Based on a 1977 novel by prolific children’s author Robert Westall, The Watch House was adapted for television in 1988 by BBC North-East. The three-part series is set in “Garmouth”: a thinly-veiled pseudonym for Tynemouth, where the series was actually filmed. Children’s television drama had a penchant for going further afield than London and the Home Counties in this period—think Moondial, The Snow Spider, Century Falls, Earthfasts, Elidor and more—a trend which often yielded a potent atmosphere missing from series with more narrow horizons. The Watch House is especially successful in its evocation of the genius loci, thanks to its loving use of the ruins of Tynemouth Priory and the eponymous Watch House of the First Volunteer Life Brigade.
Like Moondial, The Watch House was originally written with a real location in mind and mercifully the BBC budget stretched to filming there. But that is not the only similarity: both dramas open with an adolescent girl being fobbed off into the care of some distant relative she has never really met and supernatural events throughout act as a counterpoint to personal trauma. Sadly, this strategy isn’t as deftly accomplished as it was in Moondial and Ann—the protagonist—is a more prickly character than Minty ever was. The ebb-and-flow of the narrative is also poorly handled; a number of emotional beats seem to happen off-screen between episodes and so each part starts at a moment of high tension which seems disconnected from the conclusion of the preceding installment. The effect is quite jarring.
The supernatural aspect of the plot concerns a haunting at the titular life-brigade watch-house which Ann must resolve before she can achieve her own emotional closure. Its motifs are far less unique than Moondial but thankfully the terror delivers: I originally watched the story aged five and it traumatised me thoroughly. The double-haunting makes a clever twist and the malevolence of one ghost is particularly well conveyed. If the jump scares seem muted today they certainly weren’t at the time. Even now the way the camera focuses on the dusty skull is particularly eerie, although the image I most vividly remember being disturbed by is the ship’s figurehead carved into a representation of a Hoplite—especially its final destruction.
Watched as an adult, it is undoubtedly the sense of place which is most vividly communicated and the watch-house itself is probably the most powerful presence in the serial; an abandoned, cobwebbed building full of strange and forgotten artifacts—it evokes a potent melancholy which is emphasised by the mournful incidental music. The conclusion ties things up rather neatly so as to provide the closure that will prevent years of nightmares; thus, the serial does not haunt us in the way we might like. However, it was not made for adults, and the fact that a number of images lingered with me over so many years is a mark of its success as children’s supernatural drama. There is always need for such entry-level supernatural drama; and whilst it may not hold up as well as Moondial for an adult audience, there remains much to enjoy for those attuned to the genius loci.
Produced by BBC1 : originally transmitted 7th – 21st December 1988