Thursday, 17 December 2015

Special Report: Journey To Mars

"July fourteenth, twenty-oh-five. Today. The year humans set foot on Mars, for the very first time."

The as-live TV movie, Special Report: Journey to Mars is in simple terms, a hoot. Similar in tone to 1994's asteroid-phobic, Without Warning, the story follows an 'as-it-happens' broadcast of the so-called "Destiny" Mars landing, and its intrepid crew, who are merrily voyaging within what is occasionally described as being, "The most complicated machine ever built." A fairly risky-sounding proposition, if you ask me, as far as vital life support capsules are concerned. The simpler, the better, surely. Lest we not forget the sage wisdom of Montgomery Scott, "The more they overthink the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain."

'Co-hosted' by perpetually-concerned optimist, Tamara O'Neal (Alfre Woodard) and stern-toned stalwart, Nick Van Pelt (Philip Casnoff) of globe-spanning news station, GNN, we are told that this once-in-a-lifetime event is being broadcast to a precisely-measured opening audience of 2,922,214,208 viewers – although, it is never explicitly stated how this figure has been deduced. Are these merely individual TV sets tuned in to the show, or social media trends, perhaps?

If that is the case, how would a group potentially watching in a pub somewhere be taken into account? Or an entire classroom, or a hospital ward tuned in? It was at this point that I found myself thinking back to just how improbable mass-Internet usage might have sounded around the time of broadcast (1996) and how the very notion must have seemed perfectly-suited for a light-hearted, Sci-Fi lark.

Ironically, it is arguably Special Report's imaginative depiction of Terran networking that has best withstood the test of time. Yet throughout, there's a "Mark my words – by the year 1980, everyone will have their own personal hovercraft" vibe that remains both as charming as it does distracting. Without mitigation, the delay-free link between Mars orbit and Earth stretches credulity somewhat, as does the CG model of the spacecraft never visibly rotating, despite centrifugal force being explicitly stated as a source of artificial gravity for our astronauts. It may sound pernickety, but target audiences tend to be clued-up on such technical matters, and simple errors or omissions can easily bounce viewers out of the presentation.

A skein of political satire ties together a conspiracy subplot that threatens the security of the entire mission.

In the space of just under ninety-minutes, the thankfully level-headed crew are forced to contend with cancer-causing nanotech infections, debilitating malware affecting one of three crucial radars, a suspected saboteur, the cosmic reach of greedy corporate malfeasance, and even "ultra fascist" Europeans who for some reason appear to be proudly flying the flag of Bulgaria, which in this timeline (underhandedly) represents a radical splinter cell of the otherwise peaceful, "Native Earth Alliance" – a group of forward-thinking neo hippies, who for an environmental group, seem more clued-up in matters, fiscal than botanical.

Khaki-swathed N.E.A. chairman, Eric Altman (the ever-wonderful, Richard Schiff), first interviewed from the edge of a minor but disproportionately-loud placard-protest, and later Houston Detention Facility(!), is staunchly opposed to the squandering of public money pooled from the twenty seven nation-strong 'Alliance' required to fly half a dozen people to a lifeless rock 183,401,807.74 miles away. With next to no counter-argument produced as to the mission's validity or purpose, you can't help but sympathise with the granola crowd's simplistic case.

As the slew of disparate villains merrily manipulate and coerce back home on Earth, you can imagine the eagerness of the Destiny crew at signing up, just to get the hell out of Dodge. At times, the privilege of being able to shout, "First!" on the ruby Martian soil almost feels like an afterthought than a game-changing historical privilege. Overall, the Destiny mission feels far too gooey and heartfelt a crusade than the scientific game-changer it rightfully ought to be.

The crew are both typically diverse and conservatively unremarkable as once might expect. At heart, they're all Gosh Darn Heroic Sons of Guns™ – Astrotech Brit, Susan Lobel requires only four hours' sleep and likes fencing. Microbiologist, Lin Yo Yu's husband ironically refuses to fly. Russian pilot, Tanya Sadavoy once dreamed of meeting Neil Armstrong on the moon, which from one of the veritably-propagandic mission profiles peppered throughout the show, seems to have been enough to land her the gig, alone.

When the posse gathers in the med-bay, and their injured commander asks for two volunteers for a dangerous space walk, everyone's hands go up. The faultless heroism and teamwork on display is enough to make you Rimmer Salute in respect.

The only crew-member on-board who deviates from the norm is Captain Eugene T. Slader (played by Keith Carradine). Progressively unable to think straight, his erratic orders and disorganised commands stem from an unforeseen physical ailment, which is set in motion practically from the get-go. This is initially manifested in repeated, painful arm-clutching, before his eventual relief from duty (which surely would/should have happened on medical grounds as soon as his obvious and undeniable symptoms began to show.) Nevertheless, Carradine progressively brings a notably tragic confusion to a once charismatic lead character.

Also on-board, doe-eyed, fish out of water, GNN Science Correspondent, Ryan West (Judge 'Freaking' Reinhold) is the only (visible) alien in the entire piece. Pleasantly buzzing from crewman to crewman, needlessly distracting them from their crucial work, he updates the studio (in real time, no less) courtesy of a wired comms device which is far too bulky and expensive-looking a prop not to be of crucial importance, later on. For better or worse, West must by far be one of the most relentlessly upbeat and clean-cut characters I have ever seen in any medium. His cheery grin and humming voice could both buff and cut through steel simultaneously. And that hair. Seriously. What a guy.

As a prime example of reality-bending cinéma vérité, Special Report is a curious but worthy addition to the pantheon. Despite very much being an U.S. production, connections to other works (including Ghostwatch) are more plentiful than they might first appear.

For a start, the 'live' studio location has its very own sixteen-screen video wall, which connects the two hosts to special guests/talking heads (curiously, Without Warning also has a similar setup, though slightly smaller, comprising nine screens.) There are several (albeit simulated) video glitches, including one fairly disturbing moment early on, in which the live feed is 'hacked' by a balaclava'd techno terrorist who threatens to fatally derail the daring space mission if his demands are not met – itself, evoking daymares of the Doctor Who/Max Headroom pirating incident of 1987.

