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.


The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)

In 1953, The Quatermass Experiment became Britain’s first landmark TV drama, drawing in massive audiences across the country. It was broadcast live, and copies were only made of the first two episodes – the other four were lost from the moment of transmission. On 2nd April 2005, BBC Four staged a live remake so gripping that it killed the Pope, but until then, all that existed to fill the void was Hammer’s film adaptation, released only two years after the original. The move to the big screen has plenty of benefits, plus a fair few shortcomings, but it’s fascinating to see what elements are emphasised to suit different audiences.

In Hammer’s first significant attempt at horror, those elements of the story are pushed further than the BBC serial’s forensic scientific investigation (the approach many would argue had made Quatermass what it was, and certainly influenced future generations of science-fiction). Director Val Guest is concerned most with the alien menace’s impact on the real world, as is clear from the new emphasis placed on the public in the beginning. Where Rudolph Cartier grounded us in Quatermass’s work with the British Rocket Group from the off, Val Guest takes us first to the site of a catastrophic rocket crash, surrounded by a crowd of spectators and flummoxed emergency services. Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) isn’t introduced for some time – the situation confronting the wider world comes first.

This allows for a certain level of symmetry perhaps lacking in the BBC version, with one public crisis at its leading to a new one at its close, when mutated surviving astronaut Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth) escapes into London and wreaks havoc. It’s worth noting that, while characters and relationships are sacrificed from Nigel Kneale’s original script (more on that below), one element that Hammer keeps and foregrounds is the menace’s contact with members of the public. From elderly vagrant Rosie’s (Thora Hird) realisation that for once she hasn’t hallucinated a monster to the film’s echo of James Whale’s Frankenstein (1930) when Carroon encounters an innocent child (a young Jane Asher), the threat posed to the real world is paramount. Crucially, the mutating Carroon’s interruption of a live TV broadcast brings the menace tantalisingly close to mass attention – a motif that recurs throughout Kneale’s Quatermass work.

Added to this, the higher production values of the film bring an exciting new scale to proceedings (admittedly, it’s not entirely fair to compare it to a programme it’s largely impossible to watch). The rocket crash feels a much larger event than it does in the surviving first TV episode, while the climax of the piece in Westminster Abbey is suitably evocative and gripping. Best of all is the excellent visual storytelling on display when Quatermass et al view the silent film from aboard the rocket of its astronauts’ inexplicable deaths. It’s handled with economy, but what glimpses we have of the men walking in zero-gravity (pre-dating 2001: A Space Odyssey by thirteen years) and collapsing amidst disorienting visual effects are enough to impress and unsettle, respectively.

Carroon’s transformation is similarly chilling at points, and due credit must go to Richard Wordsworth, whose stillness and quiet intensity make plain his fear and agony. His mutation, brought about by the astronauts’ encounter with an alien presence, also marks a clear difference in the film’s approach to the horrific element at the heart of the story. Less interested in the psychological unease of the TV version, the film focuses on the physical aspects, in particular when Carroon escapes from hospital. Cue shock reveals of his deformed hand and shots of his victims’ degraded bodies. This isn’t to say that the TV serial didn’t provide such terror – but that over six half-hours, this could be better tempered by the growing suspense unravelling the mystery of Carroon’s condition, and his comrades’ terrible fate. It’s also perhaps telling that the monstrous creature threatening our world is here defeated by a massive surge of electricity, not the TV version’s intellectual and emotional appeal from Professor Quatermass.

It’s fair to say, in this regard, that the film suffers largely in the shortcuts it makes, unnecessary on TV. Not only is the principal threat defeated by more conventional means on the big screen, but the characters seen here are less imaginatively drawn, not least Quatermass himself. For one thing, the change of climax robs him of his biggest moment in the story (though his steely devotion to his work in the final scene is well done and gives him an interesting further dimension). The TV Quatermass, though, is often more impotent than we see here – never is he at the mercy of a misguided authority figure in the film, and we worry precious little that he won’t solve the mystery. Perhaps the character’s less powerful TV persona could be seen as peculiarly British, not so well served by the brasher, Americanised portrayal of Brian Donlevy.

Elsewhere, time constraints allow for little of the exploration afforded to supporting characters in the original. Carroon’s wife Judith (Margia Dean), on TV a scientist assisting Quatermass, wracked by guilt for her extra-marital affair, is not only reduced to merely a doting wife, but is also unforgivably naïve in arranging for her husband to be smuggled out of hospital to care for him at home, when it’s amazingly striking just how unwell and unlike himself he is. Removing the sub-plot of her affair allows for greater focus on the horror of Carroon’s transformation, but it seems a shame to have fudged this more interesting character arc when the 2005 remake shows how an abridged version of the serial can accommodate it perfectly well.

In spite of this, The Quatermass Xperiment is a worthy entry into the canon – it is, after all, the earliest Quatermass story to survive in its entirety (released months before the BBC’s Quatermass II). Regardless of its shortcomings of character, it’s enjoyably tense, keeps some of the original’s maturity, and demonstrates how well bigger budgets and a grander scale can serve Nigel Kneale’s original ideas. Perhaps the competition from Hammer’s big screen versions gave the BBC the encouragement it needed to go the extra mile when, three years later, it produced one of British television’s great masterpieces in Quatermass and the Pit.

