With Halloween just around the corner, i was feeling a bit nostalgic for the scary thrill i used to get at this time of year when i was a kid. So, i took a wide eyed look back to the origin of Ghostwatch, the 90 minute TV mockumentary broadcast on 31st October 1992 on BBC1. The show caused quite a stir in the UK and was banned from television, but where did the idea come from?
The following interview was compiled from the BBC archives, it's old but worth a read if you're a fan or simply curious.
BBCi: What was the original inspiration for Ghostwatch?
Stephen Volk: The idea was to combine a team of psychical researchers with all the technology of TV journalism.
I use that last word loosely: initially it was a World In Action type investigative TV show that gets involved: the Crimewatch-style live broadcast idea came later.
The "inspiration" if it existed was twofold:
1) If you think back to pre-1992: there was a dawning of docu-dramas and dramatized documentaries (it’s de regeur now!) and I thought 'how do we trust what we’re shown any more on TV'? How much will people believe if it’s conveyed in factual TV "language"?
2) The other thing I was interested in is how to tell a ghost story on TV with the equivalent of literature’s "first person narrative" which ghost stories seem to depend on for their authenticity? My answer in this case was the TV equivalent (faces to camera, talking heads, interviews etc) of the authorial, truthful "I". Edgar Allan Poe often wrote pieces that mimicked the "truth" of the articles surrounding his stories in the publications.
BBCi: I read an article stating that your agent suggested a drama in the vein of Edge Of Darkness. How much did that drama influence the original concept of Ghostwatch?
Stephen Volk: My agent Linda Seifert said the BBC was looking for more 6-part thrillers in the style of Edge of Darkness. So I thought, ‘great, [here’s] my chance to do a supernatural thriller film serial on the BBC… dark, moody, grainy, etc. Maybe featuring an investigative team who’d go on to have other stories.
Anyway I did this treatment of six one-hour episodes, starting with a poltergeist in a North London housing estate, which is investigated by an eccentric young psychical investigator (male) and a TV Roger Cook-ish journo (female). I also had a scientist who was investigating psychic people in a lab, but that was lost along the way, along with the reporter’s clash with her bosses.
It worked in a conventional drama serial sense, structured a bit like a Stephen King mini-series, not pretending to be ‘real’. Except Episode 6 was to be a ‘live’ broadcast from the haunted house in North London, and all hell breaks loose.
Then one day the producer Ruth Baumgarten said to me, look, there’s no way the BBC are going to commit to this as a series, is there any way we can do it as a one-off 90 minute drama? I remember very clearly sitting in her office and saying, "Look, I had this idea: what if we do the whole thing like Episode 6 and pretend it’s going out live?" There was this look on her face and I thought ‘oh my God, there’s no going back now. How the hell do I pull this off’?
BBCi: Were there any ideas that you had to omit due to writing a ‘live’ 90 minute film, as opposed to a six part drama for example?
Stephen Volk: Lots, but I diligently tried to incorporate the good ones in the new form! For instance I always wanted a bluff skeptical character to act as a contrast to the Cassandra-like scientist doing the investigation.
When I came up with the idea of talking to Emilio Sylvestri by satellite it seemed perfect! I was always trying to maximize all the devices we know and trust from factual TV: the phone-ins, the jokey presenter, the earnest interview, the clips, the vox pop of the crowds.
It forced me to convey a ghost story in this way, but of course the hard part was that I couldn’t construct the drama in three neat acts with climaxes like a normal drama. It would give the game away.
I was adamant that nothing really scary could happen till about halfway through. You’d never believe a stake out on Halloween where we see a ghost in ten minutes! So the first 45 minutes is more or less all build up and set-up for things to pay off in the second half. You can virtually do a tick-list and see everything that is planted pop up and be paid off!
BBCi: How difficult did you find it to script the supposedly live, spur-of-the-moment events that transpired as the drama unfolds?
Stephen Volk: I watched everything that was live on TV at the time, not just Hospital Watch, Tomorrow’s World, but Wogan... everything.
Whenever I saw a device that would be fun I incorporated it: the video wall, blow-up photos, the stolen objects on Crimewatch became the box of shattered objects on Ghostwatch, for example.
