As a PS to yesterday’s Halloween post, here are reviews of the two DVDs that I watched on All Hallows’ Eve itself, two 90-minute BBC dramas taking a very different spin on the phenomena of ghosts.
The first is the 1972 production The Stone Tape penned by the creator of Quatermass Nigel Kneale. It’s pretty much a text book example of his type of work, in that it takes a supernatural phenomena and tackles it with a scientific investigation to produce a modern explanation. In this case, an electronics company uses its own cutting edge tools to probe a ghost that’s appearing in their new headquarters and comes to believe that the building itself is recording impressions of past times and people and playing them back to those sensitive enough to pick it up.
Early on it appears that the production is going to be unforgivably misogynistic in a resolutely 70s fashion in that the sole significant female character in the play Jill Greeley (Jane Asher) is presented as a neurotic hysteric as evidenced by her near breakdown just from a near-miss car accident. Fortunately things soon pick up, and while Jill is the first person to pick up on the hauntings in the new building her account is quickly accepted and soon backed up by the male members of the company. Later, when the current of events turns against her and she becomes obsessed with pursuing it to the end, we’re firmly on her side and firmly opposed to any of the male chauvinists’ attempts to shoot her down so she becomes the true hero of the story, whereas the nominal lead of the show – Michael Bryant as thrusting CEO Peter Brock – increasingly becomes an utter arse to everyone around him.
Mainly studio-based with just a few scenes shot on VT on location, the sets are authentic-looking enough and there’s a pleasing sense of spatial coherence to the building that makes it more believable than usual. The play builds atmosphere and pace nicely as it develops its scientific thesis on haunted houses, and as ever with Kneale there’s a big climax followed by a effective, affecting creepy coda to proceedings before the credits roll. The only major problem with the production is the 70s-style clothing which is really distracting, but it’s fun to see a very young James Cosmo (Game of Thrones) in a small supporting role.
The Stone Tape was actually a Christmas Day chiller (although there’s not a trace of the festive season to be found in it.) Twenty years later the BBC chose Halloween to air a daring and ultimately notorious drama called Ghostwatch which in many ways could be described as the UK’s equivalent of Orson Welles’ 1938 War of the Worlds radio drama that caused consternation across the United States by pretending to be a newscast reporting on the actual events of an alien invasion.
In the case of Ghostwatch, the drama looks for all the world exactly like one of those special live broadcast programmes that the BBC do from time to time, setting itself up as an on-air investigation into a notorious haunted house in the London suburb of Northolt. The key aspect of the set-up is that it gets the real journalist and presenter Michael Parkinson anchoring things in the studio, and also involves other well known presenters of the day Sarah Greene, Mike Smith and Craig Charles undertaking their usual roles in the production in exactly the way that they normally would do, even using the well-recognised trope of inviting people to call in to a bank of telephone operators using the BBC’s then-regular phone-in number for such audience participation. It’s shot in a real house (and in the real studio that would be used to anchor the live broadcast) and includes a real cameraman and sound recordist as on-screen characters.
The first 50 minutes plays out much like a regular program of this type would do, which is to say it’s interesting enough but also rather mundane and risking boring the audience (much as Welles did with the big band musical interludes peppering his 1938 broadcast before news bulletins ‘broke in’.) Then things ramp up, with a genuine moment of human drama as it’s revealed that the hauntings are in fact the attention-seeking faking of one of the children in the house. The reactions from all concerned at this point are exemplary – some great acting from the two child cast members (Michelle and Cherise Wesson), a look of tearful disbelief from in-studio expert Dr Lin Pascoe (Gillian Bevan) who has just seen her life’s work discredited live on air, and a seething Parkinson who conveys the right amount of waspishness as a journalist who has just had his time wasted by a brazen hoax. That’s where you’d normally expect such a programme to end, but it’s actually after this that things start to go seriously pear-shaped and no one is safe from what happens next.
Cleverly threaded through the running time by writer Stephen Volk is a slow-build up of haunted house details including a backstory for the ghost, nicknamed ‘Pipes’ by the Early family, which becomes increasingly unsettling and truly horrific. There’s little in the way of special effects at work – pictures flying off the wall, lights flickering on and off are as kinetic as it gets for the most part – but there are two heart-stopping scenes which if you see them out of the corner of your eye in the brief time they’re on screen are truly terrifying, purely because of the “did I really see that?” effect. These days it’s easy enough to rewind the DVD to check what was actually in frame and figure out how the trick was done, but at the time it must have left anyone watching seriously doubting the evidence of their own eyes and with a terrible image imprinted in their memories. Arguably the most important ‘effect’ of all is in the completely realistic performances of the presenters, with Greene carrying the major load – fortunately a successful trained actress before she turned to hosting TV shows.
And of course it’s the realism wherein lays the problem: anyone tuning in just after the opening titles would have had no way of knowing what they were seeing wasn’t completely real and live (in fact it had been recorded weeks before). The BBC almost pulled the broadcast before it aired, and was subsequently besieged with phone calls from irate and frightened viewers. The tabloids ran it as a big, highly critical story the following day and it even became the first TV programme to be cited in the British Medical Journal as having caused Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in children. To this day, the legacy of Ghostwatch determines how realistic TV shows in the UK can be when it comes to showing faked news and reality footage in dramas; for ten years there was an outright ban on Ghostwatch itself ever being shown again, before the by-now legendary and highly sought-after programme was finally released on VHS and DVD by the British Film Institute in 2002.
With such furore circulating about a production, you’d think that the reality of watching it 21 years later would be rather anti-climactic. In fact it’s engrossing from the start even when just being a ‘straight’ BBC live light-entertainment show of the period, and admirably gripping and even blood curdling when it gets into its later stride. In some ways it’s reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project which came along in 1997, both in the way that it’s presented as real and how all the haunting is achieved by low-tech methods.
Admittedly neither The Stone Tape nor Ghostwatch gave me nightmares when I went to bed. But between them, they kept me up well past the midnight hour with not a trace of drowsiness until the final credits rolled, and I was very impressed by both.
Both dramas are available on DVD separately, but there’s also a budget double DVD pack containing both titles that’s well worth picking up. The Stone Tape comes with a commentary involving Kneale and horror author Kim Newman, while Ghostwatch contains no extras whatsoever.
Postscript: There’s an interesting 90-minute fan-made documentary entitled Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtains which is well worth catching. While mainly just a series of talking heads, this no-frills film manages to get time with just about every significant player in the production from the writer Stephen Volk and Lesley Manning to the five main performers (Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Mike Smith, Craig Charles and actress Gillian Bevan) together with many of the behind-the-scenes crew and executives involved. The story of how the show was made is interesting enough (and shocking to find out just how badly the BBC’s bureaucratic processes of the 1990s impeded things) but it’s the recollections of what happened as the show went out and of the reaction afterwards that really makes this compelling. There’s a fascinating study on the effects of how people will believe what they see on TV and how deeply hurt they can be if they feel duped, and how the BBC disowned the production and left everyone swinging in the wind for months afterwards. Full credit then to the someone with Parkinson’s industry stature coming back to take part, and so robustly (and proudly) defending the drama all these years later when he could so easily just have drawn a veil over the whole exercise. He doesn’t mince words, but at the end of the day there’s also fair credit given to the BBC for getting it made and broadcast in the first place. Kim Newman also provides some interesting thoughts on the state of TV criticism and the role of horror. Recommended.
Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtains is available online from Lawman Productions for £12.99, and I happened to find a copy in the British Film Institute’s film store on the London South Bank.