My father, Brendan Adams, was dialect curator at the Ulster Folk Museum at Cultra, and in that capacity he spent an enormous amount of time gathering and preserving the Ulster dialect, both in the field and via the ambitious Ulster Dialect Survey.
Dad wasn’t partisan when it came to language: he spoke both Irish and Ulster-Scots fluently (amongst other languages) and he believed strongly in the value of people getting together and talking to each other. So often in Northern Ireland, language and culture are weaponised to exclude and build walls between us, but Dad believed that the languages and dialects of our island belong to us all.
Dad died right before I was born in 1981, so not only have I never met him, I’ve barely even heard his voice. Until now, the only audio sample to which I’ve had access was a snippet on a dictaphone he’d used for work, and which had been partially recorded over.
But now Donal McAnallen at UFTM is heading up a project to digitise the museum’s old dialectology recordings, including some recordings of school children in Co. Armagh in the 1960s. Those children, now in their 60s, have been able to hear their childhood voices, as have their grandchildren, and we can all hear just how the enormous social change that has taken place in the decades since has influenced both accent and dialect.
And my father’s voice is on those newly digitised tapes too. This morning BBC Radio Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster played some snippets, which begins a little past the 1:25 mark.
Ghostwatch was a scripted drama, part of the Screen One strand, which played with viewers’ perceptions of reality by using husband-and-wife duo Mike Smith and Sarah Greene, Red Dwarf favourite Craig Charles, and chat show legend Michael Parkinson, to investigate the case of the “Northolt Poltergeist”. The Northolt story riffed on the famous Enfield poltergeist case, with which it shared a distressed mother, two young daughters, and a parapsychological (or at least pseudoscientific) investigation attempt.
The story is often told about Orson Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, and perhaps exaggerated in the retelling by Welles himself, always a fan of layering truth, lies and illusions for effect: many Americans who heard it believed aliens really were invading. We’re meant to laugh at human credulity, but actually it shows the power of radio, and how its immediacy makes the listener part of the story.
In the UK in the early 1990s, we didn’t have Orson Welles, but we did have the BBC’s Ghostwatch on TV. Scripted by Stephen Volk, it had a female director and producer, Lesley Manning and Ruth Baumgarten. It made clever use of the audience’s fears both for and of young girls, and the disturbing stories told by women, to achieve its effects. It was an irresistable sandwich of truth, fiction and hoax. Objects crashed around, creepy voices issued from the walls, and the mother clearly felt terrible guilt about it all – as mothers in dire situations do. The girls were the focus of the disturbances, and of investigators’ questions: were they faking it all to get attention?
I saw Ghostwatch that night. I’d just turned 11, and I’d grown up both going to church and obsessing over books of folklore, myths and legends. To my mind, ghosts might variously be real or the product of imagination, subsidence or infrasound, but either way they were certainly observable phenomena. Ghostwatch was billed as an “unprecedented scientific experiment” which hoped to show, for the first time, “irrefutable proof that ghosts exist”, and was right up my alley. Like many viewers that night, Mum and I tuned in after the telltale “written by” credit, and credulously swallowed the whole thing hook, line and sinker. Rewatching it this year for the first time in decades, I was ready for it to feel dated and hokey. To my surprise, Ghostwatch still holds up, though its interest lies in a very different place for me than it did back then.
As live, scripted reality television with interplay between a studio presenter and viewers calling in from home, Ghostwatch feels very current to us, as it was so far ahead of its time. Of course, the poltergeist-plagued family and the in-studio scientist are actors, but it can be debated in how far nowadays reality stars play more or less curated versions of themselves. Ghostwatch also feels familiar because of Most Haunted, the early-2000s Living TV series which famously picked up its tropes and ran with them. You have the contrasting team personalities, infared camera footage, and experts with duelling historical and skeptical insights on the ghosts and location. Coincidence or not, both shows were hosted by a married couple, of whom the wife intrepidly does the most on-camera work, and therefore most of the screaming. Both women were kids’ TV stalwarts in too: Most Haunted’s Yvette Fielding came from Blue Peter, and Ghostwatch had Sarah Greene, of Going Live! Fame.
The biggest surprise, and what interests me the most now, is that the show reads very differently post-#MeToo. Its language, performances and framing now read as if it dramatises the whole issue of whether women’s accounts of a distressing experience are believed. With the dramatic register of the performances, and the way the show ratchets up the tension by showing the older daughter with scratches on her face, it often feels as if the story is not about a haunting at all, but about domestic violence. It comes complete with victim-blaming, even from the “sympathetic” female scientist. Watching it in 2020 and knowing that the whole thing is fiction doesn’t diminish its resonance, and you wonder how much of the social commentary contained in it is actually inadvertent.
