THE GHOSTS IN THE LIVING ROOM

Thursday 22 December 2011, 11:33

Adam Curtis Adam Curtis

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Here is a ghost story for Christmas - it is a brief history of the appearance of ghosts and poltergeists and other spirits on television. Not fictional ghosts - but real ones, or the reports of their appearances, that you find in various news and documentary programmes.

But as so often when one looks at material in the archives, it turns out that it tells you less about the subjects of the programmes - the ghosts - than about the strange medium that possesses modern society - television.

In 1992 the BBC transmitted a drama that was based on a number of the factual reports I am going to show. The underlying aim of the makers of the drama was not just to frighten, but to demonstrate in a vivid way what had happened to the very idea of reality in television.

It was called Ghostwatch, and it caused a national sensation because thousands of viewers believed it was real. And, at the time, the BBC promised never to show it again.

I want to tell the story of the rise of the suburban poltergeist in factual TV from the 1970s onwards, how those reports inspired Ghostwatch, and how the extraordinary reaction on the night Ghostwatch was transmitted in 1992 showed clearly where the real ghosts of our society had now gone to live. They are inside television itself - a strange nether world of PR-driven half truths, synthetic personalities, and waves of apocalyptic fear.

In the 1950s and early 1960s the reporting of ghosts on television followed the classical rules. The hauntings were in old houses, stately homes, or ancient ruins. Here is a perfect example. It is from the Tonight programme in 1963. The reporter also follows an accepted format - he is indulgently sceptical, but brings with him a religious "expert" who is going to exorcise the presence.

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But then, in the early 1970s, there was a peculiar change. The ghosts moved. They gave up haunting old castles and ruins and moved into the most ordinary suburban houses.

The battle between good and evil was now relocated into the suburban kitchens, bedrooms and even the stairs of modern Britain. Throughout, the ghosts also showed perfect taste in wallpaper.

Here is an extract from one of the earliest. It is the haunting of a council house in Swindon in 1973.

At this stage the film-makers are still following the classical editorial model. The local vicar brings in a religious "expert" to expel the poltergeist. The vicar smokes a fantastic pipe - and there is a wonderful shot of the Mr and Mrs Pellymounter watching the exorcism.

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As the suburban hauntings multiplied in the mid 1970s, the approach of the programme-makers changed. The idea of exorcism disappeared and the TV reporters decided to turn to science. They would use special recording equipment to discover whether the hauntings were real, and the stories were turned into a battle between superstition and reason.

Here is part of a film made by the BBC Northeast regional magazine programme in 1975. It's about a 1960s block of maisonettes that have been built over an old disused coal mine just outside Newcastle.

The reporter and the crew decide to stay all night in an empty flat - and set up their special cameras and audio recording equipment.

There also a wonderful long-held shot in which one of the haunted occupants shows the reporter what the spirit did with his golf clubs.

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The poltergeists kept spreading.

In January 1977 one turned up at 16 Ruskin Road, Dartford in Kent. Ann and Barry Robertson who lived there were terrified and are fleeing the house as the film starts.

There is a change in this film. The suburban couple at the heart of the story are no longer secondary figures in the story. They turn it into an emotional melodrama where they become the focus - Ann especially who has an epic turn of phrase:

"I can't even face taking the furniture with me because this thing - whatever it is - has interfered with my home. It's touched my things. And I'm so frightened that I won't even take the things with me now. So we're back to square one where we started. With nothing"

Suddenly suburbia becomes not boring - but sinister, mysterious and epic.

The film also interviews the man from Dartford Council who Ann and Barry are demanding rehouse them. He is sympathetic but then comes out with a great quote - "I'm afraid the Dartford Council Transfer Points Scheme doesn't recognise ghosts - and therefore they can't be pointed".

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And then - ten months later in November 1977 - the Nationwide programme made a film which brought all the elements of the modern haunted house together into a perfect form. And it also introduced a powerful new character into the melodrama - the psychic investigator who was determined to prove that the haunting was real.

A poltergeist had apparently turned up in a house in the north London suburb of Ponders End in the borough of Enfield. The Nationwide film was going to make this house famous.

And along with the house, the film would also make a star out of this man - he was Maurice Grosse who was an investigator for the Society for Psychical Research. Maurice Grosse would come to dominate the TV-ghostworld interface.

The film is beautifully made. It is possibly the best evocation of the mood that is at the heart of all these film reports - a transformation of the dull interior of an ordinary suburban house into an intense psycho-drama where even the most mundane of objects, in this case a Lego-block, becomes possessed by an inner destructive force.

And the poltergeist has by now gone beyond wallpaper. It has chosen the most wonderful bedroom to live in. The walls are covered with Bay City Rollers and David Soul posters. And the shot of an elderly psychic investigator sitting among the images of late 70s teen dreams while listening to the recordings of himself communicating with the poltergeist is just brilliant.

