THERE’S something regrettably unlikely and earth-bound about a Liverpudlian former footballer turned psychic medium. Derek Acorah looks like an average bloke: what business has he conversing, then, with those who have shuffled off this mortal coil?
Yet thousands choose to fall under Acorah’s spell, whether from a desperate need to hear good news about loved ones who have died, or because they get a spooky thrill imagining someone able to navigate the great mysteries of life beyond the grave. Perhaps they just like the idea of having a laugh at someone who claims to have a spirit guide named Sam and has repeatedly been possessed on TV’s Most Haunted by assorted benevolent and recalcitrant spirits in badly lit houses up and down the UK.
Charlatan or genuinely gifted, it hasn’t stopped Acorah from forging a lucrative career as a spirit medium, and several books and often risible TV shows behind him - 2009’s attempts to make contact with the spirit of Michael Jackson was voted one of the worst programmes of the year - he’s now on tour again. Derek will perform a host of Northern Irish dates, taking in Lisburn, Ballymena, Armagh, Strabane and Omagh before finishing at the Waterfront on May 26. To be sure, he’s been parodied and lampooned energetically - but Derek is still going strong after 15 years in the public eye.
Born Derek Francis Johnson in Bootle, Merseyside, the 63-year-old claims to have learnt the craft of mediumship from his grandmother. Without missing a beat he explains how he was six years old when he first saw a dead person.
“When I was six I saw a man in my grandmother’s house,” he confides, nonchalant, cool as a cucumber. “I saw him very. very clearly - the clothes he was wearing, his face. I later realised it was my grandfather who had died two and a quarter years before I was born.
“Initially I was a little bit frightened - I was thinking, ‘what is this strange man doing in my grandmother’s house?’ My grandmother, who worked as a medium, later showed me photographs of him and I came to realise, when I was eight or nine, who it had been.”
Was he frightened, spooked, scared to sleep in the dark afterwards?
“I was alarmed at first, because I wondered why I had seen him. I wanted to grow up to be a footballer rather than a medium like my grandmother. It’s weird being able to see ghosts.
“I went on to play football and fought off this tendency. I always had premonitions and insights though. My grandmother always explained to me that I shouldn’t be frightened - that spirits were people like you and I who had simply passed over.”
Derek maintains that the dead look and sound the same in the after-life as they did in life, retaining their personalities intact, their mannerisms and foibles: “It’s when you can give people that kind of detail - the mannerisms and the accent of their loved one who has passed - accompanied by loving messages and little anecdotes that you feel so rewarded. People will say ‘Oh that’s just like him, that’s just like what he used to do or say in life’.”
Acorah maintains that it was his grandmother who paved the way for him to pursue a career as a medium; she taught him the craft and removed any sense of fear or trepidation about conversing with those in the after life.
“My grandmother was the one who laid out the path for me. She taught me that to be able to see and communicate with spirits was a beautiful thing and a gift that I should be proud of.”
Acorah’s career suffered a major blow when he left Living TV show Most Haunted amid some damaging allegations. After working on the show for six series he was reportedly asked to leave in 2005. In statements made by presenter and executive producer Yvette Fielding, Acorah was accused of repeating misinformation given to him by the show’s parapsychologist Ciaran O’Keefe - presenting himself as possessed by the spirit of a fictional character, Kreed Kafer, an anagram of Derek Faker.
Yvette Fielding has said: “Ciaran O’Keeffe had suspicions about Derek and decided to plant some information to see if it would be repeated. He left a piece of paper around with the name ‘Kreed Kafer’ on it. When we started filming, Derek decided to get possessed by this fake person. We tell people everything is real, then it turns out he was a fake, so he had to go.”
Undaunted, Acorah continues to draw audiences and, whether completly genuine or not in his mediumship - this is for audiences to decide - he certainly manages to entertain and intrigue.
He defends his practice as being about bringing ‘messages of comfort’ to those who have lost friends and relatives. The opportunity for exploitation of people’s grief is also a concern for critics; but Derek is adamant his supernatural communications are the real deal.
“I connect with the spirit world and then deliver messages to people in the audience. The show is spontaneous, they’re no script, so you do worry about things going wrong and about whether or not you can give people the comforting messages from loved ones that they crave. It’s risky. You don’t know what spirit people are individually going to say. I always count on my spirit guide, Sam.”
I ask Derek if being able to see and communicate with the spirit world is a burden as well as a gift; is this something he can control, or do the dead, unbidden, walk in and out of his life, making everyday normality an impossibility?
“I do have control over it,” he insists. “By gran explained all this to me at a very early stage. When you start to be open to spirit influences, when you start the prayer of invocation and ask spirits who are there to step forward and communicate - that takes time and effort. But you have to be able to turn away from that too and carry on with everyday life. Most of the time spirits will respect that and leave you alone.
“I’ve never felt burdened by this. It’s a complete gift.”
Derek Acorah, Lagan Valley Island Lisburn, May 20; Braid Arts Centre, Ballymena, May 21; Marketplace, Armagh, May 22; Alley Theatre, Strabane, May 24; Strule Arts Centre, Omagh, May 25; Waterfront, Belfast, May 26.