Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Mike Smith, Gillian Bevan
broadcast on Hallowe’en night, 1992, Ghostwatch was a
ninety-minute play designed to unfold, documentary- style, in real-time,
like an episode of Crimewatch.
Although billed as a
drama in the Radio Times, the producers set out to deceive, and did catch
out many viewers, who thought that they were watching a genuine
documentary. This resulted in a similar public reaction to that which met
Orson Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast, more
than fifty years earlier.
originally appeared in a season of Screen One plays, and that
strand's brief title sequence originally preceded the programme. Sadly
this ident has been removed for the DVD release, which means viewers won't
have the chance to see Ghostwatch in its original context.
Frankly this is to be expected of some lesser labels, but you'd think that
the BFI would have more sense! The play still has a caption card at
the beginning, which credits the play’s writer, Steven Volk - something
that was imposed on the producers by nervy BBC management - but if casual
viewers had so much as blinked, they would probably have missed it!
impossible to come to the play without preconceptions that undermine its
effectiveness. Even viewers who still don’t know it’s fiction might
twig when they see a couple of now relatively well know character actors
(Gillian Bevan and Brid Brennan) in their roles as the TV pundit and
distraught mother respectively. Despite this, it’s hard not to get
caught up in what you see unfolding, and more than once or twice there are
sharply chilling moments.
disc comes with an excellent commentary track, by Volk, director Lesley
Manning and producer Ruth Baumgarten. They reveal all sorts of interesting
trivia and background information. You’ll discover, for example, that
there were demarcation problems at the BBC that dictated that the
producers could use studio facilities or outside-broadcast facilities, but
not both, and that the unusual format caused some problems for some of the
actors, who weren’t as adept at freewheeling as live broadcast veterans
like Sarah Greene and Michael Parkinson. (Parkinson, incidentally, is
quite excellent, never over-performing his role as show host and the
viewer’s touchstone). Volk is well versed in the genre, and freely
acknowledges many influences, including Nigel Kneale’s superb
Stone Tape and
The Exorcist, and notes how the Ghostwatch-style
format has subsequently proliferated, with "reality TV"
programmes like Big Brother. Lesley Manning also notes the play’s
quite startling similarities to The Blair Witch Project.
disc also contains Shooting Reality, a seven-minute examination of
Lesley Manning’s annotated script and other production documents,
explaining the logistics of such a complex drama. It also contains a very
rare shot of one of Caroline Noble’s very effective make-ups, and some
of the newspaper articles featured in the play.
The disc also contains
DVD Rom bonus materials: Volk’s original 1991 treatment, the screenplay
and a short story written by Volk, Three Fingers, One Thumb, (which
originally appeared in Samhain magazine, in 1998). The disc also
comes with a booklet with sleeve notes by Kim Newman.
aspects of the programme are broadly touched upon in the commentary, but
there’s very little tangible evidence of the storm of protest that was
unleashed on the disc itself (it made the front page of the next day’s
newspapers, apparently caused several women to go into labour, and
allegedly caused the suicide of a mentally retarded eighteen year old
boy). The BFI have certainly missed a trick or two by not including some
of the clips and trailers that are alluded to in the commentary (viewer
reaction on Points of View and Biteback, for example), which
reduce the disc’s value as a comprehensive document of the production.
The programme itself
is presented on a dual-layer disc, and probably looks as good now as it
did when it originally beamed into viewer’s homes. There’s a slight
softness to the picture and a mild graininess, but these are
characteristic of BBC programmes of that era. The play was an early BBC
stereo production, and, although it has a deliberate fly-on-the-wall
character, has some decent separation effects, and good fidelity. The
sound plays an important role in the production, and is generally very
effectively used. The disc is very nicely authored. The menu screens are
appropriately atmospheric, and the layer change is handled perfectly,
(it’s at the junction of chapters nine and ten, and is only really
noticeable when the viewer is listening to the commentary track).
Fans of Ghostwatch have
been badgering the BBC to get it released on video for almost a decade, so
the BFI is to be congratulated for finally grasping the nettle, and
achieving what the BBC itself was unwilling to do. It’s perhaps not the
lavish bells-and-whistles toy-box that its fans had wished for, but it’s
a solid package that none of them will be disappointed with.