WHAT is The Battersea Poltergeist? Tonight’s show at the Grand Opera House in York – always a great haunt for ghost stories – will answer that question.
Writer, journalist and 2:22: A Ghost Story playwright Danny Robins will be leading the investigation at 7.30pm as part of a nine-date tour in Halloween season as his hit podcast comes out to play with live audiences. In tow will be his resident experts, paranormal investigators Ciaran O’Keeffe and Evelyn Hollow.
Fronting this year’s BBC docu-drama podcast on “Britain’s strangest ever haunting” case, Robins told the terrifying true story of Shirley Hitchings, the focus of frenzied poltergeist activity in and around her family home at Number 63, Wycliffe Road, Battersea, London, from 1956 onwards, starting when she was 15.
The Hitchings’ poltergeist case went on to span 12 years, making national newspaper headlines with its story of strange noises, flying objects, exorcisms and ghostly communication at the now demolished house. An attempt was even made to contact the poltergeist on live prime-time TV on the BBC and it was discussed by the Home Secretary in the House of Commons.
“It’s a great story, a story that when I came across it, straightaway I knew it was special, and the real thrill is that it’s an ordinary family going through such an extraordinary experience,” says Danny.
The Battersea Poltergeist series duly became Apple’s number one drama podcast worldwide, as what began as an eight-part BBC Radio 4 series, featuring Toby Jones and Dafne Keen, turned into a genre-busting podcast phenomenon by notching up nearly three million streams and downloads.
After a bidding war, Hollywood horror specialists Blumhouse – makers of Insidious, Get Out and Paranormal Activity – have snapped up the rights for a TV adaptation, now actively in development with Robins as an executive producer.
“The podcast just caught a moment,” he says. “It’s about this family trapped in their house, and people connected with that, at a point when we were all becoming very claustrophobic in our houses.
“We’re living in these crazy, chaotic and, sadly, death-filled times, and I think we want ghost stories. We’re looking for answers. We’re hitting on those moments like you saw after the First World War, after the Second World War, these kinds of uncertain times, when people become interested in the paranormal. I think we’re seeing a very definite boom in interest in the paranormal and ghost stories.”
To some degree, says Danny, The Battersea Poltergeist – Live will be “like the podcast come to life” as it delves even deeper into the paranormal cold case of the poltergeist the Hitchings family nicknamed “Donald”.
“It’ll be me and the experts, Ciaran and Evelyn. Shirley will play a part in it too, either by video, as will be the case in York, or, fingers crossed, she’ll be there in the flesh for the London date, but she has diabetes now, so she has to be careful, especially with the Covid situation,” he reveals. “She’s elderly and we can’t take her around the whole country with us, but we’re really excited about her playing a role in each show.
“The show will be us talking about the case, but we’ll also have this amazing visual element. We’ll be able to use the big screen on stage to show a whole load of the evidence we have, photographs, newspaper cuttings and video of witnesses.”
The Battersea Poltergeist is an ongoing story. “We’re still getting chilling new evidence coming in,” says Danny. “I’ve got this incredible new pair of witnesses who have terrifying new stories and insights only just discovered. We’re going to share those stories for the first time on stage; totally new information that we’ve not been able to reveal in the podcast. Could they hold the final clues to solving this supernatural mystery?
“With my theatrical head on, I want it to be a fun, spooky night out, particularly as these tour shows are falling around Halloween. It’ll be the full bells and whistles, the Woman In Black–style moments of darkness and screams and poltergeist sounds – and that makes it a delicious live experience on stage, where we can show things in a way we couldn’t in the podcast.”
Whether placing themselves in #Team Sceptic or #TeamBeliever, tonight’s audience members are invited to play their part as supernatural sleuths for the night, with the opportunity to put questions to Danny and the experts about the case in a question-and-answer session. “With the audience as our co-investigators, we can be Sherlock Holmes to their Dr Watson,” he says.
Is it necessary to have heard the podcast before coming tonight, Danny? “Absolutely not! Our starting point, whether you have heard about The Battersea Poltergeist or not, is to approach it with an open mind. Let’s explore together. Fundamentally, it’s a fun, if scary night, and there’s something special about sitting in a darkened theatre with a shiver going down your back,” he says.
“I feel this story is a mystery that keeps on giving. I’ve been examining the case for two years and I’m still learning more – as will the York audience!”
The Battersea Poltergeist radio series takes the form of a documentary drama. “One of the influences was Ghost In The Water, a 1982 BBC drama that purported to be a documentary, and our story was almost the opposite in that it’s a documentary that people thought must be a drama because it’s such an extraordinary story,” says Danny.
“There’s something really exciting about being on a ghost hunt, and on stage the haunting will unfold as I tell the story throughout the evening, with the opportunity to ask questions. Each night, I’m totally prepared that someone might have a brilliant brainwave that could solve the mystery!
