Ghostwatch is a Halloween-themed mockumentary that first aired in the United Kingdom on BBC 1 at 9:30pm on Saturday October 31, 1992. It was written by Stephen Volk and directed by Leslie Manning. It stars Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Mike Smith and Craig Charles as fictionalized versions of themselves. It features Gillian Bevan as Dr. Lin Pascoe, Brid Brennan as Pamela Early, Michelle Wesson as Suzanne Early and Cherise Wesson as Kim Early. Keith Ferrari makes several very brief, almost subliminal, appearances as Pipes the ghost.
The program is one of the most controversial that the BBC has ever made. Many viewers believed that the program was a genuine live documentary and that it had shown conclusive proof not only that ghosts are real but that they can attack and even kill people. Upon discovering that the program was a fiction, many viewers became extremely angry, accusing the BBC of perpetrating a hoax. The program was even linked to the suicide of a young man with learning difficulties.
The BBC eventually apologized for airing the program and banned it from being shown again for ten years. Although the ten year ban has now come to an end, the program has never been repeated on British television. However, the program has aired in Canada and Belgium. In 2002, for its tenth anniversary, it was shown in some movie theaters in Britain and released on VHS and DVD. Notably, the first home video release of Ghostwatch was by the British Film Institute, not the BBC.
Michael Parkinson, in a studio decorated with skulls and jack-o-lanterns, tells viewers that they are watching a live investigation that will attempt to prove that ghosts really exist. Film is shown of a TV crew arriving outside a small house in Greater London that is supposed to be one of the most haunted houses in the UK. Parkinson is joined in the studio by Mike Smith, taking viewers' phone calls, and Dr. Lin Pascoe, an expert in the paranormal. Sarah Greene reports from inside the house and Craig Charles reports from the street outside. Dr. Pascoe says that she expects some ghostly happenings to take place that night because more paranormal activity is reported on Halloween than on any other night.
The haunted house is the home to single-mother Pamela Early, her teenage daughter Suzanne and her younger daughter Kim. Everything appears to be normal at first, Sarah Greene joins in apple bobbing with the two girls and is frightened when Craig Charles bursts out of a closet wearing a monster mask. However, Pamela Early explains that they have been bothered for months by a disruptive ghost. The ghost has become known as Pipes, because Pamela originally told her daughter Kim that the noise she could hear was coming from the pipes in the central heating system. It is revealed that one feature of the haunting has been Suzanne reciting the nursery rhyme "Round and round the garden, Like a teddy bear" in a strange, deep voice.
A video is shown of the two girls being frightened by a loud noise and objects flying around their bedroom. Viewers call in, saying that they think that they saw the ghostly image of either an ugly witch-like woman or a bald man wearing a black dress in the girls' room. Dr. Pascoe is skeptical at first, thinking that viewers are just seeing folds in the curtains, but when many callers say that they saw the same thing, she begins to believe them. Craig Charles is sent to ask people in the street about strange things that have happened in the area around the house, although he is more interested in interviewing trick-or-treaters.
A caller suggests that Pipes could be the ghost of Mother Seddons, a Victorian child-minder turned murderer who once lived in the area. Another caller says he believes that Pipes is the ghost of Raymond Tunstull, a man who once lodged in the house. It appears that Tunstull himself was bothered by the ghost of Mother Seddons, he believed that there was a woman inside him, making him do things he did not want to do, and he started wearing a long black Victorian dress. He committed suicide and his body was not discovered for several days, his many cats having started to eat him before his body was found. Dr. Pascoe later says that she thinks that the spirit of Pipes might be older than either Tunstull or Mother Seddons, that evil could have been attached to the site of the house since prehistoric times.
As the program progresses, Pipes becomes more powerful. Unseen cats are heard yowling, a picture flies off the wall, scratches appear on Suzanne's face, she begins to speak in Pipes' voice and Kim "drowns" her toy stuffed bunny in the kitchen sink because Pipes told her to do it. Viewers around the country call in, saying that ghostly activities are happening in their homes. A frightened Dr. Pascoe announces that the program itself is to blame for those occurrences, the show having created a nationwide seance.
Michael Parkinson looks again at the live feed from the house and sees Sarah Greene happily playing a board game with the two girls. It turns out that the footage is from earlier in the evening, the ghost has taken over the outside broadcast. The picture then changes to what is currently happening in the house. A wounded, possibly dead, sound engineer is seen being carried out to an ambulance. Sarah Greene becomes trapped inside a closet under the stairs. The sound of yowling cats is heard coming from the closet before the picture cuts off. At the studio, all the lights go out and a wind howls through. Everyone, except Michael Parkinson, leaves. The program ends with Parkinson reading the lines "Round and round the garden. Like a teddy bear' from the teleprompter before beginning to speak in Pipes' voice.
The program was shown in a time slot that for weeks had been reserved for original dramas. In the Radio Times, the bestselling TV and radio listings magazine in the UK at the time, Ghostwatch was listed as a "film" and a full cast list was printed. A "Written by" credit appeared at the beginning of the program and characters in it were played by actors who had appeared in other BBC dramas in the previous seven days. Nevertheless, many viewers believed that the program was a live documentary. The BBC received more than thirty thousand phone calls in connection with the program. Many of the calls were from frightened people, while the program was airing, or from people angry at what they saw as a hoax having been played on the public. Comparisons were drawn in the media to the panic caused in the United States by Orson Welles' 1938 radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds.
A controversial aspect of the program is that three of the stars, who played fictionalized versions of themselves, were very popular with children. Craig Charles was well known for playing Dave Lister in the science-fiction comedy show Red Dwarf. Mike Smith (who died in August 2014) had been a disc-jockey on BBC Radio One, the national pop music radio station. His real life wife, Sarah Greene, was host of the popular Saturday morning children's TV show Going Live! Michael Parkinson, although not well known to many children in 1992, is an avuncular figure. Many parents felt that they had falsely been given the impression that the program would be suitable Halloween night viewing for their children.
Ghostwatch was linked to the November 5, 1992 suicide of Martin Denham, an 18 year old man with learning difficulties. Denham's home genuinely had a faulty central heating system, with noisy pipes, which Denham came to associate with the character Pipes from the TV show. Denham's mother and stepfather, April and Percy Denham, said that the young man had become obsessed by the program and tried to make the BBC accept responsibility for his death. The Broadcasting Standards Commission initially refused to listen to their complaint, until Britain's High Court compelled them to listen to the Denham's complaint and thirty-four others about the program.
The Broadcasting Standards Commission concluded that the BBC had made a mistake by not making it clearer that the program was fictional. The BBC eventually issued an apology for unintentionally misleading its viewers and banned the program from being rerun until 2002. The program has not been shown on television in the UK again, even though the ban has now expired.
Ghostwatch has the dubious honor of being the first television program claimed to have been the cause of post traumatic stress disorder. An article from the March 12, 1994 issue of the British Medical Journal says that two 10-year old boys were left traumatized by the program. However, the article concludes that post traumatic stress disorder may not be the best diagnosis, because the children recovered quite quickly.
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