"Screenshot" with Mark Kermode, Ellen E Jones, and Mark Gatiss - 1st April 2022
It was a complete fluke yesterday when somebody presented me a copy of the Weekend TV listings magazine that just happened to feature an interesting spotlight mentioning a hoax-centric episode of Screenshot, a BBC Radio 4 series hosted by Mark Kermode and Ellen E Jones, which aired April 1st (harumph, harumph) at 19:15.
It must be said, I have been a fan of Kermode's astute analysis and reviews since my Film Studies college years, around which time I gleefullly discovered, Alien Evolution (dir. Andrew Abbott, Russell Leven, 2001), Shawshank: The Redeeming Feature (dir. Andrew Abbott, 2001), On the Edge of 'Blade Runner' (dir. Andrew Abbott, 2000), and of course, The Fear of God: 25 Years of ''The Exorcist'' (dir. Nick Freand Jones, 1998).
I can freely admit that Alien Evolution made such a big impact on me personally, that I count it among the more significant inspirations in making Behind the Curtains. I aspired to the standard of that documentary, and still do for so many reasons; aesthetic, astute, and articulate. I remember discovering the radically different cut lurking in the masterful DVD menus of the outstanding Alien Quadrilogy boxset, and a near-broadcast cut on the Alien Anthology follow-up Blu-ray set from 2010. Fortunately, I still have my own unedited VHS copy from the very first night of broadcast on Channel 4, complete with just one or two ex(or)cised moments, and original music cues as I recall.
So, you can imagine my ever-so-slightly crushing disappointment in 2009 when, during an episode of Road Movies, Mark appeared to, well, not entirely appreciate yours and mine favourite Hallowe'en Hoax*... Hence, this. Ahem.
Thirteen years on, and a brand-new Ghostwatch mention from the man himself has now very recently surfaced, which I'm happy to report was really lovely to see (or in this case, hear).
The particular portion of prominence to any prying Pipes-phobes kicks-off at approximately the 31-minute mark of yesterday's Screenshot; during which, writer/actor/director/producer ("one of those is not true") Mark Gatiss was invited to discuss his lasting appreciation of Alternative 3, Ghostwatch, Noel's House Party, and Beadle's About.
Now. Before we begin. Let me just say that I have a considerable amount of time for each of those aforementioned programmes. The latter three also constitute some of my fondest childhood memories, sat parked in front of the telly. For obvious reasons, Alternative 3 found its way into my rotation a little while later, yet still packs a punch today; with a similarly invested audience reception back in 1977 to Ghostwatch in 1992. Good company to say the least.
Although I am always thrilled to see it being discussed, my only gripe with Ghostwatch featuring alongside this line-up can best be exemplified by considering this given episode's title: "Hoaxes, fakes and pranks".
The very notion that Ghostwatch can still, to this day, be described in such simplistic terms remains more than a tad frustrating to me. The production and all that it achieved remains so much more than those particular drop-in-the-ocean-designators, and ironically far less when accurately and fairly describing it on its own terms; simply, a Special Drama. Irregardless, the fact the acustomed, or face-value, format that encompasses Ghostwatch helps blur the line between fact & fiction is immaterial to its core identity.
According to Hoax: A History of Deception: 5,000 Years of Fakes, Forgeries, and Fallacies, care of Wikipedia:
"A hoax is a widely publicized falsehood so fashioned as to invite reflexive, unthinking acceptance by the greatest number of persons of the most varied social identities and of the highest possible social pretensions to gull its victims into putting up the highest possible social currency in support of the hoax."
As we all know, Ghostwatch was not publicised as being a live event. As a drama, it succinctly tapped into audiences' perceived expectations of Light Entertainment and Outside Broadcast programming in order to most effectively deliver a narrative; in this case, a good old-fashioned ghost story. The most substantial aspect that differentiates it from most conventional drama is in its presentation.
Despite Ghostwatch utilising an unconventional style, I feel this is not enough to constitute a true definition of 'hoax', let alone, 'prank', and certainly not, 'spoof'. There are admittedly a number of fictitious hoaxes within the plot (not really applicable here, short of referencing), with even Parkinson at one point rhetorically asking, "Is all of this, all of this a hoax, or as Doctor Pascoe believes, are things just about beginning to happen..?"
This is a relatively minor bugbear of mine, but one that I maintain is important to note where applicable. Arguably, one of the principle reasons that Ghostwatch has not yet been repeated is due to the unconcious perpetuation of sensationalised assumptions harking back to its inaugural broadcast. The finer examples of television programming rightly push (if not all the way over) all manner of preconceived boundaries. Theoretically, it is only when these revolutions occur that said restrictions can be objectively evaluated, and better frontiers be forged.
At the end of the day, what we're discussing here was, in simple terms, a bloody good drama. I only regret, thirty years on, Ghostwatch is still rarely described as such.
Another way of putting it; has anybody ever green-inked to Points of View, "I feel compelled to write to you in the strongest possible terms. During your most recent episode of Bergerac, I clearly saw a man shot and killed, leading to a disquieting murder investigation on the fair island of Jersey. I am appalled that your camera crew seemingly allowed this to happen, and that as a trusted broadcaster, you later used the footage of this tragic event for the purposes of crass entertainment. I frankly expected better from Auntie, and sincerely hope that Mr. Bergerac apprehends the culprit in Part Two, next week."