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The fascination with the Enfield haunting didn't stop there. Two years later BBC Scotland made another film inside the house.

This time they concentrated on the two daughters - Margaret and Janet Hodgson. The crew filmed the two girls as the poltergeist seems to speak through Janet, the strange voice coming and going in front of the camera.

It is weird and a bit frightening - but you also think that she may be faking it. And it is fascinating to watch the long held shots of the two daughters, studying their faces to try and work out what they are up to. And it introduces a new element into these haunting stories - that children are not innocent, but potentially malicious and a bit dangerous (like in The Innocents). A modern fear that was going to grow much bigger in the 1990s - especially again on TV.

The girls have since said that they faked some of the incidents in the house. But they insist that they were only doing this to test and tease Mr Grosse - and that much of it was real.

The Scottish crew had also got their own mini-scoop. They persuaded the police who had seen the chair levitate inside the house in 1977 to describe it. It is a fantastic two-shot.

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The Enfield haunting became famous, and so did the psychic investigator, Maurice Grosse. He was completely convinced by the two Hodgson girls from Ponders End and it launched him on a thirty-year odyssey to try and fight against the rise of what he saw as a narrow-minded sceptical rationalism in Britain.

Grosse was a wonderful person. He died in 2006 aged 87. He had been trained as an engineer - and back in the 1940s he had become an inventor. His most famous invention was called "The Cost-Effective Poster Machine". It is better known as the rotating poster display which you can still see today at thousands of bus stops.

In 1976 Maurice Grosse's 22 year old daughter died in a traffic accident. It devastated both him and his wife. But then Maurice came to believe that his daughter was trying to make contact with him from beyond the grave. This led him to join the Society for Psychical Research - and that took him into the Enfield house just a year later.

Maurice Grosse was well aware that his quest to contact the supernatural was driven by the intense feelings of loss he had experienced through his daughter's death. This made him intensely sympathetic to the people he encountered in his investigations.

In 1996 Grosse made a Video Diary with the BBC. He went around with a Hi-8 camera, operating it himself. He then had full editorial control - and used it to put together a beautiful and moving film.

It is structured around various of his visits to hauntings - both past and present - but he uses that structure to also tell the story of his life - both factual and emotional. He describes his daughter's death and the feelings that raised in him, and the odyssey it led him into, in a very moving way.

One of the most touching moments is when he sits in an ordinary living room and talks to a couple who believe their dead son appears to them on their television. Grosse himself then becomes overtaken by emotion and has to leave the room

As you watch the film it becomes clear that Grosse believes that it is these intense feelings that give people, and the places they live in, the power to summon up poltergeists. The feelings give people something special - the power to pierce through the disappointing reality of their suburban lives and enter into something new and special. Another, and possibly better, world of high drama and raised emotion.

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In 1988 a TV dramatist called Stephen Volk had an idea for a six-part drama based on all these suburban hauntings - the story would focus on how television had reported them. Volk's original idea was to have a TV reporter team up with a psychical researcher to investigate the haunting of a contemporary London council house. It was going to culminate in the final episode with a live broadcast from the house - and all hell was going to break loose.

Then Volk's producer, Ruth Baumgarten, suggested that instead they make a one-off play based on the sixth episode. Volk agreed. And he immediately realised that he could use the structure of a live outside broadcast to make a powerful drama that demonstrated dramatically what was happening to television as a medium - how the line between reality and fiction was getting blurred.

Out of that came Ghostwatch.

A few years ago Stephen Volk wrote a fantastic essay about the making of Ghostwatch. It was published by the Fortean Times. And you can find the whole thing here.

In it Volk describes his underlying aim - to make people look at what was happening to reality on television:

Ghostwatch was, of course, also about television.

It's quite difficult now to think back to the televisual landscape of 1992. Formats that dissolve the boundaries between factual and fictional TV have since become the staple diet of the schedules, and it's difficult to imagine a world where they were new or unusual. But this was the time of the first successful hybrids: docu-dramas and drama-docs. Drama series like NYPD Blue increasingly employed a hand-held camera style derived from documentary realism, and documentaries like Crimewatch and 999 were full of reconstructions using actors mix-and-matched to real footage of real people.

Ruth, the producer, and I discussed how we both felt we could no longer trust what we were seeing, what we were being shown or told by TV. The lines between the once distinct languages of factual and fictional TV were becoming dangerously blurred. Even the CNN Gulf War reports on Newsnight (with the infrared camerawork we duplicated in Ghostwatch) felt suspect, somehow unreliable. What was drama and what was not?

But then Volk added a line that I think goes to the heart of what has happened to TV ever since. The strange paradox that, at the very time that the audience is becoming more and more aware that not everything on TV is real, that same audience feel that if an event appears on TV - that is a guide to whether it is real or not.

Yet, paradoxically, television had also become the arbiter of reality, as John Waite exemplified on hearing of the release of his hostage cousin Terry in November 1991: "I won't believe it until I see it on TV."

