**This is a long and detailed blog about a spooky program back in the 90’s. For witty insight into the current political malaise, tune in another time. For now: pure escapism.**
I was an easily spooked child. One of the many programmes on CITV that I loved watching was CITV’s ‘It’s a Mystery’. Despite being shown pre-watershed, the show covered paranormal cases from ghostly goings-on to alien encounters. Re-watching a few episodes procured from the digital archive of YouTube has reminded me of a few things:
The 90’s did not flatter anyone, especially Neil Buchanan (who bears an uncanny resemblance to myself, now I think on it.) That being said, I definitely had a ridiculous crush on Gail Porter (don’t judge, you would have as well.)
The low-fi, faux Blue Peter studio look would be eschewed in favour of relentless CGI these days and be all the poorer for it.
It’s a Mystery could turn on a sixpence; scholastic to stupidly terrifying in a matter of minutes.
There is one story that is seared into my brain forever and, predictably, I can’t find it on YT to save my life. A woman wakes up on her farm and finds that lots of her livestock (mainly chickens and turkeys) have been killed, though there’s no blood or sign of foxes. She finds them so cold it’s like they’re almost frozen in spite of the warm weather. Later that evening, she claims to see bright lights floating just above her house and then hears tapping at the windows. All of this is re-enacted with chilling detail and the part that lingers for me is when she looks to the main window and sees an extra-terrestrial face, staring in at her. This face had been rendered by a composite artist (likely the same guy who did them for Crimewatch, inspired by weekends in the nightclubs of Scunthorpe) and it was terrifying. The eyes were the usual saucers and the nose the two plugholes that we have come to expect when seeing depictions of ‘Grays’, but there was a dreadful detail of slight hair/fur and a twisted smile that ensured I stayed awake most of that evening, chain-reading copies of The Beano to keep from imagining that terrible face, and failing.
I was an easily spooked child, so it’s a good job that I was too young to have watched the now infamous mockumentary that aired on Halloween night in 1992: BBC’s ‘Ghostwatch’.
Before I go any further, Ghostwatch is available on DVD and possibly on the subscription channel of Shudder but that’s it. The BBC have never aired it as a repeat. You can find clips on YT but not the whole thing. I urge you to watch it without any knowledge of what happens. Yes, the acting is a bit ‘Village Hall’ from some and the production values will have younger audiences likely rolling their eyes from the minute they see the giant studio screen(s), but you should just watch it without pausing. Without going back. Without any prejudice. Watch it and leave your phone on charge. Watch it in the dark, with a glass of something. Just watch it, and try to forget about its flaws; it’s an absolute joy, and I intend to praise it in detail.
Some setup, though: 1992 would have placed yours truly at the tender age of four. I was likely irritating the hell out of my parents while my sister was taking her first steps. We would have been living in Eastleigh in a small house near the railway line. My dad would have been practicing Social Work for Southampton City Council and my mum would have been teaching Drama to secondary school kids over at Wyvern, a school she was to stay at for nearly thirty years. The UK was also massively different, as was television. There were only four terrestrial T.V channels. Four. The behemoth of Sky had just become a true player and services such as Netflix were but a germ of an idea.
There was also no way of pausing or recording television, unless you happened to be one of a few who owned Betamax or VHS machines and even then you needed to be physically present to ‘tape’ a program of interest. It was possible to tape over pre-existing recordings, too. I still have painful memories of picking up a prized VHS with ‘Power Rangers’ scribbled on the label only to find my Dad had recorded Match of the Day so he could see how many goals Preston North End conceded that week (it was always a lot.) The point was: ‘live’ really meant ‘live’, back in this time. There was also a lack of scepticism in the way that Auntie Beeb would always be the teller of truth, beyond reproach. This is at the heart of the scandal that was to unwind from BBC One’s Halloween broadcast: people were duped not because of the quality of the production (though we’ll get to the high points in due course) but because of the source. If this had been produced by Channel 4, it would have had less impact.
