Peter Fleming on Ghosts

Hi everybody. This week, Peter Fleming has written for us about his experiences with ghosts and the unexplained to mark Halloween. Read if you dare.

Boo!

Ha ha! Only pulling your legs, my friends! It’s me! Peter!

Viewers of Sprites of the Forest (1970) or The Stone Boy (1967) will be familiar with the fact that I enjoy a good ghost story, but what they may not realise is the number of encounters I have had before and since those programmes with ghostly presences in my own life.

I can recall vividly the terror I felt at my first ‘ghost’, an evil spectre which towered at the top of the stairs of the children’s home where I lived, its hideous, unearthly call echoing down the hallway. Turned out to be the shadow of one of the matrons, who enjoyed improvising on her slide-whistle on the landing long into the night to amuse herself, but the unparalleled fright that gripped me then still grips me today. (This is also why I’ve never been able to watch an episode of Clangers without screaming.)

Catharsis was the watchword when I used this memory to inspire The Ghost at No. 24 (1969), and we enlisted the help of Brian Hodgson and Delia Derbyshire at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop to create the sound of the Spectral Child, along with a Theremin player who charged so much money that in the end we couldn’t afford to record any pictures. And with the dialogue so sparse the whole thing made absolutely no sense. Had to put it out as a Radiophonic Workshop LP in the end. Not what I’d hoped for, although I did get paid as a session musician for bumping into Delia Derbyshire’s green lampshade in the middle of a take.

More successful was 1972’s Creak!, which I believe remains the only television programme ever to have successfully captured a real ghost on camera! The infamous shot occurred in episode 3, during a sequence filmed at the Stargroves estate (thanks once again to Mick Jagger for being so generous with the use of his house!). The camera followed our main actor round a corner, and there, down the corridor, was the figure of a man. Haggard and gaunt, he looked right down the lens, gasped, turned and ran away. Never seen such a frightening face in all my life.

These days, people there at the time try to rationalise it. ‘There’s no reason to believe it was a ghost, Peter – it might have been Keith Richards or someone,’ they’d say, or, ‘No, Peter, really, it looks exactly like Keith Richards,’ or, ‘Sorry I messed up that shot, Mr Fleming. Let me make it up to you with this signed copy of our new record, Exile on Main St,’ but with the episode missing from the BBC archive, I suppose we’ll never know for sure!

That’s not for want of trying, mind you. Left no stone unturned with my search for copies of that one, the memory really disturbed me. Searched all over the place for a film recording, or even paperwork in TV Centre. No luck there, of course; all the paperwork in TV Centre has been knocked down for flats (such was the scale of BBC bureaucracy that that did create a surprisingly large amount of space). Tried the BBC’s archive facility in Perivale too, but all I managed to do there was start a small fire and burn several newly returned episodes of Doctor Who. Luckily no announcement had been made, so fans didn’t have to face the disappointment of not being able to enjoy Patrick Troughton’s first appearance after all!

Yes, there’s sadly little chance I’ll ever find real confirmation of that little encounter with the beyond. But I still find myself making similar contact with other realms even today. Only a few months ago, I found myself the custodian of an old mask, haunted by none other than Geoffrey, Zippy and George from Rainbow! It came into my possession after an unfortunate incident at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford, in which I mistook the mask for a prop from Mr Hildebrand’s Many Faces (1973). As a result, I was mistaken for stealing something that wasn’t mine, which it turned out I was, but I didn’t realise that until it was too late.

Fortunately, the culture sector in this country is so badly underfunded, the only security guard there was older than me and had to stop to catch his breath and call an ambulance mere seconds into our chase! Consequently, I finally have company on my raft after years of travelling alone. Trouble is they’ve all grown rather tiresome the last few weeks, always bickering over whose spirit is taking up the most room in one cheek or another, and they always patch things up by singing the theme from Rainbow together over and over again. I wouldn’t mind, but Zippy’s always about a semitone out from the other two, makes it nigh on impossible to sleep at night.

As you can see, my friends, the possibility that we might be contacted from realms outside our own cosy little world is always there. But I ask that you think on the account of my current situation and ask yourself: mightn’t it be better to leave well alone?

Best wishes,

Peter

rainbow_zippy

The Horrors of Harlow

My ongoing tour of the new towns of England and their histories continues. The truth only grows more terrible as I go on. This week we take in what I have learned about Harlow, though I fear we will soon wish we hadn’t.

