Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Ghostwatch - 25 years on

Tonight is the twenty-fifth anniversary of one of the most notorious of all BBC broadcasts - Ghostwatch. To a casual viewer it looked like a live investigation of alleged paranormal activities, completely with a Crimewatch style studio of presenters and a live phone in. It was fronted by known presenters Michael Parkinson, Mike Smith, Sarah Greene and Craig Charles, along with an academic expert. It even questioned whether the events were a hoax. But over the course of the night things got odder and odder, culminating in the realisation a mass seance had unleashed a poltergeist across the whole country. It ended with the outside broadcast going chaotic, Sarah Greene seemingly dying, the studio collapsing into darkness and Michael Parkinson possessed.

Ghostwatch was in fact a fiction. But it presented itself in the style of reality television, complete with faces known mostly for presenting rather than acting (with the possible exception of Craig Charles), and seemed real. And the giveaways that it wasn't were easy to miss. The BBC subsequently protested that there was a cast list in the Radio Times but this was a year after the deregulation of TV listings that made the magazine less widespread (and in any case it had never had a 100% circulation). There was a caption at the start of the show but many missed this or tuned in after the start. The slot it was broadcast in normally contained drama - but few viewers either followed the schedule in such detail or would have made the connection given the special nature of the night. Not everybody called the telephone number given (which was the standard BBC number - 081 811 8181 - used on real shows like Going Live and Crimewatch). And there were no EPGs then to automatically display information when turning on or over, whilst many television sets, especially bedroom ones, did not have Ceefax.

Did I think it was real? To be honest - sort of yes. At first it seemed as though the family at the house were fooling the BBC and the nation and this double-bluff did convince many. But towards the end things went off the rails and I think it was my sister who realised this was all a fantasy. It's easy to see why so many believed this was a genuine thing and caused such an upcry.

So a lot of people were taken in and there was uproar on a scale not seen perhaps since Orson Welles's adaptation of The War of the Worlds (which was also broadcast at Halloween). For many years the tape of Ghostwatch was confined to a restricted part of the BBC archive, to never be seen again, though they've since relaxed and it's now available on DVD. But it remains unrepeated on British television.

For a whole generation it remains one of the strangest things they've ever seen broadcast. And some rewatch it on cue - tonight look out for #Ghostwatch on Twitter as many replay it at the exact anniversary.

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