After the disappointment of the Tomorrow People reboot yesterday, here’s something rather better. The tape opens with news and weather, and a trail for Sunday Night programmes, including The House of Eliot, the clip from which immediately makes me think of the French & Saunders parody of it . “But what are we going to do about the new collection?”
Then, we have Ghostwatch, the infamous Halloween programme which terrified a nation, caused questions to be asked in parliament, and which is so notorious that it has never been repeated on the BBC.
Here’s the BBC1 announcer introducing it, which is worth watching in order to understand a little about the programme, why it was made, and the effect it was to have.
“Screen One presents an unusual and sometimes disturbing film” – “The line between fact and fiction has always been unclear.” – “Using the modern idiom of the outside broadcast.” All these words were supposed to reassure the viewer. This is a programme which uses the form and tropes of television itself to create its scares, and the original intention was to broadcast it without any caveats at all.
But clearly, the BBC didn’t quite have the nerve to play it as intended, so this introduction, and the fact it was shown in the Screen One strand, which was for BBC produced ‘films’ and therefore fictional drama, were meant to tip you off that this wasn’t real.
It even has a writer’s credit, although blink and you’d miss it.
But as soon as the show starts, it’s played totally straight. “The programme you’re about to watch is a unique live investigation of the supernatural” says Michael Parkinson, a perfect choice for a Saturday evening programme, someone the viewer inherently trusts.
The programme is a live outside broadcast from “the most haunted house in Britain”. It starts with Parkinson showing some video shot by parapsychologists, of two young girls in their bedroom, experiencing loud noises, objects being thrown around and, finally, a lamp shattering. Then the programme goes into its ‘proper’ title sequence – which tells us that the brief titles at the beginning were an afterthought.
They’re very jaunty, full of jolly looking BBC engineers wearing Ghostwatch sweatshirts, and really focusing on the outside broadcast nature of the programme. It’s a live ‘Ghostwatch’ – another in a long line of OB shows like HospitalWatch, where the BBC goes somewhere where interesting things happen, and watch as things unfold, talking to the people involved and generally keeping their fingers crossed that something exciting happens.
This was already a familiar TV format, and remember that this show predates all the endless ‘Most Haunted’ shows that we’re now familiar with. This was something new.
It all takes place in a suburban house in Northolt, inspired by a house in Enfield which was supposedly the most haunted house in Britain, and which was recently the subject of a TV serial starring Timothy Spall and Matthew Macfadeyan, and this year was used as the basis of The Conjuring 2, the ghost story sequel about two actual ghost hunters.
As well as Parkinson in the studio, at the house itself is ‘cheeky’ Craig Charles, doing the hosting duties outside the house, chatting to the crowd that inevitably appears at a live event like this, and talking to neighbours about the area and its history.
Charles is a good choice, someone who’s an actor, but also known as a comedian and presenter, so not someone out of place in this setup. And his demeanour suggests he’s not entirely taking it seriously.
Craig hands over to Mike Smith, manning the phone lines in the studio, asking for calls about “your own experiences with the paranormal”. I understand that if viewers phoned the number, they got a recorded message saying the programme wasn’t real – I wonder if anyone has a recording of that message, as I’d love to hear it. I didn’t watch the programme go out live, as I was out for the evening, so I didn’t get a chance to phone in, which I slightly regret.
Mike Smith isn’t just there as a capable TV presenter – he’s also there because his wife, Sarah Greene, is the final part of the presenting team, on location inside the haunted house itself.
Craig Charles interviews the family in the house about their experiences. Irish actor Brid Brennan plays Pam Early, the mother of the house. When she becomes a bit emotional talking about the strange things and their effect on the family, Craig Charles’ reaction of faint embarrassment seems perfectly genuine. It must be quite hard playing ‘yourself’ but in a fictional setting.
Back in the studio, Dr Lin Pascoe, the parapsychologist who’s been investigating the haunting is played by Gillian Bevan. My one criticism of her is that she’s just a touch too ‘actory’. She gives a performance that feels like acting, and although she does it well, I’d have liked to have seen just a touch more stiffness, a little discomfort at being on live TV. She’s just a bit too cool.
Next we finally meet Sarah Greene, former Blue Peter presenter, indeed she’s a former HospitalWatch presenter, and the perfect choice for this role. She’s a familiar, friendly, reassuring face, totally nonthreatening, and a super-competent TV presenter. But she also has a background in acting – she was a child actor in some children’s drama, and even played an alien in one of Colin Baker’s Doctor Who stories, alongside TV comedian Faith Brown. So that experience must have helped in this show, where she has to be herself, but also play to the story around her.
