Remembering Ghostwatch: '90s Paranormal TV At It's Best

From Parkinson to Pipes, we'll always remember Britain's greatest ever paranormal TV show...
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From Parkinson to Pipes, we'll always remember Britain's greatest ever paranormal TV show...

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For years, Ghostwatch functioned like an urban legend, a “do you remember…” creeping into the conversations of British teens and early twenty-somethings who’d grown up in the nineties. It was its own self-perpetuating myth, and students or bored workmates took a break from irony-led nostalgia ‘bants’ about Pat Sharp and the Funhouse twins to compare stories about how frightening it had been, or how they’d twigged it from the start. But that’s all it was, a shared ancestral memory, like that time Uncle Albert fell up the stairs at the Comedy Awards and cut his head open. Having aired in a slot where most people didn’t think to stick a blank tape in the video recorder, back in the day before Youtube when everything existed forever, and never being repeated, all you could do was mythologise. And then suddenly, in 2002, there it was, available on DVD. No longer a ghost itself, but a tangible, rewatchable thing that we could get our hands on. I did get my hands on it, but like the Necronomicon, I’m issuing a grave warning that it’s better left alone. Not because you’ll unleash an ancient, sleeping evil into the world, but because it’s not quite the experience you remember.

There isn’t a great history of Halloween television in this country. The most notable example came in 1987, when Paul Daniels faked his own death after a trick “went wrong,” slamming him shut inside the steel-spiked bear-trap of an iron maiden and silently cutting to black. I was eight years old at the time, and wept for the life of dear departed Daniels, until he popped up after the news to let everyone know he wasn’t dead at all. What larks! We all talked about it in the playground the following Monday, where I pretended I hadn’t cried, or been fooled. Though Living TV’s plied their yearly Most HauntedLive shows, mainstream Halloween scheduling petered out once we got into the new millennium — the holiday itself never really caught on over here — and now you’re lucky to find a 1am airing of John Carpenter’s eponymous slasher. I for one yearn for a themed night of programming, including a special Eastenders where Phil Mitchell gets bitten by a vampire and has to be staked by Ian Beale before sunrise, as he slaughters Walford’s residents in a violent, psycho-sexual bloodlust. Consequently, barring 2010′s fantastic Psychoville special, Ghostwatch was the last, and perhaps only, great piece of British Halloween television.

Paranormal TV is long-since a genre (with many branching sub-genres) of its own, dominated by the cottage industry of Most Haunted types, where nervous people stumble around basements in green-tinted nightvision, evoking flashbacks of Paris Hilton’s sex tape; or shows where liars pretend to have psychic powers. But back in the early nineties, there was no such thing. Technology hadn’t evolved to the point where real-time stakeouts were feasible, and Fortean programming took the form of documentary series that recanted historical and eyewitness reports; the likes of Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World, or ITV’s Strange But True; a fancy televisual scary story being read by the fireplace.

Ghostwatch was heavily and openly inspired by the Enfield Poltergeist case, a well-publicised ‘real’ ghost story, where a single mother and her four young children — though everything centred around the two girls — were terrorised by an unseen spirit. At its heart, Enfield seems to be the story of a broken family, and an elderly paranormal investigator driven by the grief of losing his only daughter to a car accident. In hindsight, they shared a symbiotic relationship, with both parties giving the other what they needed, and the initial investigation turned into a drawn-out affair that led to the real Peter Venkman, Maurice Grosse, spending over a year at the house. Grosse was no dummy — he’d invented the rotating billboard — but the continued activity at Enfield, a classic collection of every poltergeist trope rolled into one, was seemingly paranormal paydirt. Sceptics accused the girls of faking the incidents, and they were caught red-handed a number of times. It’s probably no coincidence that the poltergeist cliche, and even psuedo-scientific explanation, is that they almost always manifest around a girl caught on that alienating crossroads intersecting puberty with the desire for affirmation and attention.

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The Enfield cast, with Janet in the middle

There’s a phrase, ‘Hauntology,’ a philosophical term by Jacques Derrida suggesting the present’s only contextual existence is in its relation to the ghosts of the past; the ideas and look of which we’ll return to at the end of history. But Hauntology best describes that suffocating sense of unease about the recent past. The British feel this most strongly in the asthetics of the seventies, which is why that creeping dread kicks in with the brown wallpaper and dead, grey buildings of that era; public information films where children are fried black on pylons, and the Grim Reaper lurks by uncovered ponds; droning, atonal synth and sunken faces draped in faded autumnal colours. The Enfield Poltergeist is Hauntology 101, with its breadline council house setting, Cold War-era technology, and pair of buck-toothed working class children at the centre, all viewed through a chilly veneer of local newsreels. As time goes on, the twin fables of the Enfield Poltergeist and Ghostwatch become more and more intertwined. The 21 years passing since Ghostwatch aired have caused it to become just as hauntingly distant, forever frozen in a fuzzy snapshot of early 90′s analogue Britain. Close enough to touch, but alien enough to evoke the shivers, it slots into Hauntology like a cold, black glove, and if there’s any remaining creepiness to be found in its ninety minutes, this is now where it’s hiding.

