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Pure dead brilliant?

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Thann Lowery
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« on: September 29, 2007, 01:44:29 am »

Pure dead brilliant?
EMMA COWING

 
DEREK Acorah is standing on stage in York's Grand Opera House, asking if anyone in the audience knows a big man called George Smith. A sea of dubious faces stares back at him. No-one in this upmarket Yorkshire town appears willing to confess to such a connection. Undeterred, Acorah insists that someone does and, what's more, they're sitting in the second circle. Nobody moves. Frustrated, he leaps off the stage, disappears up the fire escape and emerges several minutes later in the second-circle aisles, muttering grumpily about people not speaking up.

Are audiences always like that I ask, when we meet for coffee the next day, a bit, well, reluctant, to have a chat with the dead? He takes a long draw on his cigarette.

"It started off a bit reserved last night," he admits. "It's live, there are no scripts to it. No matter who comes through it depends on the acceptance of the audience, and how long it's going to take. I might be describing a spirit person and I will not give up until I'm sure I've got the right person in the audience to receive the message."

Derek Acorah is the most famous medium working in Britain today. He writes books, appears on television programmes, and does live medium shows. He is partly responsible for a huge revival of interest across Britain in what he calls "the spirit world". Once a pursuit confined to rickety old ladies sitting round rickety old tables, "the spirit world" is now a multi-million pound industry, churning out a slew of TV shows including Most Haunted, Ghost Towns with Derek Acorah (more of which later), 6ixth Sense with Colin Fry and Crossing Over with John Edward.

There are magazines dedicated to the subject, and Body and Soul fairs attracting thousands held across Scotland, featuring medium sessions, past-life regressions, tarot readings and complementary therapies. Even Hollywood has paid attention, producing the highly successful TV drama series, Medium.

What sets Acorah apart from the pack is his showmanship. A no-nonsense Liverpudlian with slicked-back silver hair and a twinkle in his eye, he made his name on the Living TV series Most Haunted, in which he and former Blue Peter presenter Yvette Fielding would turn up at a creaky old castle, hotel or abandoned asylum, turn out the lights, turn on the cameras, and wait for something scary to happen.

Acorah was the show's undisputed star, his Most Haunted possessions the stuff of YouTube legend. He would routinely become "possessed" by a spirit, often an "evil" one, and start shouting while Fielding cowered in the corner. Depending on what you believed, it was either terrifying, terrifyingly bad, or just downright funny. Clive Lloyd of the Spiritualist National Union even described the programme as "sheer showmanship - an act all the way through".

Whatever viewers thought of it, Acorah's performances made Most Haunted the highest-rated TV show on Living TV, and turned him into a bona fide cult celebrity. He has now written six books, has a slot on GMTV and later this year will appear in his first (still under wraps) ITV show. He also turned down both Celebrity Big Brother and I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!

But all is not rosy in TV's world of spirit. Just over a year ago Acorah departed Most Haunted under something of a cloud. Accusations by the show's former parapsychologist, Dr Ciaran O'Keeffe, of "showmanship and dramatics" surfaced, with O'Keeffe alleging, among other things, that he had invented a spirit called Kreed Kafer - an anagram of Derek Faker - mentioning it to another member of the crew who then mentioned it to Acorah. Acorah then, it is alleged, became possessed by the character during filming.

Acorah gets pretty worked up when this topic is raised. He tells me he was categorically not sacked from the show, and had an agreement with Living TV - not Antix Productions, run by Fielding and her husband Karl Beattie, which made Most Haunted - to leave the show a year before, in order to pursue his own programme ideas, which eventually evolved into his latest vehicle, Ghost Towns with Derek Acorah. "Certain people in my opinion couldn't handle [me leaving] or didn't like the idea of it.

"Maybe they thought I was too popular, and, if I left the programme, it wouldn't be as popular. And maybe nasty words or certain things were fed to papers that were terribly wrong."

So he denies the accusations?

"Where have they all come from?" he asks me. "I would like a retraction of what was being said. It's in the hands of the lawyers now because I want a retraction. It's lies, and I want the country to see that."

Acorah's teeth are unnervingly white. They're part of his carefully constructed image, along with a single diamond earring, some smart, shiny suits, and several large bling-bling rings.

"It's inborn, not made," he says of his showmanship. "My Gran always said I'd be showmanlike."

