Cult TV classic ‘Ghostwatch’ at 25: ‘our show made a man shit his pants’

The BBC special is being screened in London tomorrow

For people of a certain age, the sound of clunking water pipes in the middle of the night is cause to pull that duvet a little tighter. Pipes – named for the sounds he made while contacting his young victims – was the smock-wearing bogeyman in the BBC’s Ghostwatch, screened on Halloween night 25 years ago, a drama mistaken by many viewers for live entertainment – and which was so terrifying to the audience the corporation has never repeated it.

Presented on location and in the studio by cosily familiar faces of the day – Red Dwarf’s Craig Charles, CBBC’s Sarah Greene, her husband Mike Smith and TV icon Michael Parkinson, Ghostwatch told the story of a suburban London family being terrorised by a malevolent spirit. By the climactic finale of the feature-length programme, Pipes had made his way to the TV Centre and all hell had broken loose.

Following 30,000 complaint calls in one hour and a subsequent tabloid uproar, the BBC distanced itself from the broadcast – but its cult appeal has grown. Eventually released on video in 2002, Channel 4 listed it in the top half of its 100 Greatest Scary Moments countdown, and a documentary film about the impact of the programme, Ghostwatch: Behind The Curtains, was released in 2013.

This Halloween, Pilot Light TV Festival are marking the anniversary with special screening of Ghostwatch in London and Manchester, including a Q&A with key creators and cast members. Director Lesley Manning and writer Stephen Volk tell us about it here.

In the best possible way, people of a certain age are still scarred by Ghostwatch. What’s the best personal story you’ve heard about it?

Stephen Volk: “The woman who wrote to our producer, Ruth Baumgarten, after the broadcast in 1992, asking to be reimbursed by the BBC for the cost of a pair of jeans because her husband, a veteran of the Falklands war, had shit his pants.”

Lesley Manning. “The nine-year-old who was terrified watching it and now admits it’s the reason why he is in the film industry now – he runs a post production house in Soho.”

People really thought the stuff in the show was happening. Was it meant to catch people out like that?

SV: “That wasn’t our prime objective. It wasn’t a prank or hoax, as the tabloids made out in the aftermath. It was written as a drama, by the BBC Drama Department, that had to be told a certain way. I imagined people might think it was real for five or 10 minutes, tops, then realise pretty quickly that it was a drama.”

LM: “I was very strict with my film language. I tried to make the language as pure to TV as possible, and I only broke with my rules on a couple of occasions! I think this authenticity was part of the confusion.”

Do you think anyone would fall for it these days?

SV: “No. Completely different times, when half the internet is fake and we are surrounded by ‘fake news’. But if you show Ghostwatch even now, on the big screen, when it clearly isn’t live and isn’t on Halloween, it is still surprisingly effective. The audience invariably begins very smug and sniggery, but by about halfway through they go very quiet, and you realise it is getting to them, whether they like it or not. Because of the way it is shot, I think it bypasses their critical faculties and hits the part of the brain, or senses, that believe it is truly happening.”

LM: “I wasn’t anticipating anyone ‘falling for it’ 25 years ago. I was just telling a story in a certain language.”

What would the 2017 version of Ghostwatch look like?
SV: “It wouldn’t be Ghostwatch, it would be something I wouldn’t see coming. Or it would be Most Haunted with the cast of Geordie Shore or some crap like that.”

LM: “It depends ‘what’ is presented and ‘how’ – there are a 100 platforms for deception as we all know. I suspect we won’t know till it happens!”

The ghost, Pipes, appears in the background lots of times. In those days, things like that were blink-and-you’ll-miss-it. Now, people would be able to pause and rewind. What did those appearances add to the show, do you think?

SV: “Those extra, unscripted appearances were added by Lesley the director during shooting. Being sensible, she wanted coverage of the ghost in case she needed it – but wisely kept him pretty much off camera. People still debate how many times Pipes appears on screen. I love that it adds to the mythology, the folklore, of Ghostwatch 25 years later. The misinformations. The facts or fiction that nobody knows whether it’s true or not. It seems fitting, and ironic, and great, that the programme has that quality attached to it, even now.”

LM: “For me, it’s more frightening not to be able to quite see. Fear is about the unknown. So the intention was to blink and you will miss it. Interestingly VHS was well established and we were aware at the time that people would be able to pause.”

The BBC still won’t show Ghostwatch. Is there a sort of pride in making something so affecting?

SV: “It doesn’t take much to worry the BBC. They’re in hot water now about executions in Gunpowder. There’ll always be something where someone says ‘It shouldn’t be allowed’. As a dramatist working in the horror genre, I’m looking for it, but the BBC is always trying to avoid it. It now has the gloriously-named and all-powerful ‘Ed Pol’ (Editorial Policy) which is fine for encouraging diversity, and things like that, but not so good if you want dramatists to push boundaries, to shock and challenge – which is part of the point of drama, I’d have thought.”

Were you surprised by the controversy?

SV: “We knew off the bat that there could be a potential mini Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds reaction, but of course not people taking to the streets because they thought an alien invasion was happening! We actually reined it in very much from my original concept, which was to built to maximum panic as Parky tells the TV audience at the end that the ghost, Pipes, is coming to get them in their own homes, through their TV sets. Instead we built to a scene that we thought was sufficiently OTT nobody would think it was for real. We didn’t anticipate that some would. The BBC were very keen to put in safeguards: the cast list in Radio Times and the announcement before the programme, which we fought to be more ambiguous, so it was all a balance, a trade-off between warning everybody it wasn’t real and undermining its impact before it had even started.”

LM: “Completely surprised! I was purely concentrating on making the best drama I could, true to the script, original, fresh, scary and authentic. Thats all!”

Following the backlash, what was the reaction from cast and crew? Did people want to distance themselves from it?

SV: “Not as far as I know. Parky was attacked by the tabloids. He just said it was daft: you can’t account for everybody out there. ‘Some people believe the wrestling,’ he said. I think it’s unfortunate that the cast are usually in the firing line more than the writer and director. Sarah [Greene] remains very proud of it, I know that.”

LM: “I never felt that anyone wanted to distance themselves from it from the cast and the crew – only from the top corridors of the BBC. [Producer] Richard Broke I know was very proud of it.”

The BBC’s Ghostwatch team

The story was based on The Enfield Poltergeist. What did you make of the recent Conjuring film based on the same?

SV: “It wasn’t based on the Enfield haunting. As far as I’m concerned, it was an archetypal poltergeist story based on all the literature I’d read about cases in the UK and USA. The setting in a London suburb makes the comparison inevitable, partly because we got Guy Playfair to act as consultant because he has firsthand knowledge of such cases. I didn’t see Conjuring 2 because the trailer alone was completely pants and ludicrous.”

Catch Pilot Light TV Festival’s special presentation of Ghostwatch at Genesis Cinema tomorrow, October 31, 2017

It also screens at Manchester’s Gorilla tonight (October 30) though tickets are now sold out.