Something strange happened with TV in the mid-90s. Everything had to do something about the paranormal at some point since audiences were craving it thanks in no small part to the phenomenal success of The X-Files. Even the 60s nostalgia trip that was Heartbeat did an episode where one of the Yorkshire coppers got abducted by aliens! If it wasn’t aliens then it was ghosts. If it wasn’t ghosts then it was reincarnation or vampires. It felt like we couldn’t get enough of the paranormal and catching on to this in the UK was ITV’s Strange But True?
Aired between 1993 and 1997 (with the last episode actually being shown on my 13th birthday), the series was hosted by British TV legend Michael Aspel whose neutral and well spoken narration gave the stories an almost forensic atmosphere. Each episode was half an hour long and usually had two stories separated by a commercial break although some stories encompassed the whole duration of the episode. The series tackled numerous paranormal subjects such as UFOs, alien abductions, ghosts, timeslips, reincarnation, premonitions and even lucid dreaming – to name a few. From Season 3 the show took on the title of Strange But True Encounters but the format didn’t really change except for the last episode of that season which was actually a 90-minute live debate on some of the topics covered in the series up to that point.
I remember always greeting the episodes with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Bare in mind I was watching the show between the ages of 9 and 13, some of the episodes had some genuinely scary reenactments of reportedly “true” stories and I remember that on more than one occasion I was in my room glued to the TV before some noise from my sister or parent’s room made me jump a mile. Watching a lot of them again on YouTube they do seem quite tame now but the stories remain fascinating.
Before reading the list I should clear a few things up. Firstly, I am not making a case for/against the legitimacy of any of these events actually happening. This list is about a TV show and not the paranormal. Secondly, this is my list so this is just my opinion. If you have a different list or have a favourite episode of your own please feel free to put it in the comments section as I’d love to hear them.
So…Let’s delve in to the world of the weird and wonderful.
5) Season 3 Episode 1 – Venetian Palace Incident
Joan Collins and a haunted mansion in Venice where a jealous husband killed his wife and her lover after catching them in bed; how has this not been made in to a movie yet? The story goes that in 1994, Joan Collins and a few friends were invited for a 10 day stay at a palace in Vencie – the Palazzo Albrizzi – by Lady Bamford. What should have been a very upper class, pompous affair turned to horror as the guests including Collins become tormented by a see-through ghost, frightening dreams, cold spots and feelings of dread. The fact that Venice suffered one of the worst lightning storms in recent history while they were there didn’t help much. After just two days they couldn’t take anymore and left.
This episode has the benefit of actually having Joan Collins give an interview about the incident before it became fashionable (mainly on US television) for celebrities to milk that extra bit of publicity because they had “an experience”. This episode is notorious amongst fans of the show for the Black Moth which appears at the palace whenever the ghost is due to materialise in the following hours. Aside from that, this episode really feels like a Gothic horror story since it oozes atmosphere thanks to its Venice setting. I suppose on the surface this has all the traditional hallmarks of a horror story minus the body count but it is enjoyable and more memorable than most “haunted house” tales if only for the fact that it’s Star Trek – City on the edge of forever’s Joan Collins. I never watched Dynasty.
4) Season 2 Episode 2 – Haunted Trawler
A fishing trawler called the Pickering is increasingly plagued by mysterious equipment malfunctions and before long the crew realise they have an extra crewmember in the form of the dead son of one of the previous owners of the vessel. With no other option left open to him the skipper of the Pickering approaches his local priest to ask for an exorcism. The priest agrees and they take the vessel out to sea where he performs the exorcism allowing the ghostly fisherman to finally be at peace.
It’s the unique setting of this ghost story that contains its appeal. One thing nearly every haunted house story has is the option of those involved to leave but if you are on a small boat in the middle of a choppy sea with a ghost playing havoc with your equipment where could you run to? If that wasn’t enough, there’s even more at stake for these men since this is their livelihood. The episode had a few unnerving scenes including a reconstruction of one sighting of the ghost where it is seen wearing its waterproof clothes as it would in life but lacking any face.
The resolution of this story is far more positive than most with the exorcism cleansing the vessel of the spirit and the Pickering becoming a prosperous member of the local fleet. Luckily, the exorcism came without any pea soup being vomited by anyone.
