"Ghost Watch" - The Original Series Outline
To mark the upcoming, special anniversary edition of National Séance, writer-creator, Stephen Volk has very kindly shared his original Series Outline for Ghostwatch [sorry, better make that, "Ghost Watch"] to check out, and it's a fascinating, if inescapably eerie read.
Not only that, but Stephen has kindly written a few words to accompany the pages, below...
So this, arguably the distilled concept for the first iteration of the programme – then envisioned as a five-part serial – largely came about due to the then-soaring response to Martin Campbell & Troy Kennedy Martin's seminal 1985 eco-thriller, Edge of Darkness. Famously, Stephen's agent suggested to him at the time that the BBC might be receptive to a 'darker' mode of storytelling, and this is what he produced.
This is hard-hitting work from Stephen, as one would naturally expect. Many of the themes and visions as presented are cutting, unapologetic – and somehow both as prescient, as they were ahead-of-their-time. Of course, had this model of the narrative been produced, it would have made for a markedly different experience to the Ghostwatch we all know and love; though remaining genetically alike. This would be less of a short, sharp Hallowe'en Treat & Trick, and more a steadier-paced discussion piece on the power of belief.
In any and all respects, this is a truly fascinating insight into the creative process that engendered the Screen One classic, and huge thanks go to Stephen again, for kindly sharing this in time for National Séance. Indeed, the following contains material which some may find to be disturbing.
Before we begin, [and bearing in mind I failed-out of college], in terms of fully appreciating this work – when taking a postmodernist approach, Chaos Theory [well, let's be honest, Ian Malcolm] whispers in our ear that it is entirely feasible for a seemingly insignificant butterfly to flap its wings in Peking, and somehow, those present some eleven thousand kilometres away in Central Park, shall eventually experience rain instead of sunshine, as a direct, concurrent consequence.
I myself have a conflicting/complimentary theory concerning
the point at which something becomes, "Functionally Finite"; which is to
suggest that when faced with a perceptive reality layered with infinite variations, an equivalently-boundless number of
functional or 'useful' outcomes will simultaneously effect the mean, median, mode, and average of
all repeated attempts to replicate the same basic action. In other words, outside of molecular engineering, does the imperceptible but present difference between
say, 0.0000000000001 and 0.0000000000002 truly amount to anything resembling a functional difference, in day-to-day practice?
With this in mind, I wonder, considering the undeniably obvious links between its various stages of development, at what point did Ghostwatch truly transcend from being a mere figment of Stephen's, to Lesley's completed film? Was Ghostwatch always Ghostwatch – merely waiting to be made physical? May the programme ever have become anything other than what it it could have been, more or less? What is Ghostwatch, and in a roundabout way, does this mean it was destined to be made?
... Don't ask me, mate. I only work here. But, I know who we can ask... and, that's Stephen himself; here figuratively offering some helpful script-notes to his younger self, circa 1988. Observations by myself are easy to differentiate, as they are right-justified, and likely not nearly as interesting.
Right, then, Pipes Phobes. Here we go...
FIVE FINGER EXORCISE?
It’s hard enough for me to cast my mind back to last year – pre-COVID – let alone back 30-plus years to a time pre-Ghostwatch, or, more particularly, to the time when Ghostwatch was no more than a nebulous glint in my writer’s eyeball.
But the other day, rummaging in my store, I came across some pages that took me back there. I thought, for BtC fans, it might be fun to write up my reaction to reading those pages now, in 2020, almost thirty years after Ghostwatch was transmitted.
The first shock I get from the document in my hands is that “GHOST WATCH” on the title page is two words! I thought it was always one! I see this “Series Outline” is dated October 1st, 1988. I probably did some work before this, but this is my proposed dramatic structure for 5 hrs of TV that never existed.