As with the equally-watchable Without Warning, for a reality-based narrative, the dialogue is at times, well, florid to say the least. Though, in all fairness, it can be an incredibly tight rope to traverse in constructing natural speech that also advances the plot – hence, one of Blair Witch's strengths being particularly strong improvisation.

And then, there's the ending. Which I actually still find to be genuinely unnerving. I don't know what it is about these Reality Horror moments that even now continues to chill me to the core. Perhaps it's a kind of Uncanny Valley effect – when something gets so close to (at least, feeling) real, that alarm bells start ringing in the backs of our heads. It's as good a theory as any other, I suppose. (spoilers follow...)

After saving the day and landing safely (as she humbly proclaims, "Right on the button!") Sadavoy steps out onto the sandy surface of our nearest planetary neighbour... and sees something. Then, the image cuts to static, leaving us all in unsettling limbo. It's an unexpectedly stark moment that evokes one of the final shots of Alternative Three. And the eerie silence that follows, coupled by the discordant tones of X-Files composer, Mark Snow's closing theme does a remarkably effective job of intertwining the profound loneliness and isolation of our potentially lost crew.

Granted, to the trained eye, Special Report may not adhere strictly to the form it is drawing from, but Drama does have a habit of taking many different routes in order to achieve its ends. Yes, the film might have dated here and there, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. I actually found it quite fascinating to revisit (having caught it many years previous on Sky Movies,) and tick off the once-fanciful notions that have since become commonplace. However, those going into this hoping to catch a more accurate type of space romp may come away feeling just slightly frustrated.

It's so easy to retroactively amend a film, but in hindsight, I wonder if it might have been interesting to follow the adventure with a more accurate time-delay – particularly, if thanks to some sleuthing, the studio presenters suddenly became aware that something was about to happen to the crew, and had no choice but to watch them tumble into oblivion via the cool eye of the impartial video-link... A kind-of cross between Apollo 13 and The Two Ronnies' Mastermind sketch, you might say. Actually, scratch that. Doesn't sound scary, at all.

In any event, Ghostwatchers, do try and check this one out if you can. Special Report: Journey to Mars is barely available on VHS from all good unusual outlets.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Barely-Related Set Report: Red Dwarf XI

The night that Ghostwatch went out, I vividly recall my excitement upon first discovering that Craig Charles would be making an appearance. I've been a Red Dwarf fan for almost as long as I can remember. And that simple fact (not counting my prized shelf of merch) is what makes me a proper, cast-iron-balled, Dwarfer.

I was following the show back when the sets were naff. When the models were just painted cornflakes boxes suspended on uneven bits of twine. When the costumes were far too dated, the acting far too obvious, and the writing far too laddish. Back when the characters were underdeveloped, that vampire was in it, and Cryton was just a bald, middle-aged guy projected onto a TV screen.

... Except, the show has never actually been nearly that bad. Even at its least gripping, it has never been close to unwatchable. For the most part, it's actually been rather impressive. Honest.

You see, Red Dwarf has the dubious honour of being often described as a 'cult' programme. Which roughly translated, means that despite the fact a disproportionate social percentile will find it inexplicably effortless to simultaneously comprehend, appreciate, and enjoy the occasional episode, book, or assorted curio, those who orbit the periphery of said fandom (I like to call them, 'Unbelievers') will statistically find it more emotionally demanding to effectively combine those elements into a unified, copacetic viewing experience, or something.

Yes. Some people love it, some don't. You heard it here first. And let's not get into whether or not it's first and foremost a sci-fi comedy, or a comedy sci-fi. Trust me, we'll be here all night. At this point, all that matters is that it's back. Which is, to coin a phrase, ace.

As far as my single remaining taste-bud is concerned, the first thirty-six episodes of this niche, Emmy-award winning pleasantry are for the time-capsule. Inevitably, what I perceive as being such a perpetually-strong initial run has consequently set the bar rather high for all subsequent future endeavors. That (hypocritically) said, the chance to witness an episode being recorded live had long, long, long been on my proto-Bucket List. After all, such barriers tend not to protect that which is behind from what might be ahead - rather, prevent what is behind from getting ahead, at all.

Just to needlessly rankle any fellow Dwarfers who may be reading, this was not in fact the first time I had seen the Small Rouge One up close and personal. In fact, I've seen the show recorded live twice before. The first occasion was a legitimate, ten-thousand-to-one-shot via the Lost In TV ticket selection last year for the Series X opener, Trojan. The second ticket was a gift of sorts (along with a biryani) for a solid week's work, which at one stage involved me pretending to be a vicar. That episode, ironically entitled, The Beginning, happened to book-end Series X. Needless to say, both were a lot of fun to watch being put together, and equally enjoyable to behold when later broadcast.

In fact, during that final installment, if you listen carefully to the Simulant/Harakiri scene, you may just hear a distinctly Midlands-eqsue "Aww..." as one cybernetic character cottons onto his imposing superior's deadly double-meaning. That's me! Which in my mind, makes me practically a guest star. Actually, I wonder if I'm due a repeat fee or two..? I'm not joking, actually.

Plus, little known fact: Craig's interview for the doc was recorded during rehearsals for the episode, Fathers and Suns, and yes, he arrived on set in full dreads and leathers. In fact, I spent quite some time airbrushing out his 'Listerton-Smythe' lycra jumpsuit out of the background of this shot, as to prevent spoilers from leaking. He's wearing my long Melton, here for much the same reason...

This time around, with tickets being in such notoriously short supply, I found myself attending as a privileged +1, courtesy of a generous, fellow Dwarfer. So, thanks, you. You know who you are. You cool person, you.

This particular episode, the as-yet-unnamed 'S11.E04' (4/11/15), was filmed at Pinewood, as opposed to the usual (and for a plethora of several multitudes of reasons, much beloved by me) Shepperton Studios.

In the interests of providing a little advance context to this piece, there are a couple of things I should just say before we get waist-high in madras sauce. First, as requested by the production shortly before filming began, there will be no specific plot/character spoilers. And second, as far as the most recent televised series is concerned, I really liked Dear Dave. And yes, I'm comfortable with that. So, with this latter point well in mind, you may wish to invert any likes/dislikes I happen to mention from here on in...

