101 FILMS BLU RAY RELEASE: Ghostwatch (1992)

Thirty years ago, the BBC seemed to be doing another one of their “Watch” shows, as four presenters — Michael Parkinson (host of the talk show Parkinson for twenty five years), presenter Sarah Greene (who had worked on several of the “Watch” shows like Airportwatch), her real-life husband Mike Smith (a co-host of the BBC’s Breakfast Time and was a presenter on Top of the Pops) and Craig Charles (who worked as a presenter before playing Dave Lister on Red Dwarf, hosting Robot Wars and narrating Takeshi’s Castle) — and a camera crew descended on the most haunted house in Britain on Halloween night.

Pamela Early (Brid Brennan) and her daughters Suzanne (Michelle Wesson) and Kim (Cherise Wesson) have been dealing with Mr. Pipes, a poltergeist who possesses and harms Suzanne and lives in the basement of their home. Dr. Lin Pascoe (Gillian Bevan), a psychologist studying the phenomena, supports Pamela and the children as Sarah reports from inside the home with her husband Mike interviews the man on the street and Craig makes with the jokes.

As the program (programme!) unravels, it turns out that maybe this isn’t all a hoax. Several calls from listeners help construct the true story, as the story of the murderous Mother Seddons is retold, as is the case of Raymond Tunstall, who hung himself in the basement of the Early home and was eaten by cats. By the end, the beast known as Mr. Pipes has transformed the live broadcast into a seance circle and attempts to use the show to possess all of England.

For American viewers, it’s all rather well made but one wonders how people could have been so upset by this show. Well, for those in Britain, this movie seemed like anything but.

The crew making it took great pains to make it seem real, even if it was part of the BBC anthology series Screen One. It was shot in Studio D of BBC Elstree Studios, a place where many news shows had been aired from. The 081 811 8181 is an actual BBC call-in number, adding to the realism. In fact, the show was nearly canceled because the network didn’t want a War of the Worlds panic to happen. They demanded opening credits be added including the writer’s name, in addition to a Screen One title sequence.

No one noticed that.

The documentary style of Ghostwatch led to 30,000 phone calls from frightened viewers, including Parkinson’s elderly mother! In the days to follow, tabloids went to town criticizing the BBC — who never reaired Ghostwatch — which only increased when eighteen-year-old factory worker Martin Denham became obsessed by the show and upon hearing noises in his parent’s home much like the show would take his own life. The Broadcast Standards Commission rebuked the BBC, saying “The BBC had a duty to do more than simply hint at the deception it was practicing on the audience. In Ghostwatch there was a deliberate attempt to cultivate a sense of menace. The presence in the program of presenters familiar from children’s programs took some parents off-guard in deciding whether their children could continue to view.”

Considering that children and elderly people reported PTSD after watching this, you can see why Greene appeared on the following Monday’s Children’s BBC to reassure younger viewers that the show was not real.

Except that it kind of is.

The story is based on the Enfield poltergeist, a story that had been debated in the tabloids as well, which adds even more of a layer of truth to this story. Peggy Hodgson reported poltergeist activities in her home and voices that would emerge from her daughter Janet. The BBC had reported several times on this story, so Ghostwatch probably felt like a Halloween ratings sweeps stunt.

Writer Stephen Volk (GothicThe Guardian) had seen this as a mini-series but producers thought that the final live segment, inspired by Nigel Keale’s The Stone Tape, would have more impact.

While this show destroyed minds and reaped souls in England, over here it’s been an influence on so many found footage films like Host and The Blair Witch Project, as well as the near-perfect UHF TV era U.S. remix WNUF Halloween Special.

I love that this is shot on video, not for the need to save money, but for the need to appear real. SOV continues to be a format that offers so many hallways to explore.

Volk wrote a sequel in the short story 31/10, in which he vists the sealed-off BBC studio space where the original show was made along with a group of people whose lives were somehow impacted by Ghostwatch. You can read it here.

In Britain, there are national seances every year to watch this and even a great website called Behind the Curtains that tells so many of the stories of this movie.

If you want to see it for yourself, the 101 Films blu ray release of Ghostwatch is perfect. In addition to the movie, you also get a 30th anniversary feature-length documentary, two sets of commentary — one with film historians Dr. Shellie McMurdo and Dr. Stella Gaynor and the other with Volk, producer Ruth Baumgarten and director Lesley Manning — as well as a Shooting Reality feature with Manning, a 32-page book and a first edition slipcase. You can get it from MVD.

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