Britain’s very own War of the Worlds, this infamous Halloween special from 1992 is one of the ballsiest stunts ever pulled by the Beeb, and can go happily along with Panorama’s “Spaghetti Harvest” and Channel Four’s sacrilegious Christmas Day screening of The Omen as one of the greatest practical jokes ever pulled on the British viewing public. In their defence, the BBC did try and do everything in their power to make it clear that it was only a drama, from a whole cover story on that week’s Radio Times (which included a cast list) to a spoilsport continuity announcer immediately before the programme itself. However, this did little to placate an outraged British public, the majority of whom had been deceived, scared witless, and didn’t like it one bit (nevertheless, memories of the show appear to be fond - at the time of writing, Ghostwatch had an unprecented 9.4 rating on the IMDB!).
Purporting to be a live broadcast from both “the most haunted house in Britain” and inside a cosy BBC studio, it was a case study of the Early household, whose three residents – Pamela and her two daughters Kim and Suzanne – had been terrorised for several months by an malevolent ghost they christened “Pipes”. BBC presenter stalwarts Michael Parkinson was the show’s anchorman, Mike Smith manned the phonelines, Craig Charles interviewed the locals in the area and Sarah Greene reported live from inside the house. Anything, we are warned, could happen.
One would naturally approach this with trepidation – could a programme based entirely around the deceit that it was live and happening right there on your screen stand up a decade later on a format that didn’t even exist at the time? Happily, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. Never less than hugely entertaining and often genuinely frightening (one jolt in particular will have you on the ceiling), Ghostwatch is one of the great television horror classics.
Although the reality television concept was something of a groundbreaker when first shown, from today’s perspective it looks decidedly post-modern. It’s a fascinating blend of both horror film and factual TV conventions that somehow seems totally original and (for the most part) entirely convincing. The balance between the show’s style and its substance is pitch perfect - unlike many mockumentaries whose handheld video devices are clearly employed as a money-saving gimmick, here the guise of a live TV show is crucial to its success. It’s not at all difficult to see why the BBC remain so reluctant to repeat it – if you miss the credits that take up the first ten seconds, there are very few telltale signs that it isn’t the genuine article (the original date of transmission flashes up on the screen occasionally, and some of the fashions and hairstyles are inevitably a little behind the times).
One of the show’s great strengths is its structure – the fact that it does occasionally go off on unrelated tangents or lags from time to time only adds to the feeling of unscripted realism. The writer Stephen Volk is not too timid to throw in occasional mindgames, including one that is likely to catch even viewers today totally off-guard. (It’s a great pity that his original plan to include high-frequency sound waves within the audio mix that would send viewers’ dogs berserk at specific moments didn’t come off!)
The performances by nearly all the cast are spot-on. The little girls have come under some criticism for being a touch wooden at times, and while this is occasionally a legitimate concern, one has to remember the situation of their characters by this point. Craig Charles and Sarah Greene prove unexpectedly adept at their roles, but stealing the show, however, are Michael Parkinson and Mike Smith. Parky is his usual uncle-like self – astute, chucklesome and mildly patronising – and Mike Smith is simply a joy to watch, whether he’s bungling an autocued joke or doing his best to look intense and concerned, just managing stay on the right side of self-parody.
Surprisingly, the show only becomes scarier and more entertaining on repeat viewings; even the admittedly over-the-top ending leaves one with a lasting chill that is difficult to shake off. Those who enter into the programme with a view to sarcastically spotting all the “fake bits” will get precious little out of it; those who approach it as they would any other horror film will find their efforts amply rewarded. Both old-fashioned and bang up to date in its scare tactics, Ghostwatch is an unlikely triumph.
A very mild graininess inherent in the master tapes is about the only thing wrong with this transfer. The bitrate is sky-high and the videotape image is sharp, detailed and very easy on the eye, happily lacking any digital over-processing in the transfer stage. A very nice job by the BFI indeed.
The Nicam stereo recording is intentionally somewhat rough on occasion, but still has good separation between the two channels, decent fidelity and a pleasingly sharp definition.
A quite splendid commentary is on offer from director Lesley Manning, producer Ruth Baumgarten and writer Stephen Volk. They are highly talkative and a huge range of topics are covered with practically no dead space at all. Everything from battles with BBC department heads, to difficulties during the shoot to the show’s enduring cult status is covered, and leaves one with a very satisfying overview of the entire project.
There are some additional extras – an interesting seven-minute narration by Lesley Manning over an animated stills gallery of various paraphernalia, explaining exactly how she prepared for the shoot, including script pages, stills and an illustrated letter of appreciation from one of her daughter’s infant school classmates.
There are some minor textual supplements on the disc, but on the DVD-Rom side of things, you get a fascinating look at the screenplay (in PDF format) which contains significant changes from the finished product, the original treatment with an absolutely appalling alternate ending, and an amusing short ghost story by Stephen Volk entitled “Three Fingers, One Thumb”.
Special mention must go to the menus, which are perhaps the scariest I’ve ever seen (be sure to watch them in their entirety!) There are 14 chapters, and a booklet featuring spoiler-filled liner notes by Kim Newman, so be warned. It is perhaps a minor disappointment that the specially-shot trailers that were originally screened in the evening preceding the programme are nowhere to be seen, not to mention extracts from Biteback and Points of View to demonstrate the public furore, but these are minor qualms, and having the show on DVD is reward enough as it is.
A disc recommended to both aficionados and newcomers alike, Ghostwatch has more than stood the test of time and this new DVD release by the British Film Institute proves the perfect introduction.