Arriving well ahead of time at Pinewood, we were ushered in groups to the 8960 sq-ft strong TV One studio, only to be greeted by two giant black curtains, and several rows of unforgiving blue plastic seating. Interestingly, even the first episode of Series X had the new sets on display practically from the get-go, so this was quite a change from the norm. Bit more theatrical, you might say.

In addition to feeding the crowd special shoot footage, rough cuts of pre-assembled sequences and the like, evenly spaced in front of us were the usual bank of freestanding flat screen TVs proudly displaying the newly (oldly?) reworked elliptic logo from Series III. Little known fact #2: the veritably prehistoric-style poster seen above (admittedly, sans 'XI') was designed in mind to be showcased at the most recent fan conference in Nottingham, earlier this year. Great minds, eh?

When the giant drapes were finally raised, the as-yet unseen environments were undoubtedly impressive, though for my continuity-driven satisfaction, were still missing their Bibby-worthy red stencils, or similar, over the entryways. A second, new(ish) on-board location boasted some feature-quality hi-tech props (specifically, we were told, one in particular). A revamped iteration of a certain iconic support craft was also present, though out of view. I'm not sure if it was the angles relayed to us live on the monitors, but you'd think the seemingly smaller space would be playing merry hell with Lister's claustrophobia. Or perhaps, that was something he suffered from for just the one episode. Harrumph, harrumph.

In any event, it was nice to see the old girl brought out of quantum-mothballs. And when undoubtedly inter-cut with some purty exterior model and/or CG shots, this will most certainly be something to look forward to around the time of transmission. So yes, some slightly newfangled locales, but with some fun call-backs which I'm sure eager Dwarfies shall enjoy pointing out when the time comes. Didn't happen to see any furry dice, though. For shame.

As we've very much come to expect over the years, the episode itself was an ensemble piece, nicely balanced across the main characters, with Rimmer as a focal point. Craig was particularly on form as the Universe's unlikeliest slobby beacon of Humanity. Delivering a typically carbonated performance alongside his shipmates, he willingly took the time to rally the audience between takes, in the hopes of generating an ever better response. No doubt, a fresh batch of delicately-nuanced Smeg Ups will almost certainly be on the cards, come time for the inevitable DVD release.

But above all, the episode was, truth be told, consistently funny. Within seconds of rolling, the opening visual gag got a deservedly big laugh, and set the tone rather well for the next few hours. The cast appeared to enjoy playing certain scenes more than others, and their individual performances were directly boosted as a result. One such woofer, as ably Gatling-gunned by Robert Llewellyn roughly halfway through the shoot, practically brought the house down - so much so that I seem to recall it drowning out Craig's next line, requiring a retake.

The imaginative plot called for some daring FX that managed to impress even in its roughest, most incomplete form. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if High-Reaching Ambition proves to be this series' raison d'être. The lighting was particularly striking and dimensional. Whilst the bunk-room in Back To Earth made use of its bright walls to bounce light in all directions (functionally doubling it up as a portrait studio,) this newer iteration seems tailor-made to effect an overall greater sense of visual definition. Put it this way - in isolation, I found the shots natively well-balanced, and surprisingly bold. The trick will be seeing how it all works stitched together and graded, I guess. One wonders how a dramatic episode such as say, Quarantine might've looked if using the same camera setup. Is there a difference between something looking cinematic, over say, 'feeling' cinematic? I dunno.

Tonally, there was some interesting/prescient sociopolitical satire that harked back to the show's glory years. One or two salient points from modern day life were effectively woven into both the comedy and plotting, without one much sacrificing the other. One could even argue, at its most engaging, the story briefly came close to taking on the form of a morality play.

Throughout, there were also one or two nice callbacks to previous episodes, which I'm sure fans will enjoy noting down on their JMC clipboards. The studio audience were at certain points, treated to memorable music cues from yesteryear, and even SFX from classic films to help set the mood. Even though it was a long night, the crowd clearly enjoyed themselves from start to finish. I know, because I was one of them. It was all really lovely.

In fact, I don't want to say much more, as I'm likely to give something away, but allow me to close by simply saying that I found the evening quite a bit of fun, and certainly on par (at times, perhaps even a shade more) than my experiences watching both Trojan and The Beginning. And Dear Dave.

... And yes, I'm still comfortable with that.

It's a good picture...
In the run-up to National Séance, The Guardian ran an article that delved into the work of Kirigami aficionado and self-styled Paper Dandy, Marc Hagan-Guirey.

In September, a book containing twenty of Marc's designs hit bookshelves, containing a smorgasbord of sliceable schematics each inspired by a different Horror movie, tale or story... and who'd have thunk it, even Ghostwatch.

In fact, the very first example which readers can attempt to construct themselves is entitled, "The Thing under the Stairs." As you can see below, the spooky piece features a tentacular shadow escaping from a familiar-looking doorway, all of which is bathed in a striking, pinkish-blue glow. Overall, the inspiration is unmistakable - particularly, when you read the accompanying text on the opposite page...

"This was the most traumatic piece of television I'd ever seen. I was found by my neighbour sobbing on the doorstep of our house, too afraid to be inside by myself. If you haven't seen it, hunt down a copy because essentially this show is the original Paranormal Activity (2007) and spawned an entire genre of 'found footage' films."

If you're brave enough to give this particular Horrorgami a go, get in touch and send us a photo! The book is available from all the usual outlets.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Tell us what happened when the newspapers got their teeth into this story.

Last night, National Séance came and went in the blink of the eye, once again.

Considering this marked our own Fifth Anniversary hosting the event, it's truly humbling to think it has now gone on to become a full-on annual tradition, let alone that we've been able to gather such a wonderful group of fans that have all practically become an extended family of Glorious Global Ghostwatchers.

Short of name-checking two or three dozen very cool/funny/witty people, let me just say thank-you so much to each and every person who took the time to take part, or encouraged others to join in, in turn keeping the Foxhill flame burning brightly.

Compared to when all this started, we're living in a different age, already. When Ghostwatch was first broadcast, twenty-three years ago, the closest app to Twitter was 'Manic Miner.' Just three years ago, #Ghostwatch managed to race up the Top Ten UK Trending List in less time than it took to say, "Round and round the garden..." Don't get me wrong, there were hundreds upon hundreds of messages last night, but man... times seem to be changing exponentially, these days.

