The Halloween TV special that terrified a nation: A Ghostwatch retrospective

By Mike Finnerty Oct 31, 2019

Picture, if you will, a world without being able to rewind the show you were watching on television.

Unthinkable to people of a certain age, fact of life for another demographic.

The technological advancement so many of us take for granted is the core of what makes today’s topic, BBC’s Ghostwatch from 1992, that much more terrifying.

Ghostwatch tells the story of the Early family, consisiting of a mother and two children, in a house in Enfield, just outside London.

They’ve been claiming that a malovelent spirit known as Mr Pipes has been terrorising them for years, but no one believes them.

The BBC sent a live television crew to the house in Foxhill Drive, with legendary television host Michael Parkinson offering analysis back at the studio, debating with paranormal experts if what they’re seeing at the house is actually taking place.

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Mr. Reliable: Michael Parkinson acted as the viewers surrogate, in a genius bit of meta-casting.

It should be stated however, this is under the pretext of a scripted drama – but more on that misunderstanding later.

The night starts out fairly light-hearted – Craig Charles does his usual shtick, Mike Smith rocks the most 1992 hairdo known to man while manning the phones, the technology is charmingly outdated – but it soon becomes apparent maybe the Early family are right after all.

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The late, great Mike Smith.

All the while, viewers catch occasional glimpses of a strange figure in the background of certain shots, or appearing in blink-or-you’ll-miss-it glimpses.

Bringing it back to the restraints of broadcast television at the time, you couldn’t pause and rewind to make sure what you saw was real, and there was no Twitter back then to ask other people did you just see what you saw.

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Someone calls the show later on asking them to rewind this clip. When the clip is shown again, Pipes is nowhere to be found..

Therein, lies the genius of Ghostwatch.

Sure, some of it might be outdated now, but put yourself in the shoes of a viewer who watched Ghostwatch on Halloween night 1992.

Wall Street was playing on ITV, Match Of The Day was on after Ghostwatch, an adaptation of War and Peace was playing on BBC Two, it was your typical Saturday night affair.

The controversy over Ghostwatch starts when people missed the “Screen One” and disclaimer at the start of the programme – bear in mind this is on the good old BBC, no ad breaks for you, you filthy capitalist – so it’s reasonable to assume the majority of people tuning in were tuning in after the inatial announcement, and were not aware it was a scripted drama.

Micahel Parkinson is hosting for goodness sake, what could possibly go wrong

For younger readers, ask your parents, or imagine if Ryan Tubridy hosted this show – at the time Michael Parkinson was the king of television, and maybe the most trusted man in Britain.

Him lending his gravitas to the project as the stately old king of television gave the show an air of legitimacy it may otherwise not have had.

Mike and Sarah Greene, who were the British televison power couple of the moment were also on the show, surely this is good, clean family fun?

There was also a phone line where you could call in and tell the studio about your ghost stories, and the number used was reportedly the same one used for Crimewatch.

Back in reality, the phone lines were jammed with calls, and it all started to fall apart at the BBC, just as the horror was ramping up on screen – what the hell was that in the corner of that shot?

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Again, this wasn’t a world where you could look up the TV listings as simply as ordering a pizza or a package holiday to Spain while on the bus to work, you had to rely on a copy of your trusty Radio Times to cotton onto the fact it was a scripted drama.

The show builds to a terrifying crescendo, in ways I dare not spoil here.

The entire thing is available to watch online through various means, and Ghostwatch comes heartily reccommended for those who want a good old-fashioned horror to watch.

It’s truly one of the most adacious piece of television ever produced, and is up there with Threads and Our Friends In The North, other sensational scripted BBC dramas.

Of course, with the critical analysis and gushing 27 years later, the elephant in the room has to be discussed.

20,000 callers jammed the BBC switchboards, demanding to know if the show was fiction or not, and there were reports of the show inducing early labour in a pregnant woman who was watching it.

Dubiously, the show is cited in inducing PTSD symptoms onto two people who watched it, and was blamed for the suicide of a mentally-challenged teenager who watched the programme.

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The controversy surrounding the show was unlike anything seen in British culture before or since, and was the subject of a grilling in the court of public opnion and by Anne Robinson, a true horror icon.

The show was seemingly nominated for BAFTAS, but the public backlash caused the BBC to wash their hands of the project, banning it from ever being rebroadcast on broadcast television.

However over the years, when the media hysteria died down, critical readings of Ghostwatch started to outweigh the controversy.

Writer Stephen Volk told Channel 4’s 100 Greatest Scary Moments in 2003 (in which Ghostwatch came in 41st, ahead of The Birds, Dracula and Suspiria) recalled an anecdote where a woman, who’s husband was a paratrooper, demanded the BBC give her compensation for her husbands soiled trousers.

Indeed, Volk still gives talks to this day about the effect of Ghostwatch, the show was released by the British Film Institute on DVD in 2002 for it’s 10th anniversary, and often appears on greatest television moments list.

One of the more peculiar trends in horror in the last 20 years has been the found footage genre – films like Cloverfield, Paranomral Activity and The Blair Witch Project spring to mind – and it can all be traced back to Ghostwatch.

Whether you’re reading this article on Halloween, or any other day of the year, drop what you’re doing and watch Ghostwatch.

And to quote Michael Parkinson “We don’t want to give anyone sleepless nights..”

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By Mike Finnerty

Arts and Online Editor with An Focal. Galwayman keeping the DVD and Blu-Ray market alive by himself. Would watch Stop Making Sense on a continuous loop if he could.

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