Every Pipes Sighting In BBC's 'Ghostwatch'
This article is more than two years old and was last updated in October 2022.
Behind Craig (0:06)
While roving reporter Craig Charles conducts an emotional interview with Pam Early around six minutes in, some viewers have spotted a figure outside the patio door behind Craig. The figure does look ominous in the dark, but upon closer inspection it's clear that this is actually just Craig's reflection. This is confirmed by the fact you see the double holding a microphone and turning as Craig does.
Thermal Imaging (0:10)
Some fans have speculated that Pipes might be lurking in a crowd outside at the 10 minute mark when camera man, Chris Miller, shows off his thermal imaging camera. We can see why people might think this. Most of the crowd have glowing eyes as this is a part of the body that loses a lot of heat, but one figure in the crowd seems to have black eyes as if gouged out. While this does seem like a possible match for Pipes, look closer and you'll see that the figure is enthusiastically waving like the other audience members, not stood deathly still as Pipes characteristically does. What people are actually seeing here is the cold lenses of an audience member's glasses.
1. The Bedroom Replay (0:21)
Our first proper look at Pipes comes around 20 minutes in. In the studio Michael and his guest expert, Dr Lin Pascoe, re-watch some research footage shot in the house after someone phoned into the show to say they'd seen a figure in the clip. Upon seeing this footage the second time, a figure is clearly seen stood at the back of Kim and Suzanne's bedroom near the curtains. Frustratingly, Michael and Dr Pascoe can't quite make it out.
2. It's Behind You! (0:30)
Later Lin gets a close encounter with Pipes when the studio lights are lowered as her and Michael listen to a recording made during her investigation of the case. As the pair stand next to the reel to reel tape recorder the menacing figure of Pipes appears over her shoulder, before once again fading into the darkness.
3. Near The Park (0:47)
Just over three-quarters of an hour in, Craig is told about some of the horrific events that have occurred in Northolt by some locals. As he walks back towards the house to meet the "guy who tried unsuccessfully to exorcise Foxhill Drive," Pipes can be seen in the crowd where Craig meets the man he's interviewing, Arthur Lacey.
4. In the Kitchen: (0:54)
After thing seemingly start to kick off in the house, Sarah follows a trail of kids pictures that have been strewn across the kitchen floor. As she reaches an odd occult-like circle of crayons in front of the patio door, she is startled by a cat outside... but this isn't what she should really be scared of. When she stands up we see in the reflection on the glass door that Pipes was stood threateningly behind her the whole time.
5. Standing By Curtains (1:11)
A little while later at around the 70 minute mark, things have escalated in the house again. As the crew take Kim and Suzanne out of their bedroom, the camera man spots Pipes stood in front of the curtains as he pans the camera across the now-empty room.
In The Mirror (1:16)
Towards the end of the programme the whole house starts to shake and the camera zooms in on a mirror that's rattling on the wall. Some viewers think they can see the reflection of Pipes in the mirror. It's possible this was intended to be Pipes, but if that's the case then the shot didn't really work as it's impossible to tell if it's Pipes, the sound man Mike Aiton, or just something else creating a vaguely human-like shape.
6. Glory Hole (1:17)
After the crew remove the board from the door to the cupboard under the stairs, known as the glory hole, it slowly swings open, as it does, we get a very brief show of Pipes stood inside. This is after all the part of the house where Raymond Tunstall took his own life, an act that caused him to return to the house as the sinister Pipes.
7. Ghost In The Static (1:27)
At the climax of the programme, Sarah ventures in to the glory hole and the door slams closed behind her. Just after this some static appears on screen which shows a broken image of Pipes' face implying he was interfering with the broadcast.
8. On The Gantry (1:27)
Seconds later we get our final glimpse of Pipes, this time in the BBC studio in London. After inadvertently creating a mass séance, Pipes seemed to no longer be confined to Foxhill Drive and his influence over the until-now safe studio that housed Michael Parkinson was seen as a light explodes. As the remnant sparks fall to the studio floor, we see Pipes stood underneath the light on a gantry.
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Raymond Tunstall , also known as " Pipes ", is the main antagonist of the 1992 BBC Mockumentary Ghostwatch , during which a live T.V. broadcast is taken from a haunted house.
Pipes is a malevolent ghost who harasses a single mother and her two daughters. His name comes from his habit of banging on the plumbing.
He was portrayed by Keith Ferrari.
- 2 Appearance
- 3 Haunting Behavior
As the program goes on and more is learned about Pipes, a better picture of what the ghost is takes shape. Dr. Pascoe, a parapsychologist, theorizes that Pipes is actually a collection of negative spiritual energy dating back for centuries.
The current Pipes takes the form of Raymond Tunstall, a mentally unfit child molester who killed himself on the property years earlier. It is implied that he himself was influenced by the previous incarnation of Pipes, the ghost of a murderous nanny named Mother Seddons.
Appearance [ ]
Pipes never appears on screen clearly in the movie, but is said by the children to have an old mans face, while wearing layers of black dresses and petticoats. Pipes face is covered in scratches, and one of his eyes is completely eaten out. This was caused by Raymond Tunstall's cats, who ate it over the seven days it took someone to discover his body.
Haunting Behavior [ ]
Pipes exhibits typical poltergeist behavior; knocking on walls, throwing things, causing cold spots, appearing in reflections/the background of scenes, leaving strange scratches on people, etc. Of these, the scratching is solely focused on the family's oldest daughter, who is scratched with sadistic enthusiasm. Pipes also has the habit of meowing like a cat whenever it does something particularly nasty. Over the course of the broadcast, Pipes grows bolder and more powerful, gaining the ability to posses people, cause wind to spontaneously blow, explode lights, and manipulate objects from hundreds of miles away.
Dr. Pascoe theorizes that this increase in power is because of the broadcast, and compares it to "a nationwide séance." Throughout the night, terrified people call into the studio hotline claiming that poltergeist activity is now happening in their homes, and the broadcast ends on the implication that, by watching it, you have let Pipes into your own home.
Gallery [ ]
- 1 William Afton (2023)
- 2 William Afton (Five Nights at Freddy's)
- 3 Angstrom Levy
Geek Culture | Movies, TV, Comic Books & Video Games
Ghostwatch Pipeswatch: 30 Years of Spotting Raymond Tunstall
October 31, 2022 by admin
As Ghostwatch celebrates its 30th anniversary, Andrew Brassleay revisits the classic horror-show-sold-as-harmless-BBC-reportage to explore the confirmed – and potential – sightings of Pipes…
October 31 1992. Say the date to anyone in the UK who was an adolescent at the time and it might not bring up any immediate reaction. But delve deeper and long-forgotten memories of what they watched that night will almost certainly be pushed back up, screaming – perhaps from out of a locked Glory Hole – to the forefront of their traumatised minds.
Ghostwatch . What could be considered the best practical joke the BBC ever made on the Great British public. And, much like all ambitious practical jokes, faced unconsidered consequences. A live report on Halloween from what we were told was a haunted semi-detached home, with some of the nation’s most respected faces. There’s children’s TV’s Sarah Greene, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed; her husband, Mike Green manning the phones; Red Dwarf funny man Craig Charles taking a side-eyed cheeky glance at the whole spectacle as roving reporter; and national treasure Michael Parkinson – Parky! – the grandfather of the talk show. Surely he’d be there to hold our collective hand if things get spooky? Right, Michael? Right?