Every year, it seems that something new and exciting kicks off the proceedings. This time, we noted mentions of the show in both The Guardian and The Telegraph newspapers, with the latter even name-checking National Séance (well, the gist of it, if not the name directly.) Even so, a truly wonderful way to get things rolling. Pipes was also named "The perfect spooky spectre" by Den of Geek, who placed him at #7 on their list of Top Fifty Terrifying TV Characters.

On Friday Night, Craig Charles delivered one helluva bravura performance during BBC Radio 2's world premiere of Scary Fairy - a pitch perfect rendition of Red Riding Hood that managed to shock, awe, captivate and guffaw in equal measure - in particular, by adding a crucial, relatable motivation to the Big Bad Wolf, itself. A making of video of the event can be seen here. "What big eyes you have... what big ears you have..."

Safely out of the woods, a handful of brand-new Ghostwatch-related articles, commentaries and podcasts also came in, throughout Hallowe'en. Among those on offer...

On the BtC Facebook page, we officially unveiled an exclusive photo, salvaged from Alan Demescu's personal files, at long last revealing that the Earlys' favourite board-game, as seen in the film, was in fact a very particular version of Waddington's 'Sorry!' - specifically, the 1991 Disney edition. Yep, you heard that right. You might also have noticed that Suzanne Early wears Disney pyjamas in the film. Coincidence? Yeah, probably.

A new, unconfirmed Pipes Sighting came in the form of #PipesWatch 0.5 - the shot of Craig first interviewing the Early Family in front of their kitchen patio windows, starting at approximately 00:05:25. Apparently, Tunstall is around there, somewhere, but we've yet to officially lock down his spectral coordinates...

Another interesting theory, first seen on the IMDb boards, was broached concerning a rare, potential plot hole: Does Dr. Pascoe contradict how she first met the Early Family? At the beginning of the show, she explains to Parky that Pam's particular case was chosen by a computer programme that had correlated various evidence of hauntings across the country - though later on, she claims to have first discovered the Earlys after watching the Kilroy-esque talk-show in which Kimmie ever-so delicately drops the bomb that "[Pipes] wants to hurt everybody."

Intriguing stuff, huh? Well, it doesn't end there. There were also *lots* of messages concerning last night's Most Haunted live special, mostly drawing comparisons between the two productions. Being so busy with the Tweet Cast, regrettably, we were unable to tear ourselves away from Ghostwatch to check it out. Did you? If so, what did you think?

Perhaps the most inexplicable moment of the evening came in the form of a single photograph that happened to upload sideways (the ghost was in the machine, obviously) to the BtC Twitter account, depicting doco director, Rich Lawden huddled up inside a familiar-looking cupboard under the stairs...

...A *very* familiar cupboard, you might say. And one that he would quite willingly assure you was completely, utterly, bloody terrifying to even glance at, let alone venture into. What does it all mean? Stay tuned to find out. Meanwhile, for all professional enquiries, please forward all requests to Shady Acres Rehab Clinic, Celebrity Ward Nine, Northolt.

Until then, National Séance 2016 is now officially less than a year away. Don't know about you, but for us, it can't get here soon enough. But until that fateful evening is upon us... Try not to have sleepless nights.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

National Séance 2015 Séance 2015 is finally here! Almost! Just a month to go, now. Not only is it the show's 23rd Anniversary, but also our fifth live, globe-spanning, genre-redefining, occasionally-over emphasising event. To mark this special occasion, we've a lovely new banner for you to feast your cat-scratched eye sockets on. Look. Isn't that nice.

As always, the time and date to mark in your calendars is 9.25pm, Saturday (ooh, just like the original) October 31st. The best photos and Tweets of the evening shall be showcased right here on the blog, soon thereafter. If you like.

For the uninitiated, once a year, Ghostwatch fans worldwide play their DVD and VHS copies of the film simultaneously, to simulate a repeat screening (yes, we're still waiting.) We then comment on the proceedings via Twitter and Facebook. It's that simple. But surprisingly effective. And often, a bloody good laugh. The hashtag to remember is #Ghostwatch, and if you click the mini poster above, it should take you to a live Twitter feed to help keep track of all the messages as and when they come in.

In related news, erstwhile Corrie Cobbler, Craig Charles shall soon be donning his iconic dreads and leathers for Red Dwarf XI and XII. In addition to which, the man/myth/DJ also has a new album out entitled, Funk & Soul Classics, that from the playlist, contains at least one Sam & Dave track, which surely makes it a must-have. The circular, shiny slice of digitally-encoded, reflective plastic is currently available from all good stockists, as per.

Also fast approaching to mark Hallowe'en, is Craig's brand-new, live poetry recital, 'Scary Fairy' which is set for broadcast during Radio 2's very own Fright Night on October 30th, as ably orchestrated by BBC Philharmonic.

The first part of Stephen Volk's new three-part series, Midwinter of the Spirit has debuted on ITV. The second shall air this evening at 21:00. You can also catch the previous show on the ITV Player service for a limited time. Thumbs have been repeatedly upped in the initial wave of reactions, so don't miss it if you're up for a quality fright.

Lastly, you now have approximately two weeks if you're thinking of snapping up the last remaining seats for Miniclick's upcoming Ghostwatch screening and live Q&A at the Duke of York's Picturehouse cinema. In attendance will be Stephen Volk, Lesley Manning and Rich Lawden, chatting all things Foxhill Drive along with a plethora of fellow Ghostwatchers, in sunny Brighton. Tickets are available on the event's website,

So then, Ghostwatchers, until the 31st, try not to have sleepless nights, and see you for NS15...

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Miniclick Screening - Wednesday October 14th 2015

Greetings, (in particular, Brighton-based) Ghostwatchers!

This October, Miniclick and the illustrious Duke of York's Picturehouse shall be hosting a very special screening of Ghostwatch, complete with a live Q&A session featuring writer-producer-directors, Stephen Volk, Lesley Manning, and Rich Lawden.

It goes without saying, Ghostwatch screenings with Q&As tend to be on the rare side, so try not to delay if you're thinking of booking! There's even a twenty-foot high pair of can-can dancer's legs on the roof, so it should be quite easy to find, even if you've never visited before.

