MATTHEW FORDE takes a look back at Most Haunted: Athelhampton Hall
Episode Title: Athelhampton Hall
Location: Dorchester, Dorset
Series: 1 Episode Number: 1
Originally broadcast: 2001
Review: I can’t lie—Most Haunted has been something of a love/hate sort of programme for me. At first, it was a thrilling dip into the macabre: it was all shiny and new, and it had the right blend of history, the paranormal and reality to tickle my frightbuds into a frenzy. The show’s opening episode featured a visit to the beautiful Athelhampton. Being a large Tudor hall this is just the kind of place you’d expect to be brimful of ghoulish goings-on and, well, it is. There are ghostly duelists and a grey lady, a spectral cooper and a hooded monk, there’s even been a phantom ape reported, and the crew were out to brave the darkness in an attempt to capture some of this on film. This was Most Haunted at its best: fun, intimate, simple, earnest. Would these essences last past the early episodes?
Sadly, after a while, like an impromptu séance from Kreed Kafer, things began to go wrong with the following episodes. Badly wrong. Some of the on-screen personalities began to seriously grate, there were rumours that the show disrespected the properties it visited, and hints of behind-the-scenes unpleasantries, with the crew being ruled by a despotic iron fist, abounded.
And then the stories of downright fakery broke in the press. Opinions in online forums had long been riddled with suspicion regarding certain presenters’ extremely high hit-rates when it came to experiencing spooky goings-on, but it still felt as though we’d all been cheated. Well, it did to me.
(Now, of course, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of showmanship, and upping the drama by messing about in post-production is a prerequisite of any slice of TV, but I’m the kind of chap that likes a bit of sincerity, and I’d choose an honest investigation where not much happened over a soundman surreptitiously throwing pebbles about the place any day.)
It’s true though that, despite all of Most Haunted’s negative aspects, the show retained an army of fans, and, faced with the criticism regarding faking stuff, the production team at Antix would insist that MH was purely entertainment—indeed this has been their go-to defence in the past; but one only has to fire up this very first episode and the very first piece-to-camera to hear the assertion: “We guarantee no tricks, […] if we find nothing then you’ll see nothing, but if we do manage to catch anything at all we will share it with you honestly.” Hmm.
In the early days at least, I genuinely think that assertion was meant well, maybe even lived by. But with a corner of the paranormal pie to protect, big money at stake and ratings to bolster it felt as though the show lost its true way. If that’s correct, how to find it again?
Well, let’s go back to that very first episode at Athelhampton. Rewatching it now, clearly, the programme hadn’t yet settled into its stride and its budget was smaller back then, but all of that just served to make it look sort of home grown and real. Not only that, but the programme took its time, it delved into the Hall’s fascinating history, we met the owners during a cosy fireside talk, we toddled along behind the absorbing tour of the house, we listened to the chats they all had. Hell, if you can gloss over Derek Acorah’s bits, the whole thing could be described as quite genuine—heartfelt, even, especially when Yvette looked nervous and the crew got jumpy—it was great to watch and it was a subtle, yet powerful way to get your audience immersed. We were all in the darkness together. This, in spite of the fact that they didn’t really catch any spooky stuff happening.
With recent news that a brand-new series of MH is airing sometime in August in the UK, I can only hope that they are a bit more honest about the whole entertainment thing this time around, that they grind the ‘cast’ back to bare metal and that they rekindle some of the early fire. Of course, they’ve made a massive amount money out of the format and they could quite happily take the cash and hold up two fingers to integrity, but if there’s anything the paranormal genre needs right now it’s a bit of cold, hard integrity—if that can only come with the loss of the fireworks then so be it.
So, will it be unintentionally funny mediums, constant questions about whether anyone else heard the non-existent knocking noises, and pantomime shenanigans from crew that think they are cast? Or will it be fascinating legends, far more locked-off cameras to really capture things, non-superficial research and some old-fashioned sincerity? We shall have to see.
MATTHEW FORDE is the author of Eerie Britain 1 and Eerie Britain 2. You can purchase them from Amazon here.
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