Steven Volk (why are guys called ‘Steve’ such good storytellers) was a screenwriter who had been working on an idea for a new Drama series which had a paranormal slant, the final episode of which was to take place as a ‘live’ investigation of a suburban house. The BBC, in a series of moves that proved rather typical, said they weren’t sure about the idea of a series but liked the idea of a one-off drama, specifically the final episode. It was never supposed to be a hoax, of course, but the verisimilitude of the program was heightened further by that household name of Michael Parkinson. Yorkshireman “Parky”, already a trusted interviewer with a no-nonsense reputation, was to play himself as the anchor of the investigation while the roving reporter was played by children’s television sweetheart, Sarah Greene. Craig Charles, at the height of his Red Dwarf fame, was left in the field to provide outrageous Vox-pops with the public and Mike ‘Smithy’ Smith was the suave call- coordinator, tasked with taking the nation’s telephone calls of any ghostly experiences they’d had that might spice up a show where, ultimately, nothing might happen for most of the duration. The telephone number to share these stories, incidentally, was the same number shown on the screen when Crimewatch was broadcast (and you thought that was a throwaway line, earlier.)
The idea was simple: the crew were to investigate a house in the suburb of Foxhill Drive, Northolt and they are attempting to capture on camera any evidence that the poltergeist activity the Earley family have been suffering from is real. We have been treated to an opening shot of the Earley girls, Suzanne and Kimmy, as they scream and run from their bedroom, bedside lamps exploding and miscellaneous items being thrown around the room. It is deliberately reminiscent of the Enfield poltergeist case, in more ways than one.
While Sarah Greene and her audio/visual team set up camp in the house, we flit back to the studio where a rather po-faced Dr. Lin Pascoe (played by Gilian Bevan) continues to give us exposition. She has been running psychiatric and physical tests to ascertain if the girls are, in fact, conning us all and she is convinced that the phenomena is authentic. Parky smiles indulgently, though you can see that he thinks she’s as mad as a box of frogs and he’s almost certainly wishing this whole thing to be over so he can clock off, have a nice pint of Tetley’s and moan about something. The first chill comes when Smithy says they’ve received a few calls from people who say they were certain they saw a shadowy figure in the opening footage of the girls in their room. When Parky and Pascoe review the footage, we too can see a hulking shape in the corner of the room as the chaos takes place towards the edge of the screen. It’s made worse by the fact that we only see it for a few seconds and then, when they rewind it, the figure is completely gone. Neither presenter seems to have noticed it at all. Remember: 1992, pixilation, no rewind button on live T.V.
We hear Sarah Greene interviewing the Earleys about their plight. Dad is long-gone, Mum looks haggard, like she hasn’t slept in weeks and the girls are a good juxtaposition of younger and bubbly Kimmy and older, moody Suzanne. We hear that Suzanne saw a figure standing by her bed and that all three of them have heard clanging and banging in the walls. This leads to Mrs. Earley telling the girls “It’s just the pipes” and this then becomes the sinister moniker of the spectre “Pipes.” Kimmy claims to have seen him hiding in the cupboard under the stairs, and has one of those inimitably weird pictures that only kids can draw, of a strange looking bald man wearing some sort of frock. He only has one eye, the other is a hole full of blood. I always tell my creative writing classes that, if you want to make something really scary, it has to be on the verge of silly; one of the reasons Pipes becomes so immediately menacing is the way that his appearance should be amusing, but isn’t. We get a similar experience when we are shown Suzanne’s schoolbook:
‘The camera looks at the pages as she opens them on the kitchen table. On page after page is normal, neat handwriting — then suddenly it changes to a page scrawled in spidery scrawl as if by someone who doesn’t know how to hold a pencil. The words and phrases include:
– BABIES — LOVESME — LOVESME — I will love it like none of them — ROCK A BYE BABY Blood Blood
Blood Bloody Bloody’ — some of the words are in pictograms. Drops of blood are drawn in red ink.’
Assuming this wasn’t one of Suzanne’s teachers whose meds had maybe worn off, this is further evidence that the spectre in their house is focusing its energy on her.