First opened on 22nd September 1910, the building itself is now Grade II listed, and to celebrate its 105th(!) birthday this September, the cinema will be installing a "State-of-the-art sound system and audio-visual projection to invest in an even better film-going experience in the future." Surely, this will provide the best possible viewing experience to track down the remaining, elusive Pipes sightings? There's only one way to find out. See you there!

So, to recap: Wednesday 14th October, 6:30pm. The Duke of York’s Picturehouse, Brighton. Tickets include the Q&A and are priced from £9.00, which can be found by clicking here.

Chilblains down my spine..., Ghostwatchers!

During Monday's edition of the BBC One nostalgia fest, The TV That Made Me, this week's guest, Pam Ayres shared her own personal appreciation of classic BBC Horror, Quatermass. Around that time, you might also have caught a small reference by host Brian Conley to our very own Ghostwatch being his "Favourite chiller!"

For a limited time, you can check out the episode in full on BBC iPlayer by clicking here. For the beginning of Pam's 'TV Fear' segment, which also features the public information film/nightmare generator, Protect and Survive, head to around the 13:40 mark. Brian's spooky showcase follows soon after, at around 20 mins in.

For the trivia-hungry among us, this marks the first time since October 2012 that Ghostwatch was last cap-doffed on TV (during CBBC's Twelve Again.) It's quite extraordinary that despite the fabled, full repeat screening still not showing any signs of happening anytime soon, the most recent partial broadcasts have all aired during daytime slots. Well, almost. But we're not going to mention the other show. Oh, no. Not since they knocked Tiffani Banister, too.

We asked @RealBrianConley if he was indeed a fellow Ghostwatcher, on Twitter. Our message was favourited, just a short while later. That made my day, that did. I mean, honestly, not even Septic Peg could have seen this one coming.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Classic Fortean Times article resurrected!

Back when 'dialing up' the Internet required earplugs, and the once-glorious Teletext reigned supreme, there admittedly wasn't all that much in terms of online Ghostwatch-related reference material. Among those few classic web-pages, including Stephen Freestone's much-loved, Fortean Times magazine published a highly-informative piece written by Stephen Volk, that until very recently, could still be read, twelve years on.

As that link now sadly appears to have dissolved entirely off the digital database, here it is presented in full for all your informative, and all-round research-related needs...

Ten years ago, the BBC’s transmission of ghostwatch on halloween night, 1992, terrified the nation, raising some important issues about television’s relationship with its audience. To coincide with its release for the first time on DVD and video, Stephen Volk, the writer of the notorious TV drama, looks back at its origin and its unexpected aftermath.

By Stephen Volk, January 2003

The moment I remember most clearly is sitting in a tiny office in BBC TV Centre, Wood Lane, when I realised from the sudden widening of the producer’s eyes that there was no going back.

In October 1988, at the suggestion of my agent Linda Seifert, I had submitted an outline for a six-part supernatural serial to a BBC drama producer, Ruth Baumgarten. It was called Ghostwatch. The idea was about a TV journalist (a female Roger Cook, but thinner) teaming up with a scruffy but trendy psychical researcher to investigate a contemporary London haunted council house. It was to be a scary, gritty film drama in the style of the then-recent success, Troy Kennedy Martin’s Edge of Darkness. The sixth and final part was to climax with the TV company filming a live broadcast from the spook house and all hell breaking loose. When, inevitably, the BBC balked at the idea of a six-hour mini-series, Ruth asked me if we could make it work as a one-off 90-minute Screen One. I said: “I’ve been thinking. I know it’s crazy, but what if we do the whole thing like Episode Six? As if it’s a live broadcast from a haunted house.” The look in her eyes said: “Oh my God, yes, let’s do it.”

From the beginning, our intent with Ghostwatch was both to create a damn good ghost story for television (something I had sorely missed since Nigel Kneale’s 1972 The Stone Tape), and, secondly, to surreptitiously say something about television itself.

I grew up with Hammer films, the ubiquitous Pan books of horror stories, and the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas, and it struck me that many of the most effective supernatural stories I enjoyed in literature (from Dracula to The Turn of the Screw) used a “this really happened”, pseudo-documentary approach. But how could one achieve that in television drama? Edgar Allan Poe’s stories often played such a trick by mimicking the factual articles that appeared around them in the publications where they first appeared. And that, obviously, was the answer: to make a TV drama that resembled the factual programmes surrounding it.

Beyond that, what interested me as a dramatist was to play with the idea of the audience, complicit and apparently affecting what they were seeing on screen. Hilary Evans’s evocative theory of the “need-based experience” – the idea that people under certain psychological, cultural or social conditions will see just what they expect to see – made eminent good sense to me, linking as it did ghost sightings, UFO experiences and even visions of the Virgin Mary, and pointing up the similarities between them.1 Extrapolate this, I thought, to the people making up a massive audience of TV viewers (millions of whom had tuned in to see, for instance, who killed JR); what if their need to see a ghost actually made it happen?

Certain other ideas coalesced as I was writing the many different versions of Ghostwatch that were developed before the BBC gave it a dim and flickering green light. I, of course, remembered vividly the 1973 Dimbleby Talk-In, which had made a star of Uri Geller and spoon-benders of half the nation’s youth. I remembered the scientific experts who believed what they saw and convinced us, the audience, along with them.2 I was also well aware of the famous “Philip” ghost, a totally fictitious apparition created by eight members of the Toronto Society for Psychical Research in 1972, who took on a life, or mind, of his own. He succeeded even to the extent of making his presence felt during a séance enacted on an American TV show and overturning a heavy table.3 It seemed to me that this was a “supernatural” event created by television if ever there was one. By comparison, it didn’t seem that the premise of Ghostwatch was too unbelievable at all.

But Ghostwatch was, of course, also about television.

It’s quite difficult now to think back to the televisual landscape of 1992. Formats that dissolve the boundaries between factual and fictional TV have since become the staple diet of the schedules, and it’s difficult to imagine a world where they were new or unusual. But this was the time of the first successful hybrids: docu-dramas and drama-docs. Drama series like NYPD Blue increasingly employed a hand-held camera style derived from documentary realism, and documentaries like Crimewatch and 999 were full of reconstructions using actors mix-and-matched to real footage of real people.