We’re introduced to the house and family via video footage purporting to be from university researchers: The childrens’ sleep gets disrupted by banging from inside the walls, by moving objects, and finally a bedside lamp blowing a fuse. The kids scream and their mum bundles them out of the room. Back in the studio, Parkinson introduces the format of the night’s proceedings and hands over to Craig Charles, who larks about and eventually interviews Pam Early, the unfortunate householder. Meanwhile, back in the studio, Mike Smith leads the staff manning the studio switchboard through which viewers can dial in with information.
Pam Early admits that at first even she blamed her daughters when kitchen crockery got broken and clothes got stained. She describes the poltergeist activity in terms of her guilt about what’s happening to and around her children, “You start thinking… maybe I’ve done something wrong…”, and the impossibility of getting anyone to take the haunting seriously. Women who have experienced (sexual) assault will no doubt recognise these feelings, and the struggle to be taken serious by the authorities. In the studio, Parkinson introduces Dr. Lin Pascoe, who has been studying the Northolt case for eight months. “The first thing we can all do for a start is believe them,” she says. “It makes me so angry when you still get people out there denying that these things even happen.”
This sets the tone for the evening: broadly speaking, women are framed as believers, and men as skeptics; women can’t avoid engaging their emotions, while the men engage only on a superficial level: Craig Charles is there to pass it all off as a big laugh, while Parkinson undergoes the evening with a bored resignation, old trooper that he is. Lin Pascoe may have her experience with the case and a Doctorate, but what she does not have is a van full of tech like her colleague Alan Demescu, electronics engineer and member of the Society for Psychical Research. He uses scientific-sounding language like “analysis” and “phenomenon”, and has remote-controlled cameras with infared mode, temperature sensors, and such. These cameras will, in the course of the show, significantly collapse Dr. Pascoe’s case.
The first clue that all is not what it seems is that the family, supposedly traumatised by their live-in poltergeist, have nevertheless decorated for Hallowe’en, and the kids are in the kitchen doing apple-bobbing! “There are more reports on Hallowe’en than almost any other night of the year,” Dr. Pascoe tells us, so everyone hopes things will kick off. Viewers start calling in right away with their own ghost stories. One audience member claims to have seen a figure standing in the earlier bedroom footage, and this gives the producers the opportunity to spool the tape back and perhaps embarrass Dr. Pascoe, who has studied the tape for months and apparently not noticed the figure. There’s only one thing better than putting experts on TV, and that’s catching them napping.
Back in the kitchen, apple-bobbing is interrupted by knocking. Craig Charles jumps out of a kitchen cupboard in a Quasimodo mask, and laughs. Parkinson and Smith in the studio laugh too, but Dr. Pascoe doesn’t, and Greene, who was ambushed, is not thrilled. Then things get serious, as Greene asks the family more about how it started. It appears to have been a small argument between Pam Early and her eldest daughter, Suzanne, and guilt about not having tucked the kids in the night the weirdness began. The disturbances escalated from there, with screaming, shouting and banging. “I thought the room was going to come apart.” The younger daughter, Kim, named the ghost “Pipes”, and with a name, “he” acquired household folklore: Pipes supposedly lives in the understair cupboard (marvellously referred to as “the glory hole”), and we even get the classic horror movie tropes of the kid’s drawing of the ghost, and the older child producing automatic writing in her homework book. But – what does it all mean?
The story of Pam’s divorce comes up: the trouble escalated when she was searching for a solicitor’s letter regarding her divorce and ended up trapped in the glory hole, which had been used by her ex-husband for photo developing. She yelled and the girls came and rescued her. Now there’s a board untidily nailed across the door, and Pam seems disturbed telling the story: “I felt this man breathing in there breathing, right up against my face…” again with the sense of male violence. The council refused to rehouse the family, and they were dismissed by a social worker, who said they should all see a psychiatrist. Going to the local press only resulted in media hysteria; “I BELIEVE IN THE DEVIL, SAYS SPOOK-HOUSE MOTHER” newspaper clippings shout.
Pam Early feels betrayed: “Everyone was very friendly, so in the end they all made us look even more like idiots. So I went to the local TV.” A further interview with her establishes why this might have seemed like a good idea: the sympathetic Dr. Pascoe encouraged it, making them believe their story would finally convince everyone. After the newspaper treatment, this sounds naive, but you can imagine the family having a desparate wish to believe and trust someone with a certain authority; a woman and an ally. The TV interview itself however reinforces their experience of being listened to but not heard: “Do you think Mr. Pipes has come to hurt you?” the interviewer asks, and Kim answers: “I think he’s come to hurt everybody. I think he wants to do nasty things.” This undermines Dr. Pascoe’s credibility: she may be a do-gooder, but she hasn’t actually done the Early family any good.
