Ghostwatch: Director Lesley Manning Interview

24 years after infamous UK horror TV event Ghostwatch aired on the BBC, we chat to its director Lesley Manning...

BBC Ghostwatch

Although Ghostwatch aired in 1992 and was never shown again on TV, its legacy endures. From the excellent Behind The Curtains documentary to its frequent appearances on “Scariest Moments” lists, people love to talk about what still remains the most controversial drama in broadcast history (and retains the record number of viewer complaints).

To celebrate the BBC releasing it, at last, through their online store, Den Of Geek talked with director Lesley Manning about making the programme and its enduring influence…

How does it feel that every few years, so many people want to talk to you about Ghostwatch?

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Well, because Stephen [Volk, writer] and I felt like lepers for a few years afterwards, it’s always a pleasure when someone now goes “Oh, I really enjoyed it!” Also, when the first unofficial website went up online, someone asked “Oh, where’s the director?” and someone else said “Oh, he’s dead!” and I thought, “Hmm! I don’t want to be dead! And I don’t want to be a he either!” so yes. It’s great that people appreciate it because it was a great piece of work to do.

Yes, and so mysterious for so long as well. With the BBC burying it for ten years, there was this myth built around what actually happened and how it was done.

Do you think that increased its cache falsely? The fact that they just went “ooh! We didn’t do that!”

Yeah, I think so. I mean I watched it at the time and was quite young and remember talking to kids at school about it and I think we managed to work ourselves up into more of a frenzy about what we’d seen. I didn’t personally watch it again after 1992 until 2003 at the Fortean Times convention and was amazed by how different it was to my memory and how great it was on levels I hadn’t appreciated at all as a kid.

So what was the difference for you? Sorry, I don’t want to interview you… [laughs]

Haha, it’s fine. I mean, like many people, I missed the credit at the start to say that it was Screen One and that it had a writer…

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To be honest, you would have. We had to put it in the day before transmission so it was just on/off and really not done in the right way…

Sure, but I guess I was primed to want it to be real anyway. I loved scary stuff and I remember the bit where you first see Pipes behind the curtains just jumping up and down and screaming about how you couldn’t fake it! And it was only at the very end that I realised “Oh, this is a setup but it’s a really good one”. So I really focused on the hoax element of it at that age.

Well, the point that you jumped up was exactly what I’d hoped for when I read the script, with Parky saying “well, I can’t see anything can you?” and everybody at home going “noooo! you can!” and leaping to the door and shouting.

And calling the 081 811 8181 number, no doubt! So prior to its airing, did you expect that people would react like that? What did you think would happen?

You know, I have absolutely no idea. I do remember saying in rehearsal with Brid Brennan “the better this can be, the worse it will be” so I did have an inkling, but the thing is when you’re making a piece of work you’re so buried in it, it’s hard to say. I absolutely didn’t think I was making a hoax or a mockumentary or anything like that. All those words don’t fit what I was trying to do. I came onto this script when it was in parts, freshly out of its serial mode [An original form of Ghostwatch was just one of a six-episode drama script by Stephen Volk]. It was a 90 minute one-parter but still alluding to stories all around the country, so I was part of the journey that came to being just one story.

But I absolutely just wanted to do the best with the script and part of that was to stay as pure as possible to television language of the time and that’s the thing that triggers emotion. I just intended it to be a form of language, a way of making this drama and to do credit to this drama and Stephen’s writing.

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I think I almost view it as being part of that great BBC tradition of the Christmas Ghost Stories, you know, like the M.R. James ones? I mean it is telling a traditional ghost story, just using a different medium and different language to do that. Did you take any influence from those shows or stories?

No. No, I didn’t. I do remember looking at Nightmare On Elm Street… I mean, I looked at horror in terms of what you show and what you don’t show and how you create the fear. I was very aware that so much horror at the time was all extremely tense until you found ‘the thing’ and then it let itself down. You start going “hmm, these special FX are good” or “ooh, that classic’s not holding up, the blood’s too red”.

For me, it always felt too technical. But that wonderful gap – the anticipation and the fear of the unknown – is the gap that I find much more thrilling.

I can see that. I think the other horror element that works particularly well in Ghostwatch is where elements of reality are distorted, things are where they shouldn’t be…

Completely. I remember talking to Ruth Baumgarten, the producer, about how I’d like it to look. I wanted the vox pops to be real people and real stories, just blurring the edges of what was real. I do love that when horror comes into your world, into your reality.