I remember my first pitch to myself – one page: EDGE OF DARKNESS type “supernatural” thriller (I don’t know why I put that word in quotes; perhaps to avoid frightening the horses). 6 x one hour parts, on film. Atmospheric, shadowy. Bizarre, Mysterious. Weird. Scary. Then: Quatermass-style psi investigator? Alarm the audience’s imagination. Get them to stay home from the pub! Too true! Then I go on to give my selling pitch in one paragraph:
What if during a TV documentary about a ghost, the audience starts to SEE SOMETHING? A trendy, sceptical TV broadcaster comes face to face with something baffling and creepy – her world is turned upside down. Her obsession with the haunting takes it back before the cameras, but on the final terrifying night of her “ghost watch” she realises that the involvement of her avid 12 million audience...
An ironical stab in the dark – the final audience for Ghostwatch was, I think, 11.07 million – the highest figure for a single drama in many years.
... is contributing to create a massive nationwide “séance”, dredging up astonishing and frightening entities [plural!] from the past – including her own...
Back to the 1988 outline.
INTRODUCTIONVOLK: My agent’s old address, way back, before they moved into D’Arblay Street. Now Linda is retired and living in California. Her husband, John Goldstone, was the producer of many of the Monty Python feature films. Talk about Ghostwatch trivia.
Next page: Two quotes. I’d forgotten about viewers phoning in to say they’d seen a “hooded monk” ghost during that Anglia TV programme. And Robson seeing nothing when he re-ran the films... that must have been where I got the idea for Parky. Spoonbending, of course, was a televisual landmark when it came to “paranormal activity” – so naturally it found its way into my script.
Next, a brisk one-page synopsis: “Tilda Callieu” is a name I have always liked and tried to use. “Tilda” was the name of a barmaid round the corner from where I live, and I liked the sound of it being a clipping of the old-fashioned Matilda. A house in an inner city estate – so, immediately getting way from “old gothic castles and creaking gates”, as Parky says in the final TX version. Seeing nothing on the film. Calls flooding in... My eyes go to all the things I use later in the shooting script. The “cynical” Tilda of course eventually becomes the “Cassandra/believer” Dr Pascoe – the cynic is Parkinson. But I announce the promise of the climax of the series.... a return to said haunted house – “in an unparalleled parapsychological experiment” live on prime-time TV. Tilda’s “final, terrifying night” when the viewers come into contact with “astonishing evil”...
Next page, some more selling points: The “communicative powers of TV become caught up in the real world of the paranormal...” EXACTLY! And I see, in setting up the premise of a 5-part serial – if not an ongoing drama series – I’m trying to sell the idea of a chalk and cheese double act, documentary film maker and psychical researcher. All this seems a bit redundant now, given the final product we broadcast in October 1992.
One time model and designer clothes... I would shudder to describe a character like that now! Haggerty seems like a faux Bob Geldof. I enjoy him being a different take on the fuddy-duddy image of ghost hunters and I like the spiky banter. Of course he resists her call to adventure. “Columbo and Annie Lennox”? Oh dear! Did I have to?
As early (sic) as page 2 we meet Pam Early, Kim and Suzanne, as well as the noises in the pipes. Inner city here rather than Northolt. The sharing of the bed hinting sexual antics of the spectral kind. Oojamaflip, the imaginary friend – I like that. I guess I didn’t use it because it is too similar to the girl’s imaginary friend in The Exorcist. I note that Kim says the ghost wants to do bad to everyone: glad I saved that. (Pamela is a bible-basher here. I’m happy we didn’t do that, as it’s far too heavy handed.)
Page 4: A mention of yuppies, how very 1980s! I don’t know if “Barnes Common socialist” still applies but it makes me smile. Tilda gets phone calls claiming they saw a ghost on TV – oh my. Not a great surprise the TV company decide to milk it.
Page 6: Analysing the mystery photos is quite Kneale-esque in a good way. Science brought to bear. Mrs Tyndall, the black bag, and the effect on the estate: my canvas is obviously wider at this point, using multiple characters and strands to build up a dread atmosphere, hopefully. Gramophone needle – oh gosh, that dates it!
