Review – BBC Ghostwatch (1992)


In 1938 Orson Welles directed and starred in a radio adaption of H.G.Wells “War Of The Worlds”. It was done in the style of an outside live news broadcast, with Welles reporting on the Martian invasion, as it was supposedly happening. Due to the fact that half the country tuned in after the beginning of the broadcast, many thought the news coverage was for real, and the broadcast sent the country into a blind panic. Whole swathes of The United States genuinely thought they were under attack from an alien force. I guess you had to be there. I’m also guessing it was a very different time, people were a little more naieve, and open to believing pretty much anything.

Surely that couldn’t happen nowadays. Could it ???

Fast forward 54 years to 1992. The BBC were getting ready to screen a brand new feature length drama. It had been filmed weeks earlier. Everything was in place. The show had many well respected broadcasters and celebrities onboard, including the king of the chat show, Michael Parkinson, aided by trusted children’s television presenters Sarah Greene and Mike Smith, who were married at the time. They also had “Mr Red Dwarf” himself, Craig Charles, playing a fellow presenter.

“Ghostwatch” was to be screened as part of a series of one off drama’s going under the banner of “Screen One”. It was filmed in the style of a live broadcast, and looked, for all intents and purposes, like a kind of weird hybrid of BBCs Crimewatch, and the 1982 Tobe Hooper horror movie “Poltergeist”. Little did the BBC realise what they were about to unleash on an unsuspecting public, and the controversy it would cause.

Michael Parkinson introduced the show as a “serious live investigation into the paranormal”, centering around a house in London, occupied by a family, who were being terrified by a constant barrage of supernatural activity.

The programme terrified the nation and caused outrage in the press. It s legacy lives on, and it’s also been cited as an inspiration for movies like  The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity and Derren Brown s The Séance . GHOSTWATCH is regarded as a classic of the genre and remains as relevant, as terrifying, and as inspirational today.


Sarah Greene and Craig Charles report from a reputedly haunted North London council house, whilst Michael Parkinson and Mike Smith conduct interviews and take phone calls in a BBC studio. The Early family are allegedly being harrassed by the ghost “Pipes”, so named because of the banging and crashing noises, which were initially attributed to bad plumbing in the house. After a deliberately slow start the crescendo sees one of the children speaking in tongues, Sarah Greene sent to her doom, and Michael Parkinson possessed by an evil spirit. What also added to the gradually building tension, was the backstory of the house, and the alleged poltergeist that was terrifying everyone living there. Many years previously, one of the rooms in the house, was apparently let to a man named Raymond Tunstall, who suffered from what we now know as mental health issues, and had also been arrested several times for alleged child molestation. So, as if the events within the house weren’t sinister enough, we now had, what was effectively, the ghost of a child abusing tenant, and he seemed to be focusing most of his attention on the two young girls living there…..and it gets worse. Tunstall eventually locked himself in a cupboard underneath the stairs, along with the many cats he kept as pets, and hanged himself. His body remained undiscovered for months, by which time the cats had eaten part of his face. It’s a truly horrible story, and hearing it gradually coming out, piece by piece, added to the genuine sense of menace and dread, which built up over the course of the investigation.

Although pure fiction, the masterly combination of great scripting, brilliant direction, and perfect casting, made the supernatural events appear frighteningly real. Also the presence of Michael Parkinson, helped convince thousands of people, that what they were seeing was actually happening. The drama caused an uproar, and due to the howls of protest and outrage it caused, the BBC buried it in their vaults, with instructions it was never to be shown again.

It also earned the dubious honour of being the first TV programme to be cited in the British Medical Journal, as having caused Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in children. The BBCs switchboard was jammed with complaints from people saying their kids were terrified, they themselves were terrified, pregnant women had gone into labour, bought on by the stress caused by simply watching the programme. I myself was totally taken in by it. I tuned in a few minutes after the start, so i missed the opening credits, which would have told me straight away that it was a scripted drama, and not an actual live broadcast.

Despite all the fuss, i have to say that it was in my opinion, an absolutely brilliant piece of television, and one which still haunts me to this day, nearly 30 years on. I along with many thousands of people were completely duped by it, and i genuinely thought i’d tuned into a genuine, live investigation of a haunted house. And that, my friends, is the hallmark of brilliant television.


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I am passionate about movies and cinema generally. I love talking about them and writing about them.

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