  • In 2006, Harlow was subject to a water restriction order in the wake of a drought in the South East of England. Due to a clerical error, this has never been lifted, and the people of Harlow have slowly adapted to their changed environment, following the example of organisms that thrive in arid areas, like cactuses, coyotes, and dung beetles. People who have lived in Harlow a long time are today noted for their physical resemblance to the titular villain from the 1980 Doctor Who story ‘Meglos’, their overreliance on flimsy Acme equipment designed to trap fast birds, and their poor diet.
  • Residents are engaged in an ongoing guerrilla campagin against the operators of London Stansted Airport, who have been attempting to secretly build a second runway since they were refused planning permission in 2010. Every night, construction workers arrive in the hope of being able to get a few hours’ work done under cover of darkness, but are always met and thwarted by the joyous communal spirit of a furious Essex mob. Some airlines have tried to landing planes on the area as a way of intimidating the locals, but have invariably crashed and exploded, leading to complaints.
  • The Harlow Greyhound Stadium is the only one of its kind in the world, built as it is in the shape of an 80ft greyhound. The interior of the stadium is modelled on the innards of such a beast, making races almost impossible to enjoy. A standard-priced ticket costs over £3,000. The stadium also hosts weekly meetings of the town’s rotary club.
  • Pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline have large premises in Harlow, mainly dedicated to the manufacture of dermatological products. This has led to an active black market in steroid creams and other skincare treatments. Early on, residents tried using these as a substitute for water in the wake of the restriction, but thinned their own throats out disastrously from the inside. Nowadays, they instead use them to tame their cactus-like spikes, coating themselves thoroughly in various creams each day to soften the prickly texture of their skin (this is why everyone in Harlow is so eerily shiny).
  • The site of the old biscuit factory (closed and demolished early this century) is haunted by the spirits of teatime treats uneaten. Horrific stories are told throughout the town of the terrible sounds heard all over the desolate landscape. The crunch of a pink wafer here, the disappointed sigh of a man with only plain digestives in the cupboard there – not to mention the ceaseless night-time moans of the factory’s old mascot, the Harlow Hobnob, a once delightful figure now transformed into a lonely oat monstrosity, searching the frightened town for one last cup of tea to be dunked in. Given the lack of fluid in the area, the unhappy creature looks set to be wandering for a long time yet.

Harlow-Town-Centre

Peter Fleming on Toys

Hi everyone. I’m away this week, so have given writing duties over to Peter Fleming. He has very kindly written some of his thoughts on toys and his experiences playing and working with them as one of the pioneers of British children’s TV. Thanks, Peter!

Hello there, my young friends!

Well, well, well, toys, toys, toys. Is there anything that has brought so much joy to children as toys? The answer is a qualified yes – but only in the case of those children who had access to BBC Children’s television programmes. As such, foreign children and the children of parents who avoided paying the licence fee had to make do with just toys.

I had the opposite problem, and was lucky that the children’s home where I grew up did have television, as there were frankly no toys to be had in the entire building! Instead, the very earliest children’s television fuelled my imagination, and I fashioned my own toys out of whatever I could find. Rags, milk bottles, handfuls of dust – you name it, I came up with a character and a story for it! These ended up inspiring programmes I made during my own career. The rag I played with grew into Charlie, the Ragged Ghost (1965). My favourite handful of dust, which I kept in the corner below my bed, safe from the cleaners ever reaching it, went on to become The Ghost Made of Dust (1966). And who could forget Julie, the Bottle-Shaped Ghost (1975)?

Another thing I tried to do was fashion programmes set within whole worlds of toys to fire up the imaginations of the next generation down who might be going without them. Tilly’s Toy Factory (1967) showed a young girl making all the strangest toys she could think of, helped by the elderly toymakers and woodcarvers who lived in the factory she visited every week. We never named these craftsmen or explained their circumstances in order to keep a sense of mystery, and more importantly, to encourage children to be nicer to strangers, an area where we felt society was consistently failing. Entirely because of that point (although I was later told only partially because of that), the series lasted only a few weeks.

Following that, The Museum of Fun (1968) touched on similar themes with young Johnny’s regular visits to be shown round an ancient toy museum by Miss Harker. As an educational element, the toys were often host to the spirit of whatever child had played with them back in history, and would describe the old world around them. Later, of course, Miss Harker herself was revealed to be a large, Edwardian puppet, come to life! I now look back on the programme as a wonderful combination of my duel interest in toys and ghosts, and it was fondly remembered by audiences too, eventually topping Channel 4’s The 100 Most Inadvertently Sinister Kids’ TV Shows of All Time in 2003.

