“It’s Pipes, Mum…Pipes is here.” To British TV viewers of a certain vintage, this innocuous line is enough to send an icy volt of fear down the spine. Broadcast by the BBC on Halloween night 1992, Ghostwatch purported to be a live broadcast from a Northolt council house haunted by a malevolent spirit, nicknamed ‘Pipes’ by the unfortunate Early family – single mother Pam and daughters Kim and Suzanne.
Ghostwatch was in fact a scripted drama by Stephen Volk, fronted by familiar personalities playing themselves (Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Mike Smith and Craig Charles) and filmed some months before for the Screen One slot. Many viewers failed to notice the cast list printed in the Radio Times or the Screen One logo and Volk’s writing credit as the programme started (late additions insisted upon by nervous BBC executives). Many were terrified long after realising that this was an elaborate fiction.
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Spurred on by a minority of angry viewers, the press whipped itself into such frenzy at the supposed psychological trauma inflicted by the BBC’s ‘deception’ that comparisons were drawn with Orson Welles’ infamous 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast. As a result, the programme has yet to receive a repeat broadcast, and in the decade between the original transmission and the BFI’s DVD release in 2002 a veritable Ghostwatch cult sprang up.
My unsuspecting 12-year-old self, watching alone after rushing home from a mortifying foray into trick-or-treating, quickly realised this was something I would never forget.
As a child I was prone to morbid fascinations, fuelled by dank, disturbing films like Watership Down (1978) and Return to Oz (1985) or those public safety leftovers from the 70s where errant schoolchildren were electrocuted, abducted, drowned by dark forces. I devoured my grandparents’ giant Reader’s Digest tome Mysteries of the Unexplained, with its tales of spontaneous human combustion, UFO sightings and best of all, haunted houses. Britain is a land of ghosts.
My dual obsessions were Borley Rectory in Essex – dubbed “the most haunted house in England” by psychic investigator and showman extraordinaire Harry Price in the 1930s – and the Enfield Poltergeist case, which gripped the nation in the late 1970s.
The latter case was all the more unnerving for its banal setting: a North London council house where an impoverished single-parent family was besieged by unseen forces, one daughter speaking in the hoarse voice of an old man who claimed to have died there. Inventor and fledgling psychic investigator Maurice Grosse, a new member of the Society for Psychical Research, found himself at the epicentre of the 20th century’s most puzzling and well documented case of poltergeist activity.
Volk’s script for Ghostwatch does not set out to recreate the events at Enfield, but their influence is obvious for anyone with even a passing interest in the case.
No creaking gates, no gothic towers, no shuttered windows. Yet for the past 10 months this house has been the focus of an astonishing barrage of supernatural activity. ”Michael Parkinson in Ghostwatch
Grosse, who revisited the famous house in 1996 for a BBC video diary Ghostbuster – The Real Thing, was unhappy about Ghostwatch’s fictionalised take on his investigation. Fellow investigator Guy Lyon Playfair, who documented the Enfield case in his 1980 book This House Is Haunted, was more closely involved and is credited as Ghostwatch’s ‘Psychic Consultant’.
Ghostwatch really gets its claws into you by playing the long game, lulling the viewer into a false sense of security by drawing on the mundane tropes of live TV. Here we have awkward repartee between studio and outside broadcast; prank phone calls from the public; a satellite link-up with an American sceptic. The first fleeting appearance of Pipes by the curtains in the girls’ bedroom some 20 minutes in provides the first shock. But parapsychologist Dr Pascoe (played by Gillian Bevan) swears she can see nothing on the playback. What’s going on?
The jovial atmosphere gives way to a drip-feed of increasingly sinister information: mysterious disappearances; a pregnant dog butchered in the nearby playground; a kindly spiritualist medium whose hands were permeated with the stench of blood after failing to ‘lay the ghost’.
The climactic revelations about Foxhill Drive, delivered in two chilling calls to the studio, reveal the secret of the boarded-up “glory hole” under the stairs – one focus of the phenomena now plaguing the Earlys. Hoax or no hoax, as the end credits rolled, and ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’ and co were scribbling their missives to the Daily Mail, I felt exhilarated.
British TV has an illustrious history of putting the frighteners on us going back to the 1950s and Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass series, into the 1970s with the BBC’s Ghost Story for Christmas strand and Kneale’s ingenious updating of the period ghost story, The Stone Tape. Ghostwatch can sit proudly alongside such classics.
Watching it again now, what’s striking is how ingeniously plotted, designed and edited it is (can you spot all of Pipes’ subliminal appearances?). It’s a testament to the programme’s legacy that all the key players contributed to the recent documentary Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtains; director Lesley Manning even came on board as co-producer. For Ghostwatch Manning dispensed with Screen One’s traditional 16mm film format, shooting on videotape and using the latest technology, including infra red cameras. The language of television has rarely been so effectively deployed.
Beyond its impact on a generation of writers, filmmakers and kids with overactive imaginations, Ghostwatch offers a reminder that the BBC can take risks, even if the organisation has been prone to reactionary panic at executive level. Volk’s “massive séance” is the perfect metaphor for the shared experience of television at its most powerful.
Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film, a major four-month film season, ran at BFI Southbank and across the UK from October 2013 to January 2014.
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