Ghostwatch was transmitted on Halloween 1992. It was quite obvious from both the introduction and the titles that it was a work of fiction. But the reaction was astonishing - thousands of people rang in - either terrified or angry or to report that they were experiencing paranormal activity in their house at that very moment.

The next day there was a media storm - and the BBC reacted in its normal courageous way by burying the programme and disowning it. The Radio Times was apparently told never to mention it ever again. And Volk has described how it was like being airbrushed out of a photograph in Stalinist Russia.

But the extraordinary reaction rather proved the central aim of the drama.

It demonstrated the truth about modern television - that we all know that increasingly the line between fiction and non-fiction is blurred on TV. But far from making us distrust television this actually makes it more powerful. It possesses our imagination more powerfully precisely because we don't know what is real and what is not.

I think the reason is that, from the early 1990s onwards, the big confident stories of our time started to collapse, and people were faced instead with an everyday reality composed only of small and mostly mundane fragments. In the face of that, factual television has increasingly become a two-dimensional version of our world where everything is amplified and distorted.

News reporting and factual television are populated today by a strange nether world of PR-driven half truths, synthetic personalities and waves of apocalyptic fear. It is a world that is like ours but is exaggerated - weird, wonderful and frightening.

It is just like living in a haunted suburban house on the fringes of North London - except that it is now the whole world. All the mundane and banal aspects of reality are taken and infused with an hysterical intensity - that we are both fascinated by and terrified of - whether it be food or Al Qaida. Yet we know in our hearts that much of this is either distorted or just untrue.

It is the true spirit world of our time

It is made even weirder because, at the same time, audiences are shown harsh and terrifying moments of reality, but they are also insubstantial 2D images flickering on a box in the living room. They don't feel real, they look like a ghost world. Here is an example.

The tiny white figures you see that look like ghosts are actually still alive. But probably not for very long.

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And here are some extracts from Ghostwatch - which show how much it was rooted in the suburban poltergeist reports of the 1970s. But also how it used them to brilliantly evoke the mood at the heart of today's television - where so much is half-fiction and half-real.

It is also very frightening - and a brilliant piece of TV drama. Just remember it's not real.

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  • Comment number 21.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

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    Comment number 22.

    @ Leeravitz: Thanks for the explanation. I've just had a look at the list of The X-Files episodes on Wikipedia (they have their own entry) and I can see in the early seasons a large group of writers wrote scripts but over time the show relies increasingly on Chris Carter, Frank Spotnitz, Vince Gilligan and John Shiban to write the bulk of the stories in most seasons and other assorted writers to write the remainder. I note that in Season 5, Stephen King co-wrote a story with Chris Carter ("Chinga") and cyberpunk sci-fi writers William Gibson and Tom Maddox co-wrote "Kill Switch". Gibson and Maddox also did "First Person Shooter" for Season 7.

    What could The X-Files have been if it could have attracted more spceulative fiction writers like King, Gibson and Maddox to contribute ideas and scripts for the show! The same applies to all other sci-fi shows and movies. Why can't there be more interactions between speculative fiction writing and sci-fi / horror films?

    I don't think it is going off the topic talking about Doctor Who as that show did have one adventure "The Deadly Assassin" that came in for criticism from the self-styled morals campaigner Mary Whitehouse in the late 1970s. She complained about a cliffhanger scene in which the Doctor is almost drowned that ends one episode and worried that children would remember it obsessively for a week until the next episode screened. Now if you go to www.imdb.com and read the user reviews of "Ghostwatch", you'll see a lot of them are by people who saw the show as children and who were spooked by it. This begs the question of how much influence television has over people whose level of mental development is unprepared to take in what they see and to interpret what they do see. What is it about sci-fi and horror that people think these genres are suitable for children? Do children take in "messages" that might not even exist in some films or does most of the content fly over their heads and all they might remember is the pyrotechnics?

    Like "Ghostwatch" which influenced "The Blair Witch Project", "The Deadly Assassin" is said to have been an influence on The Matrix movie franchise. Ideas do get recycled over and over!

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    Comment number 23.

    Roughly 32% of people are susceptible to the placebo effect. Such persons are not really in a position to make their own decisions. They fall for anything. Political theories, religious cults, new age healing, etc.

    There should be a test for such weak mindedness. Like getting your drivers license such people should not be allowed all the responsibilities of adulthood until they develop some critical faculties.

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    Comment number 24.

    @ Nausika, children like those kinds of stories; they find suspension of disbelief easier, hence they are more powerful to them. Children are also more consciously engaged in trying to work out what is going on (generally, in reality, I mean) and therefore are attracted to stories that give alternative explanations to those that are more obviously served up in their daily reality. A development of this is that teenagers and young adults seem more likely to be attracted to rigid political ideologies that seek to provide means to explain causes and effects and supply solutions to all problems. Incidentally, one of the things I so enjoy about Adam's films is his obsession with unexpected effects. Mainstream media finds this hard to deal with, it doesn't like to go back to look at causes that much.

