Next week, spooky comedy show Live Ghost Hunt comes to Waterloo East Theatre bringing chills of a non-temperature related variety. For two nights only, a parapsychologist, a psychic medium and their grumpy goth assistant investigating the venue's murky past using their ghostbusting skills and specialist equipment (no proton packs, alas, but we are promised a Ouija board).
They sold out their Edinburgh Fringe show last year and followed it up at Halloween with an online-only experiment combining a live webcast with updates on Twitter and Soundcloud.
We caught up with co-star and co-writer Danny Robins: he is well-known to radio-heads who may have heard his work on The Museum of Everything, Rudy's Rare Records or Lauren Laverne's 6 Music show as her "Travel Guru".
Do you believe in ghosts? If you did meet a ghost, what would you say to them?
I am a coward in most things. I’ll say I’m an agnostic rather than an atheist for fear that there is always the possibility I might be hit by a revenge bolt of lightning if God does actually exist, and I’ll say I’m open-minded on ghosts, just in case any of them are reading this and decide to spook the bejaysus out of me in retaliation for my lack of belief. It would be terrible to have the balance of my mind irrevocably destroyed as the result of a casual comment in an interview. You see, these are the sort of daily dilemmas I have to live with…
As for what I’d say to a ghost, I’d be pretty keen to ask why they can’t be a bit more specific when they are communicating with psychic mediums. Do they really have to pass on messages that are for a man whose name begins with B and it could be about something to do with a family heirloom? Couldn’t they just say, “Message for Bill – the cash is in the urn with granny’s ashes” ? It makes the poor psychics look like they are making it all up.
Like a latterday Houdini, you went around debunking fake psychics for BBC3's The Bullshit Detective. Despite your scepticism, have you ever been spooked out in London? What's been your scariest experience here?
Scariest experience for real? An attempted mugging in Camden. They didn’t get anything but they did punch me in the head which wasn’t nice.
On a more pleasurably spooky note, wandering around the Midland Grand Hotel in St Pancras when it was empty and long before it was re-developed was quite creepily atmospheric – I felt like there might be a few spirits there (including perhaps the Spice Girls, who filmed the video for Wannabe there). I’ve done the Jack the Ripper walks in the East End but they’re not so much spooky as seedy. I do find it odd that people make a living out of regaling salacious details of really nasty murders to groups of tourists. You do have moments on the tour where you think if he was just saying ‘Fred West’ instead of Jack the Ripper I don’t think anyone would be thinking “ooh how exciting and romantic.”
I think London does have great spooky potential and not just the historical bits where you would expect there to be ghost stories. One of the business districts, like Canary Wharf or the City on a weekend night, when it’s completely deserted can feel like you’ve walked onto the set of 28 Days Later.
I can guarantee if you come to see Live Ghost Hunt that you will experience your most scary moment in London (but in a nice amusing pleasurable way – don’t worry there is no need to bring change of underwear).
There have been hundreds of ghost sightings around town including the famous. Can they all be fake or imagined or is there room for genuinely unexplainable phenomena?
The Enfield Poltergeist is a really interesting case. It’s one that never really did get solved in a way that totally satisfactorily answered the scientific questions. It was a real life version of The Exorcist, with furniture flying across the room, levitations and a little girl speaking with an old man’s voice, swearing at psychic investigators. Two of the investigators – colourful characters called Maurice Grosse and Guy Lyon Playfair have definitely inspired us for Live Ghost Hunt’s paranormal investigator and psychic medium characters. The case also inspired Ghostwatch – a brilliant BBC fake documentary set in a haunted North London house that aired in 1993. Some many people believed it was real that it created mass panic with people jamming the BBC switchboard. The reaction was so profound it has never been repeated, though you can now get it on DVD.
As to whether all the many ghost sightings here in London each year are real or fake, I think most of it is just the imagination of people who want to believe for one reason or another but for the small percentage of things that seem genuinely unexplainable, I would say it’s possible that things that we can’t explain right now will be explained one day soon, just as electricity was once seen as witchcraft. So something that might seem ghostly now will be proven to have a very scientific and un-supernatural reason in the near future.
