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‘Ghostwatch’ (Blu-ray review)

Let’s travel back to the distant, murky past of Hallowe’en 1992, a world before most people had either mobile phones or the internet, and would probably think an EPG was some kind of medical procedure.

It’s Saturday night, 9pm, BBC One… time for one of the scariest and most effective pieces of British television ever made.

Ghostwatch was a one-off drama in the form of a supposedly “live” investigation into paranormal activity at an ordinary council house in north-west London, in real time.

A single mother and her two daughters claim they are being terrorized by the malevolent presence nicknamed Pipes, knocking on walls, moving objects, and leaving vicious scratch marks on the eldest daughter- are the family faking it, or is it the work of a genuine spirit?

Ghostwatch promised the answers.

The studio anchor is Michael Parkinson, a much-loved and respected broadcaster and a regular fixture on prime-time TV whose top-rated talk show saw him interview stars as diverse as Billy Connolly, Gene Kelly, Muhammad Ali and many, many more. (Most non-Brits will know him from his appearance on the cover of Paul McCartney’s “Band on the Run” album, but trust me, Parky is a big deal here in the UK!)

In the studio, he interviews a paranormal expert and a professional skeptic, each with their own perspective on the case, providing objectivity and reason. He urges the audience to call in with their own eerie experiences on 081 811 8181 – the same number used by a variety of genuine BBC shows including Crimewatch and Going Live.

Meanwhile, popular children’s TV presenter Sarah Greene of Blue Peter fame and Red Dwarf’s Craig Charles host an outside broadcast from the house and interviewing the young family as tension gradually mounts around them.

An increasingly terrified Greene is trapped inside as Pipes’ power seems to grow exponentially and threatens to possess the children…

As Parky says in his introduction, there are “no creaking gates, no gothic towers, no shattered windows…”, but Ghostwatch is no less horrific for it. It’s an ordinary suburban house in an ordinary suburban street. Part of the fun is trying to spot Pipes’ shadowy figure in the background and what you don’t see can of course be just as scary.

Although heavily promoted as a drama both on-air and in the press, much like Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio drama, if you tuned in part-way through, it would be very easily to be drawn in- the use of familiar faces rather than actors in the main roles (sorry Craig!), the use of videotape instead of film and realistic technical cock-ups (!) make it seem even more realistic and convincing. Phone calls from the “audience” start with some obvious wind-ups and hoaxes, but soon become genuinely scary-  on the night of broadcast, an estimated one million real viewers called the BBC switchboard to praise the show or complain about it.

Ghostwatch is partly inspired by the real life “Enfield Poltergeist” case, which was adapted into 2015 TV serial, The Enfield Haunting and 2016’s The Conjuring 2 movie. Between 1977 and 1979, a series of bizarre and terrifying events began to take place in a seemingly ordinary house in Enfield, North London.  Single parent Peggy Hodgson called the police, claiming she had witnessed furniture moving and that two of her four children had heard mysterious knocking sounds on the walls.

To my knowledge, the Metropolitan Police don’t have a paranormal crimes unit, but one policewoman apparently claimed she saw a chair “wobble and slide” but couldn’t provide an explanation; other examples of the arcane included disembodied voices, objects and furniture moving of their own accord and even the children levitating. The papers took a keen interest in all this, sparking a wide debate as to whether or not the family had faked it for attention. Investigators from the Society for Psychical Research as well as American demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren visited the house and the general consensus was that most of the paranormal activity was real… and then, in 1979, as suddenly as it had begun, the strange phenomena simply stopped. Let’s hope that this piece isn’t tempting fate in some way!

Writer Stephen Volk originally pitched it as a six part supernatural drama, but was persuaded to expand the climactic episode into a feature-length single drama.  He has also created the criminally under-rated Afterlife TV series, movie The Awakening and a wealth of prose horror including the acclaimed Dark Masters trilogy, in which Peter Cushing, Aleister Crowley and Alfred Hitchcock each have a real-life brush with the uncanny.

In addition to the above straight adaptations of the Enfield Poltergeist, Ghostwatch has clearly inspired a number of found footage horrors including REC, Paranormal Activity and, of course, the plethora of Most Haunted-style supernatural programming.  Nowadays the likes of The Only Way Is Essex, Made In Chelsea and The Hills make it pretty commonplace to blur fact and fiction in what they call “structured reality” shows.

Personally, I’m still waiting for the Predator to make a guest appearance on Love Island, but hey…

Without spoiling the magnificently shocking ending, (trust me, you’ll appreciate it!), the sheer scale of mayhem that is eventually unleashed on North London and the science fictional explanation of Pipes’ origin and the nature of his abilities take this story way beyond things that go bump in the night.

I’m pleased to say Ghostwatch has just been remastered and is available on Blu-ray with a shedload of extras, and anyone with a love of supernatural drama will love it, even if they won’t have the delicious experience of watching it live as we did all those years ago.

As we’ve learned from so many recent real life events, don’t believe anything till you see it on TV…

 

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