Flashback: Television horror and BBC1’s Ghostwatch (1992)

ghostwatch 3 presenters
Presenters Mike Smith, Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene

In the course of researching for a recent piece on Whitechapel and representations of horror and place, I necessarily ended up reading a huge amount of work on television horror. In tandem with this, I found my Twitter feed exploding with Tweets from people posting about the BBC one-off drama Ghostwatch, which was aired in 1992. Many of these were being retweeted and shared by the @ghostwatch Twitter feed and included responses from viewers watching the programme for the first time, those who were re-watching it, and people sharing their other thoughts and opinions on the controversial drama. Why, I began to wonder, was Ghostwatch still prompting such discussion over twenty years after it was aired? How does it still have the power to provoke such vivid memories or feelings in those who watched it back in 1992 or who are discovering it for the first time now?

For the uninitiated, Ghostwatch was screened on BBC1 in a slot called Screen One, which broadcast drama shows on Saturday nights. Ghostwatch was shown on Halloween in 1992 in its first and only BBC broadcast. Written by Stephen Volk and directed by Lesley Manning, Ghostwatch occupies a unique and interesting place within TV history for a number of reasons.

The show was advertised and trailed as a live broadcast investigating nationwide claims of paranormal phenomena. The programme was, in fact, an elaborately staged drama, written by horror specialist Stephen Volk and pre-recorded months earlier. Ghostwatch was presented by Michael Parkinson and real-life husband and wife television presenters Mike Smith and Sarah Greene appearing as themselves in a completely scripted horror drama in which one of them apparently dies at the end. This added to a sense of authenticity and realism for the viewer who was encouraged at all turns to believe that the show was real and was happening in real-time. Whilst Sarah Greene and Craig Charles were on location, interviewing locals about spooky goings-on and observing strange phenomena, Parkinson and Smith remained in the studio, interviewing experts and appealing for the public to phone in to report unusual events or sightings. Events become increasingly more intense, with apparent sightings of the ghostly Mr. Pipes in the house where Sarah Greene is with the family as well as other strange experiences whilst the story of the ghost’s origins (hanging himself in the space under the stairs and subsequently being eaten by his cats) is pieced together from ‘viewer phone calls’ and the events in the house. The show ends with Sarah Greene entering the haunted space under the stairs and presumed dead, the television studio destroyed by poltergeist activity, and Michael Parkinson turning to the camera, apparently possessed.

The ghostly Pipes caught on camera

The broadcast prompted outraged complaints that the show had frightened viewers and, once the hoax was revealed, more complaints ensured regarding the fact that the BBC had duped the audience. More serious were accusations that the show had contributed to several suicides in young people after its broadcast.

Reports of teen suicide

The writer Stephen Volk notes,

The reactions ranged from one person who thought it could have been a lot scarier to a woman viewer who demanded recompense from the BBC for a pair of jeans because her husband was so terrified he had soiled himself. None of us could have anticipated the scale or diversity of its impact on its audience.

Having viewed Ghostwatch on its original screening, it is hard now to articulate the response that it provoked in me. As an 11 year old watching at home on Halloween, and being slightly naïve with regard to how the media worked, the sense of fear and dread that the show prompted were very palpable and real. Of course, reviewing it now with the benefit of age and greater knowledge of television convention, makes it easy to laugh at the things which once frightened countless viewers. The ending, for example, makes clear that the show is a work of fiction but, by the time it ends, the viewer has already been left confused and, presumably, scared by what has come before.

Indeed, no critical consensus can be reached regarding the true reasons for the strong audience response to Ghostwatch. Sergio Angelini from the BFI argues that

it is clear that the strong audience response Ghostwatch received at the time was due less to its dubious credibility as a factual broadcast than to the way that it tapped into audiences’ desire to be fooled, to be tickled by even the slightest possibility that a live broadcast could really go out of control.

However, in assigning this reason he overlooks the affective and emotional responses which many viewers had to the show, including those people who are now discussing the show on Twitter. One online fan recalls:

Halloween, 1992: I was 13 years old and staying over at a friend’s house. As devotees of all things supernatural, we were excited because BBC1 was showing a programme called Ghostwatch. […] The show began in an innocuous – if not downright vapid – manner but, over the course of ninety minutes, built to a climax that had my nerves jangling like the Polyphonic Spree’s tambourine section.