    @ nemo888. Your examples of what people fall for should include advertising. But if you don't allow people the responsibilities of adulthood, what do you do with them instead? Erm..... hmm.

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    Comment number 25.

    @ nemo888: Don't be too hard on people. Format - that is, the way ideas and information are presented - can have a significant effect on the way people believe something is true or not, or choose between options. Look at this classic problem: a disease breaks out in a community of 600 and there are 2 possible methods to beat it but only one can be used.

    Method A: you save 200 people for sure
    Method B: 600 people are saved with a probability of 33%

    You ask most people which method they'd choose and they'll pick Method A.

    Now you rephrase the problem so the methods read like this:

    Method A: 400 die for certain
    Method B: there's a probability of 67% that 600 die

    Most people, when asked which method they would use, say Method B.

    But in fact Method A remains exactly the same (200 are saved so 400 die) and Method B is also the same (if there's a 33% likelihood that 600 will live, then the likelihood that 600 will die is 67%) - the difference is that when we first phrased the options, we phrased them in terms of people saved and when we phrased the options again, we phrased them in terms of people lost.

    In the case of "Ghostwatch", the presence of Michael Parkinson encouraged a lot of people to think that the events shown were for real as he is not normally associated with presenting shows of a fictional nature. The famous "War of the Worlds" hoax by Orson Welles was presented in the form of a series of news bulletins and unless people were loyal listeners of the radio station that presented the hoax, they were not likely to be aware that what they were hearing was not for real. Many people who were taken in by the radio hoax had merely dipped into listening to the radio station at a particular time when one of the "news bulletins" was being broadcast.

    I suppose that like most people, when you heard that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won the 2009 presidential elections in Iran and the media in the West proclaimed that widespread fraud had taken place, that you took it for granted that that is what happened? Because we are conditioned to believe that Ahmadinejad is an anti-Semitic populist bad-guy demagogue, anything he does or might do is always put in a bad light, so it's very easy for us to think he's capable of electoral fraud.

    Unfortunately the truth is that the Washington Post conducted a pre-poll of voters across Iran before the elections and found that two-thirds of voters were going to vote for Ahmadinejad anyway. He is a savvy politician (he has an engineering background and a PhD in traffic management) who campaigned across the country for three months, visiting rural communities, while his main opponent Mir Hossain Moussavi (who was "supposed" to win) did very little campaigning and hardly left the cities. Significantly Moussavi failed to win areas in northwestern Iran which are supposed to be his ethnic base (he is ethnic Azeri and that part of Iran is more Azeri than Persian).

    We can't really test for "weak mindedness" - how would we define it anyway? And usually when people fall for religious cults or medical quacks, they do so because they may be going through a crisis in their lives (divorce, family break-up, someone has an incurable disease, someone was killed violently) and they're desperate for any help they can get. Young people who get caught up in cults are often very naive and have lived sheltered lives with respect to experience of religion. When I was much younger, I nearly got swallowed by a Scientology cult because I had never heard of Scientology before and when I was approached by someone conducting a "survey", I was quite open-minded and had no inkling that there was an agenda behind the survey.

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    Comment number 26.

    @ T73: Only just saw your comment when I posted Comment 25. What I meant to say was I wonder how much television can influence naive people who may not be in a position to judge what they are watching because they lack knowledge about the subject at hand. As you say, young people can be susceptible to rigid ideologies because these serve up nostrums that appear to solve all aspects of a problem that confronts them and the usual authorities they consult (parents, teachers, ministers, counsellors) try to avoid the issue or steer them away from it when they should be tackling it head on.

    Actually children, especially pre-teens, can be quite sophisticated in their thinking, more so than their parents sometimes: they can be curious and matter-of-fact about death and dying. I'm reminded of something I read in The Last Word in a New Scientist issue about an 8-year-old boy who buried his hamster in the garden and kept nagging his mother about how fast the hamster would decompose so the mother wrote in to find out. The people who responded to her request reassured her that the boy was not being gruesome and that his attitude was typical for children his age.

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    Comment number 27.