You couldn’t script it like dialogue, it had to be like interview speech which paradoxically is all exposition - the very thing you avoid in conventional screenplay writing! So Pam Early told her whole story of the Glory Hole to camera, for instance – [she has] that trembling lip and the camera relentlessly goes in.
Incidentally, my hat goes off to the brilliant director Lesley Manning for sticking to her guns. For going for unknowns and using long, long takes with the camera tracking around. It wasn’t filmed in one go but the fact that people thought it was means it worked!
BBCi: When writing the screenplay, were you aware that Michael Parkinson, Mike Smith, Sarah Greene, and Craig Charles were all on board? What were the challenges of write for them playing themselves?
Stephen Volk: It was written with PRESENTER, FEMALE REPORTER, PHONE-IN PRESENTER in the script, but with a note on the cover saying these would be real TV presenters.
It made for a clumsy read but I got tired of taking out Jonathon Dimbleby and putting in John Humphries or Anneka Rice (who I seem to remember turned it down, by the way!) and every change of name affected the way you read the programme.
We wanted Nick Ross but the Powers That Be said "No way!" Luckily Sarah Greene trained as an actress, we were lucky there and her experience of live TV was invaluable. She was offered it and showed it to hubbie Mike Smith and he wanted to be in it too. Ruth phoned me and said: "What do you think, the two of them in it, one in the studio, one in the house?" And after about two seconds I said, "Fantastic!" So I reshaped the script to reflect the husband-wife thing.
Sarah’s true story about seeing the ghost was true, by the way. I was all for that. Craig Charles was a great choice and I think re-did his lines pretty much which is great. I said to Michael Parkinson (who loved the script and "got it" completely): "Look, you’ve been doing this lark for 25 years, if it doesn’t sound right, do what does sound right!" and he was fantastic, absolutely a brilliant anchor for the show.
The BBC at one point wanted to seriously chicken out and have it all actors! Can you imagine how shitty that would have been? But I salute Ruth and Lesley for fighting for that all the way through.
Incidentally when we started shooting it was by no means certain we’d get the Halloween night slot. But Lesley took the huge gamble and decorated the house with pumpkins, etc anyway, which was always the intention. Again, her handle on the material was astute and she knew exactly what had to be done and what shouldn’t be compromised for stupid BBC reasons.
BBCi: As a viewer it seemed clear that Ghostwatch was an extremely well executed Halloween pastiche of the Crimewatch genre. Were you surprised by the reaction it received?
Stephen Volk: What surprised me was the avalanche of 'IT SHOULDN’T BE ALLOWED', 'HEADS MUST ROLL' and 'HOW DARE THEY INSULT OUR INTELLIGENCE!' The anger at being, as certain members of the viewing public saw it, duped and hoaxed by trusted Auntie Beeb.
I think the only [serious] review I read about it as a piece of drama was in Sight and Sound where Kim Newman, bless his cotton socks, referred to Quatermass and obviously got ‘it’.
We were doing a piece of drama with a theme and nobody discussed that. It was all 'SHOCK, HORROR, SICK' tabloid stuff.
I must say in all honesty that in all the meetings I had with the Drama Dept at the BBC, I never heard anyone at any time use the word 'hoax’. We were just doing a drama in a particular style (as The Blair Witch Project has done more recently) to give a modicum of authenticity. The idea that we wanted to make fools of people is absurd and just wrong.
Subsequently Ghostwatch has become a staple subject for Media Studies projects: one University lecturer told me that somebody chooses it virtually every year!
BBCi: How do you feel about the amazing reaction to Ghostwatch?
Stephen Volk: What astonished me was the public’s reaction. It went in totally opposing directions, from people who saw through it in seconds and thought it was awful and stupid, to people who believed in it completely all the way through.
In fairness, I was after the middle ground: people who would watch it, get intrigued, sucked in, ‘get it’ then enjoy it nevertheless.
It was weird to be accosted by a lady in a shop the next day who said, "Ere! My young lad was awake all last night because of you! We had to take down his luminous skeleton off the back of his bedroom door!" (To which one might say: what was the skeleton doing on his door in the first place?)