VOLK: Page 7: Another good episode title I think. Early kids now at siege. Ghislaine Hammond, weirdly, is a name I have used later in my novella “The Little Gift” (I’d forgotten that!). “Ghislaine” was the rather exotic name of a copywriter I once worked with. Quite hard to have a supernatural story hit the media – I wonder if this aspect would have worked? Bath University boffin strand (Seyrig and the “white rats”): having been a member of the Society of Psychical Research (SPR) I have always been fascinated by the idea of ghosts and ESP being studied under laboratory conditions. (Interestingly, Dr Pascoe in TX1992 Ghostwatch says they can’t be!) Tilda’s boss says “Do the obvious”: It was always my credo to apply the logic – if this was real, what would the BBC do?
The phrase “young black doctor” makes me cringe. Colour-blind casting is the way to go these days. Diversity a given by casting directors. Again, describing Hammond as a “Sloane ranger” is so eighties! I see I bump up the subtext of the absent father abusing the daughters: here I make his conviction for abuse in plain sight (rather than Tunstall’s).
Page 9: I’d forgotten the idea of “owl vision”. I like that phrase to describe people who see ghosts. I like the saucepan boiling over but the hob not being lit: another idea I shall steal for later use! The pink fluffy rabbit – Bubby, to be. Again, the drawings done by the children BEFORE the broadcast – neat idea.
The prevalent discord in Curran Park [ironically] pre-dates Pascoe's 'Prehistory' theory that Pipes may not solely be limited to being some kind of fusion between Tunstall & Seddons, but possibly, many other individuals spanning the ages. Ultimately, in TX1992, Foxhill Drive becomes the national hub of urban myth, paranormal activity, and pervading danger.
Scenes based in Seyrig's lab bear similarities to the recordings of Pascoe's own university-led investigations into the Early Haunting. Also, when 'Owl-Vision' participant Gary 'regresses' to a child-like vocalisation, this trait perhaps developed into characters in Ghostwatch speaking with others' or otherworldly voices.
some respects, and no doubt coincidentally, the Baptist vicar who is ultimately advised by his bishop against making his beliefs public, correlates with the real-life
vox-pop participants who volunteered their Ghost Stories to the
production; in that, some were said to have been reluctant to share
their experiences, for fear of ridicule, or not being taken seriously.
3. THE FLESH TAPE
VOLK: Page 13: A very David Cronenberg title, eh! The fakery writ large, so Tilda’s instinct that something is strange makes her a voice in the wilderness. They want to draw the line but she can’t. Similar beat in TX1992. Missing child, which the medium warned her about. The Peppermint Shroud... I have a feeling I used this elsewhere, in Afterlife maybe?
Page 14: Seems to be a telepathy subplot in the lab. These are the foothills of ideas that find voice in Telepathy, a feature film script of mine. Science and psychic ability overlapping. The scratches, which appear in TX1992. The reverend’s test of faith strangely echoes through the years in a project I wrote in 2015 – the ITV adaptation of Phil Rickman’s Midwinter of the Spirit, about female priest Merrily Watkins and her encounter with pure evil. I like the little girl finding the broken TV set.
Page 15: ...and the reveal it is Tilda as a child. The exploration of the card fakery seems a bit dull: I am aching to get to the haunted house. The reporter quizzing the rev about evil forces becomes Craig Charles walking and talking with the British Rail guard in TX1992.
In both iterations, not only does Pam Early have little choice but to abandon her Foxhill-based family home, but the sequel short, 31/10 reveals how she ultimately emigrates to America, perishing in a house fire in 1995, just three years later.
Page 16: Kids in peril. Again, Stephen King. IT in the drain. The idea they’ve been looking at the wrong sister – this is maintained in future versions. Child abuse has been rife in Curran Park... horrid idea, not sure the BBC would EVER buy that.
The premise that the poltergeist focus is actually Kim, being the "real sensitive" opposed to the more-obvious Suzanne, also crosses-over into TX1992.