    I am reminded of an observation that my brother made when we discussed the film The Ring, that to find supernatural stories frightening, one has to have some kind of belief in the supernatural, even if one rationally doesn't believe (that one believes) in it. It's an interesting thought but I am not totally convinced by it, because (and this is where some films for example, could be said to be objectively much better than others) the viewer is manipulated to suspend disbelief, and some films do this much more effectively than others, and when it is done very powerfully, then the experience is potentially frightening no matter what your rational mind tells you. Some viewers may be more susceptible to the effects than others, and children more commonly find it hard to distinguish reality from fiction. While adults are more or less likely to respond strongly to the portrayal of the supernatural, the effectiveness of the suspension of disbelief that the story produces is a very important part of the process. Now, the popularity of "reality" TV suggests that viewers are very willing to suspend disbelief and to forget about the production crew being in the room with the participants of Come Dine With Me etc. And these are relatively clear beliefs - does the supernatural exist? Does the production crew exist and do the participants behave "normally" in their presence? But what about more complicated matters? What was the cause of the summer's riots? What caused the western financial crisis? In fact we are persuaded to similarly suspend disbelief and *adopt beliefs* that say, people rioted because they wanted consumer goods they couldn't afford, or the debt crisis was ... oh yes, same explanation... anything to keep things nice and simple so that someone can provide a simple solution, whether that be a product or a policy. As I mentioned before, I like Adam's films for the continual reminder that nothing is simple, and that well-intended acts can have bizarre unforeseen consequences. I like to be reminded that the better informed I can become, the less I will understand.

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    Comment number 28.

    Alas, it appears that Tom Robertson's exorcism from the first clip failed and the Black Lady sill haunts the site and Tom has persisted for 50 years in trying to free it from it's earth bound existence. I hope he has put his rates up!

    Sadly it also appears Tom has been quite unwell this year but the latest news clipping I found of him was in the Sun from Jan 2011 so I'm not sure of his current status.
    http://www.thesun.co.uk/scotsol/homepage/scotlandfeatures/3333156/Ghosthunter-Tom-Robertson-on-his-cancer-battle.html

    His Website is also here: http://www.ghosthuntertomrobertson.com/ and it makes for interesting reading.. Luckily for him, he doesn't look like a young Robert Maxwell anymore..

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    Comment number 29.

    @ T73: I think with horror films, a lot depends on the viewer's current cultural context. In periods of tremendous social change horror films can be effective commentaries on changing social mores and relieve anxieties about the effects of change. It may be too early to tell yet but the Twilight books and films which combine the vampire horror genre with the romance genre may be telling us something about the clash between socially conservative mores (Twilight author Stephenie Meyer is a Mormon believer and the idea for the books came to her in a dream) and changing gender roles which are forcing changes in the way men and women relate to each other.

    You may have seen Tomas Alfredsson's film "Let the Right One In" which was quite a powerful movie about bullying and a young vampire's manipulation of his familiars whether they were an elderly man or a young boy. There was also some weak social commentary about down-and-out people scraping by as best they could in a society that's meant to be classless and inclusive but maybe isn't really. The US remake "Let Me In" could have been equally powerful - I did pick up a weak theme about escape and reinventing oneself which is a uniquely American cultural motif - but the director opted for the safe option of copying the Swedish original. But both movies were much better than the book on which they are based: the book is very pulpy and includes a lot of cartoonish zombie-related violence.

    Films like "The Ring" work well in an east Asian context due to Japan's particular cultural mix: Japanese people have always been keen on technology and gadgetry (they worked out very quickly how to make guns when the Portuguese first introduced them in the 1500s and were using arquebuses, early forerunners of rifles, in the Battle of Nagashino in 1575, referenced by Akira Kurosawa in his film "Ran") and are a highly faddish and very visual people, even a bit child-like in some ways. (It was retired General Douglas Macarthur who once told the US Congress in 1951 that Japan was a country of 12 year olds though it's possible that he didn't mean that literally but was using a metaphor.) It seems easier for Japanese people (and Koreans as well) to suspend disbelief in the supernatural perhaps because in their native cultures the border between the real world and the supernatural is seen to be more porous and there is a strong shamanic element which is usually associated with women.

    I don't know much about horror films in other parts of Asia although I have seen "13 Beloved" from Thailand which was as much comedy as it was horror and featured some god-awful skits such as eating faeces in a high-class Chinese restaurant, bashing teenagers for their mobile phone and a clothesline strung across a highway that decapitates a teenage motorcycle gang. I suppose I should know something about Chinese horror films since my family comes from China but Chinese films don't interest me as much as Japanese ones do which probably says something profound about my level of maturity.

    You probably are also aware of culture-specific fears and mental illnesses such as koro in Asian cultures and the phenomenon of people, usually women, going berserk and running "amok" in Malaysia, and of incidents of laughing sickness in parts of east Africa in 1961 which I know Fortean Times has covered.

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    Comment number 30.

    The BBC's ghostwatch in 1992 wasn't the last time the BBC covered the supernatural and the weird in a longer-than-usual format. It is not often remembered now as most of its content was only ever shown once and only once. Remember during the 90s when BBC2 would have "themed evenings"? The BBC devoted one such evening to the weird and paranormal in 1994, calling it "Weird night".

    Weird night included the following in its run-up of programmes;

    * Fortean review of the year
    * 3 Short programmes entitled "Strange days", "Coincidences","Beasts" and "Visions".
    * The last american freak show
    * WSH (Which stands for weird **** happens)
    * Weird thoughts (which was a debate style programme).