Helen Wheatley argues in her book Gothic Television that responses to Ghostwatch were a backlash against trends in the 1980s which saw an increase in representations in the horror genre of horror within everyday life; within the home and in familiar spaces which should be ‘safe’. She also points to the increase in VCRs and the ways in which they allowed potentially offensive or scary material to invade the home. She notes that complaints about Ghostwatch suggest that

the closeness between horror and the familiar could in fact be taken too far for some viewers. Of course, the 1980s was also the decade which saw the introduction of home video, and the domestic reception of horror became more commonplace thanks to this development in film exhibition and distribution (Wheatley 2006:87).

Now, over twenty years on from Ghostwatch its place within TV history and the TV studies canon is relatively marginal. This may be related to a general reluctance to acknowledge the genre of horror television, related to debates about whether true horror can ever be shown on a medium which is associated so closely with family viewing. Indeed, as Matt Hills suggests, when Ghostwatch is discussed it can only be talked about if it is elevated to a position of cultural value which makes the otherwise problematic genre of television horror more culturally acceptable. He points to the show’s DVD release through the BFI’s ‘Archive TV’ label in 200l; “Even Ghostwatch takes on the distancing patina of ‘TV history’, having been commercially released ten years on from its first and only BBC broadcast” (Hills 2005:121).

However, it is only now that interest in the show is really starting to re-emerge. A retrospective documentary (Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtains) based on the film’s lasting impact has been in production since late 2007 and released in 2013, and is backed by many of the film’s original cast and crew. On October 31st, 2008 (exactly sixteen years after the original film was originally broadcast), the Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtains blog was launched.

In December 2008, a link to the official Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtains forum was also added. It is certainly this documentary this has helped to introduce the show to a new audience. Furthermore, the creation of the documentary highlights a willingness by many to return to a programme which had a profound impact upon its viewing audience and which proved so controversial that, not only have the BBC never repeated it, but they have almost refused to discuss or comment on it at all.

I strongly recommend tracking down the show and giving it a watch. You may find the programme has dated – I don’t think it has. The presenters may be less recognizable, some of the fashion styles may look silly, but given the current climate of reality television, generic blurring, and lines between reality and fiction being eroded, Ghostwatch stands as a televisual piece of work which deserves its place in the study and understanding of TV horror.

Writer Stephen Volk discusses Ghostwatch

Sherlock Goes to Tokyo

When Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch arrived at Narita International Airport in December 2012 as part of a Star Trek Into Darkness promotional tour that also included director J.J. Abrams and co-star Chris Pine, he was (now famously) greeted there by an estimated 500 fans. An overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, female gathering, they had waited patiently behind a barrier at the arrivals floor of Terminal 2 since as early as 7:30 am (some accounts give 4 am), and by the time of Cumberbatch’s 4:45 pm appearance fans filled not only the lobby itself but the mezzanine floor above, which looked out over the hall.

Cumberbatch was neither the first foreign star to be greeted in this way by Japanese fans, nor was this an entirely grassroots event; according to the Japanese website SHERLOCK(BBC) & Benedict Cumberbatch, the film’s distributor had circulated Cumberbatch’s arrival information in advance, hoping for such a turnout and, presumably, the word-of-mouth it would generate in the Japanese press. And generate it it did, to judge by not only the press turnout at the airport that day, but also by the considerable number of interviews with Cumberbatch that began appearing in Japanese periodicals ranging from the mainstream movie magazine Screen to Vogue Japan beginning in March 2013.

Continue reading

Warm Bodies: Zombies in media and culture

zombies ahead

On Friday I was invited to speak at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff as part of the Before I Die festival. I was asked to talk about zombies after a screening of the film ‘Warm Bodies’, hosted by Sci Screen.

Sci Screen is a cross-disciplinary programme that promotes the engagement of publics with science and the academy. Using special showings of new release films, sciSCREEN uses local academic expertise to discuss contemporary developments in science in an understandable and entertaining way, facilitating debate on the wider social and cultural implications of these advances. These discussions draw on a range of disciplinary perspectives and the broad repertoire of themes found within contemporary cinema.

If you’re interested in reading my thoughts, you can do so here.