“For anyone who is sceptical or thinks they’re not really interested, all I would say is we have stories from people who were living in the street at the same time.”
Where does Danny stand on sceptics? “The interesting thing with the podcast is that listeners were pretty much divided between sceptics and believers, and so it’s almost like an Agatha Christie locked-room drama,” he says.
“If you’re a believer or a sceptic, either way you think, ‘how can this case go on for 12 years; how did it go on for so long?’, as we look at the psychological side of it and at the impact of the elements in the story. People just love trying to solve a mystery.”
Analysing why the British are so drawn to ghost stories, Danny suggests: “It’s because we’re deeply frightened of death, and for us ghost stories are both a comfort and cause of anxiety, whereas other societies are better at processing death.
“The less that organised religion is part of our lives in Britain, the more that ghosts are part of our psyche, leading to a boom in intertest in ghost stories in drama, on screen and in books, and also a worrying rise in exorcism in Christian culture. There’s also a threat to our lives in the Covid climate, where we’re having to confront our mortality in ways we haven’t for decades.”
Should you be wondering what Shirley Hitchings will be contributing on video tonight, Danny says: “We filmed her on October 18, when I asked her series of questions culled from what people asked on social media. Hopefully, we may have Shirley on the phone too.”
2021 has been a remarkable year for Danny Robins, bringing not only the success of The Battersea Poltergeist podcast, but the August 3 to October 16 hit run of 2:22: A Ghost Story at the Noel Coward Theatre, London.
“I’d already started writing it quite a while before I began working on the Shirley Hitchings story,” he says. “It was a process that took about five years, and I’ve been obsessed with ghosts for all of my life.
“When I researched 2:22, I put out a question, asking if anyone had seen a ghost, and so many stories came in that I thought, ‘these stories should be told’, so that led to the Haunted podcast series, and then I was told this amazing story of The Battersea Poltergeist.”
Meanwhile, the writing of 2:22: A Ghost Story reached the finishing line, and a cast was sought by director Matthew Dunster. Step forward pop star Lily Allen for her West End debut in Robins’ contemporary haunted-house thriller.
“Landing Lily for the role of Jenny was amazing,” says Danny. “Out director just had an instinct that Lily would be good, and our casting director was working with Lily’s mum [theatre producer Alison Owen].
“We managed to get a script to Lily, who happened to be at that stage of thinking, ‘what should I do next?’, and she turned out to be a wonderful actress.”
The Battersea Poltergeist – Live, Grand Opera House, York, tonight (2/11/2021), 7.30pm. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or at atgtickets.com/york. For a trailer, head to: youtu.be/jVi15MTkjeE
Danny Robins: Writer, journalist, creator of The Battersea Poltergeist podcast and playwright, whose 2021 debut West End play, 2:22: A Ghost Story, starred Lily Allen.
Co-created BBC Radio 4 sitcom Rudy’s Rare Records with Sir Lenny Henry, writing four series and adapting it into his first stage play, Rudy’s Rare Records, co-commissioned by Birmingham Rep and Hackney Empire, again starring Henry.
As a comedy writer, he created BBC series Young Dracula and We Are History and The Cold Swedish Winter for BBC Radio 4. His Haunted podcasts for Panoply explored real-life ghost stories; his new podcast series for BBC Sounds, Uncanny, launched on October 20, featuring real-life stories of ghost and UFO encounters.
Evelyn Hollow: Scottish writer and paranormal psychologist for TV shows and podcasts, who holds a Master of Research degree in Paranormal Psychology. Trained as a travel writer by Lonely Planet, she was a resident author at Esoterica Zine and occult columnist for Corvid Culture and has taught writing classes at everywhere from universities to arts festivals.
A former psychology lecturer, she now gives guest lectures on paranormal history and the quantum physics of anomalous phenomena.
Ciaran O’Keeffe: Applied psychology professor, who provides a sceptical voice to various paranormal TV and radio shows, such as Most Haunted, Ghost Adventurers, Celebrity Ghost Hunt Live, The Battersea Poltergeist and Haunted.
Associate head of school of human & social sciences at Buckinghamshire New University, responsible for programming several crime degrees: BSc (Hons) in criminological psychology, BSc (Hons) in psychology & criminology and MSc in applied forensic psychology.
Areas of expertise are parapsychology and investigative psychology, leading to involvement in many unusual projects: physiological effects of infrasound at the Royal Festival Hall; ghost investigation of Hampton Court Palace; exorcism training day; hostage negotiation simulations; lie detecting for the film Spy Game.
Working with Global Ghost Gang of researchers on the book Ghosted! Exploring The Haunting Reality Of Paranormal Encounters for publication in early 2022.
Definition of Poltergeist
An indestructible ghost or spirit of chaos, responsible for physical disturbances, such as loud noises and objects being moved.