us that what we’re watching genuinely is unfolding before our eyes. When they’re absent altogether, we start to suspect we’re seeing something altogether safer: exactly what a programme like Ghostwatch doesn’t need.
Yet glitches in the production, if not always in the performances, are often incorporated by design – there is awareness behind the scenes of the need for imperfection. In the rush of the moment, cameras aren’t always well-placed to capture what the programme needs to see. Possible sightings of the ghostly presence, ‘Pipes’, are often just beyond our view, while much of the climax is shrouded in darkness or viewed on infra-red cameras. Increasingly hysterical sounds– often the screams of innumerable terrified cats – are heard from unseen sources. Deeply troubling stories of the house and its previous occupant are recounted piecemeal by old neighbours. We can’t know the full nature of what we’re dealing with. Kept just out of sight, the thrill of the ghost is in the chase, not the capture.
Thanks to the cultural shift brought in by catch-up TV, and our distance from the programme now, elements don’t always spook us as they might have in 1992. The shadow of Pipes is glimpsed in the daughters’ bedroom in North London. Separate versions of the same footage are used in sequence, designed to trick viewers watching live into thinking their own imagination could be at play. At the time, unable to go back and review, that would have stirred the imagination in just the right way. It stirs ours too, but perhaps now only when we can bring ourselves to view the programme as a drama.
Yet fabricated technical imperfections do bring a sense of immediate menace later on. Best of all is when ‘Pipes’ again becomes visible in the bedroom as the camera briefly pans around the room during a poltergeist incident. Suddenly the camera stops, spins back – nothing there now. At once, we’ve just been given a POV shot, and we’re involved in the unfolding events – the cameraman agrees with us. Something is very wrong. Here, at least, we all feel some of the urgent worry that crossed the minds of any viewers taken in in 1992.
While it’s easier now for Ghostwatch to spook us if we look back on it as a fiction, we can still therefore grasp at the fear it provoked in some viewers when its attempts at illusion paid off. Unable to look back on this live programme, they were left at the mercy of its makers to reassure them, only for the makers to prove increasingly incapable of doing so. As glimpses and partial encounters build up within the house, and members of its cast and crew find themselves in extreme danger, the programme reaches a pitch of hysteria. Thanks in no small part to the fact that everything is hinted to us, nothing made explicit.
Its final scene offers no real resolution. The studio is left in darkness, Parkinson wandering aimlessly, the camera out of focus, abandoned by its operator. Nothing is sure of those left in the haunted house, or of those in the studio, or even of the viewers at home, party to this unwitting séance. We’re abandoned in the unknown by the ‘live’ disaster, and without the safety of predetermined narrative structure, we’re left shivering before the potential, unknowable aftermaths. Its blistering ending shows that Ghostwatch knew where its strengths lay all along.