Best of all, Uncle Kenneth’s Doll’s House (1969-71) depicted a little girl who was sick of her boring, stuffy parents, and wished she could live in her peculiar uncle’s doll’s house instead – only for the wish to come true! Surrounded by now life-size wooden and fabric dolls, and trapped in an existence that ran like clockwork, she was at first frightened by their mechanical movement and muffled voices, but soon grew to enjoy the lifestyle, eventually becoming a doll herself in the final episode. I intended it as a way to make my daughter less scared of her own doll’s house, but if anything it had the opposite effect. Trouble was, the programme was so successful that I had to ignore her feelings and keep going! If only I’d realised the effect that would have a few years later, I might have thought again!

Nowadays, I find my boyhood yearning for toys to play with still comes to the surface. As I float about on my little raft, rags and empty milk bottle drift past and bring back fond memories, and I come up with new ideas from other bits and pieces I find too! Who knows, perhaps one day audiences might find themselves enjoying The Voyage of the Shopping Trolley, or Phillip, the Talking Stick, or Come Back, Sophie, Please Come Back! All those have been inspired in just the last couple of weeks by things I’ve sailed by or caught myself shouting out in my sleep – so you see, there’s still a whole world of possibility!

Best wishes,

Peter

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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.

radiotimes1992

Doctor Who: Under the Lake/Before the Flood

After a very strong opening story, this year’s series of Doctor Who has ascended to still greater heights thanks to Toby Whithouse, who may have just given the show its strongest two-parter since Paul Cornell’s Human Nature/The Family of Blood in 2007. These two highly distinct episodes, Under the Lake and Before the Flood, masterfully adopt a classic device from both the 20th and 21st century incarnations of the series. We’re given a claustrophobic base-under-siege tale in the first episode, with a suspenseful atmosphere that harks back to the golden days of the 1960s. Yesterday’s second episode, on the other hand, turns the story into the kind of time-bending puzzle that post-2005 Doctor Who has done so well.

One of Under the Lake’s great strengths is the look of its setting. The production design brings a sense of entrapment, with the low, round ceilings of the short stretches of shadowy corridor running through the base keeping visibility as low as possible. Meanwhile, choices of lighting and colour keep us perpetually in mind of the vast, oppressive mass of water that lies on top of the Drum base. The deep, all-enveloping green that lies beyond the base’s windows may too conceal hidden dangers, its foreboding murk complementing the vaporous, shimmering ‘ghosts’ that stalk the base’s crew.

It seems odd that Doctor Who has so rarely tackled the idea of ghosts (Day of the Daleks offered some ruminations in 1972 – another story interested in the complexities of time travel). Here, they are excellently realised, their eyeless sockets revealing apparently hollow, cavernous heads, another image from this series likely to linger in children’s minds. Their wispy appearance is well married to their unnerving silence, as they speak some indefinable phrase ad nauseum, but the fear this brings about in us is challenged by the presence of Cass (Sophie Stone), the deaf officer on the base to whom everyone is silent.

Amidst a consistently excellent cast, Stone does shine in these episodes, and this story offers us another example of Doctor Who giving greater visibility to voices and groups frequently under-represented on television. On this occasion, though, a disability is not only made integral to the plot, but also provides positive advantages. Cass’s lip-reading ability gives vital clues to the nature of the ghosts and their purpose, which enable their final defeat. Our fears for her are deflated too – as she is pursued by an axe-wielding figure, unable to hear the metal of the weapon grinding against the floor, we feel certain of her fate, only for her to sense the vibrations of the movement and escape. Not such a disadvantage as it might appear. There will be deaf children watching this show who feel more self-assured off the back of it, and that is truly commendable. Most importantly, in spite of the focus given to it, Cass is not defined by her deafness, but is a fully-rounded individual, by turns brave, loyal, over-protective and, as the Doctor puts it, “the smartest person in the room.”

Cass is surrounded by a well-drawn set of characters, too, partially down to the series’ renewed emphasis on longer stories. We now have time to meet the story’s cast, and events are made all the more significant for it – a benefit of settling down after the more frenetic season opener The Magician’s Apprentice. I was genuinely gutted when O’Donnell (Morven Christie) was killed less than halfway through Before the Flood. It’s a testament to how well Christie, and Whithouse’s script, had brought her to life, and to the format that granted that bit of extra time to get to know her. The story is able to give over an further plot point to character development as well, when the TARDIS travels back to half an hour before she is killed. There is nothing in the plot that is served any better by this in particular, but it does force Bennett (Arsher Ali) to confront his grief and see the object of his affections still alive, while he is unable to intervene (and we hear echoes of 2005’s Father’s Day).

