Remembering Ghostwatch

On this date, twenty-seven years ago, children across the UK were scarred for life.

It was on Halloween night that the BBC aired a live call-in discussion show called Ghostwatch.  Recognizable BBC reporters like Craig Charles and Sarah Greene were seen investigating a reputedly haunted house and playing Halloween pranks on each other.  In the studio, host Michael Parkinson interviewed an expert on the paranormal and invited viewers to call in tell their own stories of the supernatural.  Many people called throughout the show, telling stories about how they had been haunted by a malevolent spirit called Pipes.  Even as Parkinson laughed off the stories, strange things started to happen in the house and the studio.  A mirror fell off the wall and landed on a member of the crew.  The calls into the show started to get increasingly desperate as the callers said that they were being attacked by Pipes at that very moment!  The show’s paranormal expert said that the show was acting as a “national seance” and soon poltergeists would be attacking ever home in the UK!  Suddenly, viewers saw something inside the haunted house grab Sarah Greene and drag her off camera!  Inside the studio, the lights exploded and everyone fled, except for Michael Parkinson.  After saying he wasn’t sure if anyone was still out there who could hear him, Parkinson suddenly started to recite a nonsense rhyme.  But his voice was different and viewers realized that Parkinson had been possessed by Pipes!  “Fee fi fo fum!” Parkinson threateningly intoned before the picture finally went dead.

Ghostwatch, of course, was an enormous prank.  Though it was presented as being a live broadcast, the whole thing had actually been filmed a few weeks before.  Even though Michael Parkinson gave out the BBC’s actual number when he asked viewers to call in with their ghost stories, viewers who called during the airing of Ghostwatch heard a message telling them that the show was fictional.  (Unfortunately, so many people tried to call during the show that most callers got a busy signal instead.)  Michael Parkinson, Craig Charles, and Sarah Greene were all recognizable, real-life BBC news personalities but none of them were actually attacked by ghosts or possessed on Halloween night.

Just try telling that to the children who watched Ghostwatch.  Some were reportedly so traumatized by the show that they were still having nightmares weeks after it aired.  Despite the fact that Ghostwatch had aired as a part of Screen One, many were convinced that they had just seen Sarah Greene killed by a ghost and Michael Parkinson possessed by Pipes.  Even though Sarah Greene made an appearance on Children’s BBC to assure young viewers that she had not been killed (despite that ghost dragging her under the cupboard while the entire nation watched), many were not convinced.  What if Sarah Green had become possessed just like Michael Parkinson?

Always eager for a chance to condemn the BBC, the British press had a field day condemning Ghostwatch.  The BBC responded by placing a 10-year ban on the show.  Ghostwatch would not be released on video until 2002 and it has never again aired on the BBC.  You can watch it on Shudder, though … if you dare!

The UK Is Having A General Election

I guess Boris is going to get what he wants.  The General Election has been called for December 12th.

I will actually be in the UK that week, on a brief holiday.   I was looking forward to going, if just for a week, so I could escape from all of the election talk in the U.S.

Assuming that Corbyn doesn’t move into No. 1o, Lisa and I will be back in the UK next February.  Hopefully, Brexit will have finally been settled by then.

The Kid Stayed In The Picture: Robert Evans, R.I.P.

Robert Evans was a true Hollywood character and I think that, if he hadn’t existed, someone would have had to have created him.  He went from selling clothes to starring in B-movies to producing blockbusters.  He made and lost and remade a fortune while marrying one of the most beautiful women in the world, Ali MacGraw.  Among his friends were Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Henry Kissinger, and Robert Towne.  Among his enemies was occasionally Francis Ford Coppola, who never would have directed The Godfather if not for Evans’s insistence that he be given the job.  Dustin Hoffman was nominated for an Oscar for playing Evans in Wag The Dog.  In Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind, Geoffrey Land played “Max David,” a studio executive who was obviously meant to be Evans.

Bob Evans’s lows were almost as intense as his highs.  Forced out of his position at Paramount, Evans went independent and produced Chinatown.  Evans married Ali MacGraw, just to lose her to Steve McQueen.  He was arrested for cocaine possession and then went on to produce one of the great pop cultural moments of the 80s, the anti-drug tv special, Get High On Yourself.  He lost a fortune on The Cotton Club but made a comeback in the 90s.

In 1994, He also wrote on the greatest Hollywood memoirs of all time, The Kid Stays In The Picture.  Written in Evans’s trademark mix of cynicism and sentiment, The Kid Stays In The Picture tells a warts-and-all story of fast times and big talent in Hollywood.  With both the book and a subsequent documentary of the same name, Robert Evans let the world know who he was and that he wasn’t going to apologize for a damn thing.

Robert Evans died on Saturday, in Beverly Hills.  He was 89 years old and with his passing, an amazing story of Hollywood comes to a close.

Rest in Peace, Bob Evans.

