Writer-director Dominic O’Neill’s Haunted Ulster Live is an extended homage to Ghostwatch – which cannily evokes its model in the first half, before heading off in other directions. It presents apparently the raw footage of a 1998 Halloween broadcast on Northern Ireland TV as veteran presenter Gerry Byrne (Mark Claney) and aspirant Michelle Kelly (Aimee Richardson) host an investigation of a house where a family have been pestered by a phantom who leaves sinister footprints (the local legend of Black Foot Jack). The TV crew extends to DJ Declan (Dan Leith), who is hosting another live show from the supposedly extra-haunted attic, and medium Sinead (Antoinette Morelli) and ley lines obsessve Robert (David Fleming), who provide infodumps about the site and have ideas about coping with the ghost phenomena which home-owner Sarah (Siobhan Kelly) and imperilled child Rose (Libby McBride) are pressured into going along with. Of course, it all goes wrong very quickly – with the show proving so disturbing it gets pulled off the air in favour of ‘a Heartbeat repeat’ then put back on again because the ratings are strong.
Ghostwatch purported to be a BBC show and used real presenters, but this has a few freedoms not available to that – the fictional NITV cuts to commercials, leaving the crew and interested parties spaces in which to be indiscreet, while there’s a strong thread about the respective career positions of the presenters, who are bullied by a massively insensitive (and English) producer. The 1990s Ulster setting means evoking the Troubles, with a credibly sinister rat-out-your-terrorist-uncle public service advert, and an unhelpful hellfire preacher showing up to condemn the whole enterprise. An evocation of what TV used to look like, it also weaves in threads about the way the media were going – with some very tiny flash-forwards to suggest the aftermath of the events and also set up a couple of clever reversals. It has a Nigel Kneale-like attitude to what ghosts might actually be, though it takes the trouble to build an air of menace in the house – where, from the first, we get a sense that putting this psychodrama on television to share with the viewers at home is a very bad idea.