Thursday, 6 March 2014
Interview with Richard Lawden, the creator of "Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtains"
Greetings all, John here from the BCPS. Back in Halloween of 1992, my love for the Paranormal reached a fever pitch, as much as it could for a 12 year old anyway! Already having exhausted the vast majority of books on the subject from every library in the region, I wanted more. Luckily, the BBC decided to break away from tradition and actually broadcast something to celebrate Halloween, this came in the form of "Ghostwatch", a live broadcast from a Haunted House. The rest was history. I think it was a ground-breaking show, way ahead of its time. It confused millions of people who tuned in, was it for real, was it scripted? It was only some of the wooden acting and plot turns that eventually gave the game away, but it let to a media storm soon after its broadcast, with its dark and visceral subject matter. It wasn't gory by any means, but the themes and story it dealt with were not for the faint-hearted. For you Paranormal enthusiasts, the inspiration for the story closely resembles the famous Enfield Poltergeist case about a single mum and her two daughters. If you have not yet seen the show, I won't spoil anything else.
22 years on, a huge fan of the show Richard Lawden has produced an independent documentary called "Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtains" which investigates the show from its creation through to the aftermath of the broadcast. Richard has kindly given his time to talk to us about the show and his amazing documentary.
- Richard, many thanks for talking to us, we can't wait to watch the documentary! I suppose the first question is, were you interested in the Paranormal before you saw Ghostwatch?
"Well, I was only seven when I first saw Ghostwatch, but I do recall around that time, being intrigued by even the suggestion that there might be more to life than just what we see, hear, smell, taste or feel - "I can't see the wind, but I know it's there." is the quote, I believe. I'm sure we'll still be asking these types of questions for many years to come, and that's what is most fascinating, to me. As a kid, I do remember being into things like Ghostbusters, and that whole cross-sci-fi genre. The cartoon series was a favourite of mine, and I liked the idea of cross-pollinating Spirituality and Technology in order to prove that ghosts existed, or not. When you consider, almost the entire premise of the fictional Ghostwatch event hinges on that blend, you can probably tell why it appealed to me so much, as a youngster."
- So what are your views on Ghosts and the Paranormal in general?
"I'm fairly open-minded. Brand-new discoveries are made in so many diverse fields every day, so I prefer not to wholly discount the experiences of others, no matter how incredible, on face value. If Ghostwatch has taught me anything, it's that the best ghost stories largely depend not only on the voice of scepticism, but also the strength of the narrator. Nevertheless, there still remain countless, inexplicable events which transcend even that. I can't admit to having experienced many paranormal occurrences myself, but over the years, I'm sure I've seen or heard the odd light or sound that shouldn't have been there. That's about the limit of my expertise, I'm afraid. But it hasn't turned me off to ghosts and ghoulies - if anything, it's made me look into the shadows, that bit closer!"
- Well your views sit very nicely with how the BCPS operate, we are all believers to varying degrees, but we stay objective in our investigations, so we can certainly understand your viewpoint. So even at that young age, can you still remember watching the infamous Ghostwatch broadcast? How did you, your family and friends react to it at the time?
"My folks' reactions, that night, were priceless. Dad couldn't resist dismantling the show from a technical standpoint ("I can see the wires", "That camera couldn't do that unless...", etc). My mother, on the other hand, was looking at the programme from a completely different angle, which was identifying which parts were scripted/fake, and which were real/impromptu. The story was quite a bit more intense than we might had been expecting, I think, but we all somehow knew that this would be a night to remember.
I think it was helpful to have that kind of safety blanket, actually. Both of my parents knew that the show was fictional, but we all enjoyed it as a Hallowe'en special. We've only ever watched it once more, together again, and that was for the Twentieth Anniversary, I believe. That was great fun, revisiting it decades later. Honestly, I can't recall very many mentions of the show whilst I was at school, all the way up to college. The 'blanket ban', such as it was, did a remarkable job at suppressing Ghostwatch's very existence.
This is what naturally led to distorted accounts of the plot, and especially the after effects on the viewing public. For instance, over eleven million people watched Ghostwatch. 2215 officially complained, as far as I'm aware. That's less than 1%. Even so, I do remember being very frightened a couple of weeks later, though my grandmother quickly put an end to that by insisting we watch the VHS again, and falling asleep halfway through. It was at that point, I knew not to take it too seriously, and have tried to carry her philosophy all the way through the Behind the Curtains project."
- Why do you think it caused such a stir and why it was banned for such a long time? These days it seems younger audiences are exposed to far more adult content than back in 1992?