He talks fast, words almost tripping over themselves, changing tack halfway through sentences to veer off into long stories about his family. He comes from a long line of mediums - two distant relatives practised mediumship on the Canadian Vaudeville circuit - and it was his grandmother, also a medium, who first recognised his gift.

He is a former footballer, signing for Liverpool FC at the age of 15 and playing alongside Emlyn Hughes, eventually becoming a coach in Australia. He says he repressed his mediumship skills for years in order to pursue his footballing career.

"I remember saying, 'I do not want to be a medium, I want to be a footballer.' I was afraid of it. I was afraid because I didn't know enough about it."

He says he remembers sitting on the toilet at the age of nine, and seeing spooky faces coming towards him through the paintwork, as well as meeting a strange man who turned out to be his late grandfather. He had visions while he was playing football, saw things that hadn't happened yet, and, finally, in his mid twenties, he came home from Australia and put an ad in the Liverpool Echo advertising his psychic skills. Now 57, he's never stopped working. I wonder how he deals with the sceptics he must have encountered over the years.

"Scepticism is healthy," he says. "It means the person is thinking. There's a saying that Sam gave me many years ago, 'To the believer no proof is necessary, to the non-believer no proof is possible.' It's healthy to be sceptically minded. It doesn't offend me. If a person were to come up - as they have done - and say, 'I think you're a phoney,' it doesn't hurt me. My shoulders are broad."

Ah, Sam. Acorah's spiritual guide. According to Acorah, he is an Ethiopian he last met 1,500 years ago, who helps him communicate with the spirit world.

"A lot of the time I'm seeing a spirit person as tangible as you are. They're not in their physical body anymore because they've developed what is called a spirit body. I see an outline and then, if they step forward from that outline, I start to see features. Often they're talking to Sam, and he relays it back to me."

It's no wonder some people find it all a bit difficult to swallow, and Acorah has even been accused of exploiting the bereaved. Illusionist Derren Brown once said: "If I die I'd like to haunt Derek. I hate everything he stands for." Acorah, however, is passionate that he takes his profession seriously.

"A medium should realise the responsibility of what we utter. Say, for instance, the Prime Minister stands up and gives a speech. What is the immediate effect on the person who listens to it? I guarantee you within a week or a month's time, they'll forget that speech.

"When I, or a person like me, stands up and says something so immediate and gives a message, the person listening to it will still remember it in two years or ten years." He drops his voice to a complete whisper and stares into my eyes. "That's the difference."

Okaaay. What about religion, then? Can you marry a belief in the fact that the dead communicate with the living - particularly those with their own TV shows and a nice line in shiny suits - with mainstream religion?

"I believe if you embrace all religions, you'll get a smidgin of truth in them all. If you put all that together, then I can say, 'Well, there's truth in religion.' I believe in spirit. I believe that our creator is not Catholic, not Hindu. We're all children of God."

Acorah can tell I'm still doubtful.

"Look, the reality is, my wife is there, she's reality. But spirits are as equal reality to my wife, because I converse with them every day. Different people I've never met before. It's not like I repeat seeing the same person, they're different every time, different people with different stories to tell."

He drops his voice to a whisper again. "It's real."

I look over at his wife, Gwen, smoking a cigarette and reading the paper at the next table. I wonder how she feels about being described as of "equal reality" to a load of folk she can't see. It makes me wonder why, if it is "real", we don't all have the same ability as Acorah.

"You have. You have. You have." he bellows, banging the table, his voice back to full volume.

"You have it from birth. But you've got to do something about it. Everyone has the ability. Even something as minor as déjà vu should tell you that there's something going on that you are not normally tapping into. But you have got to put the time in. For anything to develop you've got to put the time in."

As I'm leaving, I ask Acorah if he'll ever stop going out on stage. He shakes his head. "I'll be like Tommy Cooper. I'll drop. My last words will be 'that's spirit'."

Back in York, Acorah finally finds someone who knows a George Smith. He squeezes through the aisles, bends down to the woman, and whispers her a message that "isn't for everyone's ears". It makes the woman a little tearful, although in a smiley, sentimental way. He says bless, repeatedly, lightens the atmosphere with a joke, pats her on the shoulder, then trots back down to the stage, diamond earring glinting under the hot stage lights.

Is Derek Acorah a faker? I have no idea. But he's a great showman.


http://heritage.scotsman.com/myths.cfm?id=210612007
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