Ruth, the producer, and I discussed how we both felt we could no longer trust what we were seeing, what we were being shown or told by TV. The lines between the once distinct languages of factual and fictional TV were becoming dangerously blurred. Even the CNN Gulf War reports on Newsnight (with the infrared camerawork we duplicated in Ghostwatch) felt suspect, somehow unreliable. What was drama and what was not?

Yet, paradoxically, television had also become the arbiter of reality, as John Waite exemplified on hearing of the release of his hostage cousin Terry in November 1991: “I won’t believe it until I see it on TV.”

Though this was our theme, it was never our intention to simply “trick” the audience.

One thing I can say categorically is that, in all our many discussions at the BBC, we never, ever used the words “hoax” or “spoof.” To us, Ghostwatch was a scripted drama that we decided to make in a certain form – that of a “live” TV show – in order to make it more effective. We thought that people might be puzzled for two, perhaps five minutes, but then they would surely “get” it, and enjoy it for what it was – a drama. The curious thing about Ghostwatch is that while one part of the audience didn’t buy it for a second, another part believed it was real from beginning to end.

One friend of mine, whom I’d told the week before that I had a drama on TV at 9.30 the following Saturday, phoned to tell me that she totally believed it was happening for real. I said, “But I told you I’d written it!” “Yes, I know,” she said, “but as soon as I saw Michael Parkinson I thought you must have got it wrong!”

The reactions ranged from one person who thought it could have been a lot scarier to a woman viewer who demanded recompense from the BBC for a pair of jeans because her husband was so terrified he had soiled himself.

None of us could have anticipated the scale or diversity of its impact on its audience.

The director, Lesley Manning, who had worked with Ruth before on another Screen One, My Sister Wife, immediately clicked with our intentions. She combined talent and enthusiasm with incredible analytical nous, and, virtually unheard of in a director, complete lack of ego. She helped shape the original idea, of a kind of Terry Wogan telethon involving locations across the whole country, to instead focus on one poltergeist-infested household and one dysfunctional family.

I have a long-standing interest in parapsychology and to that end I successfully suggested to Ruth and Lesley that the production enlist the services of Guy Lyon Playfair, one of the most knowledgeable experts on poltergeist cases, as a consultant. I had had generous help from Guy once before, when writing a screenplay, Superstition, based on the Carole Compton “witchcraft nanny” case.4

Ghostwatch did not go out “live” as some people presume: it would have been logistically impossible. Lesley shot it in the Summer of 1992, first at the house, in long, complicated takes to achieve the “as if live” feel. Then it was up to Michael Parkinson and Gillian Bevan (playing Dr Pascoe) to react to the footage on playback in the studio.

Knowing that we had an anchorman of 25 years’ experience in the part, both Lesley and I encouraged Michael to veer off the script in any way he thought comfortable. The script was sent to Sarah Greene, who we wanted to play the intrepid reporter. Her real-life husband Mike Smith was interested in being in it too. When Ruth told me, I jumped at the chance to write in a husband-wife relationship to add suspense to the proceedings. Our strategy was always to ask ourselves, OK, if the BBC were really doing this, who would they get? And, of course, they’d get Craig Charles to act the goat.

While shooting was underway, we still had no idea that the BBC would give us the essential slot on Hallowe’en night. Nevertheless, Lesley made an incredible leap of faith, and decorated the Early family’s house in Northolt with pumpkins and apples on string – which would have been a little stupid if our transmission was knocked back to December. Luckily, it paid off.

We were later accused, by people who imagined the story was happening live, that the poor children (sisters in real life) must have been traumatised by the sadistic film-makers. In fact, the two girls loved it. They were celebrities at school afterwards, and everybody wanted their autographs.

On 31 October 1992, cast and crew met for drinks and to watch the show going out “live” at 9.30. Right up until the last minute, the transmission was threatened with being pulled due to corporate nervousness, but we made it by the skin of our teeth. When Ruth arrived from TV centre to report that the BBC phone lines were jammed, we knew we had created an effect far beyond anything we had anticipated.

Remarkably, for a show ending at 9.30pm the night before, the headlines appeared in the Sunday papers, almost all reflecting public outrage: “TV Spoof Spooks Viewers” (Sunday Mirror) “Parky Panned for Halloween Fright” (News of the World) “Viewers Blast BBC’s ‘Sick’ Ghost Hoax” (The Sun, Monday, 2 Nov). Predictably, Gary Bushell claimed the BBC had “dropped a ghoulie” and Private Eye even reported a “Parkynormal” experience.

In all the furore about being hoodwinked and taken for fools, hardly anyone discussed Ghostwatch as what it was: a piece of drama.

The lady serving in my local off-license said, “I’ve got a bone to pick with you. My son wouldn’t go to sleep till we took the luminous skeleton off the back of his bedroom door!” (To which, I thought, “What is he doing with a luminous skeleton on the back of his door in the first place?) If we were guilty of anything, we were guilty of underestimating the power of the language of “live TV” to convince people that what they are watching was real. On the Monday morning after transmission, school teachers cancelled lessons to discuss the programme. Kids across the country were arguing about whether “Pipes” the ghost actually appeared, and if so, how many times.

The BBC’s Points of View on 4 November discussed the feedback of a lot of angry viewers, as did Sue Lawley’s Biteback programme on 15 November. In the latter, viewers, some of them incandescent with anger, berated Ruth Baumgarten and executive producer Richard Broke, while paradoxically interjecting with the occasional reminder that they thought that the programme was, “as a programme”, brilliant.

Newspaper reports on 8–9 November of the tragic suicide of Martin Denham, who had seen the programme, gave ammunition to those who accused Ghostwatch of being irresponsible programme-making. For those who didn’t hear the end of the story, it is worth pointing out that the coroner at the inquest did not even mention the drama.

Nevertheless, the effect of all this was that the BBC clammed up and effectively disowned the programme, and subsequently behaved as though it had never happened. Allegedly, its nomination for a BAFTA award was quashed by the Powers That Be at the BBC. The Radio Times was ordered never to mention the programme again. (Even when Ruth, Lesley and I collaborated again on episodes of the BBC drama series Ghosts, Ghostwatch was never mentioned in the publicity.) I felt our work was like a dissident airbrushed out of a photograph in Stalinist Russia. Far from being proud of an unusual and provocative programme, the BBC clearly wanted to bury it. It was certainly absolutely clear it would never, ever get a repeat showing.

