Ghostwatch: Looking back on the Michael Parkinson drama that 'traumatised' the nation

How an ahead-of-its-time ghost story invaded the realm of the living

Mike Smith, Michael Parkinson and Sarah Greene in Ghostwatch. (BBC)
Mike Smith, Michael Parkinson and Sarah Greene in Ghostwatch. (BBC)

Following the death of British talk show host Michael Parkinson, we're resharing our 2020 celebration of one of his most memorable and unusual works.

In 1992's Ghostwatch, Parkinson harnessed his power as one of the country's most trusted broadcasters to help writer Stephen Volk and director Lesley Manning invite a malevolent spirit into homes across the UK.

The end result was effective, ahead of its time and infamous...

Ghostwatch was a big deal for the BBC on Halloween 1992.

Not only did it have three of the starriest names in factual programming attached to it, it was even awarded front cover of the Radio Times (“Are You Afraid Of Ghosts?” the coverline asked. “Find out on Hallowe’en with Michael Parkinson and friends”).

Yet the newspaper headlines the day after its screening weren’t quite what the corporation had been expecting. “Viewers Blast BBC ‘Sick’ Ghost Hoax” screamed one. “This TV Programme Killed Our Dear Son” cried another, after reports of a suicide was linked to the show. Virtually every tabloid was in full-on splutter mode as the ashes settled after the BBC’s latest Screen One drama on 31 October, 1992.

Screen One was the BBC’s single play strand between 1989 and 1993, and wasn’t used to this sort of red-top controversy. But then Ghostwatch wasn’t your average Screen One drama. Those who had been paying close attention would have noticed a writing byline, flashed up for but a split second at the beginning, crediting Volk.

Read more: Halloween 2020 viewing guide

But many didn’t, and sat down to this reality show-style investigation into paranormal activity without realising they were watching a carefully scripted drama, recorded weeks before.

Still, the conceit was convincing. Not only did the show have the cosily familiar Michael Parkinson fronting it, it had outside broadcast segments from Blue Peter’s Sarah Greene and radio presenter Mike Smith, as well as Craig Charles — as himself — mucking about in a way that suggested to viewers that it was all a bit of harmless fun. That is, until the poltergeist activity that the show is purporting to investigate at a house in Northolt, Greater London, begins to feel horribly, terrifyingly real and even Parky begins to feel the wrath of the show’s malevolent ghost, a former resident named Raymond Tunstall, and nicknamed Pipes.

“I worked on the premise that people might believe Ghostwatch was genuinely happening ‘live’ or be slightly puzzled for 10 minutes, then twig it was a clever way to do a drama, a ghost story for television,” says Volke.

“That’s all I ever hoped for. It wasn’t our aim to fool all of the audience all of the running time or to upset people – it was me simply wanting to scare the audience as I’d been (pleasurably) scared by BBC TV ghost stories over the years, whether they be the classic Ghost Stories For Christmas or The Stone Tape by Nigel Kneale.

Terrifying and controversial TV special 'Ghostwatch' is now available to stream in the US
Terrifying and controversial TV special 'Ghostwatch' is now available to stream in the US (BBC)

“Ghostwatch in any case, wasn’t designed purely as a hoax or gag. You don’t get £700,000 out of BBC Drama by saying, this will be a jolly good prank! Yes, the number of people ‘fooled’ was a surprise, but what was more interesting to me was the idea that they had been made to feel a mug ‘by the BBC’. That’s really what made them angry.

“Strangely, children had a more malleable attitude to what they were being told, they could accept the manipulation. Adults couldn’t. The optimum age to see Ghostwatch seems to be about 12. People who were 12 years old at the time seem to be the ones who’d come up and tell me how much they loved it. They were utterly terrified, yes – traumatised, even, they’d say – but loved it.”

Read more: Science names the ‘scariest movie ever’

Still, many viewers were ‘fooled’ by Ghostwatch and the press leapt on the show the next day, whipping its readers up into a BBC-loathing frenzy.