Page 17: The debunking I’m playing in parallel with upping the ante of dread and darkness now. Kind of mass hysteria element. The medium cashing in on it. The lab rats become TV stars, like the spoonbenders. I’m noticing a lot of TV watching and TV switching off in scene after scene. Bigging up the notion of the watching audience.
Some serious fan extrapolation here, but could "Graham Mead" be the real name of the anonymous phone-in caller, voiced by the late Mark Drewry, who details to Pascoe & Parkinson his experiences serving as Tunstall's social worker..? I'd like to think so, at least.
Page 18: The ceremony of prayer using the Ken Dodd song is fun. This strikes me as like the vigils they hold when someone in USA is executed. Similar discordance. The supernatural threat – real or imagined – is really present strongly now. The idea everybody watching is vulnerable to this evil seeping out through the TV set. Drowned children? Tough sell for TV back then – or even now!
The idea that children watching Tilda's programme somehow become physically-affected or transfixed by it, carries over into TX1992, by way of the concerned, uncredited phone-in caller who reports how her own children, "won't take their eyes off the set".
Page 19: Technical hitch in the programme (oh yes...) Tilda resigns but finds an ally in Haggerty, plot point. There’s not as much of them (as a double act) as I was expecting. Remember the idea of the believer and sceptic wasn’t done to death in 1988 when I wrote this. The X-Files didn’t hit our screens until 1993.
The stage direction describing how Tilda fails to notice something obviously Supernatural happening close to her, even though we the audience can, shares similarities with TX1992.
Page 20: Nice to see Nigel Kneale’s “The Stone Tape” theory cited here, updated by me to posit that our human neurology acts as a recording device (and projector). Mrs Tyndall remembering the murderer back in her childhood... (This council estate aspect makes me think of true crime dramas of late, such as The Moorside. I’m not sure I would today want to depict such places as hubs of primeval evil. Times have changed. I’ve changed.)
Arguably, the fateful tale of Edna James later transposes to that of Judy Wheland, in TX1992.
The reasons why Pascoe gets involved in the Early & Heidelberg cases are never explored in Ghostwatch. Despite being very different characters, here, it seems Tilda's motivations for investigating the Supernatural have links with some kind of personal tragedy.
Page 21; There is so much going on in this treatment that the idea of writing these episodes seems impossibly daunting. I think I would trim to the bone and not have so many points of view. There is the temptation to fill in lots of plot for five hours, but in the end it is better to focus on a tight group of characters. I can’t remember Ruth Baumgarten’s producer reaction to these pages – perhaps it all bamboozled her. It slightly bamboozles me reading it now. Hard to maintain pace and suspense over a long period of physical time.
4. BAD MOTHERS
VOLK: Page 22: I remember having one of those toys that moos if you turn it upside down. It always struck me as sinister. Funny how these things from distant childhood surface when you are thinking of things that are disturbing. You don’t exactly know why but you have to trust your instinct when you pluck them from the darkness. Novelist Adam Nevill is very good on this – talking about the images of childhood, perverted to become nightmarish for our entire lives. I guess the waxworks idea comes from me thinking about Christie, Haig and such characters in the Chamber of Horrors – again something that terrified me when I was younger. The frock a very clear and unashamed steal from Norman Bates in Psycho I’m afraid.
RICH: Detective Superintendent Pascoe makes an appearance. Perhaps, a relation of Lin's?
The affirmation that Andreas' body was found deeper in the ground than the Electricity Board was digging is similar to how Heather, Josh, and Mike's footage was recovered beneath the undisturbed ruins of Rustin Parr's house, preceding the release of, The Blair Witch Project.
Page 23: I’d forgotten this scene entirely but I like scenes between adult daughters and their mothers. Somehow they can be very revealing and the idea of Mrs Early asking if she is a bad mother is a good counterpoint. Dead kittens... We would never be able to do that on the BBC! It was bad enough in TX1992 to mention the dead dog. Just the words being spoken upset a lot of people!