We also hear that Mrs. Earley had a close call in the cupboard under the stairs (which she inexplicably refers to as “The Glory Hole”…I can only assume this term had different connotations back in Northolt in 1992-I will refer to it hereafter as the cupboard under the stairs, mainly to stop my guffawing.) She says she was developing her pictures (stop it) and then felt heavy breathing and a foul stench next to her. She struggled to get out as the door to the…cupboard was stuck shut. It’s a bit comical and the story sounds like someone who has begun to lose their grip on reality, but it foreshadows something in the program’s final act.
Back in the studio, Dr. Pascoe has decided to give us some more evidence of Pipes’ existence. She turns on a Revox tape recorder and we hear the voice of Pipes coming through Suzanne. As he mutters nursery rhymes with obscenely-altered lyrics, the studio lights are dimmed and we see, or think we see, a figure standing just off to Parky’s right. The voice gets louder and more unsettling, continuing with the “tickle you under there” part of the old ‘Round and Round the Garden’ rhyme.
The tape finishes and Parky, mildly unimpressed, simply says “Bizarre.”
We are then given more people phoning in with their “real-life” paranormal stories, including a memorable one of some slightly inebriated boyos in Neath quite flagrantly taking the mickey and claiming their cheese and pickle is haunted. This is the genius of Ghostwatch for me, the pacing is slack and slow and feels like the kind of program having to fill dead (ha) air at every opportunity. Sarah Greene tells a story of her own to fill some time and it’s charmingly told, but not in the least bit scary. Bless.
There is friction when there’s a stereotypically rude New Yorker from the Sceptic Society calling in via satellite — continuity here is weak as we are shown the Manhattan skyline in darkness, despite it being around 3pm in the big apple in real life — to claim that Dr. Pascoe should be selling crystals, not scientific experiments. It’s true. She does seem a bit too close to the action to be considered impartial, but he comes across as enough of a prize wiener that we instantly dislike him.
It’s around this time that the kids go to bed, the camera crew settle down with some cups of tea and one of them discovers that his watch has stopped.
Craig Charles now goes to a playground with a camera and a cheeky smile (ordinarily, this would be a police matter.) He is interviewing some residents of the neighbourhood who claim that there are some “disturbing things” transpiring in Foxhill Drive, and they really are very disturbing. These two older ladies claim a kid was stabbed (thankfully recovered) and another, a girl, abducted and never seen again. The nastiest image is when these two older ladies recall the time a Labrador was found dead in the playground.
YVONNE: It was right here, cut open like something in a butcher’s shop.
WENDY I couldn’t believe who’d do summat like that.
YVONNE And what was worse — I don’t know if I can say this without being sick — it were pregnant. It had these tiny babies, foetuses, scattered all over.
WENDY The kiddies weren’t right for weeks.
That’s some Texas Chainsaw stuff right there. Jesus. While this is happening and Craig Charles is nodding enthusiastically along, quite out of tone with the story, we are aware of a crowd of onlookers in the vicinity. Charles walks past them and, in a real blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, there is a tall, bald man with only a bloody socket for an eye just standing on the edge of the crowd.
He is unseen, and I must confess I didn’t see him the first time. In a way this makes his presence more frightening as he is just malevolently ever-present, possibly growing in power and substance as Halloween night gets later and the veil between the living and the dead gets thinner. We suddenly switch back to 14, Foxhill Drive as we are told that “something is happening.”
Sarah Greene is looking nervous, genuinely nervous. Her acting is underrated here, with someone else it could come across as corny but she nails that smiling that says “I’m putting on a brave face here.” The cause of her nerves become apparent when, listening hard, we hear thudding. Quiet and then deafeningly loud, coming from upstairs. She rushes to investigate but just then we hear Parky’s voice, telling her to stay put because the studio crew say they’ve seen Suzanne out of her bed but not on the landing yet. The noises continue, the camera pans across, then down and we see Suzanne banging on the pipes with a piece of wood. When she realises she’s been caught, she screams and flees back under her covers.
