When Ghostwatch came to our screens live on Halloween night, we watched as if it were some kind of a real life experiment. Ghostwatch was no different from any other live BBC broadcast, at least until the end where they landed the show on the runway of absurdity.
Ghostwatch was a special event, Halloween dramatization created with well-known presenters putting in a performance as “themselves” on a ghost hunt. If we can see it only as that, then we can at least enjoy what could have been a fun little performance piece in honour of the Halloween season. The show however came across as being live and very real to audiences, much in the same way as it did for Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre anthology series when they put on their “all-too-real” production of War of the Worlds. Audience sensitivity moves with the times. I doubt that the 1992 audience would have fallen for a scenario where “the aliens are coming.” But what they did fall for at the time was that an everyday family, in an everyday house, living on a regular street — like yours or mine — could be the victims of active, demonic, malevolent ghost or poltergeist activity.
The drama is hosted, in studio by Michael Parkinson, who is altogether a trusted, grounded television personality — much like Dick Cavett although Cavett has better chops for interviews. The format includes an in studio phone telethon style area where assumed volunteers are taking calls from viewers. Providing the coverage here is another trusted television and radio presenter Mike Smith. A live feed beams in via satellite from the haunted house and Steadicam operators follow two presenters on the ground: First there’s Sarah Greene, a trusted children’s television presenter, who is there to conduct interviews and spend time with the family in the house. Then you have man on the street on Halloween night, Craig Charles — from the space-age sitcom Red Dwarf — providing curb side interviews and also adding comic relief to what seemed to be a very dry BBC led production.
This was the first televised live broadcast termed “paranormal investigation”, exactly a decade before Most Haunted hoaxed its way to the small screen, and twelve years before the USA hyperactive paranormal craze blew up. The paranormal investigation format became oversaturated within ten years after Ghost Hunters began (which reached a peak around 2008–2010) and since then, high definition cameras and industry standard editing in the homes is a part of normal life. There’s no reason why we’d believe anything that we are presented with, be it a photo, video, audio recording or even personal testimonial. Nobody is ever willing to blame the water pipes.
Back in 1992 (I was 12), for 90 minutes, we watched with eyes wide open. But was it an insult to our intelligence? Was it an arrogant and clumsy dissection of the paranormal, exploited for the trivial purpose of providing family entertainment? Nah! It was just a bit of fun to be had on Halloween night, for all the family… but only if they knew what it was they were watching.
When you’ve finished with Ghostwatch, why not watch the viewer watchdog programme, Points of View hosted at the time by Anne Robinson of The Weakest Link fame. This is really a companion video to Ghostwatch where she reads out highlights from the many hundreds of complaints sent in about the Ghostwatch broadcast. For my money, at the time, it was exciting and different, and although dated as it is, it still holds up as an artefact for enjoyable Halloween viewing.
Written by: Stephen Radford
Next: 31st October: Don’t Look Now