As kids stayed up late to watch the action with familiar, friendly faces, it was all fun and games – and a bit of tedious tech talk to set the realism scene – until the ghosts appeared. And then the public weren’t sure what they were watching. Sure, what some thought of as unnatural acting, rather than an actual petrified family and neighbourhood, alerted some sceptical viewers to believe this was a drama broadcast as part of the BBC’s Screen One anthology series.
However, with publicity such as a Radio Times article that the cast conducted as though they were about to conduct a real investigation, and those trusted celebrities – who had played the investigation for jovial laughs before the tone terrifyingly shifted mid-show – appeared to truly fear for their lives as strange things rumbled in the Northolt night, millions wondered if a real life haunting was going on. Hundreds of thousands of calls were made to complain or enquire following the broadcast, and school playgrounds the next day were filled with pupils wondering if Parky really had been possessed and if the beloved Sarah Greene really had been captured by a malevolent spirit in the cupboard under the stairs.
And the thing that held the uncanny terror altogether was Pipes, the apparition formerly known as Raymond Tunstall, the undead child molester who in death now walked the corridors of the ill-fated Early family’s residence. Pipes didn’t get much screen time, but sure made an impact with each glimpse of his partially eaten-by-cats features adding to the sense of dread and menace. “Did you see the ghost?” people asked each other the next day. Indeed, they had, but no one could really figure out how many times he had made his presence felt.
Well, 30 years on from Ghostwatch’s one and only transmission on terrestrial TV – and with a new Blu-ray release of the show out soon – it’s time to explore the confirmed (and potential) Pipes’ manifestations in Foxhill Drive – and beyond – and rank them in order of their goosebump-inducing abilities.
9. ‘We sealed her lips with tape’ (30 minutes 30 seconds)
Parkinson and parapsychologist Dr Lin Pascoe, who has been investigating the haunting at Foxhill Drive, have some fun in the studio with a tape purportedly featuring the voice of Foxhill Drive’s spook, having a netter through the portal of eldest daughter Susan Early. Before the tape finishes and Parkinson sniggers ‘Bizarre!’, Pipes’s shimmering apparition appears over the shoulder of the unsuspecting doc. It’s one of the easiest to spot appearances of Pipes although one that perhaps would have thrown the more cynical viewers off the haunting scent, as the early studio appearance would have had impact of stripping the show of some of its believability.
8. ‘I believe in the Devil says spook-house mother’ (21 minutes 7 seconds)
Pipes makes his first appearance in the show during a VHS recording of the Early sisters’ bedroom. Played first time round, there is no real evidence of an entity’s shape in the curtains, but when a ‘Emma Stableford from Slough’ calls up the studio, the team run the recording back and, this time, as the girls switch the bedside light off, a white outline of a figure can be seen, standing still – the tape rewinds but the shadow has disappeared. ‘Can’t see much myself,’ Parkinson utters, playing on his admired status in the national conscious to thoroughly mess with it.
7. ‘Boo! I bet that scared you’ (47 minutes 20 seconds)
Midway through the production, Craig Charles has a natter with other residents of Foxhill Drive by the neighbourhood haunted playground that’s previously played host to a pregnant Labrador’s butchering (‘The kids weren’t right for weeks’), before going for a chat with Arthur Lacey, professional exorcist. Lacey can’t be that good at his job because, in among the crowd behind him, there stands Raymond Tunstall in all his partially eaten glory in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it manifestation.
6. ‘Of course, 12 days… They got hungry. They got to work… on his face’ (87 minutes 41 seconds)
The finale provides a split-second image of the true terror of Foxhill Drive. As Sarah Greene, after a gruelling passage when the only images of the house available is via the infrared camera, meets her fate in the cupboard under the stairs, Foxhill Drive’s resident spook takes ownership of the situation and directs the cameras back to the now-possessed studio, but not before a flash-frame of static depicts a close-up of his own bloody face.
5. ‘It’s in the machine’ (87 minutes 43 seconds)
After nearly 90 minutes of maintaining a realistic façade, the broadcast finally loses its grip on sanity. As wind whips round the studio, paper flips off a table, Smith, demanding to know the whereabouts of his wife, berates the production crew, and lighting grids fail, Pipes gives one last valedictory appearance, on the studio rigging, surveying his domain as chaos reigns – the show having created a nationwide ‘massive séance’ giving him untold levels of power. Certainly enough to take over the body of the once-cynical Parkinson, mockingly leaving him to utter nursey rhymes in the gloom, all authority and trust now gone. ‘Round and round the garden, like a teddy bear…’
4. ‘It’s Pipes! Pipes is here!’ (55 minutes)
There’s one last moment of light relief when the studio team field a nuisance call from Wales about a flying cheese-and-pickle sandwich (‘It frightened me to buggery it did’) before the real terror begins. Sarah and the house-bound TV crew investigate a crawling noise in the walls before heading downstairs to find the children’s drawings scattered in a line toward the patio windows. As a neighbourhood cat spooks Greene, the camera spots something in the reflection – a figure by the fridge (‘He likes the cold,’ Kimmie says earlier) that shouldn’t be in the kitchen, but has definitely joined the fun.
3. ‘Pipes said he was a bad bunny. Here are his eyes’ (77 minutes 12 seconds)
Photographs flying off the walls… a possessed Susan (‘What big eyes you have. What big ears you have’) – with some of the last words she’ll ever say – telling her mother she ruins everything and that she hates her… Kimmie drowning and enucleating her treasured toy rabbit… the screams and howls of mewling cats as a mirror tremors on the wall. If anyone was in doubt, Ghostwatch had now passed the point of family viewing and television sets were busy traumatising the nation’s children. The finishing blow to the senses for this section? The few seconds of silence as the TV crew remove the bars to Mrs Early’s Glory Hole cupboard and, as the doors creaks forward, the audience catches another, terrifying glimpse of Pipes, half-seen, peering out of the gloom before a mirror smashes and Susan screams echo around the home, before the live link is lost.
2. ‘We don’t want to give anyone sleepless nights’ (71 minutes 57 seconds)
Ghostwatch’s perfectly executed jump scared comes soon after Mary Christopher’s creepy call suggesting that the home in Fox Hill Drive, Northolt was the site of terrible crimes committed by Victorian baby farmer Mother Seddons. And sure enough, as the upstairs bedroom of the Early sisters is evacuated, Chris the cameraman takes one look around, to see the black-dressed Pipes lurking in the curtain. A quick jolt back finds the figure gone.
It’s the moment that the crew, those making the show, finally get a glimpse of what we have seen. There is danger here. And we all now know Foxhill Drive is a house of horrors.
1. ‘I have this overwhelming sense of evil’ (47 minutes 45 seconds)
Straight after cheeky chappy Craig has picked up unsuccessful medium Dr Lacey for an evening stroll, the pair head down Foxhill Drive. There, watching from the backdrop wasteland appears to be the head of a figure emerging, watching, at first glance it seems, the pair pass from the undergrowth, the glimmer of a deep scratch near its eye.
This seems like a fairly non-descript appearance as things go from Raymond Tunstall’s canon, so why is this No. 1 on this list?
Well, because, despite the fact I clearly see the image of Pipes at this moment, there doesn’t appear to be any mention of this sighting anywhere on the internet.
Why, I wondered. I thought at first that maybe it was a trick of the mind, as Michael Parkinson dismisses Emma from Slough’s suggestion of an outline in the Early’s house. Just ‘faces in the fire’.
But again I watched, and I researched. And fear took hold…
Ghostwatch’s ‘writer’, Stephen Volk, published a follow-up account, titled 31/10. In it, he wrote an alternative depiction about what had happened that night – that Sarah Greene and Susan Early were truly never seen again. That a lookalike had played the children’s TV presenter during her shows in the aftermath. That the surviving members of the Early family were secretively moved abroad. That the BBC studio was sealed off and boarded up.