Using satire in climate change communication


I’ve just finished co-writing an article on the use of satire in climate change communication and wanted to share some of our findings here. Back in 2010 my former Cardiff University colleague Grace Reid (now at University of Alberta, Canada) invited me to work with her on a science communication project that was focusing on the satirical stage play U: The Comedy of Global Warming. Despite being busy with developing the play, writer / director Ian Leung was happy to take an active part in our project. As such, this is what is often termed a knowledge transfer or knowledge exchange project. Ian helped us learn about some of the political, creative and practical issues involved in such a production, and we got to share our research findings with someone who could use them in their work.

So, here’s what we did: The play ran for nine days in Edmonton, Alberta, and we conducted one interview with Ian beforehand and a second one after it had finished. We also did a performance analysis of the play itself, based on Grace’s observations from attending multiple performances, and on two DVD recordings provided by Ian. Finally, we did questionnaires with 87 of the 180 or so people who saw the play, and two follow-up focus groups with six audience members in each.

U: The Comedy of Global Warming has a local setting and deals with some of the issues around living in an oil-rich province while being aware of debates around climate change effects. It focuses on the gay love triangle between oil executive Albert A. Oyl (Al), Tuvaluan climate change refugee Tivo, and TV presenter Clinton Carew. The premise is that the island nation of Tuvalu is disappearing into the ocean because of climate change, and Al has “sponsored” Tivo so that he can come to Canada. This turns out to mean that Tivo lives in Al’s house as a servant, and we also see Al making forceful sexual advances towards him. Tivo then ends up dating Clinton, who presents a TV show on climate change. This show-within-a show device involves big screens displaying video interviews with real-life scientists and politicians discussing climate change issues. The love triangle narrative is interspersed with these interview segments, as well as speeches addressing the audience, musical performances and audience participation. The play also has a companion website (www.albertaville.ca), which includes information about its interview subjects, as well as recommendations for various resources on climate change issues and suggestions for how citizens can get involved.

Our project was concerned with several key issues, but here I want to focus specifically on what we found in terms of how satire might be used in climate change communication. We hope this can be generalised beyond our particular case study, and that it might be helpful for communicators interested in using satire (or other humorous modes) to engage audiences in climate change debates, whether through theatre, screen media or other cultural forms.

The current ideal in science communication is to encourage citizens to engage actively with science. This has replaced the one-way model of scientists trying to transmit factual information to lay people. With that in mind, we want to highlight two important benefits of using satire to promote active public engagement, and two significant challenges.

First of all, because humour tends to involve comic incongruities of some sort, these conflicting discourses create a certain textual ambiguity. That doesn’t mean the joker’s intentions can’t be completely obvious to anyone from a similar cultural context, but humorous texts can leave quite a bit of room for interpretation. It depends, in part, on how much creators want to anchor the meaning, and how skilful they are at doing so. I’m sure we can all think of numerous occasions where jokes have fallen flat or been misunderstood, though, so this is tricky territory. For climate change communication, such textual openness can be used to encourage audiences to make sense of representations based on their local context and their own experiences. It can also invite audiences to question what they’re seeing, to reflect on ideas and look for more information. That would help prolong audience engagement with climate change issues beyond the moment of reception.

The second benefit we want to highlight is that using humour can help avoid what is known, in the parlance of our times, as freaking people out. Climate change effects are pretty scary, and telling people about them can make them feel so overwhelmed that they end up concluding that we’re all doomed and there’s no point trying to do anything about it. But humour can help us explore difficult issues in a “safe” space, and that might make it easier to get audiences interested in what is happening without frightening them too much.

However, that leads me onto the first of the two challenges we want to focus on. The comic distance that can cushion us from these scary things can also prevent us from taking them seriously enough. For climate change communicators, this could clearly undermine the primary purpose of their text. The ideas that they are presenting cannot remain confined to the realm of humour – they must be more than jokes, and they have to include productive proposals to climate change debates. In the case of U: The Comedy of Global Warming, Ian’s use of video interviews with scientists and politicians kept disrupting the humorous tone, while the website also offered audiences practical means of finding information and taking action.

Having said that, if you’re going to sell something as satire, audiences will expect laughs. And while predicting what people will find funny is always going to be difficult, getting people to laugh at satire tends to require that they both enjoy the particular humour style(s) adopted in the text and that they (at least to a certain extent) sympathise with the underlying critique. This means that satirists will need to consider their target audience’s attitudes towards climate change as well as their humour preferences, and those may depend on factors such as age, class, education, gender, previous cultural consumption, and so on. This means that satire may be less useful for targeting diverse publics and more suitable for communication specifically tailored to niche groups.