    There was also a showing of an X-Files programme.

    ljones

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    Comment number 31.

    This is one of those rare occasions where:

    A. A piece of music blows me away and
    B. I can't find something on the internet.

    While watching your segment on the most recent screenwipe, I couldn't stop pushing the slider back to the beginning of it over and over again. There's a piece of string music that I don't recognise and that I can't find anywhere whatsoever. It's driving me insane. If you read this Adam, help me out and let me know what it is. Other than the desperation to find out what it was, the segment itself was brilliant.

    Cheers!

    a

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    Comment number 32.

    @ Coffee-Cat: Try Musipedia at www.musipedia.org to identify the tune. You don't need to be musical: the website offers options for you to hum the tune, trace it out according to whether the notes go up or down, or you can tap out the rhythm. Musipedia incorporates the Melodyhound.com search engine.

    @ everyone else: Happy New Year to Adam and all who frequent the Comments Forums! May we all continue to have interesting and informative discussions here. (And may I continue to sow sedition around here before someone finally notices and throws me off?)

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    Comment number 33.

    ... That should have read: "... And may I continue to sow sedition around here before someone finally notices and throws me off!" (No question mark here.)

    Now I bet that's cast a pall over these corridas of comment.

    In this year of the Olympic Games and the baggage and endless gravy-trains that accompany it, I expect the UK public will be subjected to nauseous television and newspaper propaganda about how wonderful the games will be, how they will stimulate the economy (eg jacking up property prices so high none except wealthy foreigners will be able to buy anything) and how they will bring in so many tourists (provided they all spend loads of money and remember to go home when their visas expire).

    Adam, if it's at all possible, I'd like to see a post here about how the Olympic Games have been used in the past as propaganda to rally populations for war, for repressive actions and controls over people or for justifying the "superiority" of one ideology or political system over another. All past Olympic Games celebrations have been used in some way or another as a form of propaganda or cultural manipulation. If you can find the time and resources to do this, that would be greatly appreciated!

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    Comment number 34.

    Well I survived Christmas for another year.

    I suppose this article is really about television and how it blurs reality and fantasy, or that of course, television is not reality at all. But what concerns me more is how the power of television is used to push political agendas.

    I think it's time for sport and its myths, especially the Olympics and its dodgy history, to be exposed. And that would make a fine article. In fact, I'm pretty sure you covered it already in one of your documentaries.

    As for the supernatural, I think quality TV Drama seems to share itself with supernatural themes. For example Rod Serlings excellent Twilight Zone series, although that was largely science fiction, and was meant to make people watch adverts, it had many supernatural storylines. And of course Twin Peaks came along and introduced its artistic, surreal and supernatural themes. Then the much neglected Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where artistic vision and commercialism seemed to happily coexist, in their odd ways.

    Now, quality seems to have largely disappeared in British drama, and we're all now consuming as much quality American drama as possible, much of it with supernatural elements--True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, The Walking Dead, The Secret Circle, American Horror Story, and so on. Obviously the supernatural is now big business and a successful product.

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    Comment number 35.

    @ egbert_the_atheist: These TV shows that you mentioned are based on novels and comics and revolve around small town life or dysfunctional families, am I correct? And they use several scriptwriters who also work on other, usually very different TV shows. The producers of American Horror Story, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, also work on Glee. It would be good if more of these TV shows had cross-links with the world of comics and graphic novels beyond DC Comics and Marvel Comics and also more links with genre literature and fan fiction.

    Also there is a new US crime/fantasy/horror TV series called "Grimm" that just started broadcasting in Australia this week. All episodes are based on the fairy tales that Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm collected and published two hundred years ago. Channel 7 here has also bought the fairy tale drama TV series "Once upon a Time" which starts broadcasting here in March 2012. Both TV shows use elements from famous fairy tales and mix them with the lives of people in the present day.

    If the supernatural is big business now, it is because we now have several generations of adults who grew up on fantasy, sci-fi and other speculative fiction literature, films and TV shows as children and it has taken TV networks and movie studios a while to realise there has always been an adult market for these kinds of films and people do like to revisit their favourite childhood stories. It would not surprise me if the majority of people who read speculative fiction written for children and teenagers are actually adults. I have heard that the Twilight series of books by Stephenie Meyer attracts a huge adult female audience but at the local library where I sometimes do weekend casual work, I haven't seen that many women order these books for themselves!

    We all live in a world where it's much easier to suspend disbelief in the supernatural or parallel worlds because society these days is so much more complex: we are no longer told we have to follow one or a few authorities or institutions and all belief systems, ideologies and other major cultural memes, for want of a better term, are competing for our attention in a huge market-place.

    Unfortunately in Australia the TV channels are not interested in developing their own TV shows based on the supernatural and I suppose the same applies to Britain, Canada and New Zealand.