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“Jimmyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!”

Historically, Ghostwatch aired during the period when Noel’s House Party was burning up the ratings on a Saturday night. We were, I guess, easily amused back then, and a more innocent audience. Four channels and no internet made for poor pickings if you wanted to veg out, but it also meant you could get everyone in a single, well-focussed blast, rather than the virally-filtered slow burn of now. And get everyone they did.

Despite opening on the Screen One logo (a BBC anthology drama series) and a ‘by’ credit for the writer, it was what we’d now call a mockumentary, with no further clues or winks to camera to let you know that events were dramatised. All the standards of live television were present and correct, from stilted fingers prodding at earpieces while footage was being cued, to an in-studio expert, existing mainly as a contrary opinions foil to be patronised by the host. Interactivity was limited to calling the switchboard, a sight familiar from Saturday morning kids shows, where people on rotary phones and headsets scribbled onto clipboards, with even the number — 081 811 8181 — instantly recognisable as the one you dialled on Going Live to ask the British Bulldog how much he ate, or to call Five Star a bunch of shit-arses. On location, there were locked-off CCTV cameras, and wires snaking across the floor, as the roaming cameraman stumbled through the cluttered architecture of the house, with jarring movement and zooms that felt very raw and ‘live’ at the time. If you’d not been paying attention during the first five seconds, until things really went nuts, you’d probably buy it, by which point, they already had you. (Incidentally, anyone calling the number given out was supposed to hear a pre-recorded message confirming events as fictional, but so many people rang that the line got jammed, and the engaged tone accidentally tallied with the apocalyptic storyline, further fuelling the panic.)

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Number later used to contact a drunken and confused Scott Hall

What really set everybody up for the fall was the smart choice of having recognised, trusted presenters play themselves. In Michael Parkinson, Ghostwatch found itself fronted by one of Britain’s most well-regarded faces. The labia-eyed interviewer turned free-Parker-pen-salesman couldn’t have been more highly considered, despise regularly coming across as a bit of a high-seated, pompous dick who’s never not aware of how great everyone thinks he is. Whether he’s helping Muhammad Ali read from the Bible or being a shit to Meg Ryan, he’s not messing with you, and his presence was the green light that caused millions of viewers to flick off their sceptic hats, even as a paedophile ghost was urinating on a carpet. It’s 1992; TV people don’t lie, especially not journalists. We’re only 15 years out from the national apoplexy of newsreader Angela Rippon showing her legs on Morecambe and Wise. Today, where every prime minister, president and prince feels the need to appear in dreadful charity night comedy sketches demonstrating how they’re not afraid to laugh at themselves, it’s hard to imagine people feeling betrayed that someone from the serious side of television had done something so frivolous, but they did.

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Luckily technology doesn’t date

Mike Smith, Parky’s studio-based co-anchor adds another familiar, earnest face, but has little to do, outside of his role as the real-life husband of Sarah Greene; she of children’s TV and urban legends about rugby teams. With him in the apparent safety of the studio, and her out in the field at the house, they’re connected only by the feeble technology of the day, and Smith can only watch impotently from the sidelines when the shit really starts to go down.

Meanwhile, Greene’s co-presenter Craig Charles exudes the sort of matey, cheeky chappiness that’s been lost in this era of self-serious, walking-haircut presenters, desperately trying to clutch onto their auras of detached, casual cool, as the crow’s feet etch their hollow, guy-linered eyes; like a sixth former’s deep breath before entering the common room with an “Alright, cunts?” Charles is Ghostwatch‘s sceptical office joker, dicking about by banging on walls and leaping out of an airing cupboard in a rubber werewolf mask, the standard narrative fake-out scare in the first act of every slasher. With Parkinson rolling his eyes as he shouts “Boo!” at the camera, Craig Charles’ performance as an irritating, unfunny turd is the most realistic aspect of the whole affair.