It’s interesting here how class signifiers come into play: Pam’s accent wavers quite a bit, much as many of my generation’s parents would have had a “telephone voice” that was significantly more “polite”, as we say here, than their typical speech. A phone-in caller, Sandra, with a noticeably upper middle-class accent, describes a poltergeist experience from her childhood, with emphasis on how it affected her. She speaks briefly but sounds quite emotional. Still a woman with an upsetting story, but she’s got the kind of voice we’ve been conditioned to believe.
University research audio involving one of the girls is played, complete with a warning that what we hear may disturb us. It’s a technique that’s been used in film promotion since the early 20th century: people reliably flock to be disturbed! The experiment focused on teenager Suzanne and used a technique involving sensory deprivation and feeding her white noise on headphones. Dr. Pascoe explains how they filled the girl’s mouth with a coloured liquid and sealed her lips with tape. This which would have been a disturbing, invasive experiment to have done to a girl her age, and happening to a child already traumatised by living in a house with unexplained disturbances! The audio captures the destruction of a sink, and finally, the voice of “Pipes”. Again, we’re told that experts have verified that the voice would be impossible for her to produce, even without a mouthful of liquid.
Photos are shown of Suzanne covered in scratches, and pillows being thrown around the bedroom. The theory being set up is that Suzanne is the classic poltergeist focus: a girl in puberty, product of a broken home, with “psychological problems”. “She does tend to direct her stress and anxiety inwards so it has nowhere to go,” says Dr. Pascoe in a bit of victim-blaming. To a concerned mother this sounds like a criticism of her child, and it drives the wedge of suspicion between Pam Early and Dr. Pascoe.
There’s a video link with an American, Dr. Emilio Sylvestri – isn’t it quaint that we used to be impressed by expertise from America? – and the two scientists argue in a way that suggests they’re old sparring partners. Dr. Pascoe is impassioned: “There are some things you can’t demonstrate in a lab! Show me falling in love in a lab! You’ve got to get out of a lab into real life, and that’s what we’re going to do tonight.” Parkinson raises his eyebrows and keeps his thoughts to himself.
The kids are put to bed. To give them time to get to sleep, and presumably be woken up and terrified, there’s an interview with some neighbours, apparently happening on a random patch of wasteground, who’ve seen smashed windows and terrified Earlys. They talk about a five-year-old being knifed and another kid disappearing. For a fun Hallowe’en night broadcast beginning pre-watershed, it’s amazing how dark it all gets. They even bring on a man who claims to have exorcised the home, though obviously with little success: “I have an overwhelming sense of evil… spiritual decay….”. We’ve gone from a sensitive kid coping with the aftermath of a divorce, to psychogeography and the possibility that places can be evil!
Ghostwatch frequently jumps from the sinister to the daft. It’s a classic ‘sandwich’ formula, already utilised in the Grand Guignol theatre, where they would alternate the gruesome with slapstick. A caller rings in with a story about a flying cheese sandwich, politely thanked and goodbyed by Parky, and there’s some to-do about a mysterious damp patch in the house, like the damp patches in houses all over these wet islands. In case viewers have rolled their eyes and reached for the remote, Pipes kicks off again. They try to find the origin of the sound and, switching between the different cameras, find the older girl, Suzanne, not in bed. They direct the remote camera to the hall, zooming in on a cupboard, and find her hidden in it, banging against the wall; responsible for the “ghost” noises.
Dr. Pascoe looks dismayed; you can see her reputation getting torn up before her eyes. Parkinson’s voice is low, measured; she raises her voice and becomes combative and defensive of her research subjects: the irrational woman versus the rational man. She claims that what we’ve seen is common: ghostly phenomena happens, investigators come in, and the family then feel compelled to recreate the incidents in order to be believed. But she’s reaching, really: “Let’s not lose the scent… maybe there’s a kind of ritualistic reason, it’s like sympathetic magic… the invoking process that precedes the genuine…”
There’s a tearful reunion between Suzanne and her mum as Parkinson tries to get Suzanne to own up to having caused the scratches on her face and the weird writing in her homework book. His interrogation is invasive, and insensitive under any circumstance. If the drama went a bit over the top earlier with the exorcist and the neighbours’ stories, the scripting here is great. “I just gave you what you wanted, didn’t I?” is a line that would play very differently had it come from a teenage boy. It is usually girls at the centre of these stories, and poltergeists, whether in fiction or folklore, are generally about the awkward position young girls occupy in families when they’re stuck between the indulgence of early childhood and the dignity of becoming mature adults.
Parkinson argues with Pam Early: “You’ve heard your daughter, she’s admitted the whole thing was a deliberate fraud.” But Pam sticks by her family: “My family are telling the truth. We’re all telling the truth.” Through it all, Sarah Greene looks subdued and disappointed. We are all Sarah Greene. Naturally, Sylvestri returns on satellite link from New York to deliver the coup de grace. “I don’t get any vicarious thrill out of seeing parapsychology crucified in public, but it does validate my hypothesis!”