The dismay is palpable. Dr. Pascoe is adamant this is irregular, Parky sighs and ruefully purses his lips as if the recipient of a bad LBW call and Suzanne keeps repeating “we just gave you what you wanted, didn’t we?” The screen fades to black.
Recriminations begin, the New Yorker from the Sceptic Society reappears looking like the Cheshire Cat, referring to the girls as “disturbed attention-seekers”. They cut away because Smithy, with two hands full of papers, is inundated with calls about seeing a bald man with a ‘buttoned up robe or dress’. Pascoe looks worried, though Parky has now let a sneer onto his face, and she asks to see some more footage from her experiments with Kimmy and Suzanne. While this footage is being fetched, things begin to happen very quickly: a pre-recorded ghost story from a member of the public starts and then breaks down into slow motion, eventually freezing. Parky blames the machinery, beginning to look uncharacteristically flustered as he then takes another call. This call is from a very scared sounding woman who claims that her glass table just suddenly exploded, cutting her husband severely in the process. He’s had to be taken to hospital and she asks, shrilly why they are “doing this” as her kids are scared stiff. Parky loses his cool and tells her that “it’s high-time your kids were in bed.” She then says they won’t go to bed. She also says she’s not able to see what the real time is because all the clocks have stopped. It’s well-done, and the lack of control that Parky has in this moment is what begins to make us feel more nervous.
In the background, the footage from Pascoe’s interview with Kimmy is now being played and we hear Kimmy distinctly saying that Pipes wears a long black dress, buttoned all the way up to the neck. Pascoe is now wild-eyed, claiming that footage has never been broadcast before so it’s impossible that anyone could know that precise detail about the spectre, unless of course they’d seen Pipes. As her and Parky argue over the possibilities, Sarah Greene appears on the main screen and tells us she can hear horrible noises of cats yowling all around the house. The footage and sound begin to lag and it’s obvious that there are technical difficulties. It was around this point that the script called for a high-pitched noise to play and to elicit a reaction from people’s dogs, should they own them (I’ll bet they’re glad the technology wasn’t there for most people’s T.V sets, given the aftermath!)
Sarah finds Suzanne, on the bed, with scratches all over her face. She has bitten-down nails, so cannot be the culprit. She seems to be in a *ahem* catatonic state and will not respond properly to questions from the panicked presenters. She is eventually moved from the bedroom and the cameraman, inexplicably filming the empty room, catches a figure stood behind the curtains. He pans back, fast. It is gone. It is now that we get our penultimate caller to the studio, he sounds grave and defeated. It’s a tremendous bit of voice acting:
ANONYMOUS MAN (phone filter) I don’t want to give my name, but I think I have some information for you about the history of 41 Foxhill Drive.
PASCOE We have the deeds and searches to the year it was built, plus the history of the site as far as the Domesday book and ley lines.
ANONYMOUS MAN (phone filter) Do you know Mr and Mrs Sellars?
PASCOE On our list of tenants. They lived there — in the sixties, wasn’t it?
ANONYMOUS MAN (phone filter) Did you know they sub-let a room?
PASCOE No, I didn’t.
ANONYMOUS MAN (phone filter) Being illegal, it wouldn’t be on the official records. The lodger was their nephew, Raymond Tunstall.
PRESENTER How do you know him? Why are you calling, sir?
ANONYMOUS MAN (phone filter) I worked as his social worker when he came out of psychiatric hospital. He had several convictions for molestation, aggravated abuse, abduction of minors. He should never have been let anywhere near any community. He was a very disturbed man, in my opinion.
PRESENTER In what way?
ANONYMOUS MAN (phone filter) From the time he moved to Foxhill Drive, he developed paranoid fantasies. He used to tell me there was a woman on the inside of his body, taking over his thoughts and actions. Making him do things he didn’t want to do. He started to wear dresses.
PASCOE What happened to him?
MAN (phone filter) The delusions got so bad, there was only one way to escape them. He took his own life. That’s why I called. When I heard… When I was sitting here watching the TV and –
PRESENTER Hello? You’re still there? Go on. Please.