The toying with time on display in this moment is characteristic of this excellently structured second episode, which also brings new intricacy to the story overall. As has often been the case with two-parters in the last few years, Before the Flood moves on distinctly from the first half of the story, offering a fresh perspective as well as a final resolution. The foundations of Under the Lake, which have built up such dread, are viewed anew from a distance and better understood, redressing our fear as a result. One obvious shift is Before the Flood’s change of location, or rather time. Travelling back to 1980, 139 years before the events of the previous episode, the claustrophobic setting of the base is exchanged for a desolate, abandoned army testing ground. The barren landscape and facsimile Soviet paraphernalia lends these sequences a haunted feeling reminiscent of images we see of modern-day Chernobyl. Utterly contrasting with the underwater base environment, it nonetheless suits the story’s thematic concerns of death and isolation, but importantly, it gives the breathing space necessary to observe the threat at its root and to think clearly how to vanquish it.

By the end of the episode, it has been made clear that the real villain of the piece, the Fisher King (Neil Fingleton; voice, Peter Serafinowicz; roar, Corey Taylor) has been dead long before the Doctor and Clara’s arrival on the scene, and before the story began. The real menace has proved, after all, to be the ghosts of its failed plan, themselves appearing long after their malign master has been rendered harmless. Gradually, we see the ghosts as components in a process which the episode has spent slowly revealing and unravelling. This might make for a relatively diminished villain in the Fisher King, but, as in Day of the Daleks, the principle threat is less central to the story than the bootstrap paradox in which the player of the story are ensnared. (In short, the Doctor saves the day thanks to instructions he sends himself from his future, meaning he has never personally thought of the instructions. Effect = cause. It’s lovely.)

In spite of the closed loop of events that apparently comes with this plot device, though, all is not perfectly secure. Thanks to careful scripting and intricate plotting, the Doctor’s acts of interference in the past only visibly affect events that take place after he leaves the base to travel back in time. While the events of Under the Lake remain set in stone, there is still everything to play for in Before the Flood. Any change the Doctor makes only has its impact felt in the second episode, and so the sense of jeopardy remains, making for a very satisfying piece of TV drama, as well as science-fiction. There is an argument, perhaps, that O’Donnell’s ghost should appear at the very beginning of the story, she having in fact been the Fisher King’s second victim. To deal with this, I suggest adopting the Back to the Future approach to time travel, which lends itself better to drama anyway. This would mean that, up until the climax of Before the Flood, the Fisher King has been within the base in suspended animation all along, not the Doctor. Eventually, the Doctor interferes, shifting the timeline onto a different course of events. (For Day of the Doctor naysayers, this approach also lets you have your cake and eat it regarding the outcome of the Time War. The Doctor did wipe out his people, then changed history. You’re welcome.)

The structural satisfaction of Before the Flood is made all the sweeter by Peter Capaldi’s opening monologue to the camera on the nature of the bootstrap paradox we are about to witness occur and his closing shrug. It may not work every week, but I found it very welcome here, giving the episode a boost in exactly the right way, signalling the shift in direction the story was about to take. His guitar playing, too, punctuating his argument and accompanying the opening theme (an improvement if you ask me), had just the right level of cheek. While in The Magician’s Apprentice, the Doctor’s flippancy was deliberately distracted, aimless, here it was endowed with a sense of purpose by the episode’s structure. It’s done with the same absolute conviction that made it so easy for the Tenth Doctor to win me over, neatly tying the episode up.

Questions linger, nonetheless, that will perhaps come to haunt the Doctor and Clara later in the series. Swept up in the excitement of the puzzle solved at the story’s close, they allow themselves to forget the darker side of what they have just experienced. For one thing, if we’re going to follow Back to the Future’s rules, the Doctor is directly responsible for O’Donnell’s death, a loss he cannot undo. There are also ramifications for his relationship with Clara. Hearing the Doctor apparently accepting his coming death, Clara bellows at him, “Die with whoever comes after me, you do not leave me!” She goes on, “You’ve made yourself essential to me,” laying plain the deeply unhealthy streak at the heart of their friendship. Fleeing her bereavement at the climax of last year’s series, she is now every bit as reckless as the Doctor, and she is also dependent on him. There’s no telling where exactly this will go yet. All we can be sure of is that Clara’s days are numbered.

Under the Lake