While Halloween has been a major holiday for many years in the United States, here in Blighty it’s been a relatively minor thing until the concept of Trick or Treat slowly made its way across the Atlantic. In the 1960s and 70s, the time for ghostly stories on television was always Christmas, in the best Dickensian tradition, and even to this day most channels do nothing more for Halloween than add a few cobwebs to the set of a gameshow shown that night and stick on an old horror movie shown hundreds of times before. But from time to time there are some special treats on October 31st, and I thought I’d go through just a few of them.
But before that, a scary picture. Only continue if you want to see it…
I hope you’re now suitably terrified, and ready to step onwards into the dark world of television on All Hallow’s Eve…
the paul daniels halloween show
One of the earliest big Halloween TV events in the UK came in 1987, with a magic spectacular hosted by Paul Daniels at the height of his popularity. A forerunner of the sort of event television the likes of Derren Brown produce today, it was broadcast live from a supposedly haunted castle, the tricks all having a spooky edge to befit the evening.
The show ended with the iron maiden trick above. As you can see, Daniels builds up the trick by saying several times that it could all go wrong, and in keeping with the macabre theme for Halloween night, the door slammed shut and the credits silently rolled seemingly before he could escape. After the credits, he appeared on film, saying that it was a recorded message and he hoped the last trick goes well, with a wink. To modern, more media-savy eyes this is a heavy hint that it was all part of the show (as was the fact that the credits rolled at all), but in those more innocent times many viewers really thought Paul Daniels had been killed. The BBC switchboard was jammed with callers asking if he was OK, to the point that he was forced to come back on BBC One after the following programme to prove that he was safe and well. That little controversy gave a taste of a much bigger storm to follow five years later…
1992 saw the most infamous Halloween broadcast since Orson Welles decided to put an interesting spin on a radio adaptation of War of the Worlds. Ghostwatch was originally conceived as a six-part conventional drama series about paranormal investigators looking into a haunting in suburbia, with the final episode being a television broadcast from the house, not unlike the last episode of The Quatermass Experiment. When it became clear that the full series would not be made, but a 90-minute special would be possible, writer Stephen Volk suggested that they make the whole thing like that planned last episode.
The BBC did all it could to make it clear that the programme wasn’t real, it was shown as part the Screen One drama strand, “written by” credits appeared in the Radio Times and, much to Volk’s displeasure, at the start of the programme. But despite this, huge numbers of people watched believing it all to be real. The resulting uproar about the “hoax” led to thousands of complaints, questions raised in Parliament and the accusation that it gave children post traumatic stress disorder. While it has since been released on DVD, it has never been repeated on British television.
Even as the more bizarre moments unfolded, disbelief was suspended because the verisimilitude was spot-on. The set design, camera work, use of the Going Live! and Crimewatch phone number was exactly how such a programme would work if it was really a live show. The casting of familiar TV faces made it seem particularly authentic, with Michael Parkinson in the host’s chair, children’s TV favourite Sarah Greene presenting from the haunted house and her husband Mike Smith looking after the fake phone operators. Red Dwarf’s Craig Charles providing light relief as he cheekily talked to neighbours outside the house provided the finishing touch, again exactly what they would have done if it was for real.
Ghostwatch was years ahead of its time, coming years before The Last Broadcast and The Blair Witch Project, and it’s influence can still be seen in this year’s horror hit Paranormal Activity. As well as it’s unique format, it’s a perfect example of slowly building tension, for a while it appears that nothing’s going to happen, but as time goes on the horror starts to grow and grow.
You can see the entire programme below. If you haven’t seen it before, it’s hard to describe to someone with the knowledge that it isn’t real just how terrifying it was. In particular I remember watching as an 11 year old a scene where a figure appeared to be standing in front of some curtains. As I shouted “did you see that?” the camera panned back and he wasn’t there, and everyone else in the room thought I was seeing things. The moment came, as things started to get completely bizarre at the end of the episode, when I came to my senses and realised it wasn’t true, but before then it was probably the most chilling TV I’ve seen in my life. And, if you have seen it before, why not watch it again and see how many times you can spot Mr Pipes (he’s in it more often than you might think!).
If you want to find out more about Ghostwatch, it’s worth having a look at the blog of a new documentary being made about the programme, Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtain.
the vault of horror
A brief mention that on that same night that Ghostwatch was broadcast, over on BBC 2 was The Vault of Horror, a night of horror films broadcasting all the way to the early hours of the morning. The evening included special BBC 2 idents such as the one pictured above (more of which you can see here) and the movies were introduced by the demonic Dr. Walpurgis, whose name was later changed to Dr. Terrible when he moved to BBC 1 to present the Friday night scary films. I can’t find any videos of the Halloween night, but from this later clip, you get the idea:
For many years Halloween was ignored on British television, except for the imports of American programmes like The Simpsons, and the obligatory Most Haunted special. But on Halloween 2008 it came back big time, with Charlie Brooker’s marvellous Dead Set shown over five days on E4.
Taking George Romeo’s notion that zombies are the perfect canvas for satire, Brooker sets the action on a Big Brother eviction night. The Big Brother house is, after all, one of the best fortified locations in the country, and the perfect hiding place when the zombie apocalypse arrives – except for the fact that there’s going to be some annoying housemates inside to put up with.
Mixing Brooker’s usual brand of breathtakingly funny acerbic comedy with some genuinely thrilling and dramatic scenes and gruesome body horror, Dead Set was a delightfully bloodthirsty Halloween treat. Special mention has to go to Andy Nyman as the bitter producer, Kevin Eldon as the typically put-upon older housemate, and a surprisingly good bit of acting from Davina McCall as very good zombie (and especially good zombie victim).
It works on so many levels, being very funny but also very scary. Because it closely observes and follows all the conventions of the genuine reality series, it can be enjoyed by Big Brother fans who feel in on the joke, but the elements of satire, with the undead converging on the house just as they did when they were alive, mean that it’s just as enjoyable for people who dislike Big Brother.
You can see the full, feature-length version of Dead Set tonight on E4 at 10pm, and it’s also being re-released on DVD, but in the meantime here’s a clip:
Dead Set, Tonight 10pm, E4