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

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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.

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