Ghostwatch – 20 Years On
On 31st October 1992, the BBC was getting cold feet. Not because it was out trick-or-treating, but because its chief executives couldn’t decide what to do with the latest instalment of its flagship Screen One drama thread, a haunted house-themed one-off by Stephen Volk called Ghostwatch.
Volk was no stranger to controversy, having penned Ken Russell’s infamous film Gothic, but even he would be surprised by the reaction to his latest creation – namely, 330,000 complaints, several confirmed cases of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and an accusation of the programme being responsible for the death of a mentally-ill viewer. Nearly pulled at the last second, the 90-minute drama went on to be Auntie’s most talked-about production.
What was it that had stirred the British public into such frenzy? Perhaps it was fortunate timing. Families across the UK had settled down in front of their televisions expecting a fun, maybe moderately scary, distraction from apple bobbing and fending off costumed children. It would all be quite appropriate – this was the BBC, after all.
What they got instead was carnage. Back in those less media-savvy days, the idea of the ‘mockumentary’ was relatively unknown, and so the appearance of TV favourites such as Michael Parkinson and Sarah Greene allegedly reporting on location from ‘Britain’s most haunted house’ was instantly convincing. Although Volk’s intention had never been to create a hoax, the familiar faces on Ghostwatch slowly brought even the most cynical of viewers around to the idea that what they were seeing was really happening.
When the ghost of the house started making itself known, leading to total confusion and, ultimately, the apparent demise of one of the presenters, all hell broke loose. Ignoring the end credits and the extremely obvious Radio Times article declaring the show as a drama, horrified viewers jammed switchboards with complaints about how dangerous it was to mess with the supernatural, and how tasteless to show someone’s untimely end on live television. An entire episode of Points of View was given over to their reactions, which ranged from glowing praise to utter contempt.
The BBC disowned the broadcast and secretly vowed it would never been shown again on terrestrial television. It was ten years before the rights were picked up by the BFI, who issued VHS and DVD versions which showed, if anything, that the original plans had been far worse than the final execution.
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of TV’s most controversial show, hardcore fans and brave souls will be settling down on Hallowe’en to re-live that fateful night, using social media to create a 21st-Century feeling of ‘seeing it for the first time’. For some it will have dated and no longer be the thing that lurked in the darkness during their teenage years. But for others, it will retain its ability to send all-too-familiar shivers down the spine.
Why not grab yourself a copy and join the thousands who will be taking part? After all…there are no such things as ghosts.
More information about ‘Ghostwatch: The National Séance 2012’ can be found at http://www.ghostwatchbtc.com/