I was also amazed that a friend of mine, whom I had told to watch out for this programme "wot I wrote", phoned me to say she had believed it totally. I said, "But I told you I wrote it." She said, "I know, but as soon as I saw Michael Parkinson I thought you must have got it wrong!"
BBCi: When did you realise that most of the public had bought into the programme asa reality show and not fiction?
Stephen Volk: I didn’t fully realise until I read the Sunday papers the next day. It was a hell of a shock, the extent of it!
The Ghostwatch phone line, the number which flashed up during the programme, was manned by people from the Society of Psychical Research. Their first response to any call was the explain that the programme was totally fictitious.
Ruth, Lesley and I were all very keen to build in this safeguard but it didn’t stop the switchboard being jammed at the BBC with mostly irate calls: my favourite of which being the man who thought the BBC had evoked demonic forces simply by broadcasting the show.
Oh, and a later caller who (in a scenario more fantastic than any X File) said he thought the show had actually happened and the BBC was now covering it up by pretending Sarah Greene was still alive!
BBCi: In its defence, Ghostwatch was post-watershed and Parkinson did instruct parents to send their offspring to bed several times... Do you think that people just ignored these precautions not realising it was an adult drama?
Stephen Volk: I think it’s ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t’.
If we’d had a screaming banner across the screen reading THIS IS NOT TRUE, what is the point of that? You might as well have a comedian give you the punchline before he tells you the gag.
The BBC insisted on certain billing compromises in the Radio Times such as a cast list (that almost had me slitting my wrists!) and a lot of the magazine coverage pretty much gave the game away.
What do you do? Destroy the fun of the programme for the people who might enjoy it, for the sake of pleasing those who might be offended, who probably won’t like it anyway? The BBC’s answer to that would be YES! My answer would be NO.
In my experience, kids actually ‘got it’ more than adults. Many were so taken by it that lessons on Monday morning were given over to discussing the programme, I’m told. It seemed that the kids understood the language, and the ‘gag’ largely, but it was adults who were unbelievably upset by it. Teenagers who were maybe ten or twelve when it was broadcast are invariably the ones who seek me out to say they loved the programme.
BBCi: Ghostwatch played ingenious tricks on the viewers. In particular, showing a scene with the ghost clearly visible, then showing it again with the ghost removed.
Stephen Volk: That moment is my favourite because it really messes 100% with the viewing audience.
They are, in fact, involved as a character at that point. "What? He says he didn’t see anything – but I DID!"
Again it’s about the theme of trust, and later on the moment when Lyn Pascoe (the scientist) looks at the video wall, sees the picture is up there and shouldn’t be, and realises the ghost is in the machine (bad pun: couldn’t resist it!).
Pipes has vanished in replayIt was quite tricky to gauge in that we had to do a lot of teasing in the first 45 minutes, as I say. I guess how much to ‘see’ Pipes was difficult to gauge and I know Lesley put a ghost in very subtly at points that weren’t scripted: there’s a game fans play guessing how many times the ghost is seen. I think the answer is eight, but some are pretty obscure!
I was very keen to avoid the man in a rubber suit syndrome. In fact we make that joke early on with Craig Charles jumping out of the closet: as if to say, ‘no rubber suits tonight folks!’ It’s also a homage to a similar moment in my favourite TV ghost story The Stone Tape (by my favourite TV writer Nigel Kneale of Quatermass fame). As soon as special effects or make-up jobs are in evidence you’re not being scared, you’re looking at how it’s done.
BBCi: How does it feel to have been favourably compared to Orson Welles’ War Of The Worlds radio broadcast? Did you intend to provoke a similar response to that caused by the Welles’ production?
Stephen Volk: We did say "let's try to do a bit of a War of the Worlds" but the emphasis was always to make it work as a drama, and not make the whole thing depend on it being taken as ‘true’.
We certainly didn’t want people to have the holy horrors and take to the hills in panic. We wanted people to be scared – really scared – but within the realm of a horror story told on TV in an unusual way that hadn’t been done before.
