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Monday, 2 November 2009

Ghosts in the Machine, BBC4

Ghostwatch, in its own little way, was as much of an epochal TV event as the Kennedy Assassination, the Moon Landings and Michael Portillo’s glorious excommunication from Parliament, and was the hilarious centrepiece to this engrossing retrospective of supernatural dramas, documentaries, entertainment and investigations.

Trailed as part of the Scene One drama series, Ghostwatch acted as a precognitive parody of the as-yet-unborn Most Haunted and Famous & Frightened, and all that curdled miasma of turbid sludge that aspires to penetrate the mysteries of the paranormal yet succeeds in creating only an amusing diversion clogged up to the nostrils with its own deluded sense of pioneering piety. The otherwise likeable Yvette Fielding snorted sulphur as she prissily pointed out that Most Haunted isn’t an “entertainment show”, as branded by Ofcom, but an “investigation”.

Ghostwatch was certainly an “entertainment show” even if many mentally indolent viewers perceived it as a genuine “investigation” into the spooky events of an ostensibly ordinary suburban family. The ‘deception’ was that the ‘stars’ of the show, other than the family, were well known presenters who were masquerading convincingly as fictional presenters. Craig Charles was the cheeky roving reporter, Mike Smith and Sarah Greene were TV’s golden couple intrepidly scouring the house for evidence of the malevolent ‘Mr Pipes’ – evil which manifested itself in the mutilation of a comatose girl; her face scratched as if by a wild animal – and, best of all, Parky playing the bemused anchor back in the studio, who was ultimately ‘possessed’ by Mr Pipes as the studio disintegrated around him.

Inevitably, there was a backlash. Not a serious backlash. It was just the frothing indignation of people who want Robbie Williams’ Angels played at their funeral, and who spend most of their lives telling other people how much they want Angels played at their funeral. Some prostituted the supposed psychologically-shredding terror of their “11-year-old son” as reason enough for their vituperative rage, masking their own shame that they were duped by a pretty obvious, but none-the-less clever, drama.

And while Ghostwatch was the sort of knockabout hokum peddled by Most Haunted and the like, it was not the most chilling programme here. The most terrifying was the Nigel Kneale drama, The Stone Tape, which posited the ingenious theory that ghosts exist because buildings somehow capture horrific events by ‘taping’ them like a cassette, which are then replayed at a later date.

The whistle-stop tour of ghouls and ghosts took in Kneale’s Quatermass And The Pit and the ghost stories of MR James, focusing on Whistle And I’ll Come To You that features the scariest bedsheets in the history of TV, and Mark Gatiss’s excellent Crooked House from last Christmas. The clip of Rentaghost, however, was inappropriate, coming from its rubbish latter period evidenced by the presence of the insufferable Dobbin the Pantomime Horse and McWitch. And redoubtable cult oracle Kim Newman provided a neat summary of the impact of British horror on popular culture in his slightly incredulous tone that makes him sound like an atheist relishing rejecting the fundaments of Christianity by smashing the tablets of the Ten Commandments over the head of Moses.

Derren Brown, who had a cameo in Crooked House, was on hand to debunk the fraudulent practices of Doris Stokes and other mediums; although he conceded that they do provide a comfort of sorts to believers. The only shame here was that Derek Acorah was seen defending his methods in a documentary – “I adhere to the spiritual codes in my responsibility” – rather than being given the opportunity to rebuke Brown’s caustic dismissal.

A token effort was made to analyse what makes horror and ghosts so alluring; much of which settled mundanely like a slit corpse at the bottom of the lake for the hackneyed observation that people just like being scared except for Matthew Sweet. He perceived that the popularity of the supernatural is a symptom of the lazy, consumerist ethos that stuffs concepts distilled of all their complexity into the unthinking cerebral corridors rather than impelling people to explore the supernatural in such things as religion or culture.

He could, of course, just as well have been talking about the wonders of BBC4, such as this documentary, as opposed to more facile TV channels that would have you believe the fortunes of some so-so chefs is more captivating than the wonders of wildlife.

Yes, we are still pissed off that Autumnwatch has been pruned to a crude Friday stump as a sacrifice to the heinous banality of Masterchef.

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