When I decided to look at British horror, one of the things I knew that I would have to talk about was the TV show that shaped my teens. Nothing has caused me more fear, more sleepless nights. One single 90 minute transition terrified and fascinated me equally. 28 years later, even the word ‘Pipes’ sends shivers down my spine.
Today, I was honoured to speak to the man behind the only thing that has very nearly made me shit myself.
I present to you, an interview with the very lovely and talented Stephen VOLK, creator of Ghostwatch.
Q1. How did writing GW for the BBC come about?
My agent thought BBC TV might be in the mood to commission a spooky drama series (this was around the Dark Ages: 1988) and got me in pitching TV series ideas to a BBC producer, Ruth Baumgarten. With Ruth, I developed a traditional drama series in treatment form about a ghost hunter. It was called Ghostwatch even then, but the BBC didn’t want to commit to a 6-hour serial. A slot came up in the Screen One strand which was standalone films of 90 minutes. Ruth asked me if we could do my idea as a standalone 90-minute drama. I said no way. But the final episode of my 6-parter was a “live broadcast from a haunted house” so I said: “What if we just did that?” And her eyes lit up. So we went for it. Not that getting it the green light at the BBC was an easy process.
Q2. Did you ever expect the reaction at the time and the fact that even now, people are still talking about it, almost 30 years later? Did you think people would actually believe that it was real?
Honestly? I thought people *might* believe it for ten or fifteen minutes, then twig it was a drama (as was Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds radio play, which caused panic in the USA on transmission). I didn’t predict many people would buy that it was true all the way through, but some did. Of course the nature of the drama was that we had to play it “for real” throughout.
I would never have believed people would be talking about it on Twitter 30 yrs later! (For a start Twitter didn’t exist!) But for the first 10 years after broadcast it was forgotten and buried. The BBC preferred to behave as though it had never happened – partly as a result of the awful incident of one young man who committed suicide, and the story hit the tabloids, so you can understand why they battened down the hatches. It was radio silence for ten years. Then, in 1992, the British Film Institute asked to release Ghostwatch on DVD as part of its Archive TV label, which was a great accolade, to us. Myself, Ruth and the director Lesley Manning had, at last, an opportunity to explain ourselves in the form of an audio commentary. That was what we had always wanted to do after the event. Subsequent to that DVD release and the advent of social media, we gradually realised there we a whole lot of Ghostwatch fans out there who hadn’t been angry but had really enjoyed it and been terrified at the same time. We started to meet them at screenings and slowly realised all our efforts to create something scary and different on UK TV had not been in vain.
Q3. Have you had any supernatural experiences yourself?
The one I always tell people is that I used to inexplicably find spoons from the kitchen in my bedroom at the top of the house. We never take food upstairs or even drinks, so the spoons were a total mystery. Then I realised that the cat has a magnet on its collar and sometimes I left a spoon in the cat bowl. Hence the spoon gets to our bedroom! That’s my experience of the supernatural! Sorry! I’m afraid I’m something of a skeptic. But ghosts still scare me. A house in darkness in the middle of the night scares me because my vivid imagination scares me!
Q4. Why do you think people like ghost stories so much?
We like being scared. Ghosts break the rules, they shatter the status quo. So even if they are benevolent ghosts, they are a scary thing. When he was making The Shining, Stanley Kubrick said to Stephen King that he thought “all ghost stories are optimistic” because we all want the comfort of the afterlife – but of course, in ghost stories, spirits come back for a reason, usually there’s a catch, there’s a dark side to the wish fulfillment. Dracula comes back but he wants your blood, or look at Pet Sematary. It’s Freud’s “return of the repressed”. So we like the vicarious thrill of that in story form. We know it’s not “right” so we like to see the consequences played out. Also ghost tales reflect experiences on the edge of what we can’t explain. And anyone sensible knows that we human beings don’t have the answers to everything, even now, or especially now.
