You've had The X-Files, now get ready for the X-Father. Father Lionel Fanthorpe, a working priest for the Church of Wales, is presenting Fortean TV, a new eight-part Channel 4 investigation into all things paranormal. Cashing in on our mania for the mysterious, the series is predicated on the philosophy of Charles Fort, the turn-of- the-century American writer, who maintained that science was not an adequate explanation for everything. Puerto Rican vampires that suck the blood of goats? Certainly sir. A rare form of Turkish sturgeon which can cure skin diseases? You got it. The time it rained straw for an hour in Norfolk? No problem.

Father Fanthorpe himself is more than a little out of the ordinary. Given to wearing a leather jacket over his dog-collar, he rides a Harley Davidson, is a black belt in judo and has written more than 200 supernatural fantasy and science-fiction books. He is in The Guinness Book of Records as the world's fastest writer of a sci-fi novel (it took him one day).

But won't his parishioners in Cardiff be taken aback to see their vicar on television introducing, say, "the world's first televised mermaid autopsy"? "They're frequently surprised but wonderfully kind and tolerant," he laughs. "We have some wonderful discussions. It's what Donald Soper called `the fellowship of controversy'. I'm always willing to meet things head-on. I love a good argument, but I never let a difference of opinion rupture a friendship."

His Bishop, too, has shown tolerance towards the vicar's extra-curricular interests. "He turns his Nelson eye on my activities," Fr Fanthorpe reveals. "He very understandingly puts the telescope to his blind eye when he's looking at me."

You get the sense that the Father is rarely distracted from his goals. He concurs with a chuckle. "Stuck on the door of my study, I have a quotation from the South Wales Argus which says, `The Reverend Lionel Fanthorpe, the hard-writing, workaholic priest with the build of the proverbial brick outhouse, makes Mrs Thatcher seem indecisive and Sylvester Stallone a wimp.' I'd like that on my gravestone."

Fr Fanthorpe is evangelical about the importance of the paranormal. He has even written what must be a first - a sci-fi prayer for Nexus, a sci-fi magazine. "We thank and praise You," it runs, "for the sense of wonder You have given which enables us to admire what we cannot explain, to gaze in awe at what we cannot understand, to kneel in reverence before what surpasses our furthest imaginings."

He is not in the least surprised by the present paranormal boom. "Can I use an analogy?" he asks. "Think of the paranormal as an underground reservoir and of us as intelligent human beings wandering around on top of it. In places, it comes trickling through... There is a spiritual bridge between the Christian faith and the universe of the unexplained. We need the mystery in order to remind ourselves that there is something beyond the number 27 bus and the gentleman selling the Standard. If I can link it in with my theology, the mystery is a reminder that the everyday and the material universe are not the whole of life."

A sci-fi fan who used to bunk off algebra lessons to read HG Wells, Fr Fanthorpe still bubbles with the fervour of a schoolboy - a trait that is infectious on screen. "I've never grown up," he admits. "I'm one of those guys who says if there's a mountain there, I've got to climb it, and if there's a motorbike there, I've got to ride it. It's part of my in-built enthusiasm for life. Charles Fort said, `We have to keep skating on the thin crust we call reality.' I like to peep under the crust. Like a hungry boy in Oliver Twist, I have to lift up the crust of reality to explore the pie."

But how does a clergyman view the inevitable attention that will come his way when he becomes a "telly- vicar"? He's relishing it, of course. "I've been blessed - or perhaps cursed - with an extrovert personality," he explains. "I just love it. I'd describe myself as a cross between a showman and an adventurer. Priests love to get to know people. Now I've got a church that seats a million rather than 10."

`Fortean TV' starts Wed at 9pm on C4




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