Quatermass Xperiment

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954)

After bidding farewell to Sheffield, my home of five years, and the magnificent Showroom cinema last week, I was glad to have visited another safe haven for cinephiles a few days ago. Travelling through London, I had a few hours spare, so paid a visit to the BFI’s Southbank complex, and its Mediatheque. For the uninitiated, the Mediatheque is an online film and TV archive with viewing portals at various locations – Cambridge’s Central Library and the National Media Museum in Bradford are two I’ve used. A treasure trove awaits visitors, from episodes of Blue Peter and early silent footage of London to Lindsay Anderson’s striking 1979 production of Alan Bennett’s The Old Crowd, decried as a travesty at the time by fools.

Also available is the BBC’s 1954 adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four, written and directed by Quatermass visionaries Nigel Kneale and Rudolph Cartier. I first learned of this landmark, and highly controversial, production from The Kneale Tapes documentary on the BBC’s Quatermass release ten years ago. I yearned to see it, but thanks to copyright issues with an attempted DVD release in 2004, this seemed unlikely. I was fortunate to discover it was available on the Mediatheque in 2011 in Cambridge, and found it surpassed every high expectation I had built up over six years. Re-watching this week did nothing to dampen my opinion of it as one of the BBC’s greatest achievements in its long history.

Big Brother

Having studied British documentary between my two viewings of the adaptation, I was more aware this time around of that movement’s influence on the piece’s aesthetic (and Cartier’s blending of it with more fantastical visual elements). Perhaps a key to this, and what makes this first visual adaptation so significant, is that it’s only five years younger than the book itself. Culturally, we don’t tend to think of the chronology of classic books in tandem with classic TV because the latter medium is such a comparatively recent innovation. Any television rendering of a book must always be far, far younger than its source material, surely? Not so here.

Much of the prevailing culture of austere post-war Britain is on show, from the sternly measured performances to the bleak industrial landscapes seen as the workers end their shifts. The subjects of documentaries such as Humphrey Jennings’s Listen to Britain (1941) or Ralph Keene’s Under Night Streets (1958) are portrayed as one whole, but any sense of patriotic unity in this treatment is perverted by Cartier to betray the total absence of autonomy. The line between these two states of being is shown to be wafer-thin, and while matte paintings of the futuristic cityscape lend Orwell’s dystopia the comforting distance of allegory, the parallels with contemporary documentary keep it grounded nonetheless in our own world.

At its heart though, Nineteen Eighty-Four’s true strength is one of any great drama, as had been seen on stage for centuries before and has been seen on television for decades after, from I, Claudius to The West Wing: masterfully crafted language treated with eloquence and sympathy by a cast of supremely skilled speakers. Artistry and precision abound in both writing and delivery and the two creative forces serve each other to leave audiences spellbound, no more so than in Kneale and Cartier’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

This is a superlative cast, even down to child performers Keith Davis and Pamela Grant. The masterful Peter Cushing excels as Winston Smith, offsetting his handsome severity with an enticing frailty, not least when reliving his childhood trauma. Yvonne Mitchell as Julia, meanwhile, seems at first irritatingly plucky – pluckiness, of course, constituting the early-mid twentieth century’s precursor to feistiness – in her initial mockery of the Party. Yet this soon wears away, and Mitchell gradually reveals Julia’s desires and vulnerability. In her final devastating scene, broken in spirit and body, the edge of naivety to Julia’s rebellious intent is revealed to have been an affected performance, given to the character by Mitchell, a true artist.

For stirring vocal performance, as well, special mention must be given to both André Morell and Donald Pleasance. Morell’s soft, authoritative tones are always a welcome sound to my ears, and he is perfect as the enigmatic figure of O’Brien, only five years before he would go on to work with Kneale and Cartier again as the definitive Professor Quatermass. Here he serves Orwell’s prose (treated with the utmost care by Kneale) beautifully, and so too does Pleasance, who delivers the performance I remembered best from my first viewing of the programme. As his character of Syme discusses with obsessive fascination his work in the formation of newspeak, I feel genuinely drawn into his mentality, sharing his fanaticism ever so briefly.

Such powerful performances, working to match dialogue that has itself been crafted to match them, constitute one of the great examples offered by Nineteen Eighty-Four. This is all a great drama truly needs to succeed and to last. Yet the play was so very nearly lost to the ether that it feels a miracle that we have a record of it, for this was the era of live television. When the first performance of the play, on Sunday 12th December 1954, was broadcast, no recording was made. Perhaps the controversy around this broadcast helped to ensure that, once it was permitted to go ahead, the second performance the following Thursday was recorded for posterity. Although only the second of two screenings, this would become the definitive version. A strange time indeed. For me, though, this merely exemplifies how blessed we are to have even one copy to enjoy. It remains a supreme example of the BBC’s output, at once inspiring and terrifying. Informative, educational and entertaining.

Nineteen Eighty-Four BFI

The BFI were planning a DVD release of the play, at long last, as part of their sci-fi season last year, but this has unfortunately frozen in time, perhaps dogged by the copyright issues that affected the previous attempt. Especially disheartening when, as I understand, a good deal of hard work had already gone into treating the programme with the high respect it deserves. Perhaps when Nineteen Eighty-Four comes into the public domain in 2021, another release can finally be achieved. Until then, we can at least view (for free, too) in some form. I urge you to visit your nearest Mediatheque.