“It was very strange,” recalls Volk about the aftermath of the screening. “We all met up for a wee party on the night of transmission. I was there with the director Lesley Manning, Sarah Greene, Mike Smith and other crew members. We watched it go out on a big screen, and after it ended, and Match Of The Day had begun, Ruth Baumgarten, our producer, returned from TV Centre rather ashen to say there had been hundreds of complaints. The switchboard had been overloaded.

“My reaction was ‘Great!’ but she was, like: ‘No, people have been really, really scared!’ The next morning it was all over the Sunday papers. That was a shock. I went to bed and woke up to ‘Heads must roll at the BBC!’ and all that. The BBC, of course, didn’t defend it in any way.

"Michael Parkinson said to the press: ‘People are daft, some people believe the wrestling!’ He was suitably Yorkshire about it, and always supported us right the way through. He ‘got’ it. He also got it in the neck.

“Nobody asked us to explain why we had done it in any way, or what we were trying to achieve. Maybe they thought we weren’t trying to achieve anything! There were only two reviews; one by Nancy Banks Smith and one by Kim Newman in Sight & Sound. Kim, being a genre aficionado, knew exactly where I was coming from, which was from a subversive horror film tradition, not Play For Today.

"The BBC didn’t tell us what to say or not say, they just went quiet, and when that young man committed suicide, they nailed down the hatches and the directive went out to all and sundry never to mention the programme ever again.

“Ruth rang to warn me the press might try to get hold of me for a statement, but they didn’t. The ‘Powers That Be’ at the Beeb threatened to drag our exec producer Richard Broke over the coals, but he wasn’t about to fall on his sword. They had all known this project through the planning stages, so if he was culpable, he’d bring them all down with him. So, mysteriously, the internal inquiry never happened.”

The DVD cover for Ghostwatch. (101 Films)
The DVD cover for Ghostwatch. (101 Films)

Still, though the BBC always seemed faintly embarrassed by Ghostwatch, its afterlife has been greater than any of its Screen One peers. There’s been no BFI DVD release for any other Screen One film from that run, while no feature-length documentary has ever been made about Tony Sarchet’s Trust Me or Lynda La Plante’s Seconds Out (Ghostwatch received its own definitive ‘making of’ doc with 2013’s Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtains).

And what other Screen One film’s influence can still be seen in the movies and TV dramas we watch today? From Inside No.9’s Halloween special Dead Line in 2019 through to this year’s Zoom-styled horror Host, Ghostwatch’s cultural influence reaches far.

Read more: Inside No.9’s Halloween special reviewed

“I loved the Inside No.9 Halloween Special so much,” enthuses Volk. “Really funny and clever. When I heard they were doing it live, I texted Reece Shearsmith and I said, please put in a little nod to Ghostwatch. He texted back, ‘I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.’ Of course, it was fantastic. Such fun, and dark. I texted him and said how much I’d enjoyed it, and he texted back, saying, ‘It was all for you, Stephen!’ What a lovely gesture, bless him!”

Despite all the love for Ghostwatch, and the enduring horror of Pipes in particular, Volk has resisted all temptation so far to explore a sequel, or some other fiction set in its universe.

“I’m not desperately keen on any re-creation, spin off or follow-up,” he says. “Ghostwatch was what it was, and it’s a little TV flag stuck in 1992. It’s there on the wall at BAFTA for God’s sake!

“I don’t want to flesh out any back stories of Pipes or anything like that. I don’t think it’s suitable to explore as a ‘universe’ in any way. All due respect to Castle Rock and Stephen King’s inter-connecting oeuvre, but I don’t feel the need for any of my stories to overlap with any others.

“So Alison Mundy from Afterlife isn’t going to see an apparition of Raymond Tunstall any time soon! Sorry!”

Watch: Michael Parkinson has died aged 88