It was cold comfort, but some relief to us, that the viewing figures were an incredible 11.1 million, one of the highest ever for a single drama on BBC1.

But whether they, or we, liked it or not, the programme entered the cultural consciousness in some small way. Some time later, Sarah Greene and Mike Smith appeared on Hearts of Gold. When the lights suddenly went out in the studio the audience all blamed “Pipes.” And when Sarah sat next to Prince Andrew at the BAFTA Awards the following March, she told us all he wanted to talk about was Ghostwatch.

As if to rub salt in the BBC’s wound, the show later earned the dubious honour of being the first TV programme to be cited in the British Medical Journal as having caused Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in children.5 I hate to say it, but as a horror-thriller writer, that’s a hard act to follow.

Now it’s hard not to see the influence of Ghostwatch on some of the TV output of the last 10 years.

Shortly after our programme in 1992, ITV ran a series called Strange But True in which a very “Parkinsonian” Michael Aspel introduced reconstructions of actual stories from the world of the paranormal. Chris Morris’s brilliant The Day Today ridiculed the same media language that we targeted; but very soon Paxman, gratuitous graphics, self-important hot-spot reporters and news-as-entertainment had became almost beyond parody.

In the realm of GOGS (Good Old Ghost Stories), the Blair Witch Project used the techniques of hand-held documentary film, and the gag of elaborately (via the Internet) pretending it was all true, to hook the multiplex audience. A few people have told me that the film-makers have mentioned seeing Ghostwatch, but I have found no actual evidence of that (if anyone has, please let me know!). More recently, Marc Evans’ My Little Eye used reality TV techniques to create a believable modern slasher movie.

Of course, nowadays the massive ratings-grabbing and social phenomenon Big Brother has taken voyeurism and the involvement/complicity of the audience to new heights and depths.

One can see, without any effort of imagination at all, that if one were proposing Ghostwatch now, one would simply propose it as a “reality” show and do it for real. Of course nothing would happen except a lot of bitching and tears and someone peeing in the shower. Or would it?

In spite of the vitriolic reaction in some quarters, over the last 10 years Ghostwatch has created a loyal fan base who “got” it and loved it. Apparently, pirate videos were available on the black market for £50, and I have been told by a university professor that almost every year at least one student in Media Studies will want to do their dissertation on Ghostwatch. Memories of watching it on the night are recounted on the excellent fan website, and aficionados regularly debate how many appearances of “Mr Pipes” there are on screen.

I hope the release of the BFI DVD of Ghostwatch will give an opportunity for those who didn’t catch it in 1992 to see at last what the fuss was all about. And for those who were either sent to bed, age 10 (like one young film producer I recently met), or watched with their hands over their eyes, there is the opportunity to see what they missed. And to enjoy it, I hope, for what it is, without too many sleepless nights.

The Enfield Poltergest

The real-life inspiration for Ghostwatch’s tale of an everyday, urban haunting was the famous ‘Enfield Poltergeist’ case, in which the Harper family was terrorised by a series of poltergeist phenomena from August 1977 to September 1978. The analogues between the real and fictional cases are numerous. Like Mrs Early in the television programme, Mrs Harper was a divorced mother (of four rather than just two children), living in a semi-detached council house in Enfield (rather than Northolt), North London. In 1977, the family began to suffer from mysterious disturbances – items of furniture moving about, objects flying around the room and becoming very hot, knocking sounds, cold breezes and inexplicable wet patches. The Daily Mirror reported on the strange affair, and the Society for Psychical Research investigated.

Maurice Grosse, then a fledgeling SPR researcher, became heavily involved in the case, as did Guy Lyon Playfair (who later acted as advisor on Ghostwatch). They were assaulted by flying marbles, saw doors opening of their own accord and items jumping from tables. The knocking sounds became an almost constant presence, eventually demonstrating a desire to communicate in the time-honoured ‘one rap for no, two raps for yes’ manner. Asked how long it had been in the house, the phantom rapper reputedly responded with a series of 53 knocks. The usual crop of camera failures and wiped cassette tapes frustrated the efforts of a growing army of investigators, although photographer Graham Morris captured some intriguing images of pillows flying across the children’s bedroom.

Much of the poltergeist activity seemed to centre around 11-year-old Janet Harper, who was frequently pushed or pulled from her bed by invisible forces and sometimes spoke in a deep, male voice that uttered obscenities or described details of the life and death of a former occupant of the house (details that, according to Playfair, were subsequently confirmed, even though they had all taken place before Janet was born). If this wasn’t getting far enough into Exorcist territory, some witnesses claimed to have seen the girl levitating. Janet, after fruitless sessions with psychologists, spent six weeks in London’s Maudsley Hospital undergoing a barrage of tests – which revealed nothing out of the ordinary either physically or mentally. Grosse and Playfair, though, noted that – as in other polt cases – the presence of a pubescent girl seemed to be a key element.

Others, including fellow SPR members, were unimpressed by the evidence and testimony collected by Grosse and Playfair, whom they suspected had merely encouraged the children, Janet especially, to give them what they wanted. Janet was certainly caught on a number of occasions (admittedly, late on in the investigation) faking supposedly supernatural phenomena (as is one of the Early children in Ghostwatch). A similar ‘experimenter effect’, of course, is one of the themes explored in Ghostwatch, which effectively implicates the entire viewing public in unleashing powerful, dangerous forces.

For more on the case see: Guy Lyon Playfair, This House is Haunted, Sphere Books, 1981; FT 32:47-48, 33:4-5, 11.

Faking it

At the time of the Ghostwatch ‘flap’ in 1992, FT was one of the only magazines to take a look behind the tabloid outcry at the programme itself (see FT67:42). We asked a number of prominent veterans of genuine paranormal research and investigation for their opinions on the ethics and æsthetics of the programme. Guy Lyon Playfair, who acted in an advisory capacity to the programme-makers felt that much of Ghostwatch was “certainly true to life, notably theTV crew climbing all over the family’s home and directing their lives by remote control from Thought Control House”.