Maybe this was a final act of horseplay, a mischievous coda to a twisted tale. But that account is now no longer found on Volk’s website . The Radio Times TV listings presenting it as a drama can be found on the internet but the interview with the team discussing a real-life investigation? Gone without trace, as if someone wanted to ensure the real nature of the show’s activities remained forever hidden.
What if Ghostwatch wasn’t a hoax? That those events millions of us witnessed were real? What if Ghostwatch depicted a real-life haunting but the BBC had to cover it up as a drama? A show they were not ashamed of, as the public perception of it was, but, terrified of – of the very real monster it had created.
What if Raymond Tunstall really did get into the machine – all our machines? Because he’s here now. On my screen, at home with me, where only I seem to see him.
Maybe, it would be a relief if you can see him too. Not for you, dear reader. For I am no longer ever truly alone. But maybe you could join us and, like me, see one more special appearance? For, if you can spot Raymond Tunstall too, looking out from Foxhill Drive’s waste ground toward the camera, watching you… you too will one day be woken up but the sound of banging. Late one night.
In your house.
In your room.
To see him grinning at you. From behind your curtain.
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YMMV / Screen One S 4 E 9 Ghostwatch
- Accidental Innuendo : The phrase 'glory hole', which carried an entirely different connotation in the UK at the time (it referred to a cupboard under the stairs. Make all the Harry Potter jokes you like), is repeated throughout. Please accept this fact and move on. Director Leslie Manning gives a similarly-worded disclaimer at live screenings. Regardless, chortling invariably ensues every time the phrase is spoken.
- Mother Seddons was a baby farmer in the Victorian era who would murder the children under her care by drowning . Even centuries after her death, her legend was used to scare local children. Her violent ghost would continue to haunt the land she once inhabited, including possessing local pedophile Raymond Tunstall to abduct children and mutilate a pregnant dog . Seddons would later drive him to insanity and suicide , making him hang and electrocute himself, then allow his corpse to be eaten by cats. Seddons' influence would continue to be felt after she and Tunstall became the entity "Pipes", harming, threatening, and abducting the Early children. When the show Ghostwatch broadcasts the events, "Pipes" uses the connection as a giant séance to possess the host and wreak havoc on the viewers around the world.
- Raymond Tunstall was a depraved individual even prior to his possession by Seddons. Described by his own parole officer as someone who "should never even have been let near a community", Tunstall was a violent pedophile who abused and molested many local minors. Hiding out in a relative's basement while on parole, Tunstall was influenced and later possessed by Seddons to abduct children and eventually take his own life. Returning as the entity "Pipes", Tunstall's pedophilic desires were carried over, leading to the frequent harm, possession, molestation, and eventual abduction of the Early family's eldest daughter Suzanne. Using Ghostwatch 's broadcast of the events, "Pipes" goes on to influence more chaos, including reports of children acting possessed.
- Cult Classic : Despite gaining a reputation for scaring viewers to the point kids were diagnosed with PTSD, those that did watch the special never forgot it, especially when fans got together online to reminisce. Today the special is seen as something ahead of its time, and people continue to scour the special looking for more Pipes sightings.
- Ensemble Dark Horse : Dr Emilio Sylvestri. In the original DVD commentary, the creators note that at film school screenings he always gets an immediate positive response.
- Two interesting examples: In the fictional setting, the phone switchboard jams with calls from terrified viewers. This happened in real life as the programme was airing. Secondly, at one point Parkinson chides a distraught mother for allowing her children to watch a TV show after the nine o' clock watershed . The show creators would end up using that very point as part of their defense against subsequent criticism.
- Pretty much any time the programme would mention the nature audiences had to their airing is this considering how much Ghostwatch lead to people thinking it was legitimate.
- Pretty much the whole thing, but particularly Pipes' few onscreen appearances either subliminally, or stalking the cast everywhere they go.
- The explanation of Pipes's appearance. He's the ghost of a child molester from the 1970s or 80s named Raymond Tunstall, who killed himself in the Earlys' house. He had locked himself in a room with his cats...cats are carnivores... they ate his face .
- Arguably what made Ghostwatch so terrifying was because it came off as realistic . With having actual celebrities that were known within big BBC shows and programs and a "family" that came off as an actual family gave people a sense of awe and terror. It's arguably why people compare it to the infamous The War of the Worlds radio broadcast that terrified US towns.
- The ending. Holy crap . Sarah disappears looking for Suzy, the broadcast has spread Pipes ala The Virus to every television in the United Kingdom and by the end, seems to have possessed Parkinson.
- Paranoia Fuel : An especially dark version of this, as viewers who thought it was real would have been led to think they might be letting a malevolent ghost into their home via their TV set .
- Harsher in Hindsight : ...which actually is why, on first broadcast, it was accepted as realistic. Unlike Special Bulletin and other films of a similar kind, it didn't use any noticeable accelerated time, only having the haunting events happen seemingly unrealistically fast. Also, if you stripped out the real credits, the presentation is spot on for the real shows it was copying at the time. Anyone looking at a mid-90's episode of Crimewatch UK then a clip from the middle of Ghostwatch would think they were both genuine shows.
- Anyone who missed the first minute would be easily fooled into thinking it was a extra-long pilot commissioned for Halloween, having missed the extra long continuity announcement.
- Vindicated by History : When it first aired, it sparked a national panic which resulted in viewers being diagnosed with PTSD and at least one suicide. After the younger audience grew up and recollected the special online, it was reappraised for predating the similarly viral hit The Blair Witch Project by seven years. It later found a new audience after Inside No. 9 did a similar concept for their live Halloween special.
- The Woobie : The Earlys and Sarah Green.
Alternative Title(s): Ghostwatch
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Why I love... Ghostwatch
On a chilly Halloween night in 1992, Ghostwatch was first broadcast to an unsuspecting public…
4 December 2013
By Simon McCallum
“It’s Pipes, Mum…Pipes is here.” To British TV viewers of a certain vintage, this innocuous line is enough to send an icy volt of fear down the spine. Broadcast by the BBC on Halloween night 1992, Ghostwatch purported to be a live broadcast from a Northolt council house haunted by a malevolent spirit, nicknamed ‘Pipes’ by the unfortunate Early family – single mother Pam and daughters Kim and Suzanne.
Ghostwatch was in fact a scripted drama by Stephen Volk, fronted by familiar personalities playing themselves (Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Mike Smith and Craig Charles) and filmed some months before for the Screen One slot. Many viewers failed to notice the cast list printed in the Radio Times or the Screen One logo and Volk’s writing credit as the programme started (late additions insisted upon by nervous BBC executives). Many were terrified long after realising that this was an elaborate fiction.
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Spurred on by a minority of angry viewers, the press whipped itself into such frenzy at the supposed psychological trauma inflicted by the BBC ’s ‘deception’ that comparisons were drawn with Orson Welles’ infamous 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast. As a result, the programme has yet to receive a repeat broadcast, and in the decade between the original transmission and the BFI ’s DVD release in 2002 a veritable Ghostwatch cult sprang up.
My unsuspecting 12-year-old self, watching alone after rushing home from a mortifying foray into trick-or-treating, quickly realised this was something I would never forget.
As a child I was prone to morbid fascinations, fuelled by dank, disturbing films like Watership Down (1978) and Return to Oz (1985) or those public safety leftovers from the 70s where errant schoolchildren were electrocuted, abducted, drowned by dark forces. I devoured my grandparents’ giant Reader’s Digest tome Mysteries of the Unexplained, with its tales of spontaneous human combustion, UFO sightings and best of all, haunted houses. Britain is a land of ghosts.
