Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Good luck, Studio!

Greetings, Ghostwatchers!

What a wonderful Hallowe'en! I'm pleased to report that National Sèance went fabulously well, once again, with many great/funny/interesting/concerning comments coming in, almost all of October 31st. But this year marked a rare, double-viewing for our annual event, with BBC Two's 'live' Inside No. 9 special, Dead Line, also airing slightly earlier, on Sunday 28th October.

Intriguingly, much like with the oddly-hushed arrival of the third season of The League of Gentlemen, the run-up for this particular episode didn't seem to be accompanied with very much in the way of fanfare. In addition to an advance interview/mention on The One Show, there were the usual blog posts, occasional magazine articles and the like, but not much I recall seeing in the way of actual broadcast trailers.

The reasons behind this choice (and by definition, it must have been a choice, as opposed to an oversight) are anybody's guess. Of all the many theories currently swirling around my head, the safeguarding of spoilers ahead of transmission undoubtedly factored into this decision. That being said, even Ghostwatch received a wonderful, special-shoot trail, which gave precisely nothing away. With that in mind, I find it something of a curious/missed opportunity that a stronger marketing campaign didn't accompany this special episode. Why not just get behind it, and push with all your might? It did turn out to be quite an exciting experience, after all.

This is not surprising really, as for the longest time, I've been a huge League fan; almost from the very beginning of the quartet's illustrious, well-earned TV breakthrough in the late 90s. I love the characters. I love the setting. I love the dialogue. I love the intertwining narrative strands. The complementary writing and performing styles. Few have been able to make me laugh consistently harder, or longer, over the years. I have even been known to recite Terry Lollard's churningly-insistent, 'It's a shame you haven't got a porch light' soliloquy from The Medusa Touch, ever-merrily down the phone-line to friends, on slow-news evenings. I've been reliably informed that my "... even though, it's quite an'auuwollld boouqk." is particularly good.

As an exercise in discovering and following new series, Inside No.9 is regrettably one of many recent high-quality examples which happened to arrive just as I more or less stopped watching television in the same capacity and volume that I once did. I'm not saying I got burned out, but I just simply don't feel the need, these days. I don't need much more than Red Dwarf's first thirty-six, the rare snippet of Keith Floyd taking an occasionally gleeful slurp, or practically any installment of, You Rang M'Lord? to pass those increasingly-rare bouts of free time.

I'm reasonably happy with my (telly) lot, as they say. So, sadly, I must admit to never really having given Inside No.9 the attention it so rightly deserves; or Psychoville either, for that matter, despite truly enjoying just a handful of episodes over the years, and only acknowledging repeated calls by my peers to binge the rest. I did thoroughly enjoy the League's triumphant Anniversary return just a short while back, and still feel a lump in my throat whenever a trace memory of Pauline's snapped-arm spectacles flashes across my synapses.

Skipping ahead for just a moment, if there was one common thread shared amongst Ghostwatchers that I noted shortly after the thrilling conclusion of Dead Line, it was that the special was simply too short. Usually, this is code for, "We want more!" and in that respect, I wholeheartedly agree.

It's been a good while since I last looked-forward to a new episode of anything on the telly box, and considering the pedigree of those involved, including the ever-wonderful Stephanie Cole, that in the days leading up to the transmission date, I could only ponder the many different ways Steve and Reece were plotting to play with their unsuspecting audience. And therein also lies the rub.

Arguably, if Ghostwatch taught us anything, it's that all drama is a hoax. During BtC talks over the years, I have often used the analogy that the late-great Bob Peck *wasn't really* a Detective Inspector in the quite rightfully-heralded, Edge of Darkness. Believe it or not, he's only pretending, as were the rest of its fine cast. The only substantial difference between the two dramas is their presentation; the reaction to which, is up to us. This is precisely the reason why I find the seemingly-perpetual viewer responses to such presentation-bending efforts like, Ghostwatch or Dead Line, as being quite so fascinating; invariably as they are often ironically as-dramatic as the shows, themselves.

It didn't take long for me to become totally hooked by last Sunday's proficient proceedings. Initially, I recall being just shy of disappointed by the special's craftily-pedestrian opening. This seemed miles removed from The Devil of Christmas; one of the few No.9 episodes that I have in fact caught, and which I now consider to be this episode's prototypical effort. Whilst that story, in my view, hinged on a shockingly-effective, postmodern twist at its denouement, Dead Line instead practically gave us the twist up-front; but in doing so, kept us in suitable suspense as to how the proceedings may further develop.