Tim Ryan’s Out

As of today, Tim Ryan is no longer running for president.  The Ohio Democrat has ended his campaign and is instead running for reelection to the House.  For the Democrats, that’s one down and 18 left to go.

(Just last night, I was thinking that it had been a while since anyone dropped out of the 2020 presidential election.)

I can’t say that I’m shocked to see Tim Ryan go.  Most people responded to him dropping out by expressing shock that he was even in the race.  Ryan tried to run as Joe Biden without all of the Bidenisms but, as a member of the House, Ryan never had the name recognition necessary to compete in a crowded primary field.

In a general election, Tim Ryan probably would have been a stronger candidate than either Warren, Sanders, or Biden.  He has Biden’s working class appeal without being demonstrably senile.  Of course, with Trump’s current approval numbers, it’s possible that the Democrats could nominate anyone and win.  That’s why it’s all the more the shame that competent contenders, like Tim Ryan, are struggling to gain a foothold in this year’s Democratic primary.

Over the past few days, there have been rumors of Michael Bloomberg, Eric Holder, Sherrod Brown, and even Hillary Clinton jumping into the race.  I doubt it will happen, though you know Hillary has to be fantasizing about a deadlocked convention turning to her.  For now, it seems like Elizabeth Warren is the front runner but I’m not as sold on the strength of her campaign as some members of the media.  As for Biden, he seems to be in a fog most of the time.  Buttigieg is the one who I’m expecting to prove himself to be stronger than anyone realizes.  If he can beat Warren in Iowa, the whole game changes.

Thoughts After Replaying L.A. Noire

I recently replayed L.A. Noire, a game that I enjoyed when it was first released in 2011.  I was curious to see if, after eight years, it still held up.  The first time I played L.A. Noire, it was on the Xbox 360.  For the replay, I used the version that was released for the PS4.  This version included extra rewards and cases that were not originally included in the game.

L.A. Noire takes place in Los Angeles in the years immediately following World War II.  For the majority of the game, you control the actions of Cole Phelps, a decorated USMC veteran who works his way up through the LAPD.  He starts as a uniformed policeman before being promoted to detective.  The game follows him through three different department until, as a result of a personal scandal, he ends up being demoted down to arson.  Along the way, Phelps learns the truth about the Black Dahlia murderer and gets involved in the deadly aftereffects of a morphine heist.  Through a series of flashbacks, we also discover that Phelps may not be the war hero that everyone thinks that he is.  Cole’s an interesting hero because he’s so openly ambitious and judgmental that he is sometimes easy to dislike.  Nearly everyone who works with Cole in the game either beings their partnership disliking him or grows to dislike him over time.  Cole can be abrasive but he also has a strong moral sense and, when he says that he’s a better detective than his partners, he has a point.  From the start, the games teases us about Cole’s inevitable downfall but, when it actually does happen, it catches both Cole and the player by surprise.

L.A. Noire is an open world game, meaning that Phelps can temporarily abandon a case and spend some time walking and driving around Los Angeles.  The game’s recreation of 1947 Hollywood is impressive but, when compared to other open world games, there’s not much to do when you’re not actually on a mission.  This isn’t like Grand Theft Auto, where you can spends weeks mugging people and stealing cars until deciding to return a phone call so that you can get your next task.  L.A. Noire is a story-centered game so be prepared to spend most of your time searching crime scenes for clues, going back to the police station to pick up lab reports, and interrogating suspects.

When L.A. Noire first came out, it was the interrogation scenes that received the most attention.  The game used MotionScan technology and 32 cameras to capture every possible facial expression of the actors appearing in the game.  When you ask someone a question, you can watch their expressions while they answer and make the determination whether they’re lying or telling the truth, as well as whether to be a good cop or a bad cop.  You can watch an liar refuses to make eye contact with you or as an innocent man sweats out an aggressive questioning.  It puts you right in the world of the game, though I was disappointed to discover that wrongly accusing someone of lying doesn’t actually have much of an effect on how each case ends.

The main flaw with L.A. Noire‘s stoy is that, during the final fourth of the game, a new character is introduced.  Jack Kelso served with Cole in the Marines and knows the truth about Cole’s wartime “heroism.”  For the final few cases, Jack replaces Cole as the playable character and Cole is reduced to supporting him.  Because Jack is written to be perfect and basically has none of Cole’s flaws, he’s also not a very interesting protagonist.  Switching from playing Cole to Kelso bothered me the first time that I played L.A. Noire and it bothered me even more when I replayed it.  A final cut scene, which revealed that Kelso knew more than he originally let on, did not help.

Fortunately, the rest of the game still held up very well.  The cases are all challenging without being impossible to solve and the game does a great job of recreating the atmosphere of classic California noirs like Chinatown and L.A. Confidential.  Cole, his partners, and all of the suspects are vividly written and voiced characters and the cases that Cole works for Homicide are just creepy enough to make this game appropriate for October playing.  Be careful chasing the Black Dahlia killer into the catacombs.  I didn’t bother to pay attention to where I was going and I spent an hour running around in circles before I finally found him and promptly got gunned down.