Page 25: OK, the suicide here is Leonard Early and not Raymond Tunstall, but the suicide method, being based on a story a policeman once told me, remains intact in TX1992.
Page 26: Fifteen drownings. Blimey. For a series – not bound in real time – you have to up the ante, and in some ways up the death count, but this seems excessive. The experts descend with gadgetry, infra-red, electronic sensors... a stake out at the haunted house – primetime TV. Here we go...
Page 27: Kimmy and Suzanne facing the TV screen “Talking to Daddy” is pretty spooky. The movie Poltergeist has a lot to answer for. The Nativity Play is an idea I have always wanted to use, its naffness (the stick on beards, kids playing sheep...) and the potential to subvert Christian values. I have used it in another treatment yet to come to the screen (if ever). Bones from the hole in the road – shades of Hobb’s Lane.
Page 28: The song, here, a made up rhyme about Mother Seddons. In the end I used “Round and Round the Garden”, which my grandmother used to do when I was little. Tickling as a kind of intrusive contact – while intended to be the cause of mirth – might be frowned on today as unwelcome. Children are told to say if they find endearments unwanted. When I was a boy we weren’t given a choice. It was wall to wall kisses off grannies smelling of Imperial Leather.
"Mother S, Mother S,
Mother us, mother us,
Don't smother us, smother us,
Kiss kiss kiss."
Page 30: All the souls watching their TV sets at the same time, that is. Tonight for one hour, Live... The promise, the expectation building. I want to get there now. Nothing less than concrete proof of the existence of ghost, captured on videotape...
The TV Presenter set up for a commentary, Apollo Mission style. Videos cameras and other equipment detailed. This is the stuff I loved and didn’t want to lose. The practical joker in the crew, here - which is Craig Charles frightening Sarah Greene in the TX1992 version.
Page 34: The scientist says They’re creating it! We’re all creating it! Indeed so, mate. Haggerty becomes Harry the Explainer regarding Mrs Seddons, baby farmer. I’m surprised to see I have this down so early in the development process: there she is. The child drownings, the copper.
Page 37: Full on horror film effects required here. This is a ghost train ride with the brakes off. It’s mad and relentless. Bonkers. The “need based experience” comes from my reading of the works of the late Hilary Evans, if anyone is interested. His books are exceptional if you are fascinated by the psychology behind anomalous experiences. And there it is in black and white: You’ve created a BIG SEANCE with TWELVE MILLION PEOPLE joining hands!”And then an ice rink with dead children under the ice. Fuck! The Omen 2.
Page 38: Wait, I love the ghost handing Tilda a baby, that’s really creepy. The child she was pregnant with. I’m evil. The taunting is ghastly. Judgement Day? Again – what was I thinking? Baby with the bathwater. Maybe I was thinking, if we get to make this, let’s do EVERYTHING!
And the coda is rather nice, if I do say so myself. In the afterlife, to coin a phrase. Obviously Overlook Hotel related, but still. (Perhaps the life hereafter is just another channel we tune into. Hell is the one full of repeats.) Loss of transmission. Cut to black.
With boundless thanks to Stephen once more for this fascinating glimpse into how everyone's favourite Hallowe'en Hoax came to pass. Remember, we want to hear your questions later on this week, for the live Tweet-Cast. Please send an SAE to @Ghostwatch, and I'll do my best to read them out, on air.
Happy Hallowe'en, Ghostwatchers. Try not to have sleepless nights, take care, and look forward to seeing you at National Séance, on Saturday.
Special mention – my love and heartfelt gratitude to two very special people – firstly, my mother, who despite a profoundly difficult year, has predictably broken through every obstacle in her way, and as always, still found time to selflessly consider and care for others. And, to Cat for her kindness, warmth, and generosity this year; least of all in streamlining the title of my "Functionally Finite" theory. I owe them both, so much. xx