On Halloween night in 1992, Michael Parkinson welcomed viewers on BBC One to a show called 'Ghostwatch' with the words "the programme you're about to watch is a unique live investigation of the supernatural."
I remember being sat on the sofa watching it live, I was just 12-years-old at the time, and Parky was right, the show was unique. There's been nothing like it since, it hasn't been replicated and never will be. 'Ghostwatch' could have only happened when it did and here's why...
When 'Ghostwatch' aired in 1992, it was a different world. A time when broadcasters were more trusted and therefore weren't required to have the same level of openness and transparency. That was until the infamous 'Blue Peter' incident, when the producers picked a child who was visiting the studio as a competition winner, instead of a genuine caller. The scandal led to a review of policies across the organisation.
It was also a time before the internet and social media, which made it a lot easier to keep secrets. Now-a-days, if the BBC had set up a fake outside broadcast in a London suburb for three nights in July, the cat would have been out of the bag long before before Halloween. Pictures of the set taken by passers-by would have been posted on Twitter, and extras and actors would have teased their upcoming roles on Facebook.
The show left viewers wondering about the fates of its presenters, especially Sarah Greene, who was "live" in the house on Foxhill Drive, and Parky himself, who found himself in a possessed studio six at BBC Television Centre at the end of the show, as all hell broke loose.
Social media has enabled the general public to get closer to celebrities and broadcasters, and allows them to have a conversation. So, even that "what happened to them" element of the show would be shattered today by reassuring tweets from the cast, producers and the broadcaster.
The ethics of broadcasting have also changed a lot in the last few decades, thanks for a few scandals at the BBC. 'Blue Peter' started the ball rolling, but 'Saturday Kitchen' was the final straw. The BBC was forced to apologise in 2007 when it was revealed that the Saturday morning cookery show invited callers to phone in and take part in the show, but it emerged that some of the episodes were actually pre-recorded.
Ever since soliciting for callers or text messages to a pre-recorded show has been a big no-no. Even during repeats of shows with a competition element, a message appears on the screen advising viewers that the competition is now closed and tell them not to call.
So, there is absolutely no way today that the BBC, or any broadcaster would get away with soliciting for callers to talk about what they'd seen during a drama show which was recorded months before.
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"Our 'Ghostwatch' team are here, ready to take your calls. We particularly want to hear from you if you've had any personal experiences of ghosts or the supernatural. Call us now."
The shake-up at the BBC also lead to rules which meant that if a show which is normally live is replaced with a pre-recorded version, it must be made clear that the show isn't live. This would mean that now, it would be very hard to put out a pre-recorded show at primetime and purposely deceive viewers into thinking it was live.
Now-a-days, thanks to reality TV, we all know that the general public will do or say anything to get on television. We instinctively take a programme featuring members of the public with a pinch of salt, assuming that it's staged, script, or that the producers have manufactured events.
But, 'Ghostwatch' aired before the rise in reality TV, it meant viewers weren't as suspicious of the motives of the fake family who appeared in the show. Fakery wasn't comment place in broadcasting outside the genre of fiction, and it was pretty easy to mistake 'Ghostwatch' as fiction.
Today we're all a pretty cynical bunch. In a world where fake news
is common place, we're now trained to validate what we see in the newspapers, on television, and of course on the internet. But the early 90s were a simpler time, people had no reason not to trust the media. And, although the show was subtly labeled as being part of the BBC's 'Screen One' drama series, the producers did their best to pass it off as a live show.
People just wouldn't fall for it now, they'd jump on to Twitter, check out the hashtag, see what other people were saying, and come to the conclusion that's it was nothing more than a work of fiction.
'Ghostwatch' was one of the most memorable television shows of my childhood, it's one of the best piece of television drama of all time, and it's a hoax that rivals H. G. Wells' Halloween broadcast of 1938. When 'War Of The Worlds' originally aired as a radio show, Americans literally fled their homes in fear of a pending alien invasion.
A mainstream broadcaster could never pull off something like 'Ghostwatch' ever again. Some of the smaller channels like Dave or Really could air a Halloween spoof, perhaps something like 'Most Haunted'. But, a show on these networks would never get the 11 million viewers that 'Ghostwatch' was able to pull in on BBC One on a Saturday night, in a time when there was only four free-to-view television channels.
Today, in an era when anyone can stream live to sites like YouTube and Facebook, perhaps the next big paranormal
hoax will come, not from a regulated broadcaster, but from an amateur production online. In this medium it might be possible to dupe the audience in the same way as 'Ghostwatch' did, but again it would never achieve the same live audience, and it would never get the reaction afterwards, or the front page headlines on every newspaper the next morning.
'Ghostwatch' is still one of the most talked about television shows in the history of broadcasting, and that is something that could never be repeated.
How Much Do You Know About 'Ghostwatch?'
The classic British television show 'Ghostwatch' was the definitive Halloween night special, but much can you remember about the horror mockumentary that gave kids nightmares on Halloween night, 1992?
'Ghostwatch' is regarded as a classic of the genre and remains as relevant, as terrifying and as inspirational today.
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Sarah Greene and Craig Charles report from a reputedly haunted North London council house for the outside broadcast, whilst Michael Parkinson and Mike Smith stay in the warmth and "safety" of a BBC studio.
The Early family are allegedly being harrassed by the ghost "Pipes", so named as his banging and crashing were initially attributed to bad plumbing.
After a deliberately slow start the crescendo sees children speaking in tongues, Sarah Greene sent to her doom, and Michael Parkinson possessed by an evil spirit.