Friday, April 1, 2011

Faking It

SCIENCE REPORT - ALTERNATIVE 3 (1977)
SCREEN ONE - GHOSTWATCH (1992)

Presented and narrated by well-known broadcaster Tim Brinton, ALTERNATIVE 3 purports to be an investigation into the UK's brain drain, uncovering a plan to make the Moon and Mars habitable in the event of an environmental catastrophe on Earth.

IN the 1970s, Anglia Television ran a weekly series called SCIENCE REPORT. The final episode was due to have been broadcast on April 1st, and as the slot was not to be recommissioned, the production team decided to produce a spoof. Written by David Ambrose and directed by Christopher Miles, ALTERNATIVE 3 began by detailing a number of disappearances and deaths of physicists, engineers and astronomers. It was claimed that these people were involved in a secret American/Soviet plan in outer space, and that scientists had determined that the Earth's surface would be unable to support life for much longer due to climate change. In 1957, Dr Carl Gerstein (Richard Marner) proposed that there were three alternatives to this problem; the first was the drastic reduction of humans, the second the construction of vast shelters to house government officials and a cross section of the population, and the third was to populate Mars via the Moon. The programme ends by showing a 1962 landing on the Martian surface; as American and Russian voices celebrate their achievement, something stirs beneath the Martian soil.

Following the grand tradition of CRIMEWATCH and BADGERWATCH, Stephen Volk's GHOSTWATCH involved BBC personnel (hosted by Michael Parkinson, with Mike Smith manning the phones and Sarah Greene and Craig Charles roving reports) performing a live, fake investigation of poltergeist activity. Like the most effective examples, the story centers around family relationships and prepubescent girls, areas which it is felt that the viewer will show attention and compassion. The culprit in this case is a malevolent ghost nicknamed Pipes, from his habit of knocking on the house's plumbing. We also learn that Pipes is the spirit of a psychologically disturbed man, himself believed to have been troubled by the spirit of child killer. In the end, the reporters realise that the transmission itself is acting as a national seance, with the spirits' taking control of the studio and possessing Parkinson. As part of its climatic melee, Greene is sucked into a cupboard and presumed dead, which, at this point, one hopes the programme had been real.

Michael Parkinson adorns the cover of the Radio Times promoting GHOSTWATCH's Halloween night screening. His typically forlorn performance was one of the key elements duping people to be believe the drama was actually showing true, live events.

ALTERNATIVE 3 and GHOSTWATCH illustrate how easily the viewer can be fooled if they are presented in acknowledged formats. Both were fronted by well-known television personalities which instantly lend gravitas, but it is difficult to understand how such a high volume of viewers can be fooled by interviews which are too polished to have been spontaneous, and ignore closing credits which clearly name actors and writers. GHOSTWATCH, in particular, resulted in an outcry of which only the Great British Public could manifest. The BBC were besieged with calls criticising the corporation for the misleading and disturbing nature of the programme, and the ensuing hysteria included the case of Martin Denham - a mental retard so "hypnotised and obsessed" by the show he committed suicide - and a woman who demanded recompense for a pair of jeans because her husband was so terrified he soiled himself. Additionally, a report in the British Medical Journal described two cases of GHOSTWATCH-induced post-traumatic stress disorder in children, the first PTSD caused by television.

The legacies of both programmes are far-reaching. Conspiracy theorists are still feeding and elaborating on the prophetic propositions of Dr Carl Gerstein, and GHOSTWATCH was ahead of its time in the sub-genre of horror vérité, which would break out in everything from THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999), MOST HAUNTED (2002 -10), and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2007). MOST HAUNTED is an interesting faux pas, as after many viewer complaints - usually about "spiritualist medium" Derek Acorah - Ofcom cleared the show of any deception, ruling that the programme was entertainment and not to be taken seriously. Ofcom ruled that it contained "a high degree of showmanship that puts it beyond what we believe to be a generally accepted understanding of what comprises a legitimate investigation".