Marc Wootton: Warning: May offend ethnic minorities, the disabled and seriously ill

Shirley Ghostman is a spoof psychic with a cult TV following. But his prime-time debut left two Hollywood stars mortified, incensed hundreds of viewers - and forced the BBC to apologise. John Walsh meets his reclusive alter-ego, Marc Wootton
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The Independent Online

Viewers tuning in to last Friday's Friday Night With Jonathan Ross to drool over Nicole Kidman, or to check if David Schwimmer is as irritating in real life as his Friends persona, would have been startled by the presence, along with the movie and TV stars, of a startling apparition.

Viewers tuning in to last Friday's Friday Night With Jonathan Ross to drool over Nicole Kidman, or to check if David Schwimmer is as irritating in real life as his Friends persona, would have been startled by the presence, along with the movie and TV stars, of a startling apparition.

The third guest on Ross's sofa was Shirley Ghostman. Bearing the same Christian name (and almost the same girth) as the wrestler Big Daddy, Mr Ghostman was a queenily self-satisfied Northern comic in a three-piece white satin suit and a meringue-like blonde wig. In his 10 minutes of fame he contrived to embarrass, appal, mortify or otherwise upset the nationwide TV-watching audience, the - normally shriek-at-anything - TV studio audience, his host (Ross could be seen visibly squirming by the end) and his fellow guests.

Explaining his talent as a professional psychic, he announced that he'd linked up with the post-mortem shade of Adolf Hitler. Turning to look behind him, at the other guests sitting in the green room, he yelled "And he doesn't like you, David!" at the bemused (and Jewish) Schwimmer. He correctly intuited that Ms Kidman was from Australia, but failed to break the nervy frostiness on her face. He talked cheerily about sending messages to the dead via cancer patients, but regretted that this postal system didn't work because cancer affects the memory cells.

He was not, it must be said, a great success. An impressive 350 viewers called in to complain about his "highly offensive" performance. Internet websites hummed with couch potatoes registering their opinion that Mr Ghostman was the unfunniest comic turn they'd ever seen. Some opined that the whole show had a dysfunctional air and wondered if the presence of the white-suited clairvoyant had somehow poisoned the atmosphere. "You wondered," said my friend Chris, "what on earth he'd said to Nicole backstage."

Devotees of a reality TV show called My New Best Friend would have recognised the man behind the Ghostman facade as Marc Wootton, an enfant terrible of British comedy. While viewers with access to BBC3 could have watched the psychic phenomenon for the past four weeks.

High Spirits With Shirley Ghostman is a spoof show about psychic transference. It makes fun of commercial psychics who claim to talk to dead people, but also of people who get taken in by them. Every show begins in an ancient-looking chapel, whose altar floor has been underlit with glowingly bad-taste disco tiles, where Ghostman harangues a mostly silent congregation (real people, who believe they're watching a bona fide mystic) about his attempts to reach the famous dead. A camp nightmare of neurotic conceit, he addresses his puzzled congregation with oleaginous jokes about chocolate, and stories about his dog Sheba.

Sheba has died and become a spirit medium - but "ever since she bit a baby's face off in Heaven", the deceased labrador is no longer any use at channelling spiritual messages across the River Styx. The show also features a spiritual version of Antiques Roadshow in which crumbling old ladies bring along family heirlooms and teapots, to be told that their possessions are reeking with auras of murder and mayhem from previous eras. And there's a "Spirit Academy" strand, in which students vie with each other to become Top Psychic.

This is Embarrassment TV taken to new heights, or depths. We're here to guffaw at the gullible and cackle at the credulous. Love it or hate it, this new BBC spoof comedy is at an interesting crossroads: loved by some (Jonathan Ross is a huge fan - or used to be) and hated by others ("Absolute bloody drivel", thundered The Guardian) it may shortly move to BBC2. Is this the new Little Britain? Is Shirley Ghostman the new Chris Morris? Or is it a dismal experiment in seeing how far you can push an audience?

I meet Marc Wootton in Shepherds Bush, west London, near his home. He is a huge bloke, with the kind of matted straight hair, six days' stubble and straining beige T-shirt you associate with DHSS offices and afternoons spent watching Richard and Judy and drinking Baileys Glide in a supine position. He's a friendly chap, despite adopting, from time to time, a droopy-eyed, bouncer's glare. "I've been researching psychics for a couple of years," he says. "The show was inspired by my partner losing her father. I think death's rather taboo still. People find it hard to communicate about it.

"But I discovered these guys who make a lot of money out of people who can't talk about losing their mother, father or best friend. There's a lot more psychics around today than ever before, making a fortune out of people who need help, not lots of false promises."

Gosh. So this pitiless piss-taker, this winder-upper of dim and gullible people has an evangelical purpose.

Is he on a crusade against super-psychics? "I've been to see Derek Acorah three or four times, and Colin Fry and Tony Stockwell - they're the best British psychics around. It's a really interesting world. The stuff they come out with

is hysterical. Derek Acorah is amazing, a fantastic performer ..."