I must also admit to falling for the early audio glitch. Initially, at least. By the second or third occurrence, my Pipes-sensitive feelers began to perk up; but then, as if the rug being pulled from under me, I found myself yet again completely buying the technical-fault continuity announcement. 'This is skillful stuff', I pondered. But not watertight.

For me, my air of mistrust first kicked-in, care of the opening shot no less, which subliminally begged the question, recurring motif aside, Why has our elderly, lead character conveniently displayed a lit pumpkin with a crucially-stylised '9' carved into it, right by his front door? It's these kinds of subtly illogical, even naff touches that can so effectively be used to steer an audience into a false sense of security; as with the callback to Pop's 444 4244 "Rrreal fea'sture o'd'haouse..." landline number. But such witty touches alone, for the Ghostwatch generation of course, aren't nearly enough to eliminate all doubt, and adequately bolster verisimilitude.

You see, like many others, Ghostwatch made a cynic of me at a tender age; personally, at just seven-years-old. I can only imagine Dead Line being somebody's first Foxhillian experience. I can empathically feel their hearts pumping, their brows furrowing in new confusion. The fresh excitement of being part of something unique. Their own personal Woodstock. For me, it was Sunday. Albeit an enjoyably-memorable Sunday, at that.

If I was to further damn this special with faint praise (hey, this is a review, after all) it would be that there didn't seem to be much beyond the expert, visceral retelling of Ghostwatch, on offer, to later digest. The crux of yours and mine Hallowe'en Hoax is arguably the very moment, we as an audience cast-off the fluffy artifice of Light Entertainment Television, and start taking things seriously. It's all fun and games, right up until the character of Parky starts berating poor Suzanne Early for her fleeting foray into hapless hoaxing; a kid with her whole future now behind her, as she is mercilessly hounded by an unforgiving world; her repellent humiliation perfectly preserved for the ages, care of license fee-funded transmitters and video tape.

A further, long-since accepted, underlying message of Ghostwatch is, 'Be careful what you wish for'. In Suzie's case, it was fortune and glory, perhaps. Or, at the very least, validation and acceptance. How dare she(!) 'This is where we're heading..!' quietly forewarned the show, twenty-six years in the past, in full view of a rapidly-evolving, docudrama landscape, increasingly willing to do whatever it takes to ensure its captured reality makes for compelling viewing. Meanwhile, Dead Line seemed to embrace the present-day status quo, and roll with it. This isn't a strong criticism per se, merely an observation. Like an otherwise striking jigsaw puzzle, but missing one centre-piece out of a couple-hundred, otherwise perfectly-aligned fellows.

Additional, blink-and-you'll-miss-it minutia I particularly enjoyed includes this neat picture-in-picture-in-picture shot, which is certainly worth a mention. If you look closely, the TV screen features an authentically time-lagged moment or two of 'BBC One' tx, burned-in just as Reece & Steve channel hop, following Mark Gatiss's brief Whatsapp warning.

The almost lyrical, electrical hum that resonates into Reece's thinly-shielded helmet cam as he bends down to retrieve his own stunt head, was also a particularly nice touch, in lieu of any realistic opportunity to incorporate scary score. This particular moment, is of course immediately followed by a Craig Charlsian, 'Scary Mask/Cheap Shot' moment. Moments later, we go straight into night-vision mode, similar to the thermal cam from Ghostwatch, though without a viewfinder, would likely be of little use to Reece in helping navigate the eerily dark maze of the studio floor. Again, he is left alone in the industrial nightmare, much like Michael Parkinson's character.

Again, aside from a pedantically-grating choice of unconvincing, hard-coded CCTV typeface featured throughout, the one slight issue that I appear to share with more than a few others concerning Dead Line, is its running time. Although plentiful in delivering a quick, slow burn, I think it's fair to say that thirty-ish minutes of screen-time isn't nearly enough free space to run with the idea of fully revisiting Ghostwatch, decades on. But this seems to have been cunningly-countered by the episode's own narrative continuity apparently still playing out on Twitter. @ReeceShearsmith has still yet to 'speak' following his last Tweet enquiring to the world as to whether he and Pemberton were 'on BBC Two right now?'