This research was funded by the CRYSTAL-Alberta Science Education Centre.

Renaissance or Otherwise?: Broadchurch, ITV’s Re-Branding and Imagined Audiences

by Ross P. Garner, Cardiff University.

N.B. This article contains spoilers.

On Monday 22nd April, ITV’s serialized crime drama Broadchurch (2013) concluded with a ratings high of over 9 million viewers . The series, which focused around the investigation of the murder of eleven-year-old Danny Latimer (Oskar McNamara) and its after-effects upon a small, tightly-knit and (on the surface) idyllic seaside town in the English county of Dorset, has gripped audiences and been seen as evidence of a renaissance for the UK’s main commercially-funded broadcaster. As John Plunkett of The Guardian observes, the channel has “not necessarily [been] …known to viewers as the home of edgy (or edge-of-your-seat) thrills” in recent years. Instead ITV1’s recent branding as ‘The Brighter Side’ – utilizing stark juxtapositions between golden light and darkness in its idents – could have been rephrased as ‘The Lighter Side’ given the centrality of entertainment shows such as The X-Factor (2004- ) and Britain’s Got Talent (2007- ) to its recent public image. However, since January of this year, the channel has undergone a major re-brand. The ‘1’ has been dropped from its name and a chameleonic new logo that changes colour in response to the perceived tone of the accompanying programme has been introduced with the aim of reasserting the channel’s centrality within British television culture. Broadchurch has been central to this re-branding campaign by occupying a prime position within the channel’s trailers for 2013 drama. As this blog-post invites such indulgences, Broadchurch’s publicity strategies regularly piqued my interest through making intertextual connections with some of my existing fan interests: utilizing electro-pop star Ellie Goulding’s ‘Explosions’ as audio-accompaniment to trailers and overtly referencing key dialogue from Twin Peaks (1990-1) within billboard adverts (see below) put Broadchurch firmly on my cultural radar (and that’s before we get onto the show’s plethora of ex-Doctor Who (2005- ) talent both on- and off-screen). However, despite acknowledging David Lynch’s TV masterpiece in episode two (searching young Danny’s bedroom unearthed – as Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) found in Laura Palmer’s (Sheryl Lee) safety deposit box –  cocaine and a large sum of money), Broadchurch overlooked direct and sustained appeals to ‘cult’ audiences.


Broadchurch‘s side-stepping of red drapes and dancing dwarves nevertheless provides an entry point for critically assessing both the series and, due to its centrality within the campaign, ITV’s wider re-branding. This is because, in line with both industrial data concerning gendered viewing trends within British television and cultural discourses concerning wide-reaching or ‘mainstream’ appeal (see Jancovich and Hunt 2004), Broadchurch clearly imagines women as its primary target audience. Despite David Tennant’s leading man status, the series’ core is undeniably mothers. Olivia Colman’s DS Ellie Millar and Jodie Whittaker’s Beth Latimer provide the dramatic centre as, whilst the former experiences gradual estrangement from her previous intimate understanding of the town’s inhabitants, the latter portrays the adjustment to losing a child with significant aplomb. When this narrative  focus is recognized, alongside how Pauline Quirke’s Susan Wright moves slowly from periphery to centre and eventual exit across the eight episodes, it’s clear that issues of motherhood provide the programme with its central focus. With respect to the channel’s re-branding, then, occupying an integral position within British TV culture seems to here involve recourse to pre-existing gendered understandings of what ‘mainstream’ appeal means within a UK commercial context. This should not be taken as a gripe, though. In fact, recognizing this production constraint allows for complaints directed towards how Broadchurch resolved its central enigma to be rethought. Whilst some (not all) reviewers criticized the series for revealing the murderer too soon – and so relinquishing the programme’s tension too early – this narrative strategy makes sense given the centrality of female audiences to ITV and its imagining of ‘mainstream’ appeal. Revealing the murderer within the first half of the final episode allowed Broadchurch to remain focused on its female characters as DC Millar’s coming to terms with her husband’s deviance, and attempts at re-building bridges with the community, occupy the foreground.