3) Season 1 Episode 7 – Stocksbridge Bypass
In the late 1980s, a new bypass is under construction linking Sheffield to Manchester but workers and security guards are tormented by visions of a ghostly monk and several spectral children. Eventually, the Police become involved and two officers spend the night patrolling the area only to have their vehicle attacked by an invisible force and the ghostly monk appearing in their window. An investigation in to the local history reveals that a monk who had fallen out of favour with the church was buried in the area in an unconsecrated grave while several children died after falling down a mineshaft. Work on the road is completed and even today the A616 is known as the most haunted road in the UK.
This was one of those genuinely scary episodes and I remember watching the scene with the Police officers as a young lad and being scared out of my wits when the ghostly monk appeared at their window out of nowhere. For much of the 2000s, I worked as a security guard at numerous sites and even did a few mobile patrol jobs in a clapped-out old Astravan. Many times I found my mind calling back to this episode, it left that much of an impression on me.
2) Season 1 Episode 8 – The Rendlesham Forest Incident
In late December 1980, the military and Police begin receiving reports of a number of sightings of unexplained lights near Rendlesham Forest, Suffolk just outside RAF Woodbridge. At the time the base was a USAF installation and even housed nuclear weaponry for use if the Cold War ever went hot. When guards at the base report a series of lights in the nearby forest, the deputy base commander Lieutenant Colonel Charles I. Halt takes a team out to investigate and describes what happens in to a Dictaphone.
Whether you are interested in UFO sightings or whether its military history, chances are you have heard of this controversial incident. Also known as the Bentwaters Case, the incident has sparked a wave of emotion from UFOlogists and sceptics alike and if you Google it you will get page after page of arguments for and against.
As Strange But True? goes, this was the penultimate episode of the first season and also the first episode to feature one large story as opposed to two short ones. The fact that we had the actual audio recording made by Lt. Col. Halt at the time only added to the eeriness of the story. In the age of YouTube we are spoiled for choice when it comes to creepy recordings (usually faked) but in 1993 this was something completely new at least to me.
1) Season 2 Episode 7 – The Enfield Poltergeist
In August 1977, single parent Peggy Hodgson and her children Margaret (14), Janet (11), Johnny (10) and Billy (7) awake to a series of loud banging sounds. Peggy, believing her children were messing around, goes in to tell them off but then a heavy chest moves across the floor in front of their eyes. Panicked, they go rushing next door and call the police who arrive and witness a chair move across the floor on its own. The story makes it in to the national press and a journalist interviewing the family gets hit in the head by a lego brick. Enter Maurice Grosse, an inventor and paranormal investigator. Over the coming months, Grosse and his colleague Guy Lyon Playfair record numerous paranormal incidents and even conduct an interview with the poltergeist which speaks through Janet.
Like the Rendlesham Forest Incident, this is one of the more notorious cases that the show featured. Arguments continue to rage over whether anything paranormal actually happened or whether it was a mix of the children playing games and Grosse – unintentionally or deliberately – exaggerating the reports. I’m not going to argue for either case I’m just stating the fact that it is a controversial story.
I remember this one scaring the living daylights out of me when I was 10, so much so that when the commercial break came I ended up knocking it off and going to bed because I didn’t want to see the next part. As a result, for years and years I didn’t see the second half until the series was repeated on satellite TV. This is No.1 for me for that reason more than any other. Since that night I have been fascinated by the case and have watched plenty more documentaries about the case and read several accounts although I have not read Guy Playfair’s book This House Is Haunted. There are better documentaries out there about the case but this is the one that introduced me to it.
In recent years the case has been brought back in to the public’s focus with Sky TV airing a drama based around the case called The Enfield Haunting and a movie called The Conjuring 2 which has very little to do with what actually happened. With this year marking the 40th anniversary of the case, chances are we may see more on it soon.
So those are my five episodes. I know I have only chosen UFO and ghost stories and that the show was about a lot more than that but these are the types of story I watched the show for. These days, our TV is saturated by trashy paranormal shows but back in the 1990s Michael Aspel offered a bit of class to the genre. They are all on YouTube so if you want to watch them yourselves that’s where you can find them.
Thanks for reading.