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February 10th, 2018

Last October, Andrew Hickey wrote an excellent blog post to mark the 25th anniversary of the broadcast of Ghostwatch (1992), a BBC production with a rather special place in cult TV history. I have always wanted to watch it, and his post forcefully reminded me why, as well as revealing that it is now available on a DVD two-set along with The Stone Tape (1972), which I have also always wanted to watch. I therefore put them on my Christmas wish-list, and Santa (acting through the medium of my sister) kindly obliged. Arguably, neither is really a 'film' - they are both one-and-a-half hour long scripted BBC TV dramas, which I guess have been packaged together as they both involve people investigating paranormal phenomena. But now that I no longer have a back-log of some twenty actual films to write up, I can expand the limits of what belongs on this tag a little. And besides, I want to write about them anyway.


1. The Stone Tape (1972), dir. Peter Sasdy

I should have loved this. After all, it was made in the early seventies, directed by a man who regularly worked for Hammer (e.g. he directed Taste the Blood of Dracula), and concerns the supernatural with what turns out to be a significantly folk-horrorish vibe. If I'd watched it at the right time in my life, I probably would have loved it. The fact that I didn't I think stems partly from the very fact that it has been elevated to such cult-classic status over the year, and partly from the fact that I now live in a world that allows me to be alert to gender disparities - but many of the people who have raved about it either didn't, or do and don't care. This effect is very neatly captured in the 'Cultural significance' section of its Wikipedia page, where the final paragraph quotes six people in a row saying how wonderful it is... but all six of them are men.

The result was that I already knew the core story-line before I watched it - in essence, that what appear to be ghosts haunting a cellar turn out to be memories written into its stones, and extending far back before the construction of the cellar to the prehistoric stone-beds they were quarried from. Knowing this meant I didn't have the capacity to be wowed by that revelation. It was already a given for me. But I certainly did have the capacity to notice that there is only really one significant female character in the story - Jill Greeley, played by Jane Asher - and that her basic role in the story is to be sensitive to and scared by the ghosts. She is part of a team of scientists who have been sent to an old country house to conduct intensive research into potential new sound recording methods, and in fact her framing within that team is an artefact of the historical period during which men did the 'proper science' and women programmed the computers. She is literally introduced at one point as "Jill who programs our computer". But the men around her repeatedly dismiss her concerns, block her investigations and eventually drive her into a situation where she ends up dying, horribly, alone in the haunted cellar.

The script doesn't entirely celebrate this behaviour - we're clearly invited to think that at least some of the men are assholes, and we're also given enough material to see that Jill is actually very bright and generally correct in her insights, so that if the men had listened to her earlier things might have turned out a lot better. But still, the positioning of her as the 'sensitive one' alone is enough to make the story cringeworthy and alienating for a twenty-first century female viewer, and the notion of memories being recorded into stone is nothing like enough to compensate for that. I just can't see myself feeling tempted to watch it again.


[I watched another film in between these two which I will return to, but am skipping it for now for the sake of reviewing both parts of the DVD set as it is now packaged.]


3. Ghostwatch (1992), dir. Lesley Manning

Thankfully, I liked Ghostwatch a lot better. The Wikipedia page describes it as a 'reality–horror/mockumentary television film' and provides lots of useful production context, while Andrew's excellent review also explains the concept, gives some good examples of how it works, and points out the crucial importance (way beyond the entertainment value of a Halloween ghost spoof) of the fact that it set out to encourage people to critically evaluate what they see on TV.

I watched it with [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313, and we found ourselves fascinated by the way the premise had been worked through, as well as for the insights it gave into early '90s culture. It was noticeable that the family at the centre of the hauntings consists of a single mother and her two children, and that this appears to have been done specifically because it would be easy for the audience to believe that the occupants of such a 'broken home' might be more than usually sensitive to, or even a target for, supernatural horrors. So something a little bit like the hypersensitive Jill Greeley in The Stone Tape was still going on here - but to nothing like the same cringeworthy extent, and with much more to compensate for it. There was even a female academic being interviewed 'live' in the studio!

Though Andrew is right that the whole production is incredibly cleverly put together, it did give itself away at a very early stage when what was labelled as 'university footage' from a bedroom in the haunted house panned and zoomed towards the action as soon as something started happening. A fixed CCTV camera wouldn't do that, and a fixed CCTV camera is what you would use if you were trying to get an objective record of what was happening in the room without a) introducing human bias or b) requiring 24-hour human monitoring. So that broke our suspension of disbelief by revealing the hand of a director striving to deliver a dramatic experience. Other revealing flaws included talking to somebody 'live in New York' from the studio with absolutely no delay on the line, and the fact that all of the supposedly 'ordinary' people in it, including various children, people gathered in the street to watch the 'documentary' being filmed and callers phoning into the studio, spoke clearly, articulately and concisely rather than being shy, mumbling, or going on about trivial details for ages - as real people actually do when they find themselves on TV.

Other than that, though, there was very little to give it away as anything other than an absolutely genuine chunk of early '90s reality television, complete with all the presenters you would expect to see fronting it. I was just sorry that in practice, we were watching it a little over 25 years later, and thus couldn't fully see how it would have looked alongside the regular TV productions of the day. The lighting, camera techniques, and reporting techniques looked different from what we see on comparable news and reality programmes now, but I'm no longer quite able to say how well they matched those of 1992 - though my guess is 'very well indeed'.

As for the story, it is a fairly simple 'horrible thing happened here once and hasn't been laid to rest' ghost story, but that is absolutely right for what is purporting to be a documentary about a real haunting case. The story itself should be quite tropish and formulaic, precisely to underpin the sense of realism, while the clever stuff lies instead (as Andrew has shown) in the presentation and the way it makes you think about what you are seeing. We did think it got a bit silly at the end, as the 'ghost' escaped from the ordinary suburban house where it had first manifested and began making lights blow out and cameras roll across the floor in the studio from which Michael Parkinson had been charismatically interviewing guests throughout. I thought a much better line to follow here would have been to capitalise on the psychology of Mike Smith, stuck in the studio, seeing his wife Sarah Greene apparently in grave danger in the house. This opportunity isn't completely missed - we do see Smith getting a bit distracted from his designated task of monitoring the studio phone-lines towards the end of the show. But if the events he's seeing from the house are real, he should be absolutely flipping his lid, shouting at the studio team, demanding people at the filming location go in after his wife, and generally going utterly to pieces out of a combination of fear and impotence. That could have been a lot more psychologically compelling, and indeed convincing, than the OTT 'everything going crazy' we actually got at the end.

Still, though, a very impressive piece which I felt deserved its place in cult TV history. I only wish I'd felt the same about The Stone Tape.


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