The show was broadcast “live” on Halloween Night – 31st October 1992. At the time of its broadcast Ghostwatch was presented a real live television presentation. Later it was revealed to have all been prerecorded. Following its first and only UK television broadcast the show attracted a considerable amount of controversy.
During the 90-minute programme regular BBC presenters and reporters performed (what was believed to be) a live, on-air investigation of a house in Northolt, Greater London, at which poltergeist activity was believed to be taking place. Through revealing footage and interviews with neighbours and the family living there, they discover the existence of a malevolent ghost nicknamed Pipes (the children in the house had asked their mother about noises heard, and she said it was the pipes, hence the name).
As the programme proceeds, viewers learn that Pipes is the spirit of a psychologically disturbed man called Raymond Tunstall, himself believed to have been troubled by the spirit of Mother Seddons – a “baby farmer” turned child killer from the 19th century (probably inspired by Amelia Dyer).
In the course of the programme Pipes makes various manifestations which become more bold and terrifying, until, at the end, the frightened reporters realise that the programme itself has been acting as a sort of “national séance” through which Pipes was gaining horrific power.
Finally, the spirit unleashes its power to the fullest extent, dragging host Sarah Greene to her probable death behind a doorway and then escaping to express poltergeist activity throughout the country. He takes control of the BBC studios and transmitter network, using the Ghostwatch studio as a focal point and possessing host Michael Parkinson in the process.
Ghostwatch received a huge audience and resulted in an estimated 30,000 calls to the BBC switchboard in a single hour as many viewers believed the events to be true and some controversy ensued after its airing. This was all in spite of the fact that Screen One was a drama slot, the programme aired with a “Written by …” credit at the start, and a cast list was published in the BBC’s Radio Times listings magazine.
The BBC was besieged with phone calls from irate and frightened viewers, and British tabloids and other newspapers criticised the BBC the next day for the disturbing nature of some scenes, such as Greene’s final scene where she is locked in an under-stairs cupboard with the howling ghost, and Parkinson’s eerie possession scene.
The reaction to the programme led the BBC to place a decade-long ban on the programme being repeated after its initial broadcast and, although this has now been lifted, it remains unlikely that it will ever be shown again on British terrestrial television. It has only recently been made available on DVD in 2011.
A retrospective documentary, Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtains, based on the film’s lasting impact, was released on DVD in 2013 (having been in production between 2007-2012), featuring interviews with many of the original cast and crew.