Saturday 17 February 2018

On a Thousand Walls #11: Ghostwatch (1992)

I was one of the people taken in.

I wasn't alone in this: quite a lot of people, potentially millions, either didn't tune in on time or didn't register the Screen One ident at the start of Ghostwatch and so spent at least some of 1992’s Halloween broadcast on BBC1 thinking it was real.

Ghostwatch appeared to be a live phone in for the spooky season, a bit of fun, with Michael Parkinson (Michael Parkinson) in the studio with parapsychology expert Dr Lin Pascoe (Gillian Bevan), and Mike Smith (Mike Smith) manning the phone in. Meanwhile, an outside broadcast team featuring Sarah Greene (Sarah Greene) and Craig Charles (Craig Charles) would spend the evening in a notorious haunted house, with a working-class family who had, it was reported, been ridiculed in the press. Pamela Early (Brid Brennan) and her daughters Suzanne and Kim (Michelle and Cherise Wesson) were of course exactly the sort of family – poor, a single mum, the sort of children who would make up a phenomenon like this – who would be ridiculed in the press, who still are, and when it looked like one of the girls had fabricated the phenomena, it seemed the most believable outcome of the whole broadcast.

But Pipes, the malevolent spirit who haunted the Early’s home, did not want to play nice, and the haunting became increasingly violent, increasingly disturbing, increasingly difficult to discount. As the evening progressed, the phenomena in the house became more disturbing, the live calls from viewers became less comical and more hysterical and strange, and the integrity of the broadcast – and it was a creaky, rickety thing, as live broadcasts have always been, bloated with nonsequitur callers and technical hitches – began to disintegrate.

Ghostwatch itself became the vehicle for the haunting, and the viewing public became the haunting’s victims.

You'll note that I'm using the past tense to describe it, which is not a thing I normally do. This is because it is literally impossible to watch Ghostwatch the way we watched it back then. I mean, most TV is like that, but Ghostwatch was a particular exception here. It was framed as an evening broadcast, in the slot where this sort of thing would happen, with the rough edges this sort of thing would have, the guests who don't behave, and the goofs, and the bad timing. You could only ever see Ghostwatch the way it was meant to be seen, on October 31st 1992, just after the news.

It's hard to express how elemental it was when I was a teenager. I had turned it on late, hadn't read any TV listings, and didn't gather what was going on until right at the end, by which time it had me spooked, as was its intention. It had a lot of people spooked, and consequently it was one of those TV shows that caused outcry and offence. You could reasonably argue that it was the one time in relatively recent memory that the British media successfully duplicated the effect of Orson Welles’ infamous 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast (especially since, just as was the case in 1938, the Ghostwatch panic was certainly massively exaggerrated by the media).

Ghostwatch’s anchoring in a specific moment worked in its favour; the rough, cheap texture of it became somehow a mark of apparent honesty. This was also helped by the choices writer Stephen Volk made: I could have said above that Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Mike Smith and Craig Charles were playing themselves, but they weren't really, they were playing characters with the same names as them. The genius of this was that the “real people” we saw, as the plot unravelled and the mask of TV personality slipped to betray fear and confusion, were essentially what we all suspected these TV personalities to be like all along, and always had. “Michael Parkinson” was presented as patronising and arrogant; “Sarah Greene” was kind, compassionate and principled.

It doesn't matter if it looks cheap, because live TV always looks cheap. And it doesn't matter if the principled players were even a bit wooden at times – so, watching it now, “Mike Smith” is not giving a tremendously convincing performance – but on October 31st 1992, only then, the only time it had to, it convinced, because live TV is wooden. It has to be. You've got half a dozen people yelling in your ear at any one time, and there's a good chance you don't know which camera is live, so you might be looking the wrong way, and you don't get to practice your smile. You don't get a do over for the lines you fluffed.

No one is natural on live TV.

But weirdly, the simulation of a rickety live broadcast also meant that it was more convincing. if you think you're watching a live broadcast, you're more inclined to believe what you are watching. And so Ghostwatch was believed, even by some people who had seen the Screen One ident, and by some people who were so spooked they switched off before the end. I can tell you the exact moment it dawned on me that this was fiction: it's when the studio goes dark and we realise that “Michael Parkinson” is possessed. On DVD, it's exactly how I remember it, and at the same time it's nothing like how I remember it.

Because Ghostwatch pulled off the trick of looking so much like live TV, it convinced people to believe they were seeing live TV, and because they thought they were seeing live TV, they were more inclined to believe it because of how wobbly it was. And part of the power of watching Ghostwatch on October 31st 1992 at about half past nine came from the disintegration of live TV.

Live television is immediate; live television looks like it'll disintegrate at any minute anyway; and as an essentially fragile thing, live television looks like a window into the country’s mind. Pipes – the ghost of a quintessential tabloid bogeyman, the creepy old paedophile who lived down the road – used Ghostwatch itself for a colossal seance, with its unwitting participants the viewing public. And Ghostwatch took control away from us. It invaded our homes, invaded the urban landscape of the nation, and made our living rooms miniature hauntological landscapes.

And so, on Halloween 1992, just for an hour and a half, nothing was scarier.

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