As DJ Danny, you've brought chuckles and choons to Edinburgh and the Camden Fringe. Where's your favourite place in London for music appreciation? Are there musicians we should be watching out for?
I think it’s hard to look beyond Koko, a lovely atmospheric venue where it’s hard to have a bad view. Brixton Academy I like too. I used to love the Astoria until it was sadly knocked down.
A friend of mine runs Café Oto in Dalston which is always being talked up in the press as the coolest venue in London if not the world! They put on some really interesting concerts. Well worth checking out if you haven’t been down there yet.
As for musicians, look out for gigs by The Princes in the Tower – a South London based trio who grew out of Circulus – the country’s premier and indeed only psychedelic medieval folk rock band. They use medieval wind instruments and lutes and they rock, trust me. I saw them at a great bonfire night gig at the Master Shipwright’s Palace in Deptford, once.
You grew up in Newcastle. What were your earliest impressions of London? What has been the biggest change since then?
I always found London an incredibly exciting place – that buzz that comes from feeling you are at the centre of everything.
My first experiences of coming and staying in London were all a bit unreal as they involved staying at the house of the parents of a university friend who just happened to be very wealthy. They lived in a three storey house just off the King’s Road, so when I finally moved to London myself, it was a bit of a come down to realise I couldn’t live in the lap of luxury like that.
Pretty soon I grew a real fondness for the Camden area and I’ve lived there for most of my time in London. I love coming out of the station to be greeted by men shouting “Puff” and “weed” – it reminds me of PE lessons at school. I’m in Kentish Town now, which I like to think of as more Camden than Camden now – the area around the market has become a tacky tourist village, not unlike Leicester Square. It’s sad to see the way the developers who run the market have been allowed to force out the businesses that made the area what it was and replace them with cheapy tacky alternatives.
The thing I’ve always liked most about London though is that anyone can become a Londoner, you just have to get to know London – the quickest way to get somewhere for instance, or the best pub in an area. Italians, Jamaicans, boys from Newcastle – we can all become Londoners. It’s a very welcoming and inclusive city.
You've been to some fairly interesting places, not least South Korea, Utah and the Arctic Circle and some people may have heard you on 6Music as the station's "Travel Guru". How is London perceived outside the UK?
I think it excites people. My wife left Sweden to come to London because it was like a beacon of cosmopolitan big city excitement. I think London is full of people like that, who were drawn to it because it allowed them to do what they wanted to do and be who they wanted to be.
Will you be going to the Olympics? If so, which events have caught your eye?
Yeah, I’ve got tickets for indoor volleyball and women’s football. Not the most high-profile events I know, but I’m a bit of a volleyball nut. I play every week. A friend of mine’s got me a ticket for the beach volleyball too which I just know is going to be full of pervy men in raincoats. It’s the only Olympic event that you have to delete your Internet history for after looking at it…
As your wife is Swedish, could you recommend any authentic Swedish restaurants around town?
No, is the short answer. There are Swedish places in town but I have always found them a bit over-priced and the food not that great. I think London is really crying out for a good Swedish restaurant – there are 300,000 Swedes living here, which amusingly makes London the third biggest city in Sweden!
If you want to pick up some Swedish goodies though, you can check out Totally Swedish, a shop in Marylebone of the Scandinavian Kitchen café on Great Titchfield Street – be warned though, they’re not cheap.
The Harcourt Arms near Edgware Road is London’s Swedish pub. It’s quite a nice boozer and is a good place to watch Swedish ice hockey and the camp cheese-fest that is Melodifestivalen – the Swedish Eurovision heats.
You helped to cover the 2010 General Elections as part of the Newsnight team. Where do you stand on Boris vs Ken? Will you be voting for either?
I will vote Ken 100%. I think the vote for Boris last time round was a vote by conservative vested interests, people with big cars who objected to the congestion charge as they drove in form the suburbs to their well-paid city jobs. Boris is a funny man and a great character. I think we need people like him in British public life, but I don’t think he’s the best man for London’s interests. Of course I’d really like to see us elect Suggs. I think he would be an excellent mayor, don’t you? Is there anyone more London than him?
You can see Danny in Live Ghost Watch at the Waterloo East Theatre on January 22 and 23. More information here.