Ghostwatch: Or how to traumatise a 10 year old and influence a horror sub-genre.

On Halloween night 1992, BBC One broadcast what some people were lead to believe was a live special from a house that was subject to reported poltergeist activity. What was to follow resulted in a barrage of complaints to the BBC, an enforced decade long ban and a reaction almost akin to the notorious radio broadcast of H.G Well’s ‘War Of The Worlds’.

Written by Stephen Volk and comprising part of the BBC’s Screen One drama season, a fact that was apparently lost on a large portion of the British public that Halloween night. Masquerading as a live broadcast from a house in Greater London that was apparently party to a malevolent spirit that goes by the name of Pipes, an androgynous shut in who was mauled to death by his cats, each of his appearances being preceded by mewing noises, he is named Pipes due to the children complaining about the noises he had been making and their mother telling them it was only the houses pipes banging. Pipes appears numerous times in the background and periphery of the film, always fleeting glances that put the viewer on edge as to if they actually saw something. To add credence to the shows supposed authenticity, it was hosted by a selection of recognisable TV personalities such as Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Mike Smith and Craig Charles in a constructed “Live TV” format, even though filming had been completed weeks prior to broadcast.

I vividly remember watching this programme that night and, being very young and naive, found it absolutely terrifying. Every time I’d see Pipes or some form of paranormal activity was present on screen, the hairs on my neck stood up, I remember not getting much sleep that night and the film being the only topic of conversation at school the next day. The public outcry to the film was kinda ridiculous before people found out it was a drama. 30,000 complaints were logged in the days following the broadcast even though it quite clearly stated beforehand that it was a drama and was broadcast in the BBC’s Screen One drama slot. But still the complaints came, mostly from angry parents of traumatised children. The film was broadcast post watershed. 

I have rewatched Ghostwatch a number of times since then and now it is kinda hard to believe that people thought it was legitimate paranormal activity caught on film, the acting from the presenters is pretty dodgy, though the story stands up quite well to this day. It was fun to go back through and try and spot the amount of time Pipes can be seen on film and stifle a giggle at a possessed Michael Parkinson.

Joking aside, the format of this drama can be seen to draw some comparisons with the ‘found footage’ genre, a genre that did not exist at the time of it’s original broadcast and could arguably be seen as a precursor to films within that genre such as ‘The Last Broadcast’ & ‘The Blair Witch Project’ for it’s novel and at the time, original take on a ghost story. Wether it had been viewed by the genre progenitors like Sánchez & Myrick, or Avalos & Weiler? I can’t answer that, though the similarities are certainly there. The film has never been repeated on the BBC but was released by the BFI a decade later on DVD. For those who missed it the first time round, check it out for a cool, if a little cheesy, Halloween curio.


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