I seldom enjoy New Year parties, the sense of obligation with which we gather together, counting down the seconds to the critical moment of feeling exactly the same. But in 2016, one proved an eye-opening experience. A married couple who had been pupils of one of my parents were there, along with their toddler, a girl not more than two years old. At the countdown, I was distracted by the sight of them all huddled together, their expressions and gentle touch creating a tenderer scene than any I’ve seen before or since. There seemed a mix of anticipation and growing fear in the parents’ eyes. They were welling up. Then, as Big Ben struck midnight, the little girl vanished. Disappeared completely, in an instant. I was bewildered, until the father, sniffling, told me that their daughter was born on 29th February 2012, so only exists in leap years.

It was here that I learned of nature’s law for all ’29-ers’. The theory is that they are born on borrowed time, and the universe re-asserts itself on them in the cruellest way. Any child born on the ‘Infamous 29th’ exists from the start of every leap year, only to be catapulted forward four years at the end of it. At the end of 2019, that married couple I saw will need to go to the same place where that party was held, to await their child’s reappearance. From then, they will nurture her through her third year. Such a practice proves difficult for many families, not least for the 29-ers themselves as they grow older. Progressing at such a slower rate, they can seldom form lasting connections with those around them, even their parents, and they go through more friends at school than even the most vapidly popular children.

Some argue their condition is a positive boon. A 29-er benefits from the increased experience of their parents each successive year they are united, especially if they have had other children to care for. Yet there are stories of parents who struggle with the emotional strain of keeping an empty room in their home pristine, a shrine to someone of whom they are effectively bereaved three quarters of the time. Every four years, they are required to look after a child with the boundless energy, though they themselves feel increasingly past such things physically. They form closer bonds with their offspring who are there every day, and, try as they might to hide that from their 29-er, the suspicion will always be there, and the resulting unspoken question creates further tension. Sibling relationships can be similarly unfulfilled and alienated when a 29-er enters the fray, a fact seen most starkly in cases of twins where one child is born at 23:59 on 28th February and the other a minute later. A partnership impossible from the start.

The only hope for 29-ers is to make friends with others like them, and there are support groups now running to facilitate this. As they grow up, and grow to understand the annual detachment from all the personal connections they have built up over the previous twelve months, fear can grow in the 29-ers’ mind. They seek companions who can remain with them throughout their journey, and what they dread most is falling in love with someone who doesn’t share the condition – giving into temptation and trying to settle down, only to catapult forwards to a time when they have been forgotten, outgrown or widowed.

Yet, in spite of these burdens, when they have come to terms with their ‘other’ way of life, and established the support network they need, there are many advantages the state of 29-erhood offers. Both to the 29-ers themselves and to wider society. Dipping into our continuum every four years, they can bypass the noise of the moment, and see much more clearly the changes of fashion, manner and thought, for better and for worse. All 29-ers have already shot forward from the EU referendum to a post-Brexit Britain, and will be able to see with greater clarity just what a disaster it has been, or will be. In that clarity may be the key to repairing the worst of the damage. 29-ers can also delight in being able to miss almost the entirety of the Trump presidency.

Their outsider’s perspective may prove invaluable as society yearns for guidance.  29-ers can, in their own way, be just as useful to the advancement of civilisation as their linear siblings. Admittedly, there are exceptions. In the second half of Year 8 and the first of Year 9 (2004), I had an elderly History teacher who had been alive officially since the mid-18th century, and spent most lessons screaming in confusion at the whiteboard. Fourteen years later, I understand why.

But for the most part, the view of the 29-er is much championed, and they are often looked to in the political sphere for advice. Their trouble lies in the limited ability to be elected to parliament, since within a few months of winning a seat they may vanish and trigger a by-election. By-elections are often the easiest way for a 29-er to be elected anyway, since no UK general election has been held in a leap year since 1992, and before then 1964. The avoidance is largely deliberate and serves party political interest. Harold Wilson needed to call a further election two years later to strength his hand, and John Major’s government became increasingly unstable up until Tony Blair’s landslide of 1997. It’s easy to see why Theresa May thought it might be a safer option to dodge the bullet of an election in 2020.

Yes, in spite of all the tragedy that might befall a 29-er, and their families, there is much to be said for their condition and its value to wider humanity. In a few decades, once she is able to speak, communicate and think independently, and cope with her perpetual expectation of loss, my parents’ friends’ daughter will have much to offer the world with her insight – if only she were around long enough to instil any real change herself.

29 February

Ghostwatch (1992)

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.