My dual obsessions were Borley Rectory in Essex – dubbed “the most haunted house in England” by psychic investigator and showman extraordinaire Harry Price in the 1930s – and the Enfield Poltergeist case, which gripped the nation in the late 1970s.
The latter case was all the more unnerving for its banal setting: a North London council house where an impoverished single-parent family was besieged by unseen forces, one daughter speaking in the hoarse voice of an old man who claimed to have died there. Inventor and fledgling psychic investigator Maurice Grosse, a new member of the Society for Psychical Research, found himself at the epicentre of the 20th century’s most puzzling and well documented case of poltergeist activity.
Volk’s script for Ghostwatch does not set out to recreate the events at Enfield, but their influence is obvious for anyone with even a passing interest in the case.
No creaking gates, no gothic towers, no shuttered windows. Yet for the past 10 months this house has been the focus of an astonishing barrage of supernatural activity. ” Michael Parkinson in Ghostwatch
Grosse, who revisited the famous house in 1996 for a BBC video diary Ghostbuster – The Real Thing, was unhappy about Ghostwatch’s fictionalised take on his investigation. Fellow investigator Guy Lyon Playfair, who documented the Enfield case in his 1980 book This House Is Haunted, was more closely involved and is credited as Ghostwatch’s ‘Psychic Consultant’.
Ghostwatch really gets its claws into you by playing the long game, lulling the viewer into a false sense of security by drawing on the mundane tropes of live TV . Here we have awkward repartee between studio and outside broadcast; prank phone calls from the public; a satellite link-up with an American sceptic. The first fleeting appearance of Pipes by the curtains in the girls’ bedroom some 20 minutes in provides the first shock. But parapsychologist Dr Pascoe (played by Gillian Bevan) swears she can see nothing on the playback. What’s going on?
The jovial atmosphere gives way to a drip-feed of increasingly sinister information: mysterious disappearances; a pregnant dog butchered in the nearby playground; a kindly spiritualist medium whose hands were permeated with the stench of blood after failing to ‘lay the ghost’.
The climactic revelations about Foxhill Drive, delivered in two chilling calls to the studio, reveal the secret of the boarded-up “glory hole” under the stairs – one focus of the phenomena now plaguing the Earlys. Hoax or no hoax, as the end credits rolled, and ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’ and co were scribbling their missives to the Daily Mail, I felt exhilarated.
British TV has an illustrious history of putting the frighteners on us going back to the 1950s and Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass series, into the 1970s with the BBC ’s Ghost Story for Christmas strand and Kneale’s ingenious updating of the period ghost story, The Stone Tape. Ghostwatch can sit proudly alongside such classics.
Watching it again now, what’s striking is how ingeniously plotted, designed and edited it is (can you spot all of Pipes’ subliminal appearances?). It’s a testament to the programme’s legacy that all the key players contributed to the recent documentary Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtains; director Lesley Manning even came on board as co-producer. For Ghostwatch Manning dispensed with Screen One’s traditional 16mm film format, shooting on videotape and using the latest technology, including infra red cameras. The language of television has rarely been so effectively deployed.
Beyond its impact on a generation of writers, filmmakers and kids with overactive imaginations, Ghostwatch offers a reminder that the BBC can take risks, even if the organisation has been prone to reactionary panic at executive level. Volk’s “massive séance” is the perfect metaphor for the shared experience of television at its most powerful.
Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film, a major four-month film season, ran at BFI Southbank and across the UK from October 2013 to January 2014.
The new Haunted collection in BFI Mediatheques features a documentary about Ghostwatch in addition to material on the Enfield Poltergeist.
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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 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.
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Ghostwatch was a controversial British horror-mockumentary television movie which was produced by the BBC and aired on BBC One on October 31 ( Halloween ), 1992. It was written by Stephen Volk, directed by Lesley Manning and produced by Ruth Baumgarten. It was also shown by the Canadian digital channel SCREAM on Halloween 2004 and several subsequent occasions.
- 1.1 Plot summary
- 1.2 Behind the scenes
- 2.1 Mr. Pipes
- 2.2.1 Ghostly phenomena
- 2.2.2 Apparitions
- 2.2.3 Spiritual possession
- 2.2.4 Rapid temperature changes
- 2.2.5 Poltergeist activity
- 2.2.6 Disembodied voices
- 2.3 Ghost technology
- 3.1 Psychological effects
- 4 Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtains
- 5 Developments
- 6 References
- 7 External links
The 90-minute film was a horror story shot in a documentary style and appeared as part of BBC Drama's Screen One series. It involved genuine BBC reporters performing a live, on-air investigation of a house in Foxhill Drive, Northolt, Greater London at which poltergeist activity was believed to be taking place. Through revealing footage and interviews with neighbours and the family living there, they discovered the existence of a malevolent ghost nicknamed "Pipes" from his habit of knocking on the house's plumbing. As the programme went on, viewers learn that "Pipes" is the spirit of a psychologically disturbed man called Raymond Tunstall, himself believed to have been troubled by the spirit of Mother Seddons - a 'baby farmer' turned child killer from the 19th century. These manifestations became more bold and terrifying, until, at the end, the frightened reporters realise that the programme itself was acting as a sort of "national séance " through which "Pipes" was gaining horrific power. Finally, the spirit escaped and began to escalate its poltergeist activity in the BBC studios themselves, possessing the show's host as a prelude to its unleashing on the world.
Behind the scenes
In truth, the story, though based on the tale of the Enfield poltergeist , was put into production months before and was complete fiction. However, the presentation contained realistic elements which suggested to a casual viewer that it was an actual documentary. The studio scenes were recorded in Studio TC6 in the BBC Television Centre in London. The scenes at the house and the street were all shot on location around 5-6 weeks before the recording of the studio scenes. The recorded scenes in the house and street were then played into the studio, where Michael Parkinson, Mike Smith, and "Doctor Pascoe" had to interact with material shot 5-6 weeks previously. A phone number was shown on the screen so that viewers could "call in" and discuss ghostly phenomena. The number was the standard BBC call-in number at the time 081 811 8181 (also used on live weekend programmes such as Going Live! ), and callers who got through were connected first to a message telling them that the show was fictional, before being given the chance to share their own ghost stories. However, the phone number was besieged by callers during the showing and many people who telephoned it simply got a "number busy" tone. This commonly happened when phoning BBC 'call-in' shows and acted to add to the realism instead of reassuring viewers that it was fiction. The set and filming methods, including shaky hand-held video cameras, lent a documentary feel. Most convincing of all was the use of actual BBC personalities playing themselves. Sarah Greene and Craig Charles were the reporters on the scene at the house, while Mike Smith (Greene's real-life husband) and Michael Parkinson linked from the studio.
Ghostwatch was originally conceived by writer Stephen Volk as a six-part drama (similar to Edge of Darkness ) in which a fictional paranormal investigator and a TV reporter investigate poltergeist activity at a North London housing estate, gradually discovering more elements of the mystery each week. This would have culminated in the final episode in a live TV broadcast from the property, in the vein of Nigel Kneale's The Quatermass Experiment , in which "all hell breaks loose". However, when producer Ruth Baumgarten doubted the viability of an entire mini-series and recommended instead a 90-minute TV special, Volk suggested that they "do the whole thing like Episode Six", portraying it as an actual "live" broadcast fronted by well-known TV personalities of the day.
The BBC, however, became concerned over the effect the broadcast would have on the public and very nearly pulled the show shortly before broadcast. Ultimately they insisted on adding opening credits including the writer's name, in addition to a Screen One title sequence.
