Tess (Judith Allchurch) and David (Ian Stevens) are set a school project which involves researching the history of Abigail Parkes. Abigail died in the mid nineteenth century, aged just eighteen, and her gravestone (inscribed “Innocent Of All Harm”) intrigues the pair of them. Tess’ interest in Abigail deepens as the story wears on – especially since Abigail seems to be calling from the grave for redemption ….
Broadcast on the 31st of December 1982, this works almost as a junior Ghost Story For Christmas (a popular BBC strand of ghostly tales which had run during the seventies). Not that Ghost in the Water is at all juvenile in tone – it may have been broadcast at twenty to five, but it could have easily have run in peak time.
Shot on 16mm film, it’s moodily directed by Renny Rye. Rye had cut his directing teeth on Rentaghost a few years earlier and would go on to helm The Box of Delights in 1984. It’s easy to see why film was chosen – as it offers a range of visual options (such as rapid intercutting) that wouldn’t have been so effective on videotape.
With a running time of only fifty minutes, Ghost on the Water has to hit the ground running, which explains why the opening scene (Tess and David lurking about the graveyard looking for Abigail’s tombstone) is intercut with flashbacks of the classroom discussion which sparked their investigation. Quite why Tess and David have to visit the graveyard late at night (and when it’s raining) isn’t made clear, but it helps to make the scene much more atmospheric ….
A clever cut occurs after this scene, as we move to a spooky sepia shot of a horse and carriage careering down the path of a graveyard. It seems so in tone with the atmosphere already established that it comes as a shock to realise that Tess is now at home and watching an old horror movie on television! This movie might explain the strange dream she later had, but when the flashbacks become more and more regular (she seems to be present at the point when Abigail’s coffin is being laid to rest, for example) it’s plain that something very strange is occurring.
Although the cast was bolstered by some familiar senior actors (Paul Copley, Jane Freeman, Hilary Mason, Ysanne Churchman) the two main roles – Tess and David – were taken by novices. This presumably was an intentional move – it certainly helps to position them as real people (both Allchurch and Stevens are more naturalistic and unpolished than experienced stage-school trained actors would have been). Neither seem to have pursued acting careers afterwards, which makes their performances here especially interesting.
Allchurch has to carry most of the narrative. Her lack of acting experience is never a factor though, as – helped by Rye’s skilful shot choices – she’s allowed plenty of memorable moments. A few are a little eye opening though, considering this was broadcast so early in the day. The scene where Tess – lying in the bath – decides to re-enact the moment when Abigail drowned (by slowly submerging herself in her bathwater) is a disturbing one. And the follow-on to this scene – we see a back-view of a naked Tess standing up in the bath (albeit framed in such a way that her modesty is preserved) – isn’t one you’d imagine would be repeated today.
Although as touched upon, Tess and David are placed front and centre, there are good performances all the way down the cast list. Lynda Higginson (who like the principals was a novice actor) catches the eye as Tracy, a classmate of both Tess and David. She delights in teasing them about the considerable amount of time they’re spending in each other’s company.
Simply’s release looks to be a straight transfer of the 16mm master. There’s the usual intermittent signs of damage and dirt which you’d expect with material of this vintage, but overall it’s a pleasing viewing experience (the colours are quite bright and vibrant). With a running time of only fifty minutes, a little extra value is provided by a brief Blue Peter clip (a shame that it only runs for three minutes though).
Ghost in the Water may be short, but it’s always nice to see one-off plays like this exhumed from the archives. An intriguing mystery which drips with atmosphere, it’s plain to see why it made a lasting impression on so many at the time.
Ghost in the Water is released today with an RRP of £14.99 and can be ordered directly from Simply here.