Thursday, August 1, 2013

Watching the Ghosts

Ghostwatch (BBC 1992)

This post has been synched with Jamas' post over at The Truth Behind!

A couple of nights ago Mrs Simian and I sat down to watch for the first time the notorious live TV experiment Ghostwatch. If you're not familiar with this but don't want to have the novelty ruined (and I recommend you see it as close to first hand as you can!), then feel free to stop reading and hunt down the full show. Watch it in the dark, alone. Cause, y'know.

Still here? Okay then.

Ghostwatch never screened here in NZ, and so I've only heard of it and its extraordinary public reception second hand - in fact, I'm not sure where I first heard or read of it. I am something of a 'fan' of the mockumentary genre, however - far more of a fan than, say, 'genuine' ghost hunting or paranormal-themed 'investigative' programmes (stand up Finding Bigfoot, Most Haunted, Ghost Hunters, Chasing UFOs, and even local perpetrators Sensing Murder and Ghost Hunt). And I love well-made semi-hoax productions; I still have a cassette copy of Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast, for example, and was only briefly taken in by Peter Jackson and Costas Botes' Forgotten Silver. Mrs Simian, it must be said, enjoys this stuff too, for the most part. being a big Finding Bigfoot fan herself, I thought Ghostwatch (and in particular a viewing without any preamble regarding its production or genre sitting) would be just the thing for an otherwise dull Monday night.

Enough said, really. GorillaMyDreams sat through Ghostwatch and its 1992-edness with Craig Charles' puffy jacket, Mike Smith's puffy hair and Sarah Greene's puffy hair scrunchy, constantly challenging the show's verite. Was the Early family too scripted to be believable? Weren't the camera angles a bit too convenient for a 'University' investigation? And just what 'University' was this supposed to be anyway? Sadly, being an ardent follower of James 'Bobo' Fay and his tree-knocking chums didn't necessarily translate to being able to enter into the, er, spirit of Ghostwatch, no matter how hard I pursed my lips and refused to confirm anything. At least I wasn't watching it alone, I guess, because I knew the story behind Ghostwatch and even then there were bits of the show - particularly in the last twenty or so minutes when things in the Early home and in the studio really kick off, that I found genuinely thrilling.  Had I seen this in 1992 I can't imagine I'd have been taken in then either, but I would have watched it to the end, and, having done so, might have had an interesting time getting to sleep that night.

For what it's worth I found Ghostwatch to be, despite its age, a very effective piece of work. The distance of space and time here in NZ twenty one years on does challenge the genuine craft inherent in the production, but I'm old enough to remember a time before 'reality TV', when 'fly on the wall' documentaries followed a more straight-laced and less manipulative pattern that Ghostwatch effortlessly played on. The response in the UK was of course something of TV history, as evidenced a few night later by the producers' pillorying by a studio audience in viewer feedback programme  Bite Back on Ghostwatch (Parts 1 and 2). I remember similar outcries with Forgotten Silver, although at the time it seemed it was simply pride in a parochial claim to the first manned flight in the world at stake; nobody claims to this day that Peter Jackson gave their children post-traumatic distress.

And, despite her getting up every now and then to brush her teeth, clear the dishwasher and what-not, Mrs S and I were both around for Ghostwatch's electric final ten minutes, and though utterly unconvinced we had to agree that its shocking ending is pretty wild stuff, and even now, post-Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity movies (the third installment of which seems to lift visual cues quite happily from the sinister story of Mr Pipes the poltergeist), it's disturbing stuff. Found footage is a genre unto itself now, but hats should be doffed to the early ventures made - Ghostwatch was live, its phone-ins were, to the viewer at least, accessible and offered an interactivity that, pre-Worldwide Web, would have lent the show some assumed accessibility.

I gather Ghostwatch went down a treat at Jamas' house, too. If you're interested in how the programme was received and its equally-fascinating production history, then do go over to Hypnogoria and listen to Jim Moon's exhaustive and superior podcast on the show.

Or read the show's stars' recollections in Radio Times.

Or read scriptwriter Steven Volk's sequel online...

Or follow @TheRealMrPipes on Twitter. Because you just know he's following you...


  1. Personally being friends with the lead actor in 'Forgotten Silver' was the main giveaway for me, but even then I at first thought it was dramatised recreation footage.

    We are currently inundated with so-called "found footage" horror movies, and I blame mockumentaries like 'Ghostwatch' for giving the 'Blair Witch Project' guys the idea.

  2. Hello Mr G!

    Well we too had a connection to the erstwhile Mr Deagol (nee Colin MacKenzie) and twigged early on due to that. A sort of mutual "Is that Tom? It LOOKS like Tom..." moment.

    But you can't blame Ghostwatch for PA and Blair Witch (although apparently the debt has been admitted by their makers). Actually, I reckon those two are rare in that they're worth your time. There's a lot you can't say that, for. And as a matter of fact I think Hypnobobs have a recent podcast on some lesser-known found footage movies as well.

    At the end of the day, I reckon found footage is a logical extension in our media-saturated age. In a time of box-top recording and rewinding the 'live' experience has gone out the window. This may be what remains of a once great and convincing idea?