    I would be happy to see more Norwegian movies about zombie Nazi soldiers. I did see one last year (Tommy Wirkola's "Dead Snow") on SBS TV.

    Also there is supposed to be a live action movie based on Katsuhiro Otomo's "Akira" to be released in 2012 by Hollywood but I can't see that film succeeding - the themes of the original "Akira" manga and anime are too specific to modern Japanese culture and Japanese fears about technology, children interacting with technology and apocalypse in Tokyo to translate to an American cultural context. Even speculative fiction has its particular cultural manifestations that the Hollywood marketing machine ignores at its peril.

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    Comment number 36.

    @egbert - I think the article is partly about radical atheism, which I'm sure you'll agree is brutal and dogmatic :)

    If anyone wants a good book about football (and I'm sure you all do) check out The Ball Is Round. I'd like to see an article about the redemptive and transcendental nature of sport, the sublime.

    Or an article about why people on the left don't like sport. Or why intellectuals misunderstand popular culture.

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    Comment number 37.

    Re: Thatcher - Nostalgia is pretty powerful, especially if it can treat Thatcher sympathetically. I wonder if, for all her

    faults, it actually felt that she represented something, she had an identity and in some sense she represented something.

    The Attic is well worth seeing in that regard, a certain myth of 'Great' Britain exhumed.....are people getting all twinkly

    eyed about her because the current mob are so boring, that they mean nothing? Will we do the same with Blair in 20 years? I'm sure he'd love it.....'like the crowd at a rock concert, begging for more' or whatever it was.

    Re: Catfish - I quite liked that. It captured people precisely because they didn't know if it was real or not, and so the

    suspense is amped, it's a good comparison to Ghostwatch. I really don't know what to make of this 'blurring', I

    can't make out what it really means yet, the "strange nether world of PR-driven half truths, synthetic personalities and

    waves of apocalyptic fear." Wasn't there an extent to which TV was always like this? Is TV inherently a bit like this and we don't recognise that it is a representation, not reality? I've never quite grasped this 'hyperreal', Baudrillard, 'simulacra' thing....although I have seen Total Recall.

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    Comment number 38.

    @ theartteacher2: I am sure you don't want to know Andrew Jennings's book "Foul! The Secret World of FIFA: Bribes, Vote-Rigging and Ticket Scandals", which was published by HarperCollins in 2006. I can't imagine there's very much in that book that demonstrates the redemptive and transcendental nature of football politics.

    It was my suggestion that if possible Adam could kindly put up a post on how the Olympic Games have been used by governments to justify undemocratic and/or repressive actions against the public that would not normally be tolerated. Actions such as clearing out neighbourhoods where poor people or unwanted groups live to make way for sports facilities or relaxing development controls and rules over certain categories of properties and land use to enable building and commercial developments directly or indirectly related to having the Olympics that have the effect of forced gentrification and driving underprivileged groups out into suburbs where they have limited choices, can't get access to services: these are examples of how governments have used the Olympic Games in underhand ways.

    My understanding is that 1.5 million families in Brazil will be displaced from their homes due to urban renewal and infrastructure projects taking place in Rio de Janeiro and other cities preparing for the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games; the vast majority of these families live in favelas (slums). In Rio alone, three new express highways are to be built in favela areas. According to a report released by the UN's Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing in early 2011, the families affected have been offered inadequate compensation for losing their homes which in most cases were taken from them without consultation or negotiation.

    After the riots in London last year, security measures for the London Olympic Games are sure to be escalated to an extent that the entire city might become a de facto police state or at the very least a huge gated community that serves the rich and the privileged.

    Then there is the exploitation of sportspeople themselves and the pressures that are placed on them to perform. The case of the Georgian luger who died in Vancouver in 2010 illustrates the recklessness of the Canadian authorities who organised the Winter Games: the organisers wanted a fast track for breaking world records and got one, even though lugers' lives were put at risk. Then they organised practice times so that Canadian lugers got 10 times the number of practice runs as lugers from other countries. The luger who died was reported by the Wall Street Journal as having told his father he was "terrified" of the track.

    Dunno what you mean about left-wing types not liking sport or intellectuals misunderstanding popular culture. Are you sure you are not confusing sport itself with sport competitions organised by their official sporting organisations and often sponsored by private corporations? I am sure a lot of left-wing types would like to play golf ... looks relaxing ... it's just that maybe they don't like the idea of golfing links drinking up precious water that should be going to underprivileged people or using land where endangered species of plants and animals live. Golf courses are also very high-maintenance and use up a lot of fertiliser and pesticide! And if you want to see something really damning about golf and golf courses, read this article about Tiger Woods's business dealings at http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/42936.

