Derek Acorah: 'I'm accused of showmanship but I just try to be bright and positive on the stage'
He claims to have seen his first ghost aged six and refuses to be put off by cynics who have accused him of being a fake. Una Brankin talks to psychic Derek Acorah ahead of his Belfast shows next week.
In the days before my chat with Derek Acorah, I'm urged to ask him for explanations of several ghostly experiences. Not the pantomimes shown on those shows about hauntings, which are obviously for entertainment purposes only, but inexplicable, repeated apparitions witnessed by perfectly sane adults.
He willingly obliges.
So Derek, who - or what - could be the little girl in a white-collared Elizabethan dress who scares the living daylights out of two adult women in their family home in the middle of the night?
"That's a child that's passed over young; children usually visit from the spirit world with a sense of healing," he says in his soft Scouse accent. "Ask those ladies were they feeling low or out of sorts."
Well, one of them has felt a thump on the pillow beside her, I tell him, and another at her feet, when there's no one there. And, her (otherwise cynical) brother used to feel a tap on the shoulder regularly, when he lived in the same house.
"That's most likely a family member wanting to show they're still around and getting frustrated because they're not being noticed. Anything else?"
At the risk, here, of sounding barking mad, I tell him about a personal experience I simply cannot fathom. One night, I'd just got into bed and was thinking about what I had to do the next morning, when the TV in the corner switched on by itself. I sat up, wide awake, wondering if I'd left the remote on the bed, and - to my astonishment - saw the figure of a mature woman with curly hair and a Winceyette nightdress, drifting from the corner to the window by the side of the bed.
Smiling faintly, she disappeared within approximately four seconds. I sat there for an hour, trying to make sense of what I had seen, bewildered rather than scared.
"That's your guide - they do those sort of things," Derek assures. "They're always in the background, usually within four foot of you, at any given time. Sometimes a relative; sometimes not.
"You see, your guide is a spiritual energy," he explains. "A ghost is residual energy left behind the person who has passed on. It's not a spiritual energy - they're poles apart. If you're confronted with residual energy, it's often not fully shown - it will be half a body, or have no legs, or be floating. When you see a spirit, it will stand still and look straight at you. You will often hear its voice or see a mannerism that you'll recognise."
The questions remains, can Derek (65) actually communicate with these entities, or is it all for show? The controversial psychic is preparing to do a bit of haunting himself - in print. His autobiography will dredge up accusations he has faced from "jealous" critics over the years and "expose the truth" once and for all.
Top of the list is Yvette Fielding, his former co-presenter on Most Haunted, a smash hit series for the Living television channel. Fielding branded Derek a "fake", after the programme's resident parapsychologist and sceptic, Ciaran O'Keefe, planted a note before a broadcast to test his credibility. Claiming that O'Keefe left a piece of paper around with the name 'Kreed Kafer' on it and had said, within earshot of Derek, that he was a nasty South African jailer, Fielding accused Derek of deciding "to get possessed by this fake person" - the name on the note being an anagram of 'Derek Faker'.
"It doesn't matter at all what people like Yvette Fielding say," declares Derek. "I don't allow them to run me down. I've been crucified and lied about; there is a lot of jealousy out there, but I haven't opened my mouth about Yvette for years - I had a confidentiality clause and if I'd said anything negative, I'd have been sued and pursued and all my money would have been taken away.
"Those were lies to discredit me because I was leaving Most Haunted to do my own programme, Derek Acorah's Ghost Tours. But I've had enough and I'm going to speak out in my autobiography. The lawyers are going through it carefully but Yvette Fielding hasn't got a leg to stand on."
He's taking a break from writing his column for Fate and Fortune magazine to talk to me about his upcoming shows in Newtownabbey and Belfast. He has been here often, and was forced to issue a statement confirming there would be no reference whatsoever to the late George Best in his 2006 Waterfront Hall shows, after the footballer's family criticised reports alleging he would try to contact the legendary footballer from the stage.