Even though I’m fairly skeptical of ghosts as full blown incarnate beings, I do think people have inexplicable experiences, and what people believe in fascinates me. In telling stories, it’s always, for me, about the person seeing the ghost, not the ghost itself. I like using ghosts in drama because they can symbolise lots of things – grief, obviously, but also an injustice, regret, memory, mental health issues. So many themes can be explored using the template and poetry of The Ghost Story.
Q5. I often get asked to tell my American friends ghostly tales, as they say that England is filled with spooky stories. What do you think it is, asides from history and the age of our land, that makes Britain fit so well with the supernatural?
The depth and breadth of history, yes, the fact that history is all around us here – a Victorian street, a 1,000 year old church – and the golden age of the ghost story, which comes from candle-lit times and then the age of oil lamps which illuminate so much creepy 19th Century literature. Literally the darkness disappeared with Edison’s light bulb. (Interestingly, Edison was interested in communicating with the spirit world: I have written a screenplay about it called The Listeners!) The Victorian age of M R James and Dickens and Doyle and that era of ghost stories becoming such a great form on the page was so important, and still is. Those authors found the equivalent of the oral tradition, especially Dickens – they say he brought ghosts to “the English fireside”. (I’ve also written a “true” ghost story about Dickens, but that’s another story!)
Q6. GW has never been shown on UK TV again since that fateful night, 31.10.1992. What do you think would happen if it was broadcast today to a new generation?
Oh nothing would happen. I think probably it would be laughed at, because the look is so old fashioned to today’s horror fans’ eyes. Then again, I’ve seen it a lot of times with audiences now and they start by laughing a lot, then they get quiet about halfway through, then, by the end, they are a wee bit disturbed in a way they didn’t expect, and we get a massive round of applause, which is nice! A lot of young viewers would be totally bemused by it if it was shown on TV now, I think. A lot of genre fare has passed until the bridge since 1992 so it is hard to see that it was groundbreaking at the time. You’d have to do it with an accompanying documentary, such as the excellent Ghostwatch: Behind The Curtains directed by Richard Lawden, our number one fan! I recommend it to anybody who wants to know the full story of the making of Ghostwatch, its conception and its controversial aftermath. Rich did a brilliant job. I’m very proud of it.
Q7. Did YOU come up with the name Pipes? (The fact my married name is Pipe, is not lost on me).
Ha! Yes, I did! I watched a documentary about a family living with a poltergeist, and the mother said that because of the knockings in the plumbing, to stop her kids from getting too scared, she gave it the name “Mr Radiator” or something similar. It wasn’t Pipes, but I made up the name Pipes using the same logic. I love creepy things with innocuous names. Freddy. Norman. Mark Gatiss is a big fan of Ghostwatch, and when I first met him, he gave this big grin, extended his hand for a handshake, and said: “Pipes!”
Q8. It has been said GW was partly the inspiration for The Blair Witch Project, which in turn spurned whole genre of found-footage movies. How does that make you feel as a writer?
I know the rumour, but I’m not 100% convinced it was. I think Blair Witch came out of the camcorder boom in the 1990s to be honest. The instinct was the same. How do you make something scary and spooky look plausible and documentary-like? But theirs worked for the big screen, ours was a small screen conceit. I do know, however that Oren Peli was a fan of Ghostwatch before he made Paranormal Activity, because there was a mini interview in Time Out magazine asking him to name a few forgotten gems in horror, and he named Ghostwatch. Which was nice.
Nowadays sometimes people come up and say Ghostwatch was the most frightening and brilliant thing they have ever seen, it kept them awake for weeks, but it got them interested in horror, and even that it made them want to make horror films themselves. That’s the best feeling. To pass the baton on, so that somebody can make the next Ghostwatch, and scare me! Perfect.
Thank you so much to Steve for this interview. It was fantastic to be able to the one person who has been able to scare me more than my hero Mr King.
You can find out more about Ghostwatch on his extremely informative website here.
And follow him on Twitter here.
This has been a very special interview for me. It actually creeped me out even now to read some of the comments about the program that scared me for life. I hope that you enjoyed it as much as I did. And, as always, sleep well …