Supernatural Occurrences & Depictions
The film's fictional, villainous spectre, Mr. Pipes , is depicted as a merging of negative, spiritual energies. His physical appearance mostly resembles that of the deceased Raymond Tunstall , a fictional character who it is revealed by a phone-in caller, committed suicide at the haunted property some time in the 1960s.
Pipes ' powerful supernormal potential is drawn from the various 'onion skin layers of evil' which have accumulated in/around the haunted property, possibly spanning back to prehistory. It is alluded that the character of Suzanne Early may become the next 'layer' in Mr. Pipes' spiritual make-up.
Interestingly, Pipes is only referred to as Mister Pipes once in Ghostwatch - by the TV host shown interviewing Kim Early on the family's home VHS recorder, early on in the film.
The Science of Ghostwatch
The programme makers used many examples of phenomena related to real life paranormal research, in order to maintain a realistic edge to the show.
On several occasions the presenters examine video footage of a bedroom scene in which a shadowy figure can be seen at the foot of a child's bed. Three versions of the apparition are shown intermittently to confuse the viewer - one with the figure, one where it is slightly faded out, and one where it isn't seen at all.
The ghost, which is described later in the programme as a disfigured man in some kind of black robe, also turns up at various points during the course of the "live" show. He makes seven fleeting, almost subliminal appearances in the following places.
- Behind Dr Pascoe as the "possessed voice" tape is played in the studio. This appearance is more easily visible if the brightness of the screen is increased.
- During the outdoor segment in which Craig interviews various local people. As Craig approaches Arthur Lacey, the ghost can be seen standing among the crowd of onlookers, totally unnoticed by any of them.
- Reflected in the glass of the kitchen door, moments after Sarah discovers the children's drawings on the floor and is startled by the cat outside. Look carefully, and you can see the ghost standing behind the film crew.
- In front of the curtains in the girls' bedroom as everybody tries to exit the house. The ghost is briefly visible as the cameraman turns to leave and whips the camera around, but is gone again when he turns back in alarm.
- Standing inside the cupboard under the stairs, half a second before the mirror leaps off the wall and knocks the sound man unconscious.
- In a burst of static as the last camera in the house cuts out, just as the cupboard door slams after Sarah enters. This appearance only lasts for three frames, but gives you a close-up look at the ghost's mauled face.
- On a gantry in the TV studio as the lights begin to explode.
During the course of the programme there are many references to characters being allegedly possessed by a ghost who, whilst doing so, maniacally recites nursery rhymes. This happens in a tape recording of the eldest daughter Suzanne, later in a 'live' section to the same character and eventually Michael Parkinson himself is seen to be possessed.
Rapid temperature changes
The show references temperature changes being linked to ghosts and claims to be monitoring the temperature in each room of the house to check for this. Also mutilated household objects are shown which were allegedly analysed by the Army as being subjected to rapid temperature change.
In both alleged recordings and live segments of the show we see objects moving of their own accord which, it is claimed, is a result of poltergeist activity. Also a perfectly round patch of water appears on the living room carpet and animal scratch marks also appear on one characters face. Banging noises are intermittently heard during the climax of the show. At one point the producers play on this by exposing one of the daughters as causing the banging noises herself, creating a hoax within a hoax. However this later occurs when both girls are accounted for. Near the end of the programme, when a wind whips through the studio, the cups and plates brought in by Doctor Pascoe as evidence of the poltergeist activity in the house, begin to move on their own, and one cup falls onto the studio floor and smashes into pieces.
Although the ghost of the story is only heard to speak through the voices of others we hear the disembodied sounds of cats whenever phenomena is taking place.
Many methods familiar to modern ghost shows such as Most Haunted are demonstrated in the show, some of which were either genuine state-of-the-art technology at the time or simulated to give the idea they were real. The house was allegedly equipped with motion detectors, temperature sensors and covert cameras. The temperature sensors were referred to as being able to check for dramatic changes in temperature - a recognised unexplained phenomenon linked to real-life ghost sightings. One major feature of the show was a genuine thermographic camera , which, although it didn't pick up any ghosts, came in very handy when all the lights failed at the end of the show.
Much of the British public believed the events to be true and some controversy ensued after its airing. This was all in spite of the fact that Screen One was a drama slot, the programme aired with a "Written by..." credit at the start, and a cast list was published in the BBC's weekly Radio Times listings magazine. This, however, needs to be tempered by the fact that Sarah Greene had advertised the programme on her Saturday morning children's show Going Live . This had included a 'visit' to the location of the 'haunting' and gave the impression that she was taking part in a 'reality show' and not a drama, the programme in effect being sold to children as a Halloween 'ghost hunt' rather than an adult play. The BBC was besieged with phone calls from irate and frightened viewers, and British tabloids and other newspapers criticised the BBC the next day for the disturbing nature of some scenes, such as Greene's final scene where she is locked in an under-stairs cupboard with the howling ghost, and Parkinson's eerie possession scene.
The reaction to the programme led the BBC to place a decade-long ban on the programme being repeated after its initial broadcast and, although this has now been lifted, it remains unlikely that it will ever be shown again on British terrestrial television. The British Film Institute released it on Region 2 DVD in November 2002.
A number of psychological effects were reported in Ghostwatch 's wake:
Factory worker 18-year-old Martin Denham, who was said to have a mental age of 13, committed suicide five days after the programme aired. The family home had suffered with a faulty central heating system which had caused the pipes to knock; Denham linked this to the activity in the show causing great worry. He left a note reading "if there are ghosts I will be ... with you always as a ghost" . His mother and stepfather, April and Percy Denham, blamed the BBC. They claimed that Martin was "hypnotised and obsessed" by the programme. The Broadcasting Standards Commission refused their complaint, along with 34 others, as being outside their remit, but the High Court granted the Denhams permission for a judicial review requiring the BSC to hear their complaint.
In its ruling, the BSC stated that "The BBC had a duty to do more than simply hint at the deception it was practising on the audience. In Ghostwatch there was a deliberate attempt to cultivate a sense of menace." They ruled that the programme was excessively distressing and graphic - referring to the scratches on the children and the mutilated animals - and that it had aired too soon after the 9pm watershed. They further stated that "the presence in the programme of presenters familiar from children's programmes ... took some parents off-guard in deciding whether their children could continue to view."
The film's producers argued that Ghostwatch had aired during a drama slot, that it was recognisable as fiction to a vast majority, and that running disclaimers or other announcements during the programme would have ruined its effectiveness. They also stated that, had they anticipated the audience reaction, they would have made its fictional nature clearer. However, after the BSC ruling they issued an apology.
Simons and Silveira published a report in the British Medical Journal in February 1994, describing two cases of Ghostwatch -induced post-traumatic stress disorder in children, both ten-year-old boys. They stated that these were the first reported cases of PTSD caused by a television programme. Responses to the article described a further four cases in children aged between 11 and 14, as well as one case in an 8-year-old that stemmed from watching the pre-watershed hospital soap Casualty . The respondants also noted the potential for similar reactions in elderly people and questioned whether the children's reactions met the criteria for PTSD at all.
Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtains
Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtains is an 'in-development' retrospective documentary, set to look back at the controversial drama.
The 'Behind the Curtains' subtitle is derived from where fictitious poltergeist, Mr. Pipes , 'hides' in the shared bedroom of characters, Kim and Suzanne Early . It is also one of the chapter headings on the official Ghostwatch DVD.
On the 21st of February, 2008, the GhostwatchBtC channel was officially launched on Youtube.
