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Ghostwatch (1992)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Ghostwatch (1992)
For Screen One, BBC, tx. 31/10/1992, colour, 91 mins
DirectorLesley Manning
Production CompanyBBC Films
ProducerRuth Baumgarten
ScreenplayStephen Volk
MusicPhilip Appleby

Cast: Michael Parkinson (presenter); Sarah Greene (reporter); Mike Smith (phone-in presenter); Craig Charles (interviewer); Gillian Bevan (Dr Lin Pascoe)

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Michael Parkinson and Sarah Greene host a live BBC broadcast at Halloween to investigate an apparently haunted house, with disastrous results.

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Shown on Halloween 1992 just after the 9pm watershed, Ghostwatch created something of a stir for purporting to be a live broadcast investigating nationwide claims of paranormal phenomena. The programme was, in fact, an elaborately staged drama, written by horror specialist Stephen Volk and pre-recorded months earlier.

Ghostwatch is a fascinating exercise in postmodern narrative strategies inspired by the work of Luigi Pirandello and Nigel Kneale, presented by Michael Parkinson and with real-life husband and wife television presenters Mike Smith and Sarah Greene appearing as themselves in a completely scripted horror drama in which one of them apparently dies at the end.

Technically, it is highly proficient, confidently deploying studio techniques, a mock Outside Broadcast Unit (the BBC wouldn't let them use a real one), infrared and close circuit cameras, low-grade VHS recordings and simulated satellite linkups to give the appearance of a live investigation - even the onscreen hotline number worked. Despite all this effort, however, it never really convinces, partly because many of the characters aren't believable as real people, especially the increasingly unsettled parapsychology expert Lin Pascoe. Ghostwatch never attempts to be truly plausible and only toys with the notion, the climaxes building too incrementally to be credible outside of scripted drama.

It really doesn't matter if the performances aren't convincing though, since the whole conceit is most effective as a pointed comment on the nature of 'reality' television and how its presentational modes can be easily manipulated for the purposes of manufactured drama. Seen today, following the advent of such tightly controlled 'reality' shows as Big Brother (Channel 4, 2000- ) and especially Most Haunted (Living TV, 2002- ), it is clear that the strong audience response Ghostwatch received at the time was due less to its dubious credibility as a factual broadcast than to the way that it tapped into audiences' desire to be fooled, to be tickled by even the slightest possibility that a live broadcast could really go out of control. At the climax Volk cleverly develops on a theme from The Stone Tape (BBC, tx. 24/12/1972) and has the ghost (nicknamed 'Pipes') entering the machines and being unleashed through the media (it even sabotages Parkinson's autocue); the parapsychologist concludes that the broadcast has acted as a gigantic séance, thus making the viewers truly part of the drama.

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. Boo! (3:56)
2. Angels of the odd (3:18)
3. A knocking (3:19)
4. Not live (2:05)
Parkinson, Michael (1935-)
Drama Documentary
Ghost Stories