Landline, fax machine, pager, carrier pigeon.
It never ceases to amaze just how well GHOSTWATCH plays on the big screen. By its creators' own admission, the programme was specifically designed to squeeze the most of our boxy television sets, circa 1992. The speculative technology, as peppered throughout the narrative, (remote cameras, thermographic readouts, light pencils, and the like) was almost parodic in its clairvoyant spin on where the medium was heading in the never-ending quest for modernisation. The programme remains as perceptive today as it was then and, thanks to its fidelity in transcribing the language of Light Entertainment television of the time, remains an immensely useful yardstick in understanding the nature and evolution of the medium.
Depending on your viewpoint, thirty years is either a long time or momentary flash in history, be it collective or personal. I was just seven-years-old on the night of transmission and, whilst sitting in on one of the recent screenings in Sheffield, felt just as intrigued, enthralled, and disturbed as I did back when I had size 'S' Batman pyjamas. The Michael Keaton type, that is. Not my new 'XL' Robert Pattinson ones.In July of this year, I was contacted by Live Cinema UK and Sheffield Horror Festival who asked if I might be willing to taking part in an immersive live experience combined with a special 30th Anniversary screening of GHOSTWATCH. To cut a long story short, I said, yes.
The screenings took place on 21st and 22nd October at Peddler Warehouse, before the event moved on to BFI Southbank for one night only on Friday the 28th.
What really caught my attention to the proposal was both the idea of recreating the sets from GHOSTWATCH with a focus on making the event as immersive and authentic to the night of transmission as possible. At one point there was even talk of creating both the studio set and Early Sisters' bedroom, which, to me, sounded tremendously exciting.
Lesley also brought along a number of paper props and production documents, including a screen-used jumper bearing the show's iconic monochrome logo. Earlier in the process, I had introduced Richard Drew to the organisers, and a number of his personal relics were transposed onto museum panels with accompanying, explanatory text. I was keen to see him involved, and also highly recommended Gillian Bevan, Mike Aiton and Ruth Baumgarten be contacted too.
As luck would have it, Iain had recently restored a ReVox A77 Mk III, virtually identical to that seen in GHOSTWATCH, and very kindly made it available for display in Sheffield. Not only that, but he also took the time to record an hour's loop of the actual audio from the show, as sampled by yours truly, bookmarked by the main theme and Ash Lamont's legendary Welcome To Fright Night track, a staple of many a Hallowe'en Night on Twitter around these here parts. All this, of course, was recorded onto a matching AGFA reel that had been personally selected by Iain for added authenticity. Sadly, I couldn't take the old girl home with me, but it was such a privilege and a pleasure to take care of a real ReVox, even for just a few days. Another box on the GW wish-list ticked-off!
Collecting the machine on the way up to Sheffield also provided an opportunity to record Iain putting the machine together and detailing its intricate construction and restoration. Expect his full interview to hit the Behind the Curtains YouTube page in the coming weeks.
Shortly after being welcomed inside, I was struck by the vast physical scale of the venue. At the head of countless rows of vacant seating, a giant projection screen was pillar boxed by long vertical banners reminiscent of those designed by Ken Starkey & Richard Drew some three decades previously. Beneath were two brown leather sofas.
Ushered into the exhibition space, my collectibles soon found protective places in large acrylic display boxes. Across the way, the trusty ReVox was seated behind a protective barrier; later hooked up to Rob (the organiser)'s personal domestic amp and speakers; as carefully instructed by Iain, who even provided additional technical support on the night.
The audiences for each evening were practically chalk & cheese. On Friday Night, the crowd was loud and boisterous. On Saturday, they were notably more reserved. Both congregations even reacted to different aspects of the presentation. It was fascinating.
On both nights, Lesley read aloud from the tranche of school letters she received
from young students who saw the show go out live - which, in one instance, bore so little resemblance to GHOSTWATCH that veritable fleets of eyebrows could not help but be raised.
Speaking of which, that was something I had hoped to bring along on the night and gift for all to wear, but thanks to a combination of Royal Mail strike action, and being mistakenly sent a clutch of hedge trimmer serial plaques by mistake, only the prototype made it all the way to the venue. Ah well, never mind.
When the paranormal activity hit fever pitch, we were all hurried off-stage, behind the (stage) curtain, where through a narrow break in the thick heavy fabric, a specially-edited finale sequence could just about be seen in which Pipes returned to haunt the crowd, thirty years later. On the Friday night, we were invited back on stage after the house lights returned, where I was able to take somewhat of an amateur dramatics bow - thereby reassuring those present that I'm not a complete arse (as some would be forgiven for thinking) given my exponential impromptu outrage at the pervading incompetence of the organisers.the contents of which are now lovingly framed and proudly displayed for evermore until I need to make a mortgage payment.
As we didn't return to the stage on this night, the atmosphere post-screening was a bit less formal, and we were able to mingle with the crowd. I was fortunate enough to meet/catch up with fans Rob, and Mike, who were both real pleasures to speak with. I even signed a couple of autographs. All in, a memorable experience. Regrettably, I couldn't make the screening at BFI Southbank, which at one point was hoped to feature an exclusive screening of the main trailer for Behind the Curtains, although despite my very best efforts this didn't happen.
Almost as quickly as the screenings had begun, they were over. On the horizon, thirty years are about to be over. One of the questions in the Q&A asked how the audience response to the show in 1992 compares to today. I replied by saying how attitudes towards the programme are at least as positive today as they were negative back then. Perhaps as it was so difficult to find any measure of shared solace or reassuring rapport in instant fact-checking prior to social networking. Bad news travels faster, especially with no world wide web with which to cushion the sudden, icy blow of reality. Comparatively, we also lacked the one-click capability to cruelly 'cancel' somebody en masse, like poor, lonely, misguided Suzanne Early. At every single screening I have attended I can recall the exact moment audiences align at the sight of Suzie being berated in front of millions - in front of us - having expected to be lightly entertained, no matter the cost. The more things change, the more, well, they don't.
Oh, and, on the way home, we quite randomly happened upon the following crazy golf-themed bar. I mean, of course, we did.
Special mention to the organisers of the event for inviting me to Sheffield, a lovely place to visit, and their welcoming & hard-working crew, especially Josh for all the heavy lifting. What a gent!
Until next time... try not to have sleepless nights.