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Ghostwatch (1992)
Director: Lesley Manning

review by Paul Higson

"Over the centuries there have been countless reports of ghosts and ghouls but the line between fact and fiction has always been unclear. Using the modern idiom of the outside broadcast, Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Mike Smith and Craig Charles star in Ghostwatch." So put the links man introducing the 1992 Halloween special that was to rapidly bring upon itself both acclaim and notoriety. With this film the BBC was relocating its successful, eight-year-old, Screen Two strand with a new introductory logo taking the viewers into the film, the channel insuring itself further by double-dropping the title as a film and then as the programme within the film. The jittery aunt also ensured that the script authorship of Stephen Volk was there up at the front for anyone sharp enough to notice. Though the greatest disclaimer, of course, was that the Radio Times considerate identified it as a fiction with cast details set in print. There was still a clear intention to deceive, most notably in that both the actual and the fantasy scheduling from nine o'clock to 10.30 pm, the top brass clearly had some concerns about the successful effectiveness of the programme. As much drawing its influence from the recent spate of one-off live and live-in broadcasts, nocturnally with wildlife, in an hospital or at the airport, as it did from the popular CrimeWatch, Volk's adventurous and bold vision must have been a daunting task but he and director Lesley Manning took to the challenge with great aplomb and a convincing show of it was made.

The Early family are a single mother, Pamela (Br�d Brennan), and her two daughters, Suzanne and Kim (Michelle and Cherise Wesson), the subjects of a noted case study of a recent and disturbingly accelerating haunting who volunteer a televised investigation at their semi-detached on Foxhill Drive. The noisy ghost shows itself to the youngest daughter and is not a pretty sight, a bald woman with an empty bloodied eye socket, wearing a long frock with buttons down the front, by accident dubbed Pipes in early explanation for the aural disturbances. For the 'live' outside broadcast, the girls remain in the house accompanied by a crew of camera (Chris Miller) and sound (Mike Aiton) reported by Sarah Greene, playing herself. Meanwhile, in the studios her equally genuine husband, Mike Smith, supervises the switchboard while Michael Parkinson hosts the entire gig and pinions guests with his own snide take and doubts on proceedings. The fourth celebrity called on to perform his usual function is Craig Charles as the arse-end of the outside broadcast team, convincingly unfunny as he himself was at the time. If it sounds unfair on the half-famous four, the quartet themselves may not agree, certainly understanding that their casting was related to a public perception of them as irritating for one reason or another and prime targets in such a scenario. Greene, in particular, was to come out shiningly from the experience while others were to build upon their contribution.

The opening half-hour begins as benignly as such shows do with introductions all round and the rules laid down bare. Parapsychologist Dr Lin Pascoe (Gillian Bevan) has studied the case at length, covering it in her book, the superbly titled 'Angels of the Odd', and is convinced that the haunting is genuine and that some activity tonight may not be beyond witness. The calls come in, there are glimpses of figures on the broadcast material... then there are not and an unmentioned image partly materialises to giddy up the nerves of viewers who suddenly begin to feel very alone. With the first act written off for lack of evidence, the second act rides in on some disturbing recollections of encounters with ghosts, stories that bear no direct relevance to the happenings at Foxhill Drive, tales volunteered from real life sources of encounters, frightening behaviour that you would not accredit the wispy ones capable of but claimed as to be disturbingly true. Greene also has a true story incorporated, though this tale sounds familiar, with its harpsichord-like music and an Indian lady with her hair tied back, have a lot in common with the short British film The Parcel From Dehli.

Charles meanwhile interviews uncomfortable locals who recount a missing girl, a knifing incident in which the victim was a five-year-old and the discovery of a mutilated, pregnant dog, the foetuses removed and scattered around the body. The ugly stories doing their job, the second act ends with the revelation that the older daughter is hoaxing the noises and the fall-out hangs heavily on the studio, sadness, disappointment and an abuse of trust stilling all and giving the sceptics, led by Parkinson, an opportunity to settle into the stance of one presuming himself now proven superior, cajoling the experts for the now more distant proof to be made.

In the final stretch all hell breaks loose and the house becomes very dangerous with supernatural activity. Several people and finally a social worker, phone in to add to the history of the land and the house, first to tell of Mother Seddon a cruel baby farmer and then to inform that records would fail to show the lodging of a highly, disturbed young man at the address who had died in horrific circumstances. The film closes in high daftness as if to counter any real fear that may have been invoked during transmission. The collection of audio and video playback material along with the live broadcast acting have become the component parts in a s�ance that covers the entirety of the British Isles releasing the unhappy and violent lost souls upon the viewing populace.

The great success of this film, attributable to the all involved is that the 90 minutes are convincing in their continuity. It has the feel of being performed in real-time though this is clearly, technically impossible given the precision timing of some of the sightings and the contrivances in some of the downtime and how it is filled. Having said that greater alacrity is required in the theatre and it could have been attempted live and in one take if someone had dared. The expected elements of this form of television are all included and incongruously positioned while attesting to a need to gradually accelerate the activity and build upon the fear factor. One of the callers tells of an accident in her home half an hour before, the ambulance having taken her husband and the clock having stopping at 9.30pm. With its availability on DVD the viewer can now backtrack and realise that this coincided with the AGFA-tape audio segment during which an apparition can be seen to appear, be take its next step out of the video footage, across the audio evidence and into the studio. The children at home are reportedly transfixed to the screen like the victims of Halloween 3: Season Of The Witch (1983). Influences can be clearly identified in a number of classic genre films, particularly the original television version of Quatermass And The Pit (1958). That is at least two points of reference scripted by Nigel Kneale.

Stephen Volk fills the script with many catchy, cult-worthy names: Pipes, Foxhill Drive, Mother Seddons, Angels of the Odd and the Glory Hole. The latter is the dreaded space under the stairs that plays a part in several of the scarier scenes. The dialogue too cuts, carefully chosen words that you really don't want to belong together. Knifing, for instance is the phrasing over the more conventional and blunter stabbing, and as already stated the act is identified with a child the victim. Great consideration has been paid to the writing and production. The celebrity cast may have been called upon to adlib the occasional spot as long as they were the focus of attention and knew where the regular script recommenced, but this is surely to intricate a devising to permit that.

The film has the rare dishonour of having brought about a death in the real world. One mentally disturbed young man viewing on the night took his life several days later rather than, as reported in the press of the day, allow the ghosts to get him. The veteran presenter and interviewer, Michael Parkinson, despite having appeared again as himself in Jim Clark's 1974 horror film Madhouse, has always been an aggressive critic of the genre, favouring the creativity, intelligence and wit of American cowboy movies of the 1930s and 1940s (please don't fail to recognise my sarcasm) and some saw it as particularly ironic that while he was decrying the harm in horror movies that on the rare occasion that a film in the genre could be directly cited for its influence in a real life tragedy that he should be found hosting the very movie.

The ludicrous close does some harm but with the incredible acumen and detail that precede it and the chills that it can still rake up this is a work as ingenious as it is notorious.

BFI DVD extras include a commentary by Stephen Volk, Ruth Baumgarten and Lesley Manning, Shooting Reality by Lesley Manning, plus DVD-ROM content of Stephen Volk's original treatment, screenplay, and a ghost story, the latter three on Adobe documents which are accessible, though some have cited difficulty and alternative routes can be found suggested at the B.F.I site.
Ghostwatch
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