Further evidence of female audiences’ centrality to Broadchurch and ITV is identifiable by examining how the enigmas surrounding Tennant’s character are handled. Revealing DI Alec Hardy’s past misdemeanors as his taking the fall for his then-partner’s errors and adultery draws upon associations from romance fiction via the making the character the rejected male figure  who still longs for the woman he loves. Wider questions concerning police incompetence are thus avoided. Not only does Hardy’s characterization align Broadchurch with culturally-feminised genres, though. It also moves the series towards scholarly understandings of the popular. Robin Nelson (2007: 175-6) names as ‘quality popular dramas’ those series which are transmitted on broadcast channels in the UK (the term is, as Nelson notes (ibid: 175), lifted from ITV discourses), work within established TV genres (e.g. the police series in this instance) and move towards a sense-making paradigm for audiences. As Nelson (ibid: 176) states, ‘quality popular’ television “resonates[s] with the need to negotiate with [the external world] but not to open up fundamentally disturbing questions and, ultimately, to reassure through narrative but also ideological closure”. Various textual strategies mobilized by Broadchurch support Nelson’s point: beyond DI Hardy’s opening up, but ultimate avoidance, of questions about police capability, the programme provides ideological closure within dominant sense-making paradigms in two ways. Firstly, the cultural institution of the family is firmly reinstated by Broadchurch’s conclusion. Not only are DI Millar and her children reunited with previously-estranged family members Lucy (Tanya Franks) and Olly (Jonathan Bailey), who provide support through which the family can move forward, but the Latimers remain unified (despite father Mark’s (Andrew Buchan) infidelity) as Beth decides to keep her baby. What’s more, the programme continually restates the Church’s role. The clue, perhaps, is in the series’ title (notions of the church’s ‘broad’ reach being connoted?) but, although questions are raised about Arthur Darvill’s  Rev. Paul Coates, Broadchurch also avoids the topic of paedophile clergymen. Instead, Coates is revealed to be an insomniac and recovering alcoholic who, despite having previously assaulted an overly aggressive child, continually supports the townsfolk in their hour(s) of need. In all of these instances interrogations of conservative social institutions are suggested, but ultimately avoided, as potentially difficult questions are brought in line with dominant perspectives.

DT Broadchurch

All of this perhaps suggests that, despite ITV’s re-brand, nothing much has changed. However, subscribing to this position does Broadchurch a great disservice. The programme’s overall aesthetic of disorientation, constructed through jump cuts, obscure camera angles and off-centre character framing, brilliantly complements the narrative’s themes of individual displacement and altered perspectives. This aesthetic has been used elsewhere to similar effect in recognized examples of ‘quality’ television such as the BBC’s critically-lauded Wallander (2008- ) series and similarly allowed tension and ‘uneasiness’ to accrue whilst watching Broadchurch. These aesthetic strategies also helped to provide Broadchurch with much of its emotional impact. Kristyn Gorton (2006) has convincingly argued that the emotionality of television series can be considered as criteria of aesthetic value and Broadchurch should thus be celebrated accordingly. Whoever thought that something as mundane as a trip to the supermarket undertaken by a grieving mother could be so moving by articulating how everyday experiences had now become strange for Beth and how quotidian items such as cereal packaging can articulate deep feelings of absence and loss? Scenes such as this, as well as perhaps more obvious set pieces such as the death of newsagent Jack Marshall (David Bradley), underline that discussions of ‘quality’ television should not overlook series which provoke audiences with emotional experiences by stimulating sympathy between characters and viewers.

In summary, then, Broadchurch has occupied a central position within ITV’s 2013 re-brand and, although the evidence suggests that this has not coincided with a wider shift in the channel’s understanding of ‘mainstream’ appeal, the programme’s ambition and movement within these constraints certainly make it distinct within the channel’s schedules. If not perhaps the renaissance some have suggested, Broadchurch nevertheless suggests re-invigoration within the channel’s attitude towards TV drama.

Author Bio:

Ross P. Garner is a Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies in the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University. He teaches a variety of undergraduate modules concerning television, textuality and industry and has recently completed his PhD on Nostalgia and Post-2005 British Time Travel Dramas.

Academic References:

Gorton, K. (2006) ‘A Sentimental Journey: Television, Meaning and Emotion’. Journal of British Cinema and Television, 3 (1), pp. 72-81.

Jancovich, M. and Hunt, N. (2004) ‘The Mainstream, Distinction and Cult TV’, in S Gwenllian-Jones and R E Pearson (eds.) Cult Television. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp. 27-44.

Nelson, R. (2007) State of Play: Contemporary “High-End” TV Drama. Manchester: Manchester University Press.