    I did end up seeing "The Iron Lady" and "The Attic" after all. I found "The Iron Lady" a dishonest as well as a badly made film: the advertising posits Thatcher as a feminist icon and she was nothing of the sort. I have nothing against women who happen to think and behave like men and who don't go out of their way to promote the sisterhood but for the film and its spin-doctors to say Thatcher was a role model for women and girls when she clearly liked to be sole queen bee is unbelievable. Then there is a throwaway line in the film where Thatcher says she won't have anything to do with "fascist thugs" during the Falklands War episode. Ha! - Pinochet was not a "fascist thug", eh?

    Thatcher certainly did represent something: she represented a package that included the economic nostrums of Milton Friedman and Frederick Hayek, those champions of the free market and total deregulation of the economy and social services including deregulation of schools and de-licensing of doctors; and a way of thinking-acting-behaving that a certain Ayn Rand might have heartily approved of.

    As for "The Attic", that had a good premise: Thatcher emulating Winston Churchill. Well, yes, he certainly was a role model of sorts. I see him as an unprincipled figure who strove for power and influence at any cost and a war criminal to boot. I did think Adam could have gone into more detail and drawn more parallels between Churchill and Thatcher. There is a pretty good article by Ralph Raico, "Rethinking Churchill" at http://mises.org/daily/2973 that gives you Churchill, warts and all.

    It is possible the hoopla surrounding the London Olympics may have something to do with the nostalgia wave that birthed "The Iron Lady" or maybe the timing is coincidental.

    I also saw "We will force you to be free" a few days ago but not any of the other episodes of "The Trap: What Happened to our Dream of Freedom".

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    Comment number 39.

    38. NausikaDalazBlindaz wrote:

    "And if you want to see something really damning about golf and golf courses, read this article about Tiger Woods's business dealings at http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/42936."

    The two examples used to accuse Tiger Woods of a 'great crime' are more a 'great crime of a naivety' than anything more sinister, for example:


    "In 2008, Chevron entered a five-year relationship with Tiger Woods' foundation under the guise of philanthropy.

    But if Woods had a shred of social conscience, this partnership would never have existed.

    Lawsuits have been issued against Chevron for dumping toxic waste all over the planet. Alaska, Canada, Brazil, Angola and California have all accused Chevron of dumping. "


    I don't think attaching blame to Tiger Woods for Chevron's misdemeanors is helpful, correct or even close to being fair. Pressure needs to be made on the various governments of those nations or the Directors / CEOs at Chevron at the time of the dumping for allowing it to happen and not a golfer who happened to have a sponsorship with Chevron. Almost any sport star (or rock star or film star etc) can have the same 'great crime' attached to them for financially benefitting with a partnership with a corporation, Nike? Pepsi? BP? etc etc It's a shame that as individuals, the shinging light celebrities often don't think more about the companies they partner with but it's hardly surprising, would they legitimately be able to link up with any large company without being linked to some form of malfeasance? Perhaps Bono is one that would like to think that he does go that extra step and I leave it to you to see if that has that proved any more successful!

    And: "Then there is Dubai, the site of the first Tiger Woods-designed golf course.

    Located at the southern coast of the Persian Gulf, Dubai has been a symbol of both economic excess, and most recently, economic collapse. It has been called an 'adult Disneyland' — complete with indoor ski resorts and unspeakable human rights violations. "

    The jump from the construction of a Tiger Woods designed golf course in Dubai to all of Dubai's ills is a big one, I can imagine Tiger Woods genuinely believes he was just designing a golf course in Dubai which for all we know used labour practices that were fair and just, the article doesn't highlight otherwise.

    I think he's the wrong target for that article, who's permitting, encouraging or turning a blind eye to the "Paid foreign labourers work in more than 100°F heat for less than $3 a day. Dubai also has a reputation as ground zero of the global sex trade."? Certainly not Tiger Woods! (And no jokes about the Tiger and the sex trade..)

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    Comment number 40.

    @Nausika - I wasn't having a pop with my comment by way.....I was really reacting to the "sport and its myths" comment, because I had an idea of where that was going. It's that Chomsky "sport is about creating assimilation and irrational hatred" type nonsense. I think he regrets all that rhubarb to be fair to him.

    On Brazil 2014 - Tim Vickery (probably the 2nd best blogger on the BBC) has written some stuff about this, I highly recommend his blog. From what I've read about this there's terrible power politics in play, but that goes on in lots of aspects of life, not just sport. I bet there is a fascinating story involving the Olympics thought that could be unearthed......the points you've made so far on this are interesting.

    On Thatcher - I think she was a kind of a feminist icon only in the sense Lady Macbeth is. Women adopting the brutality of Men is a pretty perverse type of equality, although maybe saying that makes me a mysogynist, I'm not sure. I'm sure i'm not the first person to compare her to Lady Macbeth though. It might be unfair, I'm not quite sure how much she was aware of the consequence of her actions..... I suppose what's most important are the consequences themselves in the end.

    Churchill..... he's remembered for his speeches, the war.....I'm sure he had some unifying power but the electorate gave an opinion on him in '45 that's worth taking notice of. I prefer Attlee. Of course.

 

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