Sarah meets parapsychologist and researcher Alan Demescu, played by Mark Lewis and his magnificent proto-hipster beard.
She also talks to the BBC cameraman about his camera, which can be switched to an infra-red display. This predates the now more familiar IR displays of Most Haunted and their ilk, which dispense with the false colour to produce a more comprehensible image, but this was what an infra-red picture looked like at the time.
They also talk to the sound man, who does an Adrian Edmondson impression.
Then it’s back to the studio with Parkinson and Dr Pascoe, taking the first phone call of the night, someone who thinks they saw a figure of a woman in a black dress in the video clip shown at the start of the programme.
Then, back to Sarah at the house, apple bobbing, when they hear a knocking, and then are confronted with a shock.
It’s just Craig Charles having a laugh. “I had a bet with your husband that I could get a four letter word out of you on television.”
The family tell the story of some of the strange happenings in the house. Strange figures in the girls’ bedroom, strange knocking sounds. “I said it was pipes, you know, central heating. So afterwards, whenever Kim heard something, she’d say ‘It’s Pipes, Pipes is here.'”
The younger daughter, Kim, shows Sarah where Pipes lives – behind a boarded up door under the stairs. Mother Pam says “The Glory Hole as we used to call it when we were kids.”
After some drawings the children have done, back to the studio, and it’s time to re-examine the footage where people have claimed to be able to see a dark figure. Here’s the shot we’re looking at now.
To the left of the window, there’s clearly a human shape in the shadow, but, rather cleverly, neither Parkinson nor Doctor Pascoe can see anything. When I first watched this, I thought they were being a bit dense, but then they rewind the tape, and play it back slowly, and the figure is gone. Having Parkinson and Pascoe not see something which viewers can see fairly clearly is a brilliant piece of drama, as it will hook in viewers who will be sitting there saying “I saw something there why can’t they see it?” and makes the viewer a part of the drama. There are more sightings like this as the show goes on.
Sarah talks more to Pam about their ordeal, and looks at some newspaper cuttings.
Dr Pascoe plays back some tapes of one of the daughters speaking in a strange voice. “At one point we filled Suzanne’s mouth with a coloured liquid and sealed her lips with tape and the voice continued with absolutely no change in quality whatsoever.” Which sounds like some kind of torture technique.
They look at more evidence, then bring in a sceptic, Dr Emilio Sylvestri, played by Colin Stinton, who definitely sounds like a typical sceptic. It’s a shame they didn’t spend a bit of extra cash and get someone like James Randi to play himself.
Craig Charles talks to some locals about other strange goings on. They talk of a little girl who went missing, a five year old who was stabbed, and he talks to a man who tried to exorcise the area. “By profession I’m a British Rail guard.”
But there’s another fleeting glimpse of Pipes, at the far right of this picture.
Back to the house, where things are hotting up. Or cooling down, as Sarah complains of the cold. There’s a mysterious wet path on the living room carpet (suspiciously shortly after Suzanne had got a glass of orange juice), then they can hear scratching in the walls, there’s a trail of the children’s pictures on the kitchen floor, and a cat appears suddenly at the kitchen door, providing a release of tension. But as the camera pans up, yet another glimpse of Pipes as a reflection in the kitchen door.
There’s more noises upstairs, and Dr Pascoe warns Sarah to be careful as Suzanne has left the bedroom but she’s not appeared on the landing camera. Until Dr Pascoe asks for the camera to pan down, and they can see Suzanne hitting the central heating with a stick.
Dr Pascoe defends the children. “It’s a common pattern” They speak to Suzanne. “We thought you’d leave us. We’re just noises to you.”
Having defused the situation, it’s back to the studio, and Emilio Sylvestri gloats a bit. Parkinson is still convinced it’s all a hoax. But calls are coming in, with viewers describing an old figure, with black eyes, or no eyes, wearing a long black dress buttoned up to the neck. This matches with a description given months before by daughter Kim in an interview with Dr Pascoe.
Back to the house, and they can hear the noise of cats in the house again. And Suzanne has scratches on her face which she swears aren’t self inflicted.
