Sunday, September 30, 2012

Flashback: Ghostwatch

Next month sees the twentieth anniversary of one of the most controversial and scary television broadcasts in the history of the BBC - Ghostwatch.

For those who never saw it or have forgotten, Ghostwatch appeared to be a real life investigation of supernatural reports at a London house, hosted by Michael Parkinson and Mike Smith, with on the scene investigations presented by Sarah Greene and Craig Charles. A phoneline was set up on the standard BBC number of the day (081 811 8181) for viewers to call on with their own tales of ghostly experiences. One of the calls played into the studio told of the horrific tale of a past resident of the house. Then at the end of the broadcast chaos erupted as it seemed a poltergeist had taken over the studio, ending with Parkinson possessed.

Written like that one could wonder how anyone could be taken in. But many thought what they saw was real. The resulting furore saw the BBC tape of the show confined to a forbidden vault for ten years and it has never been repeated.

Now yes the show opened with a Screen One logo - but who pays attention to such logos and remembers which denote fiction only? And of course many tuned in after the opening moments so would have missed both that and the "Written by" credit. There may have been a cast list in the Radio Times but not everyone had a copy or paid attention if they did. Yes anyone who called the number and got through heard a message stating it was fiction, but most didn't phone and for others the lines jammed. And finally there may have been a warning on Ceefax (I don't know if there was or not) but how many would have switched over to check that? Plus many television sets in children's bedrooms didn't have text.

But more fundamentally the whole concept of the "mockumentary", made as though it's a real live as it happens occurrence with the realism of video cameras instead of the film used for most dramas, was a very novel concept back then. Through in some real life big name presenters, who in those days just did not do that sort of thing, and an interactive set-up and it's easy to see why it convinced so many.

I don't think the same trick could be pulled today. The internet would make it much harder to pull off. Users of Twitter itself during the transmission may be only a minority of the audience but word would spread both before and during, undermining any planned shock. Forums and text messages would also play their part in spreading the truth of what would happen. And there'd be a greater likelihood of a row before transmission that could be picked up on by the media. So less of the audience would be likely to assume the events were real.

But at the time many assumed Ghostwatch was real. Perhaps we at first thought the family occupying the house were faking and the BBC had been taken in, but that view was dispersed by the turn of events. Watching it at the time it was easy to be taken in and many were. I doubt such a phenomenon will ever happen again.

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