- Kim Newman on Ghostwatch at the BFI website.
- Official Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtains homepage
- Official Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtains blog
- Sir Michael Parkinson talks about Ghostwatch
- Interview with Steven Volk , writer of Ghostwatch
- Ghostwatch overview at Action TV Magazine website
- British Film Institute Screen Online overview of Ghostwatch featuring video and audio clips
- A gallery and commentary showing Pipes' brief appearances .
- Full video on Google
- Content from Wikipedia
- Popular culture
- Ghost stories
- What links here
- Related changes
- Special pages
- Printable version
- Permanent link
- Page information
'Ghostwatch': The Most Effective Mockumentary Horror You've Never Seen
A show that resulted in 30,000 calls to the BBC is worth watching.
“The program you’re about to watch is a unique live investigation of the supernatural,” says Ghostwatch host Michael Parkinson during the show’s opening moments. In the early nineties, British viewers accepted this introduction as fact, allowing the reliable, trustworthy BBC the chance to terrify a nation with a mockumentary horror to the likes of which had never been seen before.
First broadcast on Halloween night 1992 the show positions itself as a real-life haunted house investigation, cutting between studio presenters — Parkinson and Mike Smith — to on-the-ground reporters — Sarah Greene and Craig Charles — camped out at the house. Excerpts from earlier sessions with the house’s inhabitants are dotted throughout in grainy VHS, blending together ‘live’ footage — in reality, shots weeks in advance — with the found footage-style which we’ve grown accustomed to in recent times.
The 90-minute show bears a concept that continues to seize upon our collective fears. In this instance, the BBC investigates a normal suburban family haunted by an evil spirit. Pam Early and her daughters Suzanne and Kim have suffered for a year at the hands of a ghostly figure the children call Pipes. The BBC’s crew sets up for an overnight stay in the house, with the hopes of his re-appearance in order to provide “irrefutable proof that ghosts do exist.” It followed a format similar to other BBC specials; Crimewatch and Hospitalwatch , adding to its purported authenticity.
As the show progresses, a series of interviews with the family and neighbors flesh out the backstory and cut-aways to parapsychologist Lin Pascoe’s previous encounters build up the mythology around the ghost. In short: not a lot happens for a long time. A spooky water stain appears — conveniently off-camera — and that’s about it. It’s only about an hour into the show that the hammy acting from the two girls and the feigned outrage of Pascoe become insignificant. It doesn’t matter that it’s faked, that sinking feeling in your stomach is real.
Along with the added backstory anecdotes — one in particular about a murdered pregnant labrador whose body was found surrounded by the fetuses of its young is incredibly unsettling — things take a turn, and Pipes’ wrath is revealed to be far greater than imagined. Scratches appear on one of the girls’ faces before she starts talking in tongues a la Linda Blair. The blink-and-you’ll-miss-them appearances of the ghost , a cross between Michael Myers and Justin Long at the end of Jeepers Creepers , grow more and more chilling.
( Pipes is at 0:47 )
Pipes’ true identity is exposed as the spirit of a man called Raymond Tunstall at the same moment we learn that the entire Ghostwatch show has been one gigantic ‘national seance’ permitted through the televised broadcast.
It’s worth watching for this last twenty minutes alone. Greene, whose fearless, intrepid reporter guise finds her trapped in a cellar, is seemingly killed by the ghost. Cut back to the studio and that same thread of menace continues. Lights go out — linked with a cheeky sighting of Pipes in the rafters — the studio audience flees, and Parkinson, left all alone in the dark, becomes possessed.
Ghostwatch is a masterclass in lowering expectations to suckerpunch the crowd. What made it a national talking point, seizing the population unbidden, was the way in which it duped audiences. Immediately after it aired, the BBC switchboard was hit by 30,000 calls. Writer Stephen Volk professed that he and producers were baffled by the vitriolic outrage that poured in.
Some called the BBC immoral for showing the deaths of real people, as if it were snuff. All of the presenters were then primetime television personalities. Greene presented a children’s Saturday morning show, Smith a radio series. It was Parkinson in particular who brought a gravitas to the entire show, his reputation alone sufficient to provide a verisimilitude that assured viewers everything they were seeing was truth. Other complaints also called the BBC immoral, not for its Faces Of Death aspirations, but for conducting a successful ruse. It has since been banned from broadcast.
In many ways, the impact of Ghostwatch is down to its timing. A “supernatural pastiche” , it emerged years before The Blair Witch Project prompted a wave of found-footage horror passed off as fact. It was a fresh idea, helped by the circumstances of how we experienced television. It wasn’t watched with glazed-over eyes desensitized to novelty — one on a smartphone, the other on the box — this held people’s attention from start to finish. Because no-one dreamed that the BBC, the harbingers of upstanding programming, would terrorize its viewership. “We don’t want to give anybody sleepless nights,” Parkinson expresses to the camera, as the hysteria builds. Too late.
Den of Geek
Ghostwatch: Behind The Curtains creator interview
We chatted to Rich Lawden, the maker of documentary Ghostwatch: Behind The Curtains, about the haunting legacy of Pipes...
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This article comes from Den of Geek UK .
When Ghostwatch screened on BBC1 in 1992, it received a record number of complaints from viewers who were upset, shocked, terrified or angry about it. Worried that perhaps they had gone too far, the BBC refused to rebroadcast it and, as a result of its relative obscurity, the show took on a near-mythical cult status. However, one young viewer it made a huge impression on was Rich Lawden who, twenty years later, would release a passionate and comprehensive documentary ( Ghostwatch: Behind The Curtains ) that covered everything you could ever want to know about the programme but were afraid to ask.
With both Ghostwatch and Behind The Curtains released this week on the official BBC Store, Den of Geek sat down with Rich to reminisce and talk about the haunting legacy of Pipes…
So you saw Ghostwatch when you were 7 years old and it obviously must’ve had an impact…
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It didn’t really affect me, in all honesty, at the time of transmission. I remember being very interested by it but not wholly understanding all of it. It was a couple of weeks later that I remember reacting to it in quite a profound way and I couldn’t stop talking about it. We actually had a tape of it and I didn’t even want to look at it. We had a load of old Memorex tapes and the Ghostwatch one didn’t have a laminate or a label on it, just this strange sandpapery feeling. When you were going through the tapes, you’d know you were holding the Ghostwatch one without even looking. But then one night my grandmother tried to watch it and she fell asleep half-way through so I figured, well, it couldn’t be that bad! It just dawned on me at that point that I’m never not going to be interested in this but I’d been psyching myself up. So I thought “why don’t you psyche yourself up in different ways?” Instead of sitting there worrying about it, try and pick this thing apart and try to figure it out.
Where that led is wanting to be a screenwriter and writing a ton of spec scripts, none of which got through, so one night I opened a web search for screenwriting workshops and the first one that came up was in Bristol with [writer] Stephen Volk. I instantly I recognised the name and knew I had to think of a question for him about Ghostwatch so I just thought I’d ask “why hasn’t anyone made a documentary about Ghostwatch ?” and it was a lightbulb moment and in less than a minute I’d worked the whole thing out in my head! There are plenty of people out there who want to know the full story – it’s the story that I wanted to know and even the people who made the programme wanted to know – so that was the beginning.
How did you get access to everyone involved?
Well, I talked to Stephen and he was keen to assist me in any way that he could, so he put me in touch with [director] Lesley Manning and then she got in touch with Sarah and Mike and Ruth Baumgarten, so every person that I spoke to seemed to branch off into somebody else. They’d more or less remained in touch for the most part. Parky was very much on board, which was a great morale boost.