People compare it to War of the Worlds" but, as hoaxes go, Ghostwatch is way down the list. Below the Panorama spaghetti harvest and Alternative 3. The Welles broadcast was more than a phenomenon, it was a historical event!
BBCi: What factors do you think underpinned the public’s extremely passionate and divided reaction to Ghostwatch?
Stephen Volk: If anything, we underestimated the incredible degree of trust the public puts in television images conveyed in a certain way (the language of Factual TV), and the BBC in particular.
These members of the audience felt their trust was being ridiculed. Paradoxically I wanted them to feel, ‘only the good old BBC would dare to do this! What a great idea!’ I like it that some people loved it and others hated it.
Wasn’t it Oscar Wilde who said that was the definition of a worthwhile piece of art – that it divides the public? I rest my case. Seriously, I do love the fact that people come up and say it was the most amazing thing the ever saw on TV. It might not be true, but the fact that even one or two people might think that for a second is incredible.
God bless ‘em!
BBCi: 'Think of the children!' is the usual criticism. To what extent do you feel dramas that deal with fear of the supernatural are valuable or detrimental to younger viewers?
Stephen Volk: This is a gigantic question and I can’t possibly do it justice here, but I’ll have a stab (I did a three-day seminar in German talking about ‘horror’ and that wasn’t long enough either)!
My feeling is that supernatural stories are essential to myth and have always been around. They help us symbolically understand the world, and science is even grappling with whether these things are true – but essentially they reflect our inner nature.
I think in a ghost story, for it to be dramatizable, the ghost has to represent something, possibly the loss or flaw in the main character. In ghost and horror stories we can vent our emotional spleen in ways that other genres don’t allow.
That doesn’t mean that an interest in these things is sadistic, in fact the opposite: I believe that horror writers aren’t essentially sadistic, they’re essentially neurotic. They aren’t more nasty than everybody else, they’re more scared than everybody else. That’s why there’s a compulsion to write these things, to exercise (rather than exorcise) these emotions, so after it you feel safer, or at least understand fear a little more.
There’s no easy answer, but I think it’s bad to deny or censor dark impulses or continually force feed this idea that the world is a good and caring place. It ain’t.
I certainly do not feel that "horror films" make kids violent per se. To take just one example; me. I have been besotted by the genre from the age of about seven and I have never raised my hand in anger against anybody in my life. I would run a mile from your average axe wielding maniac, honest.
You know, Beowulf, Frankenstein, Dracula, Macbeth, Ghostwatch, whatever – don’t ban them. If you want to ban something that kills people and makes them violent, ban alcohol. What can I say?
BBCi: Would it be possible, post-Ghostwatch, for another drama to be mistaken for a real programme again?
Stephen Volk: I think they are doing it all the time and it doesn’t have impact any more.
Mostly for comedy. The Alan Partridge interviews. The new show Human Remains is excellent but they made a boo-boo in the first one by having the camera follow the woman into the bedroom when she bonks the clown: if it were a real documentary the camera wouldn’t.
In drama, though, the old NYPD Blue shaky-cam a la This Life or Cops is ubiquitous and works so well we don’t really question it any more. But ‘mistaken’? I honestly don’t think the BBC would take that risk a second time. They don’t like getting the flak. It’s much safer sticking to Harbour Lights.
BBCi: You persuaded the BBC that someone else would inevitably do a Ghostwatch if they didn’t. Were there any other ideas in competition?
Stephen Volk: No specific ideas in competition that I knew of, but, slightly after us came Chris Morris’ The Day Today on BBC2.
We felt that kind of thing was imminent and inevitable. And, of course, a while after Ghostwatch there was that ITV programme with Michael Aspel presenting stories of the unexplained. We all felt that was heavily influenced by Parkinson doing Ghostwatch. It sort of looked the same.
In answer to the second part of your question, it would be more of a landmark if the BBC could be persuaded to release it on video or DVD, or make a documentary about the making of it and impact it had.
At the moment it’s consigned to the vaults as if it never happened.
Perhaps if fans keep up the pressure it will see the light of day one day. I would love to show it somewhere maybe on the big screen at the NFT on Halloween 2002, its tenth anniversary. It would be a good occasion and maybe Mr Pipes would grace us with his presence!