`I'm hearing Norbert'

A dubious Dominic Cavendish joins the Doris Collins fan club

"You see, I'm perfectly normal." These are the last words that Doris Collins, famous elderly medium and healer, says to me as I leave her Milton Keynes bungalow. It's the first time I feel my flesh creep. I know very well that she prides herself on being ordinary. She has, after all, just presented me with a few examples of her ordinary, housewifely lifestyle: symmetrically-knitted cushion covers, a neatly-tended garden, even a plate of home-made Eccles cakes. But to spell it out like that, unprompted, sounds odd and smacks of false modesty.

Not very many 77-year-olds receive annual Christmas cards from Michael Barrymore thanking them for passing on messages, on live TV, from his dead stepfather. And none will dare to suggest that they have cuddled the Dalai Lama. But Doris Collins's psychic finesse has made her friends with the famous: in her 50-year career, her consultees have included Peter Sellers, comedian Michael Bentine and athlete John Walker. The tabloids fell in love with her (the Sun made her its medium-in-residence for two years) and she is the beatific cover girl of this month's edition of Medium 2000 magazine.

When she takes to the stage for two hours in Lewisham Theatre next week, people will expect a few miracles. But she seems to be singularly unfazed by her psychic powers. "I suppose my family thought I was nutty, but what I had was quite natural to me - I never thought it was an extra sense. A lot of people have the gift, you know, but it's stamped out of them at a young age."

The story of Doris Collins, from church-hall do-gooder to reluctant TV star, is one which she has now talked about hundreds of times across the world. For the uninitiated, there are a few key moments, mainly in her youth. At the age of eight, she told her aunt that she had played in her garden with a girl called Connie - who turned out to be a cousin who had died 10 years before. At 18, she saw her deceased sister Emmie "in a blaze of light" while walking home in Woodford. It is often images from her childhood that guide her when she is working: a father here, a red blanket there ("I was put in a red blanket when I went to hospital and I've only to see a red blanket next to someone and I know it's shorthand for hospital"). She does not seek people out; she is "lead" to them - like a spiritual journalist scenting a story.

"Is this the second paper you've worked on?" she inquires suddenly, fixing me in the eye. I nod. "Yes, I knew that instantly you see. I hope it doesn't frighten you... it just comes." She speaks emphatically, with few pauses. I try to suppress a smile. Her answers begin to be punctuated with questions of her own. "I believe in reincarnation. Why do you want to go abroad? I want young people to see that there's more out there than they realise - why did you become a reporter?" These are minor incursions, until the big push.

"While you've been talking there's been a very elderly lady at the side of you. Did you know your grandmother?"

"Yes."

"Was that on your mother's side?"

"They're both alive."

"Yes, because this is on your father's side. Did your father have three sisters?"

"No."

"Did your grandfather?" I concede that he did, enjoying the process of watching her groping around Internet-like from hot to cold, from great- aunt to great-grandfather. She frowns, her head cocked to one side, as if listening, occasionally muttering, "That's odd, what a strange thing to say". "Who changed the name?" she asks suddenly. She said she felt a bit disturbed because there was a family name that had been changed. "Why does she talk about Europe?"

The vague questions subtly beg helpful prompts, but even though I concede my grandfather came from Europe, without warning she hits the jackpot: "Was your grandfather Polish?"

And so it doesn't matter that she then talks about the Jewish East End, or the non-existent artist in the family or someone I apparently know called Norbert ("I'm hearing Norbert"). I contemplate two stark, unpalatable options: either I'm putty in her hands or she's paranormally sensitive. "It's just like tuning into a radio," she says, explaining that every experience is imprinted on the soul. "A dog can hear a dog whistle, it's just a different frequency."

Although she can act as clairvoyant and healer to anyone in the world from her home in Milton Keynes, the sceptical should consider the pilgrimage to Lewisham to see her in person. "It doesn't bother me if people are suspicious," she says. "I can't make anyone believe until they've got proof, now can I?"

7.30pm, Lewisham Theatre, SE6 (081-690 0002) 14 March, £7.50

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