"It's worth bearing in mind that Ghostwatch was an exaggeration of TV at the time - at certain points, it's borderline satire. Certainly in the writing, there's at least an edge of cynicism concerning shows which dramatise real-life for entertainment purposes. Ironically, now, the speculative format is almost old hat, so it's interesting to see just how much has changed over the years. So much so, that you'd be forgiven for wondering why we've yet to see the fabled repeat screening, now over two decades later. The writer, Stephen Volk, once said that if the show had been made, let's say on Channel 4, it possibly wouldn't have kicked up nearly as much fuss. I think because Auntie Beeb has always been the nation's 'trusted' broadcaster, some people just let their guard down. The buzzword for Ghostwatch tends to be 'hoax', which I also think is unfair. It was, is, and forever shall be a drama. It just went a different route as regard engaging with its audience. Drama programming is designed to immerse the viewer in a compelling story. That's what Ghostwatch did, plus it was never billed as anything else, so I can't quite fathom much of the negative reaction. It was a cautionary tale about the power of television, and is still prescient today.
There are lots of theories as to why Ghostwatch has never been shown again. Possibly, a combination of factors are responsible for keeping it sealed in the vaults, so to speak. Recently, the Global iPlayer platform made it available to check out for a while, and it has been shown on Belgian and Canadian TV, so there's always hope that it might one day happen on British television. Plus, it was never 'banned' as far as I know. It was just strongly discouraged. Otherwise, the BFI wouldn't have been able to release it on home video, ten years later. With a '12' certificate, no less!
Until we get that repeat viewing, we intend on continuing on the tradition of National Seance, which is a great event held once a year. Basically, on Hallowe'en Night, at 21:25, we ask fans worldwide to play their copies of the show simultaneously, and then see what comments come in, usually via Twitter and Facebook. For the Twentieth Anniversary, the stats were huge. I think we were trending #4 on Twitter at one point. There's definitely an appetite to revisit the show in some form. Hence, the doc, book, and the BtC project, as a whole, really."
- Wow! I had no idea about the annual viewing, I will certainly take part this year! I agree with you on the fact that people classify it as a hoax, I consider it a drama and one that is also effective as a lesson in storytelling, particularly for the horror genre. It was never gory but the themes and content of the show were certainly powerful enough to fire people's imagination, hence why it is still so popular after all these years.
So moving on to your documentary "Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtains" (GBTC), how did that all come about and what drove you to do it?
"Behind the Curtains first came about, around late 2007. At the time, I was a bit of a struggling writer, searching for a way into the industry, and it just dawned on me one day to stop trying to platform my career, and just dive in at the deep end. As much as I love writing, I had hoped that it might lead to one day producing, or directing a film of my own, but I had this moment of clarity and thought, why not just make a start, yourself? So, I began to think about what kind of projects I could realistically take on as my first attempt, and recalled a brief moment at college when I considered making a documentary for a film course, but there really wasn't any kind of backing available. I had also dedicated a piece of coursework to Ghostwatch, so that's where the idea stemmed from. But what really got the notion off the ground was when I did a web search for upcoming screen-writing workshops, and happened upon one due to take place later that month at a media centre called the Watershed, Bristol. Their guest speaker was Stephen Volk, and I immediately recognised the name. So I thought, who better to ask?
It was astounding to me that no-one had yet sought to revisit the show and its legacy, outside of clip shows or sound-bites, so I made the trip down to see him, and we got on very well right from the start. Steve has always been very encouraging in getting the film made, and out there. He put me in touch with Lesley Manning, the director of the original, and often reminded me to keep my chin up whenever it seemed like the idea possibly wasn't going to happen, after all.
It took about five years to lay out an Independent plan to get the thing made. I was adamant I was going to get it done, but it wasn't until Lesley Manning came on board in the role of co-producer, that things really started to get moving. She, too, is a real expert in the realm of film-making, and was an invaluable part of the production. My folks were also very supportive and helped out, a great deal. But for the longest time, I didn't know if it was going to be a film, or a book, or a podcast, or anything."
- Was everyone receptive to being involved? You don't have to name names, and without giving away any spoilers from your documentary, I'm just curious if anyone had any regrets about being a part of the show back in 1992?
