1 9 9 2 (UK)
1 x 90 minute episode
On Halloween night in 1992, the BBC gave over a whole evening to an ‘investigation into the supernatural’.
Four respected presenters (Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Mike Smith and Craig Charles) and a camera crew attempted to discover the truth behind ‘The most haunted house in Britain’, expecting a light-hearted scare or two and probably the uncovering of a hoax.
Viewers settled down to watch a live broadcast from a council house in the fictitious suburb of Foxhill Drive, Northolt, where Pam Early and her children Suzanne and Kim have experienced various strange and troubling supernatural phenomena in the house.
The events seem to stem from the rather disturbing presence of a ghost known as ‘Pipes’ because of the clanging metallic noises that herald his arrival, the sound reminiscent of a rattling clapped-out central heating system.
They are joined in the studio by psychic researcher Dr Lin Pascoe: “Well, maybe they’re both involved,” offers Dr Pascoe in the television studio. “I mean, maybe it’s like a tandem effect. Kim’s creating the energy and Suzanne’s directing the violence in on herself.”
All seems relatively serene as the investigation begins at the house and the dubious Parky soon adopts a sceptical attitude back in the safety of the studio.
90 minutes later, Ghostwatch was revealed to have been, in fact, a scripted drama by Stephen Volk, broadcast as part of the Screen One anthology series, and fronted by familiar personalities playing themselves and filmed some months before.
Many viewers failed to notice the cast list printed in the Radio Times or 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.
Ghostwatch got its claws into viewers by playing the long game, lulling the tv audience into a false sense of security by drawing on the mundane tropes of live TV; awkward repartee between studio and outside broadcast; prank phone calls from the public; a satellite link-up with an American sceptic.
The show went to great lengths to make everything seem authentic and mimic a real outside broadcast with the famous presenters playing themselves, infrared and closed-circuit cameras, and Mike Smith reading out viewers messages and calls about things they may have spotted during the broadcast as if it was all completely live.
The first fleeting appearance of Pipes by the curtains in the girls’ bedroom some 20 minutes in provided the first shock. But Dr Pascoe (played by Gillian Bevan) swore she could see nothing on the playback.
The jovial atmosphere gave 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, revealed the secret of the boarded-up ‘glory hole’ under the stairs – one focus of the phenomena plaguing the Earlys.
Hoax or no hoax, as the end credits rolled, Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells and co were already scribbling their missives to the Daily Mail.
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.
Dr Lin Pascoe