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From the brief credit sting, we’re straight into Parkinson, solemnly posed against a skull-laden mantelpiece, warning people of a nervous disposition. As things move to an outside broadcast of the council house itself, we get a pre-tape of sturdy British gaffers loading equipment into vans, in that weird late 80s-early 90s fad where TV, particularly kids TV, had a travelling circus vibe, with everything hosted on a boat or train or space ship, and parking up at a new destination every Saturday morning. The thing of broadcasting from residential streets was still relatively new at that point, with a feeling like, “Television’s come to us!” when residents of normal streets got the chance to stand in front of the camera frozen with fear or waving. It’s easy to forget, with most people carrying a portable video camera capable of instantly sharing footage with untold millions, that the world was so big back then.

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“Try not to shit yourselves, you plebs.”

Before the story proper gets underway, we’re also introduced to the crew, turning the lens back on the camera and sound men, which was another thing people did back then, like with Challenge Anneka‘s attempts to turn a dad-like soundman into a cult figure, or the machine gun blasts of offscreen laughter by the Big Breakfast sycophants at the wacky antics of Chris Evans, which they simply couldn’t hold in, unlike the stuffy professionalism of those other shows that weren’t having as much fun as they were (a fad that’s stuck around all the way to The One Show); “Go on, laugh, you pricks! I can have you killed!” Ghostwatch‘s step-son, Most Haunted, took this to the extreme, turning riggers, PAs, and guys “definitely picking up some tapping” on boom mics into a full supporting cast, each with their own ghost-hunting traits — this one gets scared; this one’s always thrown around by witches — and frump-filled fan clubs, far extending the life of the franchise. For a drama though, it’s a nice touch for when the shit goes down, to not have them be faceless red-shirts.

As with Enfield, Ghostwatch‘s haunting centres around a pair of young daughters living on what we’re told is a violent council estate, with a divorced single mother at the end of her tether. When the council refused to take her ghost complaints seriously, she turned to the only help that was left; television. Pipes, the cultural Candyman for British nineties kids, was so called because he’d bang on the radiator pipes, like that other haunting old spectre who does a lot of banging, your mum. Its opening ghostly gambit, 4am camcorder footage of the girls’ bedroom, Kriss Kross posters and all, plagued by thumps and levitating objects, pre-dates Blair Witch by seven Earth years, and a thousand cultural ones. It feels incredibly hokey, which is the story of Ghostwatch as seen in 2013.

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Top — Ghostwatch, Bottom — Enfield

Like in modern, supposedly-factual ghost hunting shows, the technology is half the story. We’re introduced to the monitoring equipment by a central castings tech-nerd with a ponytail; essentially a bank of CRT monitors in a white paedo-van, and informed that the location was chosen out of all the other haunted houses “by a computer program.” There’s no green night-vision, but there is an infra red heat-seeking cam, aka Predator vision, a Chekov’s Gun laying in wait for the final reel. At one point, a “piece of sophisticated technology,” another bulky 4:3 television screen, is wheeled on to the studio floor, like when it was time to watch Look and Read in school. A ghost’s voice is played back on an enormous reel to reel tape machine, and clips are constantly being run back on the studio monitor, complete with high speed rewind noises and wavy tracking lines. And there’s that unease. Not in the ghostly happenings, but the bleak, nostalgic sense memories of Thatcher’s Britain; of climbing rusted gates to play in the field behind the train tracks, throwing lumps of asbestos at each other’s heads until it gets dark.

Amid stopped watches and bent spoons harking back to lunatic fantasist Uri Geller, as Pipes asserts his grip on the house, the clearest Enfield riffs emerge in specific beat-by-beat lifts. During a possession, one of the daughters speaks — via rubbish vocal effects — in a deep, guttural voice, although she doesn’t repeat my favourite Enfield utterance, when kindly Maurice Grosse was called a “fucking old sod.” With a few decades hindsight on Enfield, it’s baffling to see so much confusion, as grown adults fail to explain what, quite clearly, is just a girl putting on an old man voice, while using a large overbite to hide the movements of her mouth like a bad ventriloquist (The voice was said to be coming from behind her). There was a lot of talk about the false vocal folds, and how anyone who tried to replicate it simply couldn’t keep it up for any amount of time, but she’s basically doing the Phyllis Pearce impersonation I did constantly as a kid, and the inside of my neck’s just fine.

Even so, Ghostwatch fails to capture the outright oddness of the Enfield possession videos. As the croaky voice emerges from 11-year-old Janet, the disconnect between her eyes, alive with barely-contained childish glee as they flit across to the reporter present, coupled with the bored posture of her body, despite how silly it looks, is actually pretty unnerving. By trying to hold from giving herself away, the eyes and the body don’t match, and in that way, it feels like a possession. I also think it’s the balance of power. It’s all with her, and she knows it.