Born Derek Francis Johnson in Bootle, Liverpool, Acorah has explained in the past that he changed his surname to the more exotic stage one after his psychic grandmother's first husband, a Dutch sailor (the existence of whom has been disputed by one of his detractors). He claims to have seen his first ghost - in 3D - at six, on the landing in his grandmother's house, but was more interested in football at the time.
After leaving school at 15, he began an apprenticeship with Liverpool Football Club under the legendary Bill Shankly. A serious knee injury in Australia put an end to his footballing career and he found himself drawn to the Spiritualist churches of his home town.
Claiming to be guided by an Ethiopian spirit guide called Sam, he went on to become of UK's best-known psychics, along with the late Colin Fry, who died in August. A close friend of the Psychic Private Eyes star, Derek was trolled on Twitter after Fry's death from lung cancer at 53.
"Hey Derek he has sent a message for you it'll cost you 30 pound to hear it (sic)," one user wrote. Another said: "Did Colin himself tell you he'd snuffed it?"
On the line from his home in Southport, which he shares with his wife Gwen, Derek shrugs off the trolls.
"That sort of thing used to be hurtful when I started, about 38 years ago, but you get a thick skin over the years. You do what you do to the best of your abilities," he says. "Colin was a very raw, lovely, honest soul. It's sad the boss didn't allow him to stay longer. I spoke to him the day before he passed. He said if he comes back it will be his idea, and it will be to continue his work as a medium.
"And I sensed him around me four days after the funeral at home but I know he's not ready for a visit yet. I know he's happy with his mum."
According to Derek, "the boss" will send souls back to earth to be reincarnated if they need to learn more for their "soul growth". He has got into trouble in the spring of 2012 after he allegedly claimed, in an article for The Sun, to have received a message from a spirit guide, stating that Madeleine McCann had died some time ago, but would soon be reincarnated. Later in May 2012, he apologised to the parents of Madeleine but denied the accusations made from The Sun's article in May 2012.
His belief in reincarnation is shared, famously, with Coronation Street actor William Roache, who has also landed in hot water over his contention that victims of sexual abuse could be paying for the sins of a past lifetime.
Derek says: "I know Bill - he's a good friend. He was misinterpreted then. Afterwards he said it would have been more acceptable coming from me, but it didn't bother him; he pushed it way.
"I knew Anne Kirkbride (Deirdre Barlow), too. I wouldn't engineer a contact with her, though, out of respect for her family."
So, what's Derek's perception of the afterlife?
"You know, a lot of people think souls are just floating about in the atmosphere but it's not like that," he says, warming to the theme.
"In heaven, you can replicate the place you were happiest on earth. I know for a fact my mum has the beautiful bungalow she always wanted, with a garden front and rear. And I know within seconds of looking into someone's eyes if they're reincarnated."
I wonder what happens if no spirits turn up to make contact with the audience in his large-scale extravaganzas.
When he's here next weekend, he'll have a large screen on stage and two live cameras "so the rest of the audience can see the ones talking to me". He will "demonstrate mediumship" for about an hour, take a break, do a second hour and finish with a 15-minute Q&A session.
Surely there's a bit of showmanship and dramatic at play?
"You get accused of showmanship but I just try to be positive and bright on stage. If you go back years to my grandmother's time, it was totally different and morbid. I've tried to change that so people are more relaxed. There's nothing morbid about it.
"And I won't wait for people to put their hands up - I'll jump off the stage and come to them if there's a message for them. I can tell a nervous person a mile off and I try my best to be gentle with the recently bereaved.
"I stay behind for ages afterwards," he adds. "Sometimes a spirit won't come through until I'm signing an autograph. There will be a queue, then - wallop. Why don't you come and see for yourself?"
I think it's an offer I can't refuse - for entertainment purposes, only.
- Derek Acorah is at the Waterside Theatre, Londonderry on Thursday, October 8, tel 028 71314000 or visit www.watersidetheatre.com, The Courtyard Theatre, Newtownabbey on Friday, October 9, tel: 028 9034 0202 or www.thecourtyardtheatre.com, and the Studio, the Waterfront Hall, Belfast on Saturday, October 10. Tickets Box Office, tel: 028 9033 4455/www.waterfront.co.uk