I have to ask, while you were shooting it, did anything weird happen? Any spooky activity?
Not during the actual shoot, funnily enough, but when I met Stephen Volk at the screenwriters’ workshop, a few strange things happened. I’d never been to Bristol before, and as soon as I got off the train, the first person I bumped into was Stephen Volk. I had to get the last train back to Birmingham at a certain time too so it looked like I’d have to make tracks and miss his Q&A. But later, I went to look at my watch and my watch had stopped! And, as they started to show a clip from Afterlife in the Q&A the projector froze and a lady in front of me burst into tears, she was so overwhelmed by this. It was utterly bizarre and I did end up missing the last train back but it was worth it.
Yeah, it’s almost like fate got in the way, stopped your watch and made sure you stayed for Stephen Volk!
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So you made the doc and obviously there are a lot of people out there who, like you, did want to know the story behind it after all this time. Why do you think that is, that the public interest in Ghostwatch endures?
Well, the hallmark of any classic is if it stands the test of time and, with regards to Ghostwatch , it’s doing multiple things simultaneously and you can pick and choose as an audience – even subconsciously – the reason why you want to watch or respond to Ghostwatch. I think it’s a very effective horror and I think it’s a very effective satire. I’ve never seen audiences react to anything in the same way. Maybe it’s my blinkered cinema experience but I have literally seen the popcorn fly with Ghostwatch !
In terms of the horror, it is very domestic and there are very traumatic gags in Ghostwatch that I think are universal. Whether you grow up in a council house or a mansion the lightbulbs will have gone during your time there or the pipes will have knocked at the wall or the television will have acted up. They get you for a moment, things like that, when your routine changes, but when it’s just one thing, you get over it. When it’s one after the other, it feels like there’s a consciousness behind it and I think people pick up on that. But it’s all about projection I think. What you bring to Ghostwatch is what you take away. If you want to see a horror, it’s a horror. If you want to see a satire, it’s a satire. If you want to see straight drama, even. However you enjoy it, I don’t mind as long as you enjoy it.
I love the quote you put at the start of the documentary from Terry Waite’s brother saying he’d only believe Terry had been freed when he saw it on television. I thought it was interesting in that, while that applies to the time and to Ghostwatch , it’s almost the opposite now, in that people are more inclined to disbelieve what they see on TV now. Like on X Factor, people are quick to shout “this sob story is a fake!”, or some other thing is a fake, etc. Do you think now, in this age of scepticism, could something like Ghostwatch be done?
I think it’s generational. Blair Witch came out in 1999 and maybe every 10 years or so you get a kind of Ghostwatch -esque thing that just twists the normal mode.
Yeah, well I guess Blair Witch really played into what the internet was doing at the time, in that the internet was very new (in a mainstream sense) and the film had that great website. So instead of people believing it because it was on TV, they believed it because it was on the internet. What do you think it takes to make people believe you now though?
Well, when you consider just what we have now and what we didn’t have in 1992… We had Teletext, we had message boards that took all night to download on an old 14.4 modem. We had no text messages. There wasn’t a repeat for Ghostwatch so most people couldn’t go back to it, although I heard rumours that black market copies on VHS were going for £50… There wasn’t anything in the newspapers outside of editorial opinion so it was very difficult to reconsider what people had seen and that’s where you get these wonderful stories and questions that came to us where people would ask “why isn’t the deleted scene on the DVD?” and I’m “what?” and they’re “yeah, you know, that bit where the ghost dances on the lawn” or “the bit where Sarah walks down into the glory hole” and it’s extraordinary how if you want to see something then you will, which arguably is one of the most important messages of Ghostwatch.
Yeah, I think maybe one of the reasons it upset people is not so much the hoax element but some of the questions it asked of the viewer, what it was asking about their relationship with television, their desire to believe in it and what drives that. Which is something they didn’t want to face.
The Bite Back thing [BBC TV show in which viewers were invited to put their questions live to the makers of controversial programmes, and on which the Ghostwatch producers appeared in 1992] was fascinating to me. The guy who famously says “I enjoyed it but you shouldn’t have made it!” It’s like they haven’t got there yet. They haven’t fully appreciated the reason why they’re upset. I mean, it happened to me. It scared me terribly as a kid but then all of a sudden you go “no, actually, I’m the one bringing these emotions. Why am I doing this?” and if you can come to terms with that, you can appreciate it for what is.
I wonder if maybe YouTube is a technology you could use now to tell a convincing ghost or horror story, like Lonelygirl15 tried 10 years ago. Maybe that kind of slow build, like Ghostwatch , could work, spreading it out over serialised vlogs that eventually drop in the horror?
I think it’s entirely possible to be able to do something like Ghostwatch today but without exploiting a medium that has not yet been exploited in that fashion, I just can’t see it working. I think it would probably be closer to something like the VR thing that’s happening now? Something a bit further on in the future anyway. People getting used to a new medium and then all of a sudden someone finds a way of going in another direction with it.
You came up with the idea of the Annual Séance for Ghostwatch , where you invite Twitter to rewatch it every year at 9:25pm on 31st October and tweet about it, right? How long have you been doing that?
Our sixth one will be on Monday and honestly I can’t recall how it came about. I seem to remember Twitter just starting and, in those days, you could have pretty much any username you wanted and I thought “well, it’s gotta be @Ghostwatch” so I registered the name and then thought I’d better do something! It’s all about bringing people together in any way I could and getting awareness out there. And the weird thing these days is, if you can dream it up, there’s a very good chance you can make it happen. I did very little, in all fairness, with the Annual Séance. I just put the word out. There was no paid marketing. I just said let’s see what happens. On the 20th Anniversary one, in 2012, it was just through the roof. We were trending at #4 on Twitter which was unbelievable.
Anything weird happen during a seance yet? Maybe a flying sandwich or two?
Hahaha. No. Usually someone will mention the cheese and pickle sandwich but I’ve yet to actually see one. Although I live in hope.
What’s next then? Is there anything else you’ve got lined up? Is it Ghostwatch related or are you done now?
Umm… Well… Next year’s the 25th Anniversary of Ghostwatch and I would love to do some more stuff in time for next year. There’s early talk of something that isn’t anywhere near as ground-breaking but is another little project I would love to do, or have a hand in. I really hope that works because I think it would be tremendous. As regards to continuing Ghostwatch in some form or another though, not at the moment. Stephen wrote a sequel short story [“31/10” – available as a free download from his website ] that was very creepy and it would make a great short film. I see bits of it in my mind’s eye and I just think “wow, that’d be cool”. I think those characters are just really fantastic actually. Dr Pascoe! I’d love to see a Pascoe and Silvestri team-up…
Tell you what, stick that up on Kickstarter – a Pascoe/Silvestri team-up – and I’ll give you a hundred quid straight away.
Hahaha. I’d love that! But concrete, no, there’s nothing much. I’d love for something special and exciting to happen next year. We’ve talked about a Ghostwatch Convention even although that probably won’t happen… You never know though. Fingers crossed.
Keep us posted! Rich Lawden, thank you very much!
You can download Ghostwatch : Behind The Curtains at the BBC Store here .
And Ghostwatch here .
Craig Lines | @cjlines
Craig Lines has written articles for various magazines and websites, two whole books and several thousand pointless tweets. Learn more super-cool facts at www.cjlines.com.
Ghostwatch (1992 TV Movie)
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Ghostwatch: The BBC spoof that duped a nation
- Published 30 October 2017
It was billed as a drama, but many of Ghostwatch's 11 million viewers were taken in by the BBC's fake investigation, which in one tragic case led to a teenager taking his own life. On its 25th anniversary, his parents and the creator of the show talk about its impact.
