The opening of The ParaPod: A Very British Ghost Hunt will be experienced differently depending on whether or not you are familiar with what it is based upon. It’s possible that you may be curious enough to head out and watch the first film based on a podcast – so the marketing puff claims, and I see no reason to disagree – without actually knowing what that podcast is.
This hypothetical ParaPod viewer might watch the opening credits, with its montage of spooky grainy night vision footage, titles in a bone-chilling font, and a voice-over of co-host Barry Dodds clearly experiencing genuine terror and distress, and draw certain conclusions. For example, they might conclude that this film will contain many people being terrified, a lot of spooky locations, and perhaps even involve some ghost-hunting.
Someone who is familiar with the source material may conclude differently. But let’s assume, dear reader, that you are not familiar with niche British comedy podcast The ParaPod, and put a pin in such speculation for now.
The ParaPod is, or was, hosted by comedians Ian Boldsworth and Barry Dodds. It’s a podcast about the paranormal, a topic which finds in Barry a true believer and in Ian an unyielding sceptic. So far, so ‘BBC balance’. What really makes the podcast work is that Barry brings immense enthusiasm and sincerity but is hampered by his apparent inability to do any research, think anything through, or constructing a compelling argument. In contrast, Ian has a rationalist attitude and a knack for pushing on the inconsistencies, contradictions or logical errors in someone else’s argument or statement, which his co-host delivers in spades. Since both are comedians, they’re rather funny. A lot of ParaPod episodes involve Barry poorly explaining and arguing something, after which Ian deconstructs everything he’s said, explains why it’s bullshit, and then the two shake hands and don’t agree. It’s hugely amusing and all in good fun.
In contrast, The ParaPod: A Very British Ghost Hunt is a film and not a podcast. Instead of two funnymen sitting in a studio and arguing, they head out into the field to examine some of Britain’s most haunted hotspots, or at least those that have attracted Barry’s short attention span. It can be slow at points, padded with uneventful footage. In an actually scary film this might build or sustain tension, or provide some respite after tension breaks. Here, there’s rarely much tension because the scariest thing we see is Barry being scared. He’s a believer rather than a ghost-hunting showman, and acts more like a tourist than an investigator. Ian seems aware of the problems this implies for a film, and a lot of his pranks and funnyman dickery feel intended to bring some excitement for the audience.
The duo’s travels take them all around the country, moving from set piece to set piece. We begin in Barry’s native Northumberland, and see his face as Ian surprises him with their wheels: a custom-painted ParaPod hearse. Barry’s not allowed to drive it, but he does get a toy steering wheel. All this is unfolding a few minutes after that spooky opening. Anyone who came into this film cold is probably now asking what the fuck have they got themselves in for. The duo’s dynamic is soon even more clear; their next destination is a Sceptics conference, where Ian wants Barry to demonstrate the courage of his convictions and speak onstage. To Barry’s credit he does, and his request that the audience might perhaps take ghosts a little more seriously includes a detour into Antarctica, where “there’s a bit of an iceberg’s snapped off”, beneath which there might be aliens but “it’s probably just fish”. This is classic Barry; as Ian says afterwards, he needs to stay on topic. But they both know he won’t.
From there they visit Pluckley in Kent, failing to find one location and then spending the night in some unhaunted woods. More locations follow including vaults in Edinburgh–where the “active” witches coven Barry promised turns out to be years dead–and a haunted house in Yorkshire’s Pontefract, where more believers make an experience. I was a particular fan of the confrontational head of a local paranormal society, who at one point veers off into a poor attempt to cold read Ian. “You’re not the big I Am,” she concludes. “No, it’s I-An,” he helpfully corrects.
At each location Barry typically becomes nervous and jumpy–something Ian rarely passes up a chance to exploit–and the more time he spends there the more freaked out he gets. At one point this culminates in the scene from which the opening’s audio is derived. It plays out a little differently in the proper context, though Barry is clearly not faking anything. Although he’s insistent it wasn’t a ghost Ian is sympathetic to the state his friend is in, and all trace of piss-taking and arguing is gone – for now. It’s quite a contrast from some of the pranks he pulls elsewhere, including an unforgettable sequence in Pontefract. Barry’s ghost sighting also leads to yet another off-topic detour; it has left him with a greater sense of mortality, which he processes by contemplating what the best way to blag his way into heaven is. As Ian laughs afterwards, “What am I meant to do with that?”
The film’s climax is the one moment where it really delivers a sense of something that is unsettling and wrong, where from behind the camera we don’t know what is happening and Ian isn’t breaking it all down. This gives the film a sense of climax it otherwise wouldn’t have had, and this was absolutely necessary. After all, where could a film possibly go when its entire premise is two men who will never share the same worldview, one unable to argue for his beliefs with any competence and the other unable to crack his companion’s beliefs with logic? It’s funny, but where’s the narrative arc? Well, here we have one. It’s great.
The ParaPod: A Very British Ghost Hunt is an unavoidably odd film. It’s frequently very funny, and occasionally a little boring, and it manages to take something from the podcast medium and make it work as a film. That feels like a hell of an accomplishment. I’ve watched it twice already, and I’m fairly sure I’ll watch it again. Maybe I’ll also go back and re-watch Ghostwatch. Haunting’s a funny business, aye?
(The ParaPod is currently touring cinemas across the UK, and is available via UK streaming services like Rakuten, iTunes, and some of the other ones. It’s not available in many other countries, but fortunately VPNs are.)