There are puzzles to be solved and suspects to be pursued.  This game may mostly be about interrogating people and analyzing clues but it does have its share of car chases.  Fortunately, if you fail to complete an action scene too many times in a row, the game will give you the option of just skipping it.  When you’re working with a partner and heading to a crime scene, that game also give you the option of telling your partner to drive to the location.  That’s something I, being among the directionally challenged, appreciated.

However, if you do enjoy driving through a video game, L.A. Noire‘s recreation of Los Angeles in the 40s has much to recommend it.  Driving through the game’s version of Los Angeles, you’ll find plenty of evidence of America’s post-World War II optimism.  New houses are being constructed.  Innocent young women are hanging out on every street corner, looking to become a star.  The theater marquees advertise movies like Odd Man Out.   All of the famous Hollywood landmarks are lovingly recreated.  An early case leads to you searching for clues behind the Hollywood sign.  Another case actually leads to a firefight at the old Intolerance set while yet another case tests how much attention you’ve been paying by requiring you to solve a series of riddles that will lead you from one landmark to another.  In the tradition of Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy, L.A. Noire challenges you to take a look at what’s happening underneath Los Angeles’s pleasing surface.

As a game, L.A. Noire holds up well.  I won’t hold my breath for that sequel that was promised seven years ago but I did enjoy replaying it.

Great Moments In Television History: The Planet of the Apes Television Series

On September 13th, 1974, audiences that tuned into CBS saw the premiere of a new TV show with a familiar premise.

The episode opened with a spaceship crashing on an Earth-like planet.  One of the astronauts was killed.  Two of the astronauts — Alan Virdon (Ron Harper) and Peter Burke (James Naughton) — survived.  Virdon and Burke discovered that the planet was inhabited by humans who, despite it being the year 3085, were living in medieval villages.  The humans were kept in a state of serfdom by the Apes who ruled the planet.  The Apes spoke English and had formed their own society of militaristic gorillas and scientific-minded chimpanzees.  Looking through an old book, Virdon and Burke discovered that they had crash landed on Earth, far in the future!

You know the drill.  Planet of the Apes was based on the famous series of films, with the first pilot episode featuring Virdon and Burke discovering in less than an hour what took Charlton Heston a journey into the forbidden zone to figure out.  Because the humans had “blown it up,” the Earth was now ruled by Apes!

As fugitives from ape justice, Virdon and Burke spent the next fourteen episodes being pursued by the fanatical General Urko (Mark Lenard), who was determined to capture the two astronauts before they revealed that Apes had not always been the planet’s masters.  Traveling with Virdon and Burke was a sympathetic chimpanzee named Galen (Roddy McDowall).  Usually just one step ahead of Urko, Virdon, Burke, and Galen traveled from village to village, seeking a way to fix their spaceship so that they could escape the Planet of the Apes.

Planet of the Apes got off to a strong start with an exciting and concise first episode but the series quickly ran out of gas.  Because Virdon, Burke, and Galen had to flee to a new village at the end of every episode, the show was never able to devote much time to exploring the most intriguing thing about the original Planet of the Apes films, the culture of a world where humans were subservient to apes.  Because Virdon and Burke were largely interchangeable with little in the way of backstory or personality, the show very quickly ran out of a stories to tell.  It didn’t take long for Planet of the Apes to start repeating itself with multiple episodes in which Virdon or Burke got involved in local village drama before Urko showed up and forced them to flee again.

There were some good moments, though.  Probably the highlight of the series was the third episode of the series, The Trap.  In this episode, Virdon, Burke, Galen, and Urko all reach the ruins of San Francisco at the same time.  After an earthquake buries Burke and Urko in a subway tunnel, the two of them are forced to work together to survive.  Burke and Urko make an unexpectedly good team and Urko seems like he’s on the verge of a change of heart when he spots an old poster for the San Francisco zoo, one that features a caged gorilla being gawked at by humans.  Urko’s angry reaction to seeing the poster is well-acted by Mark Lenard and, for a few minutes, his obsession with capturing Virdon and Burke can be understood.  It wouldn’t last but, in that moment, Urko went from being just another villain to being a complex character with his own clearly defined motivations.

The show also benefited from Roddy McDowall, who, by this point, was an expert at acting while wearing chimpanzee makeup.  McDowall brought heart and humor to the role of Galen, even if he was too often treated like a servant by Burke and Virdon.  Whenever the two humans were scared to go out in public, they sent Galen off to gather information.  Galen did a good job but he still deserved better.

Finally, Planet of the Apes had one of the coolest opening title sequences of all time!  Take a look:

Though cancelled after only 14 episodes, Planet of the Apes The Television Series lives on.  Episodes can currently be seen on MeTV.