"Believe it or not, for the most part, getting the Ghostwatch cast and crew involved was fairly easy, as most still remain particularly proud of having been a part of the show. Until recently, they'd never really gotten the chance to discuss what they had enjoyed making. Plus, I've had the good fortune to work with or around some of the guys over the years, like Craig, so securing commitments was actually far less difficult than I thought it would be. Working to suit people's busy schedules, however, was an entirely different story, and required quite a bit of forward planning. In the end, we were able to interview almost everybody, but sadly, none of the Early Family were available to meet with us. Nevertheless, the offer shall always be there!"
- Well it certainly sounds like it was a labour of love and it certainly shows on screen the passion and pride from everyone involved in Ghostwatch. It comes across as a very positive collective. Personally, how was the experience for you and how has the project been received in general?
"Considering our project's humble beginnings, I couldn't be more proud by what we we've been able to achieve. The doc opened to strong reviews, which are still coming in. Copies of the DVD have been sent out, all over the world. Completing the book was actually a bit of a surprise, as that naturally went on the back burner when Lesley and I teamed up to co-produce, but I'd written so much already, it just felt like it could make for a nice addition, and also a neat way to include any material we weren't able to, in the film itself.
Aside from just wanting to learn more about the show, which has always fascinated me, I did also set out to try and get Ghostwatch some of the recognition it deserved, and ultimately, I think we achieved that. It's been an incredible journey so far, and one I'll never forget. Having developed something of a taste for film-making (and with this project having taken five years to complete), the only problem now is deciding which story to pursue next!"
- I have read that a follow-up show/drama was planned for Ghostwatch at some stage well in the past, from your interviews and research, how close did that come to fruition?
"Yes, Stephen Volk did write a follow-up to Ghostwatch called '31/10', which is actually in the book! I don't want to give too much away, but it concerns a return to the haunted studio, ten years after Mr. Pipes was unleashed from Foxhill Drive... It's creepy as hell, and well worth checking out if you're into horror fiction."
- Ah yes, I was going to ask how the book differed to the DVD, it sounds like a fascinating read! As for the future, perhaps you could make that sequel to Ghostwatch?! Do you think you would stick to so,etching factual, in the realms of the paranormal, something fictional or a combination of?
"Ha, to make a sequel to Ghostwatch would be thrilling, but I'm sure that Lesley and Stephen are the people to approach first, for that! What's interesting is that a lot of people still ask if you could 'do the show again', or remake it, or something. I think that every generation has a Ghostwatch. Most recently, it's been films like Paranormal Activity and REC. Before then, Blair Witch, and earlier still, Alternative 3 and The War Of The Worlds, to name but a few. I'm sure the next take on the genre-defying/reality-smashing experience is already in the pipe(s)line, and I look forward to checking it out. I would actually love to see a continuation of the Ghostwatch universe in some shape or form. I think the characters are wonderful, and there's definitely an appetite to see more, so who knows."
- What advice would you give to aspiring film makers or people with a drive to do something they are passionate about?
"My advice to anyone looking to make a film, or embark upon a project such as this, is two-fold. First, think it through, and second, stick with it. A well thought out concept is always the best way to go ("If it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage"). Also, don't expect things to happen overnight, or even at all, like you first imagined. Certain aspects of the doc are quite different to what I first envisaged, but that's partly due to some great opportunities that materialised along the way - for instance, working alongside people like Danny, Arfon and Ian who were able to contribute some phenomenal work."
- Well thanks once again for talking to us, we wish you the best of luck with future projects and congratulations on producing such a fantastic addition to the legacy of Ghostwatch! We might have to drag you along to one of our investigations in the future!
"John, it's been a pleasure. I'm so glad to hear you enjoyed the doc, and would be delighted to attend one of your ghostly investigations, in the future. Again, we're going to be taking Behind the Curtains to the Earls Court Comic Con in July, and I intend to arrive wearing my very own replica Ghostbusters flight suit, so at the very least, I have an idea as to what I should wear if I can one day tag along..."
If you have seen Ghostwatch, then you will love "Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtains", it is a fascinating documentary and the book sounds like a must-read too! If you want to purchase the DVD, Book, or to find out more about the project, upcoming events and more, then head on over to www.ghostwatchbtc.com
As Richard mentioned, he will also have a special booth at this years London Film & Comic Con, at Earls Court from Friday 11th July to Sunday 13th July, along with special guests Stephen Volk (creator of Ghostwatch, the ITV series Afterlife and recent horror movie The Awakening) and Lesley Manning (Director of Ghostwatch), commitments permitting. Go to www.londonfilmandcomiccon.com for tickets and information.
Finally, if you haven't yet seen Ghostwatch, it is available from Amazon and most online DVD retailers, as well as Ebay if you want a bargain copy.