Thursday, 29 April 2021

I don't know how many of these to take with a pinch of salt...

Greetings, Ghostwatchers.

Fandom naturally engenders a protective atmosphere. Even fair-minded criticism can be instinctively resisted, and often-times repelled by fans of their particular, chosen following. Far too often, opinions are misconstrued as personal attacks, testing the cotton-swaddled bonds of joy & emotional connectivity through uncaring logic. In my experience, topics often ripe for heartless joy-shredding include spaghetti hoop continuity, blisteringly outdated political commentary, or the media in question otherwise not standing-up to the test of time [i.e. the crushing realisation that your favourite show was actually always a bit shit].

Where Ghostwatch varies is that, for the most part, its internal dramatic logic remains remarkably sound. As a fan, there's not much for me to defend, story-wise. Where everyone's favourite Hallowe'en Hoax overwhelmingly differs, is in the public reception to the programme, now just one year shy of three decades ago.

Very specifically, this surrounds the so-called 'slew' of complaints that followed in the wake of transmission. The Wikipedia page may still proudly state how 30,000 calls came into the BBC Switchboard, but in reality, according to producer, Ruth Baumgarten, at least 1,000,000 calls attempted to get through in the peak five minutes of phone activity.

Had the majority of these enquiries somehow been individually logged on the night, it would be fairly straightforward to deduce how many constituted complaints, as such. Even today, this remains to be seen entirely. However, given the three main modes of telecommunication in those days being snail-mail, belt-clipped pager, or loyal, speckled carrier pigeon, it is reasonable to assume that a sizeable number of calls were, at best, inquisitive as to the programme's authenticity. Likewise, given the accounts of BBC switchboards jamming on the night, it would also be reasonable to assume that a number of unanswered callers would persist in making their displeasure heard loud-and-clear in response to the BBC having the temerity to produce [and advertise] a special Horror-Drama in time for Hallowe'en Night.

In November 1992, Anne Robinson stated on Points of View that there had been 835 calls to the Duty Office in which 382 people said the show had been an "insult to their intelligence," 275 found it to be in "poor taste," 62 just had a "general moan," and 116 "thoroughly enjoyed it." During the edition of BiteBack that discussed the show, host Sue Lawley claimed there had been 20,000 calls made to the BBC Switchboard following transmission. According to the E4 clip show, X Rated: Top 20 Controversial TV Moments, Ghostwatch garnered 2215 official complaints following transmission; though this figure is given as being an 'estimate'.

A recent, very helpful and informative communication with OFCOM regarding this apparent confusion was, it seems, all that was required to at least start making sense of this persistent palava.

In BSC Complaints Bulletin 53, dated 27th June 1995, a figure of 35 complaints is noted as having been received, "in the days immediately after the broadcast about the deception which they claimed had been practised on the audience by the BBC." These are complaints that were addressed directly to and by the Broadcasting Standards Council, which had yet to be absorbed by OFCOM, around 2003.

So, assuming the total number of formal Duty Office complaints to the BBC wasn't much more than 657 - when combined with those acknowledged by the BSC, a slightly rounder number of 692 complaints can be reliably afforded to Ghostwatch, certainly before the end of 1992.

To put this into broader perspective, some 57,000 formal complaints came in for Good Morning Britain's coverage of Harry, Duke of Sussex, & Meghan Markle's interview with Oprah Winfrey, within mere weeks of airing, this year. Granted, this wasn't a single drama, but nevertheless it remains one of a number of television events that have racked-up a far greater tally of disgruntled viewers than poor old Ghostwatch.

To be fair, it is somewhat easier to make a complaint regarding a television broadcast these days. That being said, in the early nineties the ability to make a complaint via telephone was very much available to viewers. As were letters by post. In reality, 11.07 million people tuned-in to watch Ghostwatch. Even going by the X Rated... figures, that still means less than 0.1% of all viewers, not necessarily counting journalists, took the time to share their outrage through official channels. Surely, not all of us who tuned-in that night outright hated the thing?

At this late stage of the game, I must confess to being a little tired of seeing Ghostwatch either hauled over the coals, or otherwise dissected in, shall we say, less-than accurate contemporary commentary that it seems has difficulty even in correctly stating the name of the antagonist in the Drama it is attempting to detail. 

Once again, and for the record, as far as I am concerned, the programme was not controversial. Usage of the term in this circumstance is not subjective. It is objective, based on facts. Personal taste notwithstanding, the production was admittedly daring for its time; but when you see complainants from that era also banging-on about how much they were offended by Blue Peter, The Return of Mr Bean, and/or A Bit of Fry and Laurie, then people's fervent, stalwart opinions, albeit relevant to some undeniable extent, seem just that smidgen-less worthy of yours, or even my time.

By all means, if anybody out there can add to this open debate in terms of additional or revised figures, please drop us a line. It would be good to get as accurate a take on the oft-misreported backlash to Ghostwatch, as possible.

Until next time, my glorious, gleaming group of gentile Ghostwatchers... soupy-twist.

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