ANONYMOUS MAN (phone filter) Tunstall hanged himself. He tied wire round his neck to a lathe, and switched it on. Did it where he kept his tools. Under the stairs. It was kept out of the papers…
PRESENTER I beg your pardon?
ANONYMOUS MAN (phone filter) His Aunt and Uncle were on holiday… It was 12 days before anybody found him. They heard the cats, screaming. He had about a dozen cats. The cats were locked in, of course, and of course… 12 days…they got hungry…they got to work…on his face…
Just reading it on a page makes you shiver slightly. We begin to connect the dots between the noises we’ve been hearing and the appearance of Pipes. It also raises some very disturbing thoughts about why the spectre seems to be focused on two young girls. The camera crew and the girls are now in the living room, Suzanne has started speaking in that awful voice we heard before and there are paintings flying off the wall. The sound man is knocked unconscious by a falling mirror and they rush him out to an ambulance. The interference and technical difficulties result in a snowy picture for a moment and then, abruptly, we are back. The noises have stopped.
We just have time for one more phone call from someone who used to live in Northolt. She remembers being scared by her parents with the threat of a “Mother Seddons”, a bogey-woman who would come to get them if they didn’t eat their greens or wash behind their ears. The caller then goes on to say that she researched and, as it transpires, Mother Seddons really did exist. She was a baby-farmer, a genuine profession back in Victorian times, and she boosted her profits by taking the money and then drowning the babies in the washing coppers out back. This is relayed to us in a slightly too jovial manner by the caller and we see Dr. Pascoe look troubled. Mother Seddons, infanticide, Raymond Tunstall, convinced a woman was telling him to do bad things, a Victorian dress with buttons up the front, cats.
They both look at the main screen, where the girls and Sarah Greene appear to be playing board games. There’s no sound. Dr. Pascoe’s face suddenly contorts with horror. She stands up and whispers:
“It’s in the machine.”
On the wall, we can see one of the more prominent pictures that fell in the earlier scene. It is quite undamaged.
“These pictures we’re seeing now aren’t live. It’s a cover, a dupe.”
Suddenly, all hell breaks loose. The ‘real’ picture regains and we hear a bloodcurdling scream, warped by the playback. The house is dark but we keep getting repeated scenes from earlier where we have Suzanne screaming “We just gave you what you wanted!” The word “wanted” is repeated with decreasing speed, making her voice deeper each time. The ‘live’ footage is now in dim light, showing Sarah Greene trying to open the cupboard under the stairs while Suzanne cries on the other side. Eventually it opens but seems to have a terrible vortex of wind on the other side, Sarah crawls in (not seeing Pipes lurking) and the door slams shut behind her. Fade to black. The finale is all a bit daft, really. Lights in the studio explode (and we can clearly see Pipes stood behind one of them as they do) and a wind picks up in the studio. Dr. Pascoe says that we’ve “created a national séance.” The original script does it better:
‘A chaotic selection of images are being dredged up from the depths of TV memory: FLICKERING
HALF-IMAGES OF Songs of Praise, Blue Peter in black and white, the Val Doonican show, the
potter’s wheel, the Woodentops, newsreel of Northern Ireland atrocities, Morecambe and Wise.
ERIC MORECAMBE (VT) There’s no answer to that. There’s no answer to that. There’s no answer to
Like a maddening litany. Faces, shapes, voices, crosscutting insanely.
Finally the inane THEME SONG to ‘Jim’ll… Jim’ll Fix It…’:
The irony is that the theme song to Jim’ll Fix It wouldn’t necessarily have added any extra horror back in 1992. The idea that the ghost was in the machine and possibly, your home was the final straw for anyone who had been taken along by it this far. What an absolutely petrifying idea, and how brilliant too.
Parky is the last person we see, shuffling around the darkened studio and reading off the auto cue:
“Round and round the garden, like a teddy bear.”
It then ends, with no credits.
The aftermath is arguably more famous that the program, and I will write about that in my next post.
Goodnight and: don’t have nightmares.