In the Behind The Curtains documentary, Andy Nyman said that Ghostwatch “didn’t feel scripted or acted and that’s what you aspire to always” and I felt like that was such a very modern thing to say because in 1992 when you made it, I’m not sure anyone would’ve thought that way. Do you think you were being progressive and influential in that sense?

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Oh, completely yes, I think. I mean, I do. I tried very hard for it to leave the script and it’s quite well known that Parkinson did leave the script so we’d just talk points with him – “you’ve got to get to this point, then that point” – and Gillian Bevan, a formal actress, was brilliant at coping with that. But we were in a very different dramatic period where drama was drama and that’s partly why the BBC didn’t know what they had. They didn’t recognise it as drama, they thought it was just really poor drama. In rehearsal, we’d watch documentaries. There was a whole artifice in performance that we all accepted in those days and that I was trying to break. And I was very aware of it, to try and bridge that gap to realism. I mean, we did do quite a bit of impro. As Sarah Greene says, we let them off the hook.

Most of the time they stuck to the script but if you let them off the hook, they do bring something else and that fed into the camera language. So, say, the opening shot where Parkinson goes “and now we’re going to Foxhill Drive” and it cuts to Pam and the house. When we were doing that, all the time we were trying to get into the head of someone for hire just behind the camera who’d go out and shoot that live. There’d be no artifice or forethought. I was thinking “Oh, we’ll get the bike and motivate the pan”. I was thinking drama all the time and then I thought well, no, they wouldn’t do that. They’d be shooting and be half way through the pan and then the bike would come in by mistake and they wouldn’t care because they’d have to go to their lunch or whatever. That’s how I was thinking all the time, about the mistakes and the uneasy camera moves. I remember Richard Broke [Executive Producer] was in the studio one time and I’d got the real production manager to be in shot talking to Parkinson and dashing out and Richard was “What are you doing!?” He was so confused. “Why are you being so crap?”

Yeah, but those little mistakes are part of what makes it feel so real and convincing. Because we’ve all seen them made on live TV. It’s part of how we know it’s live. On a similar note, I was thinking about what medium could be exploited nowadays if you were trying to do something like Ghostwatch and create that kind of reaction in a modern audience.

I do think that technology has moved on so massively and the crossover element is so fascinating, in the sense that if you listen to Radio One, they’ll keep saying “you can see this on our webcam” and I love that idea that radio is no longer radio, that there’s pictures with it. On the web you can see everything, on Twitter, on Instagram, and TV is – dare I say? – ever so slightly marginalised. I think it’s difficult to do what we did again but I think there is room for something that stir things up, that will cause confusion.

So, speaking of stirring things up, I have to ask…Have you experienced anything to do with Ghostwatch that was genuinely a bit spooky? A shivers-up-the-spine moment?

No, not really. [laughs] Well, there was a picture that flew off the wall of the studio but I took no notice of that. It was just a story – I wasn’t there, I was on my break. What I did find interesting though was initially when I interviewed all the people with their stories to pick who I would air for vox pops, I found that fascinating because that was a massive learning curve for me. People who were prepared to speak about it would come in and they obviously had been massively affected and traumtised by whatever they’d seen and that was quite unsettling. They were very keen to talk about it and grateful that someone would listen without the danger of being laughed at or judged and I found that quite chilling…

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So, after 24 years, it’s finally been put online by the BBC – do you feel vindicated? Like, you made this thing that was supposed to be scary that was a bit too scary so they tried to make it go away. Now they’ve finally acknowledged it, do you feel like that’s them saying “yep, job well done actually”?

Possibly… Possibly… Let’s wait and see if there’s a backlash! They tended to fall into two camps at the time, when I’d walk around the BBC and meet someone in the corridors. Some would quietly confess that they thought it was great, but nobody would ever say that openly. And others would completely disapprove, saying that we’d broken people’s faith in Auntie. So there were two camps at the BBC and I think it’s probably still true today. I’ll tell you when I did feel something was when BFI did a season and got us all up onstage; me, Stephen, Parky, Richard Broke and Sarah Greene and it was then that I thought “well, that is a stamp of approval. To be onstage at the BFI!”

So are you planning anything for the 25th Anniversary? Is there anything you’d like to do?

Well, Rich [Lawden] is the big fan and I think he wants to do special things for it. I sort of feel like my work’s done in that respect. Stephen and I are working on something else – it’s a film – and we’re quite far into that. We’ve been developing it for a long time so we’re hoping that’s going to go. Shortly we’ll be doing some test footage and I’m very happy to talk to you about it when we’ve got more… We’re hoping next year.

Excellent. I will absolutely take you up on that. Lesley Manning, thank you very much!

You can download Ghostwatch : Behind The Curtains at the BBC Store here.

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