Features Published 9 June 2016

Getting in the Spirit: Clairvoyance and Entertainment

In response to True Spirit, a touring showcase of British mediums, at Epsom Playhouse, Stewart Pringle foresees a time when clairvoyance will be taken seriously as show-business.
Stewart Pringle
Medium T J Higgs, headliner of True Spirit at Epsom Playhouse.

Medium T J Higgs, headliner of True Spirit at Epsom Playhouse.

‘Please note clairvoyance is for entertainment purposes only’. It’s a formulation that, in various forms referencing UK and EU laws, appears grudgingly on the websites of most mediums, psychics, clairvoyants and general spirit-botherers with a .co.uk URL. It’s the equivalent of the word ‘ADVERTISEMENT’ printed at the top of a slyly constructed advertorial feature in a newspaper, or ‘The Daily Mash is a satirical website’. On the surface level it says ‘This is all just a bit of fun, we can’t really talk to your dead nan, so please don’t sue us if we say we can’, albeit very quietly, although as the Spiritual Workers Association indicates on their website, the legal protection it affords is pretty spurious.

The specific law referenced is the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 (or CPRs), intended to protect consumers from misleading or fraudulent trading practises, and provide an instrument for the prosecution of misleading omissions. It repealed the Fraudulent Mediums act of 1951, but in its place enforces the legal requirement for a trader to offer the services he or she advertises precisely as advertised. In other words, if you say you can speak to the dead, you’d better be ready to prove it.

So, if mediums are providing, at least ostensibly, an entertainment service, their work should be well within the remit of The Stage, Exeunt and other similar publications to cover. Yet the coverage afforded to these shows, in anything other than local newspapers, is virtually non-existent. Barring the occasional splashy news story, such as Psychic Sally’s 2014 firing of her husband and manager for firing homophobic abuse at members of the public, these performers pack out sizeable theatres while remaining firmly under the radar.

It was hardly a packed Epsom Playhouse that greeted True Spirit this week, a touring showcase of three British mediums headlined by the garrulous TJ Higgs, but the show offered quite a different experience than might have been expected. The demographic was skewed heavily towards women (at least 75%, at a rough head-count), and specifically women over the age of 40. It’s also fair to say that the audience was largely working class, and it was as a piece of working class entertainment, however seriously it was taken by some members of that audience, that it came so colourfully alive.

Despite protestations of differing styles, the three mediums approached their sets in near-identical fashion. Names were proffered to the audience, ‘Frank’, ‘Fred’, ‘Rose’, audience members were asked if they could ‘take’ them, that is they could identify a family member who had ‘passed’ of that name, and details are added until a strong enough correlation is discovered. More information follows, as names, images, objects and ideas are proffered, withdrawn, accepted and rejected as the medium sketches in these characters from beyond the grave.

And what characters they are! Olly, the husband with shining sovereign rings; Ron, Jim and Frank boozing away together; funny fathers and dour fathers-in-law; men who come with crowds of dogs and offer warnings to any future chancers who might try it on with their missus. In True Spirit, each medium develops a crowd of these figures who apparently fill the stage around them, chipping in and talking over one another as their spokesperson’s attention is pulled from one audience member to the next. It’s more than a little like stand-up comedy, with a distinct end-of-the-pier vibe, dashes of sauce and quasi-racism, but no swearing. Nothing to upset your dead great-grandmother. It’s a world where men are men and women are long-suffering, but also one where familial ties run deep and frustration is a coin’s breadth away from deep and visible affection.

Seeing these three mediums in quick succession gives an overview of their techniques, and how successful they are on a given night. Ivan Lee attacks the room with a dizzying network of extremely vague hits (‘Heart attack was it? Was it quick?’) and and half-reads that ricochet so quickly the frequent misses are forgotten in a torrent of auctioneer-like patter. Keith Charles the ‘Psychic Cop’ gets almost nothing right whatsoever, though his ballsy opening gambit of ‘a Mrs Edwards with a small drowned boy’ would have brought the house down if it had landed.

Higgs is best of all, and it’s not because of her hits, which are sporadic at best, but because of the warmth of her story-telling. Her stories are as bold as an episode of Eastenders. There’s no attempt to coddle the bereaved. She’s more likely to express fear or uncertainty than a one-size-fits-all love-in. Her efficacy, as medium for her subject and entertainer for the rest of the crowd, are both bound in this practised talent.

This is a cynics view, of course, at least to the extent that I do not believe any of these three performers made or are capable of making psychic contact with the deceased in the way they claim. But True Spirit, like a great many evenings of clairvoyance, may not be deserving of the opprobrium that can frequently fall. Beyond the fairly modest ticket price, there was no signs of exploitation here, though there were plenty of comfort. Of a communal entertainment constructed from lived and shared commonplaces. Commonplace pain and everyday joy.

Mediumship may be squeezed against its wishes into a strange hinterland on the fringes of show-business, but to write them off entirely is to miss a still-burgeoning strand of truly spirited, truly popular entertainment.

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Stewart Pringle

Writer of this and that and critic for here and there. Artistic director of the Old Red Lion Theatre.

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