Maurice Grosse of the Society for Psychical Research, who had actually investigated the Enfield case, felt that “it was well produced, but I do question whether it was right to portray a real case (thinly disguised as fake documentary) when the horror was so ridiculously overdone. I would have preferred the BBC to have made a factual film of the Enfield poltergeist case. It would have been more interesting, more dramatic and more convincing.” Tony Cornell, also of the SPR, was mostly concerned about the programme’s misrepresent-ation of polts as “uncontrollable, malevolent and evil entities”. For Maurice and Tony, fact was more interesting than fiction – which tends to overplay the more sensational aspects of the real drama – and their gripes were to do with the perceived accuracy and truthfulness of Ghostwatch’s dramatised case. For parapsychologist Sue Blackmore, though, there were greater ethical issues (rather than those of verisimilitude) at stake: “It treated the audience unfairly. It can be exciting to play on the edge of fantasy and reality, or stretch the accepted norms of television conventions, but this was neither true to its format nor fun. It was horrid to watch the distress of the girls, real or faked. I found it over-long and occasionally disgusting… The lack of adequate warnings was irresponsible”.

Such concerns might seem odd, even rather prim, looking back from our current viewpoint; as Steven Volk rightly points out, the TV landscape in 1992 was a very different one from that of today, and the responses of FT’s experts reveal a concern with representation, ‘truth’ and responsibility that you’d be hard-pressed to come across in the early 21st century.

I spoke to Lesley Manning, Ghostwatch’s director, who felt that taking an existing format – that of ‘factual’ TV – and using it to tell a ‘fictional’ story was a way of broaching the whole subject of televsion’s relationship with ‘truth’: “We wanted to expose the power of TV and suggest that you shouldn’t believe everything you see on TV.Strangely, it confirmed the nation’s position, causing anger and outrage –“Auntie broke faith with the nation”. If we don’t like a radio programme, we turn it off; but if we don’t like a TV programme, the broadcaster shouldn’t have made it! Somehow, people don’t like to take responsibility for their own viewing. Of course, there were many people who enjoyed the conceit and saw the irony in Ghostwatch, and I’m sure it helped paved the way for all sorts of other work like Blair Witch or Brass Eye.”

The makers and consumers of television have become far more comfortable with the blurring of fact and fiction than was Ghostwatch’s original audience, many of whom expressed disgust and displeasure at being fooled, duped or betrayed by the homely box in the corner of their living rooms.

If, since then, a culture of active complicity and collaboration between TV’s producers and consumers has become the new norm, then Ghostwatch remains a hugely prescient and perceptive moment in television history.

For other film and TV ‘hoaxes’see: FT67:38-42 (Ghostwatch); FT64:47-49 (Alternative 3); FT120:40-43 (War of the Worlds); FT128:34-40 (Blair Witch Project).

 1) See Gods, Spirits, Cosmic Guardians: Encounters with Non-Human Beings by Hilary Evans (Aquarian Press, 1987)
 2) See Superminds by John Taylor.
 3) See ‘Philip the Phantom Phantom’ in Ghosts, ed Peter Brookesmith, Orbis Publishing, 1984.
 4) see Superstition by Carole Compton with Gerald Cole, (Ebury Press, 1990). The film Superstition was released in 2001, starring Mark Strong and Sienna Guillory.
 5) See ‘Trauma of boys who were haunted by TV’, (Daily Mail, Friday, February 4, 1994).

Monday, 23 February 2015

Headpress 22

Been searching for a copy of this, for ages.

Headpress #22 is the twenty-second edition of Headpress. If that intro wasn't clear enough, according to its arresting cover, Headpress is a "journal of sex, religion [and] death" and this is typified in the striking image of a lovely lady being (seemingly) attacked by a flock of irate Hitchcockian crows. But who's to say they're on an attack course? Perhaps, they are merely intrigued by her distractingly-open shirt? It's all a bit Rorschach, if you ask me.

Released in 2001, this particular edition of the adult-themed bookazine(?) is a healthy 176 pages, fourteen of which are dedicated to an article entitled, 'Hunting Ghostwatch,' which commences on Page Thirteen. Written by Jerry Glover, the piece serves primarily as a highly detailed synopsis - I'm sure, very handy for readers who might have missed the film, and even more so when you consider the fantastic BFI DVD/VHS release was still a whole year away from hitting shelves.

The article also draws parallels between the show and other film productions. For instance, Kim Early is described as leading "another Blair Witch charge up to [her] bedroom," which genuinely made me think - of all the tropes we usually attribute between these two cinematic stories, staircases are in fact, very prominent in both. The noting of structural similarities with another fellow Horror classic is also highly intriguing, epitomised by the figurative question, "The pacing is brilliant. Seen The Exorcist lately? The most shocking thing about it now is how very little we actually get of the exorcism sequences."

Seven pages showcase what appears to be a clutch of VHS screengrabs, beautifully photo-edited to emphasise interlacing scan lines, harsh contrast, and skewed perspectives. It is arguably a testament to the production quality of Ghostwatch itself that even a handful of seemingly random low-res stills stand up so well on paper. Some even take on an art print vibe, and are very creepy to behold, indeed.

On Page 25, the age old figure of 20,000 calls to the switchboard is quoted, but I do not believe attributed, which seems more or less in line with our own research (the total number of switchboard calls has also been said to be upwards of 500,000). Another excellent point from Glover is that with the exception of fleeting appearances/commentary from behind the camera participants, Mike Aiton and Chris Miller, the only characters that appear on camera in the haunted house (not counting the fleeting appearance of Craig, who quickly scarpers before the drama has a chance to kick off, proper) are Sarah, Brid, Michelle and Cherise. All female. Does this thematically tie into the brief mention of Pam's divorce? Does Pipes 'himself' count as a male participant, or was Mother Seddons in fact pulling the strings? Answers on a postcard, as always.

Perhaps the most striking and certainly familiar passage to followers of Behind the Curtains, is the closing paragraph, partly quoted by Stephen Volk himself at the beginning of the doc:

"The underlying message of Ghostwatch is 'don't trust it just because television is telling you to - television is not reality,' which is about as subversive as TV can get. It's my guess that this is why Ghostwatch has been airbrushed from BBC history and why the BBC has not attempted anything quite so challenging since. Safer for all concerned if television is imagined as a window, not a mirror."

So, there you have it. Headpress 22. A fascinating read. Plus, it has Ghostwatch in it. And boobs. Win, win.