When Ghostwatch screened on BBC1 in 1992, it received a record number of complaints from viewers who were upset, shocked, terrified or angry about it. Worried that perhaps they had gone too far, the BBC refused to rebroadcast it and, as a result of its relative obscurity, the show took on a near-mythical cult status. However, one young viewer it made a huge impression on was Rich Lawden who, twenty years later, would release a passionate and comprehensive documentary (Ghostwatch: Behind The Curtains) that covered everything you could ever want to know about the programme but were afraid to ask.
Den of Geek sat down with Rich to reminisce and talk about the haunting legacy of Pipes…
So you saw Ghostwatch when you were 7 years old and it obviously must’ve had an impact…
It didn’t really affect me, in all honesty, at the time of transmission. I remember being very interested by it but not wholly understanding all of it. It was a couple of weeks later that I remember reacting to it in quite a profound way and I couldn’t stop talking about it. We actually had a tape of it and I didn’t even want to look at it. We had a load of old Memorex tapes and the Ghostwatch one didn’t have a laminate or a label on it, just this strange sandpapery feeling. When you were going through the tapes, you’d know you were holding the Ghostwatch one without even looking. But then one night my grandmother tried to watch it and she fell asleep half-way through so I figured, well, it couldn’t be that bad! It just dawned on me at that point that I’m never not going to be interested in this but I’d been psyching myself up. So I thought “why don’t you psyche yourself up in different ways?” Instead of sitting there worrying about it, try and pick this thing apart and try to figure it out.
Where that led is wanting to be a screenwriter and writing a ton of spec scripts, none of which got through, so one night I opened a web search for screenwriting workshops and the first one that came up was in Bristol with [writer] Stephen Volk. I instantly I recognised the name and knew I had to think of a question for him about Ghostwatch so I just thought I’d ask “why hasn’t anyone made a documentary about Ghostwatch?” and it was a lightbulb moment and in less than a minute I’d worked the whole thing out in my head! There are plenty of people out there who want to know the full story – it’s the story that I wanted to know and even the people who made the programme wanted to know – so that was the beginning.
How did you get access to everyone involved?
Well, I talked to Stephen and he was keen to assist me in any way that he could, so he put me in touch with [director] Lesley Manning and then she got in touch with Sarah and Mike and Ruth Baumgarten, so every person that I spoke to seemed to branch off into somebody else. They’d more or less remained in touch for the most part. Parky was very much on board, which was a great morale boost.
I have to ask, while you were shooting it, did anything weird happen? Any spooky activity?
Not during the actual shoot, funnily enough, but when I met Stephen Volk at the screenwriters’ workshop, a few strange things happened. I’d never been to Bristol before, and as soon as I got off the train, the first person I bumped into was Stephen Volk. I had to get the last train back to Birmingham at a certain time too so it looked like I’d have to make tracks and miss his Q&A. But later, I went to look at my watch and my watch had stopped! And, as they started to show a clip from Afterlife in the Q&A the projector froze and a lady in front of me burst into tears, she was so overwhelmed by this. It was utterly bizarre and I did end up missing the last train back but it was worth it.
Yeah, it’s almost like fate got in the way, stopped your watch and made sure you stayed for Stephen Volk!
So you made the doc and obviously there are a lot of people out there who, like you, did want to know the story behind it after all this time. Why do you think that is, that the public interest in Ghostwatch endures?
Well, the hallmark of any classic is if it stands the test of time and, with regards to Ghostwatch, it’s doing multiple things simultaneously and you can pick and choose as an audience – even subconsciously – the reason why you want to watch or respond to Ghostwatch. I think it’s a very effective horror and I think it’s a very effective satire. I’ve never seen audiences react to anything in the same way. Maybe it’s my blinkered cinema experience but I have literally seen the popcorn fly with Ghostwatch!
In terms of the horror, it is very domestic and there are very traumatic gags in Ghostwatch that I think are universal. Whether you grow up in a council house or a mansion the lightbulbs will have gone during your time there or the pipes will have knocked at the wall or the television will have acted up. They get you for a moment, things like that, when your routine changes, but when it’s just one thing, you get over it. When it’s one after the other, it feels like there’s a consciousness behind it and I think people pick up on that. But it’s all about projection I think. What you bring to Ghostwatch is what you take away. If you want to see a horror, it’s a horror. If you want to see a satire, it’s a satire. If you want to see straight drama, even. However you enjoy it, I don’t mind as long as you enjoy it.
I love the quote you put at the start of the documentary from Terry Waite’s brother saying he’d only believe Terry had been freed when he saw it on television. I thought it was interesting in that, while that applies to the time and to Ghostwatch, it’s almost the opposite now, in that people are more inclined to disbelieve what they see on TV now. Like on X Factor, people are quick to shout “this sob story is a fake!”, or some other thing is a fake, etc. Do you think now, in this age of scepticism, could something like Ghostwatch be done?