When Ghostwatch tackles the issue of fakery, by catching the girls in the act, they sob to their mother that “all we were were noises to you” and “we just gave you what you wanted,” and it feels like the latter line was written with a decade’s as-yet-unmade ghost-hunting television in mind. Like with the X-Factoror Britain’s Got Talent (to name but two of infinite quasi-reality shows), once you spot the pattern to the weekly editor’s blueprint, it can’t be unseen. My own personal most hated spook-TV trope is the requisite “Omigod! Did you see that?!” cliffhanging ad-bumper that literally never results in anything being seen, ever.

Ghostwatch is at its strangest in the weird scatological turns it takes. Among a handful of pre-taped “true story” ghost confessionals, a man with a pixellated face talks about ghostly saliva appearing on a plate of mackerel, and finding handfuls of human shit smeared all over his bathroom. The understairs cupboard where Pipes lives (and died) is referred to, over and over again, as ‘the glory hole’, which if it’s anything like the ones in the toilets on Littlehampton seafront, might explain any residual ectoplasm. Voxpops with locals off the estate consist of anecdotes about dead, pregnant dogs with their foetuses scattered beneath the swing set, stabbed five-year-olds and missing — presumed-raped-and-murdered — kids, all told to Craig Charles, breathing through his mouth in an NFL jacket.

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“A ghost done a poo. And probably some wee.”

Throughout the show, the increasingly powerful figure of Pipes inserts himself into proceedings via a number of barely-visible cameos, like a mildly horrifying Where’s Waldo/Wally. You may have spotted him hiding behind a curtain, or reflected in a patio window during a whip-pan around the room, or my favourite, casually mingling, unseen, with the neighbours outside. These are admirable in a time when the pause button made it a chore cracking one off over bikini scenes you’d taped from Home and Away, because everything looked like a quivering mass of uncooked sausage meat. Didn’t stop me though. The Pipes-bombing does provide the one legitimate beat of actual tension in the entire show, during a shot of the glory hole door swinging slowly open, where we catch a split-second half-glimpse of the fella before the camera man keels over.

Crew members hitting the deck are nothing new to former viewers of Most Haunted, where they’d tumble with increasing frequency once the precedent had been set. By the final seasons, jaded audiences were treated to multiple bouts of nightly collapse, riggers hurling themselves down flights of stairs as gently as possible, and my favourite, attention-seeking Stu (of the gentle staircase tumble) who “fell into a catatonic state” while standing up, and couldn’t be roused by shouting paramedics for a full half hour, but didn’t go to the hospital for a brain scan or anything. (“We just gave you what you wanted…”)

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Alright, Pipes mate?

Whether or not the Pipes easter eggs worm their way in subliminally, the one part of Ghostwatch that does work is the clever piecing together of his backstory. Eventually revealed to be a tormented, cross-dressing paedophile who hung himself in the glory hole and was devoured by his pet cats, the last expositional holes are filled in by a caller. Parky’s imploring of this final caller not to hang up ranks alongside The Room‘s “I definitely have breast cancer as one of the least impassioned things ever committed to screen. In fact, throughout Parkinson switches back and forth between guffawing scepticism and sullen fear with no middle ground, and not a flicker of emotion. The ‘real’ Pipes, Enfield’s soul behind the sheet, outed himself as a man named Bill, with a much less tabloid origin story, as explained via the possessed little girl:

Just before I died, I went blind, and then I had an haemorrhage and I fell asleep and I died in the chair in the corner downstairs.” Although the cavalcade of other (identical) voices coming out of Janet, numbered at times by the girls between three and sixty, are never gifted origins of their own. Some have names, however, and Dirty Dick, Andrew Gardner and Stuart Certain sound like nothing but the typical childlike naming of imaginary friends.

Fittingly, it’s the spectre of technology that brings everything to a close, as the ghost literally gets in the machine, possessing the equipment at the BBC and pulling the old Speed trick, by playing back pre-recorded CCTV to fool the people into thinking they’re watching a live feed. Ghostwatch‘s punchline is that the show itself acted “like a massive séance,” unleashing Pipes onto the world through the watching screens, bringing him into your home, and the studio fills with ghostly wind, blowing Parky’s papers all over the place yet still eliciting zero emotion from his Yorkshire face.