Wait, I say, I thought you despised these people because of how they conned the bereaved. "I think they're showmen, which is why I've given Shirley that Northern-comic style. Colin Fry's tour is called The Happy Medium Tour - he comes on at the start and tells gags. Acorah comes on to the music from War of the Worlds - Dah dah dum Dah, 'Ladeez and gentlemen, girls and boys, prepare yourself for Derek Acorah!' There's dry ice, he runs on, there's lights going everywhere," Mr Wootton positively waves his arms in the air with the excitement of it all.

"They're the modern Butlins entertainers. And they really have balls of steel. Look," - He proceeds to demonstrate how the modern celebrity psychic gets in touch with the dead. "He'll stand rooted to the spot, with his sidekick Sam, saying, 'I'm getting someone called Pantonin' and the cameraman's filming the audience, and everyone's thinking, Well someone here must know this Pantonin, this gig's 20 quid a ticket. And the camera patrols the audience, the pressure builds up more, then he'll suddenly say, 'It's this aisle here.' All these people start shitting themselves that they'll be called - and eventually the weakest person will say, 'My husband's name is Anthony. Is that any good?' And he'll turn to his sidekick, Sam, and says 'Is it Anthony? It'sAnthony!!' He'll push that person into submission.

He shook his head at the iniquities of these ethereal prestidigitators. "And you have to ask yourself - Is he a complete conman? Is he walking off stage and going, 'Heh, heh, I got those guys'. Or does he believe he's a gifted individual who really is a little bit better than anybody else?"

You can't help wondering about the audience who are cannon fodder for Shirley's blatherings about the afterlife and spirit dogs biting ghostly children. Wasn't it a bit cruel of him to string them along?

"I worry that people who watch the show may think it's nasty. I don't think it is. I did a show last year,My New Best Friend, and all the people who appeared on it went through psychometric testing, to make sure nobody had moved house or changed jobs or got divorced, or had anything stressful happening in their lives.

"Similarly, with High Spirits, everyone in the audience had to be carefully screened. We didn't want anyone coming to those gigs who was recently bereaved. Every night, I'd explain, in character, that I wouldn't be contacting any friends, relatives or family members. But I think, as the show continues and ends with a song, nine out of 10 people will guess what's going on. I mean, I don't get a kick out of upsetting or causing stress to anyone in a stressful situation."

Marc Wootton, a man who has made a lucrative niche out of bothering the hell out of total strangers for the amusement of TV audiences - delivered this sanctimonious pay-off with a completely straight face.

What was it like, for a comedian, never to hear anyone laugh? He looks hurt. "I'd hope the people at home are laughing. I mean, Ricky Gervais didn't get live laughs for The Office."

That's true, I say, but Gervais does a stand-up show as well, presumably to fulfil a need to amuse people. "I don't think everyone needs that. I certainly don't," says Wootton emphatically. "I was never a stand-up comedian. I've never got a kick out of doing crazy things on stage. I'm not really a fan of jokes either. I'm not into crafted gags. 'My wife, my wife' - I don't think that's my home really. I like characters. I find characters much more interesting than jokes."

Wootton was born in Portsmouth, where his father owned his own washing-machine repair company, and his mother worked at the Post Office. He showed early promise playing the lead in Dracula Spectacular at 15. At Exeter University he studied English Literature and Theatre, then stuck around in the west country to bring modernengagé drama to the rustic masses. "I toured with a group of actors called The Common Players," he said. "I was really like, 'Yeah, I'm going to change the world through theatre.' We'd go to little villages in the west country, pitch up and do our show for the people." It's characteristic of this rather perverse man that he was disappointed with the quality of the audience that showed up.

He moved to London and directed plays at The Orange Tree in Richmond. "That compounded things for me - lots of people sitting in the dark applauding, without even knowing what they're watching and missing the fun of theatre, how it can be when itreally works."

He moved to run the Canal Café Theatre company in London's Maida Vale, where he put on satirical shows for a pub audience ("it still wasn't totally the right audience I wanted - but at least I was getting real people to enjoy themselves, rather than sitting in the dark and clapping at the end.") The League of Gentlemen came and played there, and Ardal O'Hanlon from Father Ted and Lee and Herring.

"While I was there, I put together a show called Cyderdelic, which Jon Plowman [the BBC's head of comedy] came to see - and here I am, four years later, on the telly."

And here he is in a dinky W12 café, this hulking, slightly alarming, larger-than-life comic with a fear of bourgeois applause, a dislike of jokes and a taste for wild improvisation: he told one guest on his show, a lady punter at the Psychic Objects Roadshow, that the magnifying glass she held in her hand was the very one that had started the Great Fire of London - and he worked up his theory until she said, wonderingly, "It sounds like you're making everything up."

He loves getting a response. If it's hostile, he can make use of it. He reports with glee the reaction from "spiritual people on the Net".

"Their response has been - 'Just you wait till we get you on the Other Side - we're going toget you. Then you'll be laughing on the other side of your face.'" Mr Wootton/Ghostman's smile at this hair-raising threat is truly triumphant.