Steve himself, meanwhile, has so far only posted a single photo of himself with a bandaged arm, complete with sullen 'I've just lost my best mate' look on his face, and... oh look, a ghost in his patio window (sound familiar?). This single update somehow lead to possibly one of my most liked-ever Tweets, replying to @TheRealSprigger who noted, "There's a girl in the garden..." to which I mega-wittily replied, "... In the garden, there's a girl." Just don't say the Z-word, 'cause it's ridiculous, etc. Believe it or not, the bloody thing is still getting 'likes', days later. Not that I'm complaining. x

I also think it's worth mentioning the masterstroke of involving social media, this time around. Back in '92, we had Ceefax, landlines, or carrier pigeons. Now, we can pause live television, and rewind with near crystal clarity. So, of course, it only makes sense to engage a public forum, 'live', and in character. I was thrilled to watch the Like & Retweet counters rocket on Reece's message in real-time, and remain surprised that this dramatic mechanism hasn't much been made use of, before.

Not least of all was Dead Line obviously, something of a fan letter to Ghostwatch, but its studious structure also seemed to take note of many of the dramatic gags that helped make the original work so memorably.

Notably, among these practical subtexts were the multiple hidden sightings of 'Alan' (doesn't quite have the same ring, does it?), the flame-bearded spectre who makes a number of subversive appearances throughout the piece; ably collated by ardent Ghostwatcher, Shane Poole here. Also of note, Viren "Vee" Udeshi noted what he thought could possibly be a Parkynormal cameo at around 14 mins in, too...

Overwhelmingly, I'm so glad that I was there to see the show go out, 'live'. I do feel, this is what proper telly is, or rather should be all about; taking well-chosen chances, and being equally as considerate to general audiences, as you would niche. I could wax lyrical for hours on similarities, homages, and the like with Ghostwatch. At the end of the day, the goal was to entertain a BBC audience for Hallowe'en. And that, they boys succeeded. Bravo, once again to all cast & crew.

In retrospect, and particularly, being a self-confessed continuity-junky, I would have been even gladder to have found even a sliver of definitive connective tissue between the two stories, somehow. For some bizarre reason, I had half-expected to find a Ghostwatch image somewhere in the background, at some point (maybe there is, and I haven't noticed!). Could you imagine if Dr. Pascoe had somehow made a sneaky appearance? Or, if just one of those, admittedly plot-driving, Most Haunted clips had been interspersed with a grainy clip from Foxhill? The possibilities are endless, but I'm sure, almost just as unlikely, a fan's pipe(s) dream.

Most encouragingly, the arrival of this special could ultimately be heralding a new era for BBCTV, and one that may suggest a more optimistic future for this particular brand of considerately-conceived programming - perhaps even extending as far as a repeat screening for Ghostwatch, itself. This is not a hint, by the way. More, an extension of one of my earliest hopes for Behind the Curtains, as a project. It just seems that we may be edging towards that lofty goal, one tiny step at a time.

To close, in all the years I have been conducting National Sèance, not once has a DVD freeze ever happened. But it did, this year. At approximately 53 minutes in, just as dear old Kevin Tripp calls-in to report his haunted cheese'n pickle sandwich, my TV image froze, though the audio spookily continued...

This here still frame then proceeded to stare at me for a good ten seconds, at least. It felt longer, believe me.

At first, more concerned that I wouldn't be in sync with my fellow watchers for the rest of the night, following a mechanical clink-clunk, the picture fortunately returned to normal, and crucially when it should have, too. This is made all the more bizarre, considering this year's Facebook banner makes DIRECT REFERENCE TO SAID CHARACTER, AND SAID CHARACTER'S SANDWICH, which I can now only ascribe to genuine paranormal activity. This isn't a joke, I'm totally serious. We achieved something on Wednesday evening. Either that, or my well-worn, gold leaf-thin DVD is at last giving up the ghost, and finally needs replacing.

 
On the topic of replacing DVDs, by the end of National Sèance, or 'International Sèance' as it was briefly/wonderfully referred, the new Indiegogo campaign got up to 7% funded, with £380 raised, which isn't bad going. That said, this figure is well short of the mark for release, let alone the top stretch goal to unleash everything desired from the Archive. To those who have so kindly donated so far, thank you so much. Basically, if upwards of 1000 people pledge for the Blu-Ray alone, that should easily be enough to move forward, so please do share, if you can, and help spread to word!

It was an absolute pleasure joining you all for National Sèance, yet again. You truly are a fantastic bunch of Ghostwatchers, and I always look forward to catching up, and hearing that you enjoyed taking part, too. It's because of you all that this has become and continues to be such a special event, so long may it continue.

Just think, only three-hundred-and-fifty-odd days to go until the next one.

Until then... do try not to have sleepless nights.

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