A caller calls in, telling them that there was a story told in Northolt of a woman called Mother Seddons, who used to take in babies, and murder them, drowning them. And she might have lived on the same spot that the house is on now.
Then, as Sarah and Mrs Early take the girls downstairs, there’s possibly the best sighting of Pipes, as the camera pans around the now empty bedroom, and you can see his figure against the curtain. This is even more effective because the camera almost immediately pans back, to see there’s no one there.
There’s more banking, a picture flies off the wall in the living room, and Suzanne starts speaking in a very strange voice. “What big eyes you have.”
Sarah is rushing round the house looking for younger daughter Kim. She finds her in the kitchen, having put her favourite bunny doll in the sink, and pulled out its eye. “Pipes told me to”.
The sound of cats is all around now, and sound man Mike thinks it’s coming from inside the Glory hole. They pull off the boards, and the door swings open, and just before we get a good look at what’s behind the door, Mike is struck by a falling mirror. But it looks like another appearance of Pipes.
While Sarah is preoccupied with Mike, Suzanne has gone, and we can hear her calling from the Glory Hole – this is possibly the most disturbing part of the show, as she pleads for her mother to help her. “He’s hurting me.”
Transmission is cut.
Craig Charles, outside the house, doesn’t know what’s going on. “I wish they’d told us we were on. Only at the BBC, loves.”
Then the picture from the house is restored, and things look a bit calmer.
There’s another phone call, talking about a man who sublet a room in Foxhill Drive, who had convictions for molestation. He suffered from delusions that a woman was inside him, He’d wear long black dresses. And he killed himself in his workshop, in the Glory Hole, and was eaten by his cats, who were trapped in the house with him.
Then Dr Pascoe has a revelation. “It’s in the machine”
The picture we’re seeing is from earlier. Something is playing back an old picture. There’s a wind in the studio, lights explode. “How many people are watching us right now?” Asks Dr Pascoe. “We’ve created a seance.”
We finally get live pictures, and the injured sound man is stretchered out, Kim and her mother run from the house, although the mother tries to go back. There’s general confusion outside the house.
Cut to inside, and the thermal camera as Sarah and the cameraman try to find Suzanne, trapped behind the door to the Glory Hole.
They can’t open the door, until it suddenly flies open of its own accord. Sarah edges inside hoping to find Suzanne, and it slams behind her. There’s a flash of static in which you can make out Pipes’ face.
Back to the studio, another light explodes, and as it fades, you can glimpse another apparition of Pipes just below it.
Most of the studio personnel have fled. Michael Parkinson is wandering around wondering aloud if any cameras are working. He finds a working autocue.
“Round and round the garden, like a teddy bear?”
Then, in a deeper whisper
“You didn’t believe those stories about Mother Seddons, did you? Fee Fie Foe Fum.”
Fade to black, with the sound of distressed cats.
I watch this (on DVD) every Halloween with whichever members of my family want to watch it, and it never fails to raise a chill by the end. It really is a masterclass on how to use the entirety of a medium to tell a story. Not just narrative, but a phone-in, vox-pops, the sneery sceptic, a familiar studio, and almost a blueprint for every found footage horror film we’d see in the years following. Writer Stephen Volk really had produced a horror classic, and it’s sad that it’s been unrepeated ever since.
Forget the Blair Witch, Pipes really was scary.
BBC Genome: BBC One – 31st October 1992 – 21:25
One addendum – the ‘Psychic Consultant’ for the show was Guy Lyon Playfair, who was heavily involved in the real-life Enfield haunting which was the inspiration for the setting of this programme. He was played by Matthew Macfadeyan in the Sky mini-series that came out last year.
Sadly, I don’t have the whole of the outro for this show – this is all I have before the recording switches.
Next on this tape is The South Bank Show on Robert Zemeckis.
With contributions from Frank Marshall.
John Milius, who wanted to call 1941 ‘The Night the Japs Attacked’. “But you can’t call it that because it’s not politically correct.”
This is a good profile, covering all his work up to Death Becomes Her.
After this programme, there’s a trailer for next week’s show, about George Formby. Then this recording finishes, and underneath, there’s the recording from earlier, with the end of Match of the Day.
After this, the BBC were clearly still getting calls about Ghostwatch, as they played this.
After this, and the trailer for Sunday Night was saw earlier, the tape plays out with the start of Author! Author! starring Al Pacino and Dyan Cannon. There’s about 40 minutes of the film before the tape runs out.