It's Halloween night in 1992, and families across the UK are excitedly huddled around the television.
Saturday night TV is at its peak - Gladiators has just premiered on ITV, Casualty is enjoying its seventh series and Noel's House Party is pulling in 15 million viewers a week.
But tonight's big draw is the BBC's heavily-promoted Ghostwatch, a supposedly "live" investigation into paranormal activity being recorded at a family home in Northolt, north-west London.
The programme was the brainchild of horror writer Stephen Volk, who had originally conceived it as a spooky six-part drama, but who was instead asked by producer Ruth Baumgarten to create a 90-minute ghost story for the broadcaster's Screen One series.
"I said to her, 'why don't we do it instead as an investigation, a mystery story - pretending it's a live transmission from a haunted house?'," Volk recalls.
"I remember that moment very clearly, when she was really excited by that."
Volk's idea was arguably visionary, years ahead of today's scripted reality TV shows, where the likes of The Only Way Is Essex routinely blur fact and fiction.
The script went through numerous rewrites as TV executives continued to be confused by the concept.
"There was a lot of head-scratching and puzzlement when Baumgarten had meetings with people trying to explain what we were trying to do," he remembers.
"They didn't get it when they read it, why it was written in this peculiar way. They didn't understand how it was going to work."
The team wanted to push the boundaries of reality even further. They didn't want it fronted by conventional actors - they wanted familiar and friendly TV personalities to bring the story to life.
Michael Parkinson, one of the BBC's most trusted faces, was asked to present it. Alongside him was popular children's television presenter Sarah Greene, together with her husband, TV and radio host Mike Smith - a fact Volk calls a "happy accident".
"It was offered to Sarah [initially] and Mike - I think - happened to read it over her shoulder and said "can I be in it [too]?'
"I quickly thought, 'this is a real bonus'," says Volk.
It was groundbreaking television in many ways - from the infra-red, heat-seeking camera used to "spot" ghostly activity to the pixellation of an interviewee's face.
They also used videotape, instead of the typical 16mm film, to make it look more homemade.
Though the production team wanted it to look realistic, shortly before its transmission the programme featured on the cover of the Radio Times , inside which it was explained it was a drama.
But not everyone read the Radio Times. And when Ghostwatch aired at 21:25 GMT, there were consequences the corporation had not foreseen.
In Nottingham, April and Percy Denham were sitting down to watch the programme together with their sons, Martin 18, and Gavin, 14.
The pair recalled how their elder son became more and more agitated throughout the broadcast.
"He sort of curled up while watching it. We asked if he was alright, but he seemed hypnotised by it," says Mrs Denham.
Ghostwatch's viewers were invited into "the most haunted house in Britain", where Pamela Early and her two daughters were being spooked by a poltergeist.
The nation was told a team of researchers had spent the last 10 months investigating the mysterious movements of a ghost named Pipes - so-called because it kept banging on the water pipes.
In the studio, Parkinson urged viewers to phone in with their own ghost stories on 081 811 8181 - the standard number for BBC phone-ins at the time, used on shows including Crimewatch and Going Live!
As Greene followed the paranormal activity around the house, the tension mounted and the Early family were subjected to increasingly terrifying experiences as the spirit of a dead man apparently entered the children.
By the end of the show the ghost had "seized control" of the TV cameras. At the Early's house, paramedics and police were seen arriving, and Greene, who was trying to locate one of the possessed girls, disappeared into the blackness.
Back in the studio, the floor was deserted apart from a dumbfounded Parkinson.
But behind the scenes, the Ghostwatch production team were enjoying celebratory drinks as the programme aired.
"Ruth [Baumgarten] arrived with a white face and said the switchboard had been jammed at the BBC," Volk says.
"I kind of laughed lightly and she said very seriously, 'no, they really are jammed with people very irate'.
"That was a bit of a 'gulp' moment."
More than 20,000 people had tried to get through to Parkinson at one point during the programme.
Many of the viewers were children, who had been left traumatised by what they thought they had witnessed.
"I think three women who were pregnant went into labour that evening," says Volk.
"A vicar phoned in to complain that even though he realised it wasn't real he thought the BBC had raised demonic forces.
"It was partly that it scared people, but the complaints were actually more that the BBC had made them feel like mugs.
"People felt the BBC was something they could trust, and the programme had destroyed that trust."
In its wake, a tide of anger rose against the BBC, which received thousands of complaints.
Meanwhile, in the days that followed the broadcast, the Denhams noticed a change in Martin.
The radiators in their house had a habit of being noisy when warming up and Martin suddenly asked to move bedrooms, though he never explained why.
"He seemed entranced with the talk of ghosts," Mrs Denham remembers.
"He seemed a bit upset because things were happening at that time in the house that had been happening [on Ghostwatch]. The pipes were banging," his stepfather adds.
Five days after the broadcast, Martin killed himself. A note in his pocket, addressed to his mother, read: "If there is ghosts I will now be one and I will always be with you as one".
The Denhams learned of his death when police came to their places of work.
"I went crackers," Mr Denham says. "I started swearing. When I heard about the [contents of] the note, I knew it was that programme."
A judicial review the Denhams fought for led to an investigation by the Broadcasting Standards Commission, which concluded the corporation had "a duty to do more than simply hint at the deception it was practising on the audience".
There had been a "deliberate attempt to cultivate a sense of menace", it added, and the BBC issued an apology.
The passage of time has seen the Denhams's anger cool a little, although they do not watch BBC channels, or anything that features Michael Parkinson.
"There's nothing you can do. I've just let it go now, but it's still there," Martin's stepfather adds.
"It's still just one big mystery and he isn't here so I'm not able to ask him," Mrs Denham says.
"Martin was happy. He had never had any problems - he had got a girlfriend and a job and had got everything to live for.
"Even though he was a slow learner he had done well for himself. He had everything going for him and then it changed just like that."
Volk declined to comment on Martin's death out of respect for the family.
But he says he had expected a very different reaction from viewers.
"I think it was 11 million that saw it and you can't think of all those people as individuals," he says.
"I was, I guess, writing for myself - aged between 12 and 14 - and I thought of myself watching and thinking, 'well this is interesting, I don't believe it, but I get that this is a drama done in a certain way'.
"That's the basis on which I thought most people would [see] it.
"There was a vast span of different reactions to it, from people who didn't believe it for a second and people who believed it all the way through, and everything in between."
The aftermath meant the BBC distanced itself from Ghostwatch.
Volk says he would have liked to have explained his intentions as a writer with the broadcaster far sooner than the anniversary DVD a decade later allowed.
"I think if the BBC had maybe not shut it down so completely, there might have been an attempt to have a conversation about it," he says.
However, when 12-year-old viewers who saw it the first time revisited it 10 years later - in conjunction with the emergence of the internet - people openly started to discuss the programme.
"Suddenly we found a whole pile of people who did like it, they enjoyed it, thought it was challenging and all the things we wanted it to be," Volk says.
He remains proud of Ghostwatch, the first project he did for television.
Volk went on to write an episode of Ghosts for the BBC in 1995, created ITV series Afterlife starring Andrew Lincoln and Lesley Sharp, and was also behind the 2011 film The Awakening.
"The best result [was] people coming up and saying 'I had to sleep with the light on for three weeks but it got me into film-making' and some have said 'it got me into horror'," he says.
However, he tends to agree with acclaimed author Ramsay Campbell on pushing the genre's boundaries.
"I'm a great believer in what he said about horror, and that is that horror is sometimes the business that goes too far."
Additional reporting by Lisa Wright