I think it’s generational. Blair Witch came out in 1999 and maybe every 10 years or so you get a kind of Ghostwatch-esque thing that just twists the normal mode.
Yeah, well I guess Blair Witch really played into what the internet was doing at the time, in that the internet was very new (in a mainstream sense) and the film had that great website. So instead of people believing it because it was on TV, they believed it because it was on the internet. What do you think it takes to make people believe you now though?
Well, when you consider just what we have now and what we didn’t have in 1992… We had Teletext, we had message boards that took all night to download on an old 14.4 modem. We had no text messages. There wasn’t a repeat for Ghostwatch so most people couldn’t go back to it, although I heard rumours that black market copies on VHS were going for £50… There wasn’t anything in the newspapers outside of editorial opinion so it was very difficult to reconsider what people had seen and that’s where you get these wonderful stories and questions that came to us where people would ask “why isn’t the deleted scene on the DVD?” and I’m “what?” and they’re “yeah, you know, that bit where the ghost dances on the lawn” or “the bit where Sarah walks down into the glory hole” and it’s extraordinary how if you want to see something then you will, which arguably is one of the most important messages of Ghostwatch.
Yeah, I think maybe one of the reasons it upset people is not so much the hoax element but some of the questions it asked of the viewer, what it was asking about their relationship with television, their desire to believe in it and what drives that. Which is something they didn’t want to face.
The Bite Back thing [BBC TV show in which viewers were invited to put their questions live to the makers of controversial programmes, and on which the Ghostwatch producers appeared in 1992] was fascinating to me. The guy who famously says “I enjoyed it but you shouldn’t have made it!” It’s like they haven’t got there yet. They haven’t fully appreciated the reason why they’re upset. I mean, it happened to me. It scared me terribly as a kid but then all of a sudden you go “no, actually, I’m the one bringing these emotions. Why am I doing this?” and if you can come to terms with that, you can appreciate it for what is.
I wonder if maybe YouTube is a technology you could use now to tell a convincing ghost or horror story, like Lonelygirl15 tried 10 years ago. Maybe that kind of slow build, like Ghostwatch, could work, spreading it out over serialised vlogs that eventually drop in the horror?
I think it’s entirely possible to be able to do something like Ghostwatch today but without exploiting a medium that has not yet been exploited in that fashion, I just can’t see it working. I think it would probably be closer to something like the VR thing that’s happening now? Something a bit further on in the future anyway. People getting used to a new medium and then all of a sudden someone finds a way of going in another direction with it.
You came up with the idea of the Annual Séance for Ghostwatch, where you invite Twitter to rewatch it every year at 9:25pm on 31st October and tweet about it, right? How long have you been doing that?
Our sixth one will be on Monday and honestly I can’t recall how it came about. I seem to remember Twitter just starting and, in those days, you could have pretty much any username you wanted and I thought “well, it’s gotta be @Ghostwatch” so I registered the name and then thought I’d better do something! It’s all about bringing people together in any way I could and getting awareness out there. And the weird thing these days is, if you can dream it up, there’s a very good chance you can make it happen. I did very little, in all fairness, with the Annual Séance. I just put the word out. There was no paid marketing. I just said let’s see what happens. On the 20th Anniversary one, in 2012, it was just through the roof. We were trending at #4 on Twitter which was unbelievable.
Anything weird happen during a seance yet? Maybe a flying sandwich or two?
Hahaha. No. Usually someone will mention the cheese and pickle sandwich but I’ve yet to actually see one. Although I live in hope.
What’s next then? Is there anything else you’ve got lined up? Is it Ghostwatch related or are you done now?
In regards to continuing Ghostwatch in some form or another though, not at the moment. Stephen wrote a sequel short story [“31/10” – available as a free download from his website] that was very creepy and it would make a great short film. I see bits of it in my mind’s eye and I just think “wow, that’d be cool”. I think those characters are just really fantastic actually. Dr Pascoe! I’d love to see a Pascoe and Silvestri team-up…
Tell you what, stick that up on Kickstarter – a Pascoe/Silvestri team-up – and I’ll give you a hundred quid straight away.
Hahaha. I’d love that! But concrete, no, there’s nothing much. I’d love for something special and exciting to happen next year. We’ve talked about a Ghostwatch Convention even although that probably won’t happen… You never know though. Fingers crossed.
Keep us posted! Rich Lawden, thank you very much!
Buy Ghostwatch: Behind The Curtains, and find out everything you’ve ever wanted to know about Ghostwatch, at the official Behind The Curtains website.