Cult Movie: Ghostwatch scared the hell out of us before TV spoofs were commonplace

Mike Smith, Michael Parkinson and Sarah Green present Ghostwatch
Mike Smith, Michael Parkinson and Sarah Green present Ghostwatch

IMAGINE, if you can, a time before the term mockumentary had even been thought of. A televisual era where fake news merely meant the newsreader gags the Two Ronnies opened and closed their sketch show with.

It’s tough, I know, but that’s the way it was in 1992 and that’s why Ghostwatch had such a huge effect on everyone who tuned into it that Halloween on BBC 1. We, the great viewing public, simply weren’t as savvy and postmodern as we are now.

Shocking barely begins to cover it really.

If the British Broadcasting Corporation attempted to scare a prime-time audience to within an inch of its life with a fake supernatural expose today of course we’d all sneer knowingly and snort at the sheer obviousness of it all. Decades of watered down nonsense like Most Haunted has dulled our senses for such things. In 1992, however, just about everybody bought into it wholesale and good old Auntie managed to traumatise millions with one well executed broadcast.

It was billed, for those who scanned their Radio Times closely, as a drama but most people didn’t really spot that and until the credits rolled at the end many felt they were watching the most shocking and genuinely spooked out mainstream telly show ever.

Initially everything about the show suggested a cosy little investigative expose of so-called “haunted houses”. It was presented as a kind of Crimewatch special and hosted by Michael Parkinson, Sarah Green and Mike Smith. On first sight it couldn’t have been more mundane. What it turned out to be was one of the most genuinely odd and impressively pulled off spoofs in broadcast history.

Like many a fine spook fest, it all began slowly. Very little happened at first before, around the 40-minute mark, all hell broke loose. Not literally, you understand, but with enough nastiness to make you lurch from your slumber on the sofa and ask out loud if what you think you saw really happened.

Things start flying around the rooms, ordinary children start acting like their auditioning for a remake of The Exorcist and we get to meet the shadowy figure of Pipes for the first time – so named because the creepy clankings in the house are being blamed on the pipes rattling. He is a deeply disturbing figure that still lurks somewhere in the subconscious of all of us unfortunate enough to have witnessed his ghostly appearances on our TV screens that Halloween night.

By the end it’s all been cranked up to ridiculous levels of trauma with the unforgettable image of good old Michael Parkinson rambling zombie like around a darkened studio while reciting gibberish children's verse. If you think his life insurance ads are scary you ain’t seen nothing yet.

With the haunted holidays upon us again I suggest you seek out the show (reissued on Network DVD a while back) and treat yourself to some seriously tidy small screen chills. Trust me – you’ll never look at old Parky in quite the same way again.