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This is the way the world ends: not with a bang, but with bad effects and terrible acting

The big killer that completely ruins Ghostwatch through modern eyes is how utterly fuck-awful the acting is. The performances of the three leads — two of them child actors — are just terrible. Did we have lower expectations back then? Has acting improved so drastically over the last two decades? If you saw acting like this in an infants school play, a beleaguered deputy headmaster would be hiding in his office while livid fathers kicked in the door to get their raffle money back. It particularly stands out in the vérité setting, where shaky handhelds and technical pauses don’t lend themselves to broad, soap opera ac-ting, and none of the cast have the skills to pull off the required nuance. But everyone’s bad, including the celebrities. I don’t understand the psychological thing of presenters acting badly while playing themselves, reciting something they’d usually be reading from an autocue anyway. Get your Simon Cowell types to parody themselves in a skit, and suddenly “That’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard…” sounds incredibly fake and self-aware. This is in evidence throughout Ghostwatch, with people whose job is to read scripted lines off a board, into a camera, doing exactly that but sounding super fake. As things come to their apocalyptic finale, Parkinson, now possessed by Pipes, recites a child’s nursery rhyme with a fittingly unghostly air, like a man reading out a shopping list to himself in Tesco’s car park. It’s the only appropriate end for something remembered as being so terrifying, but which in reality has all the intentional scares of a Dracula episode of Chucklevision set in Fartsylvania.

Enfield didn’t have such a big finish, petering out like these things do when one or both parties get bored. Janet, now in her fifties, has made a handful of appearances on retrospectives, and is clearly, if you’ll pardon the expression, deeply haunted by the experiences of her childhood. It’s hard to imagine the circus of those fourteen months; the push and pull of investigators and reporters interested in their family for only as long as the noises and voices continued. However real it was at the time, it’s clearly only gotten realer for her as the years have elapsed; as with the viewers of Ghostwatch, chatting in the pub about how amazingly realistic it was, that they actually shat themselves, honest.

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Piss off, Lister, you tit

Nowadays, you couldn’t be scared while watching Ghostwatch even if you were being savaged by a pack of wild dogs. Hauntological creepiness aside, it’s a quaint look at what those silly folks of twenty years ago got so freaked out over. I’ve a very clear memory of going to the newsagents the next day, and seeing angry headlines on the front page of all of the late editions; BBC HOAX FURY and the like, with Parkinson’s face guiltily splashed, like the mugshot of a freshly unveiled Communist traitor. On Monday afternoon, a fresh-from-the-glory-hole Sarah Greene turned up in the CBBC broom cupboard, to say that lots of children were talking about Ghostwatch, especially about how the special effects might have been done. Even at the time, with such a nudging emphasis on special effects, I recognised the patronising way of deflecting criticism by saying “Look, she’s not dead, so stop being silly,” without outright acknowledging the culpability of a deliberate hoax. I wonder what that phonecall was like? “Sarah, we need to you calm the masses. Get yourself to the BBC.” I also wonder how many wept for her demise, like I had for Paul Daniels?

There was a decade-long ban on repeats, which seems absolutely insane now, but doubtless only added to the mystique, like the Video Nasties list, or everyone who said “Was that it?” when The Exorcist was finally cleared. Likewise, the Enfield Poltergeist, for all its talk of being Britain’s most convincing ghost story, has aged worse than Micky Rourke. It’s impossible to imagine anybody in 2013 giving the time of day to what’s clearly just two girls mucking about, and for all the anecdotes of spectacular paranormal activity, the only things actually caught on tape were those that were a bit rubbish.

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Genuinely unsettling. The decor, I mean

Ghostwatch, and all its tricks, were completely of its time, and you could never recreate the experience now, and certainly not in the “Can’t fool me!” culture we’re currently living in. If something like this aired today, half the audience would be taking to Twitter during the opening credits to declare how shitty and obviously fake it was, and how they’re only watching to take the piss. Everything we can’t immediately understand or explain is “viral marketing,” the catch-all phrase for “I don’t know what this is, but I’m not going to let anyone think I’m dumb!”

If a televisual hoax with such spectacular results could somehow be perpetrated today, the backlash would rip the planet from its axis. Ghostwatch is from the time before complaining became a contagion, with outrage sweeping like a pox or a Chinese Whisper, nobody knowing why they’re so furious, but keep sending those emails and hang them all anyway! Modern television is afraid; beholden to the power of complaints and internal investigations, and agendas of corporate media, looking for any stick with which to beat their enemies. David Attenborough faked a couple of shots on FrozenPlanet? Scrap the licence fee! Ant and Dec lied about a phone-in competition? I’ll never trust another human as long as I live! Anyone daring to do this kind of thing now would have another Sachsgate on their hands. In 1992, the switchboards lit up. In 2013, they’d probably sue for distress. Feel free to imagine “VILE ghost-gate perpetrator” Michael Parkinson’s house under siege from photographers. Just don’t stick on Ghostwatch again, unless you’re happy to see the magical ghosts of your past reduced to a manky old bed sheet with a pair of eye-holes.

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