Ghostwatch was a drama/mockumentary the BBC broadcast on Halloween in 1992. It’s been shown just the once in the UK and it’s possibly one of the single most influential bits of telly there’s been in the last 25 years. There’s bits of it in The Blair Witch Project. Paranormal Activity wouldn’t have a plot. Even Chris Morris might not have felt the freedom to experiment with the format of television & satire in works like The Day Today or Brass Eye. Ghostwatch really is this important, which is impressive for a 90 minute bit of telly that was shown just the once and only got a DVD release in 2002. It’s lived on in the memory of millions of people because it was a perfect storm of filmmaking, casting and most importantly, scheduling.
Firstly let’s explain the plot. The idea is that the BBC are doing a live broadcast from a supposed haunted house in a quiet street in London called Foxhill Drive, a street which looks like a vast number of streets across the country. The programme is hosted by Michael Parkinson, an amazingly well respected figure, Sarah Greene and Mike Smith, well known for children’s television as well as live TV and radio presenting, and Craig Charles, hugely popular thanks to Red Dwarf.
The genius in all of this is that by making it seem like a real live broadcast featuring presenters well known for presenting live television and hosted by a massively respected figure like Parkinson made the programme seem as real as any of the genuine programmes the BBC were doing like this at the time and still exist, with programmes such as Autumnwatch. The set-up would have been familiar to people, so the BBC decided to put this out on Halloween night which in 1992, was a Saturday night.
The importance of it being broadcast on a Saturday night is vital. As it was Halloween people were going round houses for Halloween parties and coming home with their kids late in the evening to turn on the television just around the time Ghostwatch was starting. This meant a lot of people might have missed the opening credits the BBC forced the makers to stick on the programme as they suddenly started getting worried that people might react badly to the programme.
As for myself, I missed the first ten minutes or so so we missed the opening credits.
I was living in Leicester at the time and I’d picked my then girlfriend up from her job on the Saturday afternoon to journey straight to the pub. After spending a few hours in the comfy joys of Leicester legendary and now sadly, long lost Pump & Tap, we’d headed to my house for a bit of grub, some takeouts and an early night and also to avoid being battered by the large storm that was whipping the city, and indeed, much of the UK that night. So as we got home we dumped our stuff off in my bedroom and popped our heads into the living room to see two of my housemates sitting there with their mouths open watching something on the telly, and that something was Ghostwatch and we started watching just as things seemed normal about 20 minutes or so into the programme so we’d missed the basic set up but we quickly picked it up. Once the really scary fun and games kicked in the four of us watched the thing without saying a word. The shared experience was simply brilliant but once it stopped we ended up sitting around drinking telling each other how not scared we were.
Yes, of course we weren’t scared. Right…
Sadly none of us videoed it. That was a mistake as the four of us had to try to repeat to people over the next few days what we’d seen as the programme had sparked a huge response, so you’d bump into people in the pub, mention you’d seen Ghostwatch and have to try to get across what was so bloody brilliant about it. This began a decade of mythology building as Ghostwatch passed into modern culture but thanks to the hysterical reaction to it the BBC never were going to repeat it. In fact the BBC have never repeated it, and seemingly never will which is a bloody shame.
This meant that if you wanted to see a copy you had to find one. That meant either taking the risk of spending a tenner on buying a VHS tape full of snow from an advert from the back of Fortean Times, or in my case, scour comic marts across the south of England trying to find a copy. Back in the day there used to be a few dealers who’d turn up at the Camden Marts, or the marts held at the TUC buildings in Central London who’d often have a copy which would sell instantly. See, in those pre-internet days such rarities were hard, if not impossible to find so most people were happy just telling their stories about their experience when seeing it, which is of course exactly what I’m doing now.
Every now and then you’d bump into someone who had a copy, and more. On a trip back home to Glasgow i discovered a mate not only had a copy, but had made a Ghostwatch game. Can you save Sarah Greene??!
Sadly, for some reason that escapes me I didn’t see it, but I did play the game…
For the rest of the 90’s I’d pretty much given up on getting a copy. Every now and then it’d come up in conversation such as the time at one Glastonbury Festival where late at night the conversation turned to Ghostwatch, and again different people told a similar story of how they’d been out, come home and stumbled across this scary as fuckity programme and that they wished they could get a copy.
By the late 90’s the internet was beginning to make such rarities less rare, but dial-up connections meant that if you actually found a copy then it’d take a decade to download it, but thankfully in 2002 the BFI released a lovely DVD of it in time for it’s tenth anniversary.
I finally owned a copy!!
I remember the day when it turned up, I opened up the box, saw the DVD and stuck it in my player ASAP with my then girlfriend (a different one to ten years earlier) sat there looking confused before piping up that she remembered it all now and was this the one with Pipes? It turned out that she too had a story about how when she was a kid her and her mum watched it and were scared to bits by it.
Over the last decade since that DVD release, Ghostwatch has gained a new lease of life not only because of that DVD release, but because of people who were kids at the time who’d now grown up remembering that thing that scared them to death and wanting to know if anyone else felt the same, while us older folk just wanted to see the thing again!
So we’ve had the excellent Behind The Curtains website, which has spawned a splendid documentary about the programme and the reaction to it, not to mention a book which although I haven’t read yet, is something I will as soon as I get my arse in gear to get a copy.
There’s also the national seance where fans across the country, and indeed, across the world watch it at the same time while having a running commentary on social media like Twitter.
Ghostwatch has dated in places, but it’s still a massively effective bit of television that in especially it’s last half hour is utterly terrifying in places, and I bloody love the thing as my annual Halloween treat, so I’m off to watch it again and I’ll make sure I don’t get a sleepless night tonight…………….