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Simon Bland

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‘Our pact with the devil was to try and pull it off’ – Ghostwatch at 30

Creator Stephen Volk and director Lesley Manning reflect on the chaos and unlikely impact of their meta-Halloween horror.

Thirty years ago this Halloween, the BBC accidentally beamed a live seance into television sets across the UK, causing supernatural chaos in households up and down the country. At least, that’s what the folks behind Ghostwatch would have you believe. In reality, this now-cult slice of pre-internet telly was nothing more than an expertly-made Halloween drama that somehow spiralled wildly out of control, ultimately landing the Beeb with over 30,000 complaints.

Written by Stephen Volk and directed by Lesley Manning, this fictional drama was pre-filmed but aired as-live and followed a camera crew investigating a supposedly haunted London home. With roving reporters Sarah Greene and Craig Charles running around ‘live’ on the scene, we meet Pamela (Brid Brennan), a mum at her wit’s end after a poltergeist known as ‘Pipes’ (named after Pam’s explanation for the ghoul’s unexplainable noises) has been busy terrorizing her two young daughters.

Meanwhile, TV icon Michael Parkinson was in the studio, playing himself and working with a parapsychologist (Gillian Bevan) to try and decipher fact from fiction. However it wasn’t long before things took a sinister turn, causing all hell to break loose, both on screen and off.

“I pitched the idea of a psychic investigator in cahoots with a film journalist,” explains Volk, revisiting Ghostwatch’s 1992 origins. “There was a show called World in Action, which was foot-in-the-door journalism where a reporter would ‘door-stop’ people and thrust a mic in their face. The idea was: what if that kind of reporter was investigating a haunted house? My original pitch was for a six-part drama series but we couldn’t do that, so I pitched it as a 90-minute one-off done as if it was going out live. Our pact with the devil was to try and pull that off.”

Enter Manning, the director with the mammoth task of athentically replicating the spontaneity of live TV: “My research was not in other dramas; it was all TV programmes and how they were presented,” she tells us. “Factual, light entertainment… we were absolutely looking in that area. The Blair Witch Project hadn’t happened yet. I remember watching Nightmare on Elm Street for its camera positions, what you tell and don’t tell the audience and when you reveal stuff. I didn’t have anything to go on.”

Without the benefit of music to add an eerie atmosphere, Manning enlisted the help of David Lean’s former Sound Designer, Winston Ryder, to amp up the frights. “It was exciting because he was from a different era,” recalls the director. “He’d get really excited about balloons being rubbed together to get cat noises or he’d play a cymbal backwards and say ‘I think this is really interesting for when you hear spooky feedback.’ He was really inventive.”

When it came to scares, Volk was keen to inject his own love of the genre: “I thought I had to layer on the tropes because if I made it too subtle, it’d look like nothing is happening, so I fed my knowledge of horror films in. The ghost ended up being a mixture of Norman Bates and Freddy Krueger, and the siege mentality is a little bit like The Birds or Night of the Living Dead but because it’s in such a different format, you don’t recognise those influences. It’s a straight-down-the-line ghost story, just told in a very different way.”

Speaking of spooks, Volk’s notorious ‘Pipes’ is hidden in various blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments throughout Manning’s film, with eagle-eyed viewers taking great pleasure spotting him in the years since. “The important one for me is where you see him in the curtains and Parkinson says: ‘I don’t see anything, do you?’ That might have been the only one I put in the script but Lesley put more in. Nine or 10 have been spotted but I think she put more in than that. Some haven’t been spotted so far. It’s become a game and part of the mythology, which I really love.”

Of course, some ideas proved too much: “I wanted to put in a very high-pitched sound that couldn’t be heard by humans and would drive pets mad. Dogs would start barking up and down the country and no one would know why. I actually think Lesley even looked into how to do that technically but they couldn’t, which is a bit scary,” chuckles Volk. “I also wanted a more out-there ending where Parkinson says ‘the ghost’s in the machine and coming to your home. Whatever you do, don’t switch off your TV.’ The idea was to leave it up in the air, like Pipes is coming to get you. The producer said: ‘There’s no way we’re doing that.’”

Despite these terrifying tricks staying on the cutting room floor, Ghostwatch was already notorious enough to spark outrage and engagement in equal measure. With a team of real parapsychologists manning phone lines that mirrored the fakes on screen, thousands of people called in with complaints and their own tales of ghostly encounters. “It went out at 9.25. Our Producer came to us at around 10.30 and said: ‘Oh my god, the phone lines have jammed. All across the country, people are wondering whether Sarah Greene’s okay,’” remembers Manning. “Many were reflecting on what they were seeing on TV – ‘something’s jumped off my table,’ that sort of thing – and the phone guys would tell them it’s fiction and try to calm them down. I was surprised everyone seemed to kick off on it.”

“I think people phoned in generally because they were either angry, scared or both,” reasons Volk. “I couldn’t quite believe it, to be honest. It seemed people, at least the people that phoned in, were taking it seriously.” For Manning, this tabloid reception was confusing: “We were trying to say something about the power of television and why you shouldn’t believe what you see and nobody got anywhere near that,” she suggests. “It was all: ‘Parkie’s broken faith with the nation,’ ‘obviously it’s real,’ ‘no, obviously it’s fake,’ ‘it’s obviously crap,’ ‘it’s obviously great’ – every single thing was thrown at us. It wasn’t all complaints but it was all very confused,” she adds. “In retrospect, I think the language I was so keen to use threw everybody.”

Blacklisted from the BBC, Ghostwatch has still never been repeated, yet its impact on fans and pop-culture is undeniable. “People often say the same thing, which is it terrified them yet made them want to make horror films,” laughs Volk. “Jed Shepherd who co-wrote Zoom horror Host interviewed me before he made the film and was very much influenced by Ghostwatch, and lots of others have said similar things. It’s nice to feel that people have taken inspiration from it to create something different so the genre revitalises itself.”

Manning echoes the sentiment: “In the Q&As me and Steve do, lots of people say they watched it when they were 8, 9 or 10 – which I’m sure they shouldn’t have – and that it opened doors to their careers and interest in horror. I’m thrilled people are still talking about it.”

Ghostwatch is released for its 30th Anniversary on Blu-ray by 101 Films, 31st Oct 2022. The BFI Southbank presents an immersive screening of the film on Friday 28 October.

Published 26 Oct 2022

Tags: Ghostwatch

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