Dr. Pascoe, however, managed to find an ace up her sleeve, and asks for the taped interviews she shot at the university to be shown: in light of the latest happenings, there’s a sequence she wants to review. Parkinson’s demeanour towards her has subtly shifted as he’s less engaged, and quietly dismissive. She’s no longer deemed authoritative or worthy of interest. Parkinson is the nation’s beloved TV uncle: calm, genial and reliable. He’s ideally placed to set the emotional temperature of our reactions, and his obvious loss of trust in Dr. Pascoe’s interpretations has a chilling effect. He also reminds viewers not to have nightmares, and that such phenomena are very rare. For him, the show is over.
Then we discover Suzanne zoned out on her bed, with her face covered in scratches, like a cat’s. The makeup with the blood welling up is very realistic. Parkinson won’t be fooled twice: “Could be self-mutilation; she could’ve done it with her own fingernails.” Pam lifts up her daughter’s limp arm: “Fingernails! What flaming fingernails?” The girl’s nails are short, and she’s burning up despite the freezing room.
Phone calls via the studio reveal some Northolt folklore about a baby farmer who actually drowned her charges. It’s one directly from the lurid Victorian tabloid, the Illustrated London Police News, and offers yet another possible explanation for what’s happening. It won’t be the last of the night, either. A decision has been taken to get the girls out of the house, and the phone-in is burning up the lines. A viewer’s clock has stopped in Derby, and in Shropshire a microwave oven is pinging repetitively. Pets, of course, are behaving oddly. Anyone who is familiar with Uri Geller’s British TV appearances will remember how viewers would report stopped clocks, barking dogs and bending spoons: with millions of viewers, there’s bound to be some at any time, and correlation doesn’t make causation.
At this point, the outside broadcast itself starts having technical problems, and we find Craig Charles unawares that he’s ‘live’. He’s dropped his cheeky chappy persona, chats bored with one of the sound men, and rudely shoves a small child out of the way. Meanwhile, the Early kids refuse to leave the house, and as the banging overhead intensifies a picture gets knocked off the wall. Suzanne and her mother have a moment (“You mess everything up… I hate you.”) and mewling issues from the glory hole. They remove the boards and the door swings eerily open, only for a camera man to keel over backwards. Again, it’s territory Most Haunted would mine to great effect in later years.
A social worker calls in with a story about the house. He doesn’t want to give his name, and describes a series of events in the 1960s involving an illegal sublet to a nephew of the tenants at the time. It was someone who had come out of a psychiatric hospital with convictions for molestation, aggravated abuse, and abduction of minors. His claims about the guy’s gender expression are straight out of Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs, a big hit the year before Ghostwatch aired, and plays to the 90s British tabloid mentality regarding everything from Care in the Community to LGBTQ people. It’s sad that this aspect of the drama does not feel at all dated in 2020’s media landscape.
If you want a ready-made villain to threaten children and the social order, you cobble together an image of the people society rejects. The atmosphere in the studio gets heavy with the “revelations”, and just as viewers might be wondering a) why the guy basically describes Norman Bates without the presenters catching on; b) what kind of professional discloses this kind of information, albeit about someone who’s died; and c) how the programme researchers failed to miss this very relevant history from only 30 years in the house’s past…
…the whole technical side of the broadcast goes to hell. In the house, only the infrared handheld cam is working. There is destruction in the house and the studio at once: lights spark, there’s the sound of a high wind, and we hear the smashing of glass, the skittery sound of tape being rewound too fast, and Mike Smith expressing concern about whether his wife is safe. Once again, someone is trapped in the glory hole. It’s Suzanne: “He’s hurting me! Get off me!” In light of the laid-on-thick child molestation revelations, this really is very dark stuff for prime time viewing.
“The studio’s completely dark, just blackness now,” Parkinson says, stating the obvious. If dependable old “Auntie” BBC has failed, something’s really wrong! A little light comes up, just enough to show a scene of disarray. He wanders around the desolate studio in search of a camera that may still be working, almost as if without camera, there is no Parkinson. Then he finds one that works, and he turns to it. He’s too close to us and we can only see half his face. “Round and round the garden, like a teddy bear…” he goes, then Pipes’s voice takes over: “Fee, Fie, Foe, Fum…”
I can understand the lure of having Parkinson, Parkinson! possessed as Ghostwatch‘s pay-off, yet it feels like a cheat: it was never supposed to be about him, and the few scenes in which he played a substantial role he shifted from avuncular host to uncompromising patriarch. Perhaps that’s what it all boils down to, then: women may still not have found true equality, there are still issues around the prevention and handling of abuse of women, and as a society we may research and document and protest and debate, but when all is said and done the last word is still left to Pipes.