... Actually, yes, they probably have. Nevertheless, I remain curious, at what point does drama cross the line into becoming too believable? How can a programme be rationally attacked for sheer plausibility? And, why have I just noticed three tiny parallel scratch marks on my arm as I sit here writing this? *gulp*
Anyhoo, back to Screenshot. This isn't the first time that guest, Mark Gatiss has expressed his admiration for Ghostwatch. In 2009, also care of Radio 4, fellow Leaguer Reece Shearsmith hosted his Haunted House for Hallowe'en, with a panel that also included Vic Reeves and Yvette Fielding. It was during this radio show that I believe Mark coined the exquisite and honoured rallying cry, "Copper-bottom genius" in describing Pipes' evocative moniker.
I remain a great admirer of Gatiss' work, particularly with The League. I sleep with the lights on now. It's in the dark I see Pipes' face. One eye protruding, the other ripped out. Black. It remains wonderful to hear those you respect professionally express their appreciation of Ghostwatch in some fashion. I so hoped to include the Royston quartet in the Behind the Curtains documentary, but sadly this never came to pass. If you're listening, gents, this year is the Thirtieth Anniversary you know... *fingers crossed*
In this interview with Ellen, Mark begins by explaining how he had not before seen Alternative 3:
GATISS: No, I hadn't. No, I had never heard of it, which is very unusual - except that, the wonderful thing about anything vaguely connected to the Supernatural or the 70s, is that there is never an end to them. You think you know every HTV children's serial, and then someone will say, 'Do you remember that one about the child whose foot grew too big?' and you go, 'What?' There's always something!
I've never heard of this. I thought it was delightful. Also, and I'm not just saying this, I know that if I'd watched this in 1976--7, I would not have fallen for it. Because, although it beautifully mimics the whole style of... all those gritty, 70s, Panorama-type things very, very well, it is full of character actors, whose names I would have known. I remember having the same -- this is a weird thing to say -- I remember having the same problem with Beadle's About, which is that they used, as a recurring actor, John Leeson, who was the voice of K9, in Doctor Who. And, I used to think, if John Leeson turned up at my drive, trying to convince me that something was happening, I'd just go, 'You're K9!' and that would have been the end of the skit.
JONES: Do you think people enjoy being hoaxed?
They tell you, 'not', don't they, because you get massive complaints, and then Ghostwatch is never allowed to be shown again, and it's put into the Black Archive, and... despite the fact it's manifestly excellent. I think, maybe people don't like to think they're being fooled. And you think, 'Well, it's just as valid as any other form.' Why should you not sit down and watch something which is presenting itself as fact, and then, at the end, says, 'Ah, ha-ha..!'. Why not? I mean, that's a valid form of fiction, isn't it?
Did you watch Ghostwatch when it was first broadcast?
I certainly did. I watched anything Supernatural throughout my entire life. So, obviously I was aware. It was on the cover of the Radio Times, that this was a sort-of War of The Worlds-type thing. What I loved about it, and I still absolutely adore, is the genuinely great performances from presenters -- particularly, Michael Parkinson and Sarah Greene.
It's so good. Even down to, sort-of--
Craig Charles is great.
Craig Charles is great. And even the, sort-of, longueurs when things go slightly wrong. There's a slightly embarrassing link between VT and Studio, whatever.
And obviously, the actual backstory; and of course, the single scariest name ever conceived for a ghost, 'Pipes'... The bit I never forget -- I literally shrieked -- the camera pans down to see the kiddies' drawings, and briefly comes back up, and you see him reflected in the French windows. Oh, my god -- it's brilliant.
There's also a fine appraisal from Mr. Gatiss of Inside No. 9's Hallowe'en special Dead Line from 2018, and later, ghost story adaptations.
And lastly, a kind word or two from the co-host of Screenshot:
KERMODE: All these threads, you know, lead through all the programmes and films we've been talking about. It is worth pointing out, on the subject of Ghostwatch, which I saw when it first went out in 1992, and I did find very, very creepy, because it's very Exorcist. In the aftermath of it, people were genuinely outraged. There were record numbers of complaints, people really did think that it had gone too far -- that they should have been warned in advance. The fact that there were presenters like Sarah Greene who would be, sort-of, familiar to Children's TV audiences taking part -- I mean, this taps into what you were saying about the Television is in your house. It's in your living room. It's one thing, going out to a movie, but it's a different thing when it's kind-of, lying to you, in the corner of your front room. [...] I'm a Horror film fan and a Science-Fiction fan, so most of the time, what I feel annoyed about is not being taken in -- is not being convinced. And so, I love it when anything works.
Again, despite being positively thrilled to learn that Mark was 'there with us' on the night of tx, '92, I do feel compelled to highlight his assertation that there were, "record numbers of complaints" for the reasons previously stated.
And While I'm At It, I wonder if (or why) the quote "[people felt] they should have been warned in advance" applies any more to Ghostwatch than it does to, say... The Exorcist. Not least of which as, I understand, contemporary live screenings for the latter do not currently require an advance spoken warning that anybody of a nervous disposition should leave the room, prior to it starting. No, really.
Until next time, Ghostwatchers... try not to have sleepless nights.