Friday, 13 May 2011

Lots of questions there, that need answering...

Back when the Behind the Curtains project was just a gleam in our eyes, there was Ghostwatch.info - the very first fan-site dedicated to everyone's favourite Hallowe'en Hoax.

To mark the recent updating of the BtC blog, we thought it might be interesting to look back and interview Stephen Freestone, the man behind the now sadly closed-down website, and find out what inspired him to take Ghostwatch for its first ride on the Information Super-Highway...

Hi, Stephen! So, what are your earliest memories of Ghostwatch?

My earliest memories were from the night itself – October 31 1992. Three of us were together at a friend’s house, Dinsdales – not his real name, but a nick-name taken from the chant of Spiny Norman in Monty Python’s Flying Circus!

We were just chilling; playing Sensible Soccer and Speedball 2 on the classic Amiga 1500 computer, an amazing machine that sadly was superseded quickly by PCs. Anyway, come nearly 9.30 we looked to see what was on and the BBC said ‘Ghostwatch’ so we thought yeah let's give that a go. I had a blank VHS with me so I asked my friend to stick it on record, and he did. At that time I was recording everything, even the continuity because I was always nerdish about that sort of stuff, so the tape has the sports news, weather and a Sunday run through – this is on YouTube somewhere! I still have that same tape nearly 20 years on, although its contents also include the last Thames News (!) are now archived on DVD.

I think very quickly we realised that the programme was ‘fake’, I don’t have any memories though of the Screen One tag, so either ignored it or just didn’t see it. One or two things didn’t make sense from a ‘naturalistic’ point of view – the ‘discussion programme’ featuring the Early Family, we clearly knew didn’t exist and it did start to dawn on us all that this was a drama and wasn’t real.

I do still remember the silence afterwards from all three of us. We were all 18 year old teenagers as well!

As I have said in the past, I think all three of us had listened some years before to a local radio show on Halloween Night called, also, Ghostwatch, which was broadcast on the four stations that make up BBC East Midlands – Derby, Lincolnshire, Nottingham and Leicester. This programme is mentioned in the Ghost Stations range of books by Bruce Barrymore Halpenny. It’s possible we made some connection to this radio show as well, even though there wasn’t one.

What led to the opening of 'Ghostwatch.info', and when did the site go live?

I have a degree in Film and Television from Brunel University in 1996. Since leaving university I had loads of research written, little bits of trivia and essays all over the place – my dissertation was on The X Files and the Internet for instance. I also had a lot of TV related stuff that I wanted to make use of so I created my first website, which featured history of TV in the UK, The X Files, Doctor Who – just things that I was interested in then, and maybe now (well certainly the latter show!). Ghostwatch was part of that and after a few years I realised it was the most popular segment because of the emails I was getting. I think around 2001/2 time Ghostwatch.info was born, but it really is impossible for me to say now for reasons I talk about on Question 6.

What kind of articles, content, etc. did Ghostwatch.info feature? 

It was a site that brought together a lot of information about the programme, as well as a few screenshots and also a copy of the initial continuity announcement for the show which even now brings up goose pimples because although he does say ‘Screen One’ it’s still said with a great deal of authority and seriousness.

When the site went up, a video release, a DVD release, was totally out of the question. Indeed a guy from the BBC said he doubted the show would ever be released, but it wasn’t locked away or anything like that, like the 1960s “War Game” drama-documentary on nuclear war had been, as people had suggested.

One of the popular elements to the site was ‘Where’s Pipes’ and it gathered together a lot of screenshots, which nowadays look rotten because they were taken from an analogue source and I didn’t quite have the software to do it justice, but you could see Pipes and I tried to single him out in places. There is one sighting, in the street with Craig Charles talking to the medium that was really difficult to actually pin down, but hopefully I did my best!

What kind of reaction did the site bring about? Did anyone who worked on Ghostwatch ever get in touch? What was the fanbase like in the early days?

Stephen Volk contacted me around that time and wrote an introduction, and I also spoke to other people involved in the production who were very enthusiastic and indeed chuffed that this little show that caused so much controversy was ten years later being treated with so much respect.

Interestingly I have just had a look at the wayback archive which carries a lot of screenshots of Ghostwatch.info from 2002, and certainly October 29 2002 saw nearly 1,000 visitors to the site. From memory I know it was very, very popular particularly around Halloween and I tended to get a lot more interest and emails around that time of the year.

Were there any funny stories/surprises during the running of the site (especially related to Ghostwatch!)? 

Sadly freaking out when one of the stars contacted me! Nowadays I would have been cooler with it, I feel now the site lost out big style. But hey I was always more interested in the behind the camera team than the talent!

I also got in contact with a University student who was doing his own dissertation on Ghostwatch and he wondered if I could get him a copy if he would send credentials. Now I had so many requests from people anxious for a copy of Ghostwatch over the years and could have made a fortune, but I just ignored the requests usually, but this guy seemed genuine. It turned out the university he was with was Lincoln – and that was where I lived at the time! So that was the only copy I ever let out, but it was for educational use!

What led to the closure of Ghostwatch.info, when did it go offline, and what was next for you? 

The Naughties are a hell of a blur for me because of a lot of things had changed in my life, which was one of the sad reasons why the site closed.

Briefly, I got married, although I am now separated, and we have a beautiful little boy who has a lot of issues and medical needs – check out http://www.dandy-walker.org/ because this little known condition can affect anyone. So, unfortunately real life took over and Ghostwatch.info died, but I still have all the pages, photos as well as somewhere, the wonderful emails I received.

Plus in a way I felt the site had achieved something, perhaps not directly, but the release of the programme on DVD. That to me was a really proud thing to the whole venture. It didn’t make any money but I did talk to some fine people, all brought together by a programme that caused the BBC a lot of problems way back in 1992!

Thanks again to Stephen for his time, and one memorable website!

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