Danny Robins on The Battersea Poltergeist

Robins talks about his hit drama podcast series and what audiences can expect from its theatrical incarnation.

Back at the start of 2021 few people knew about the Battersea Poltergeist, but Danny Robins has changed that. As writer and presenter of the hit BBC docu-drama podcast on the case, Robins has told the strange-but-true story of Shirley Hitchings, who was the focus of frenzied poltergeist activity in and around her family home from 1956 onwards.

With a background in theatre, presenting radio and writing shows such as Rudy’s Rare Records and Young Dracula, recently Newcastle-born Robins has zeroed-in on ghost stories with his 2017 podcast Haunted and the acclaimed stage play 2:22, currently running in the West End with Lily Allen.

The runaway success of the Battersea Poltergeist series shows no sign of stopping. By the end of its run it was Apple’s number one drama podcast worldwide, clocking up nearly three million streams and downloads. Hollywood horror specialists Blumhouse (Insidious, Get Out, Paranormal Activity) have since snapped up the rights for a TV adaptation, now actively in development with Robins as an executive producer.

First, though, Robins is taking the Battersea Poltergeist on tour – as it were – with a nine-date live show featuring the podcast’s in-house experts, including a London show on the night of Halloween. Here Robins talks to We Are Cult about the remarkable phenomenon of The Battersea Poltergeist and what audiences can expect from its theatrical incarnation…

Danny Robins on Wycliffe Road during the recording of the series.

The so-called ‘Enfield Poltergeist’ case has become familiar, but the Battersea Poltergeist had almost been forgotten about. Why do you think that is? After all, it got a lot of press coverage at the time.

Yeah, it’s interesting. I think the reason why it disappeared is because it existed in an era before things were routinely filmed. With the Enfield Poltergeist, it was becoming that era when TV news crews turned up on your doorstep. With the Battersea Poltergeist being in ’56, it was before that. Also people didn’t even really have recording devices then. Harold Chibbett, the investigator on the case, he couldn’t afford to buy a tape recorder. It was a different era.

It was absolutely huge, though. It was on the front pages of newspapers and Shirley went on live television, but no recordings survive. A lot of stuff was saved by Shirley and her family and Chibbett, so we’ve got this amazing paper archive, but that’s never been digitised so it doesn’t really exist as a thing on the internet.

Also I think Shirley wanted to forget about it, to some degree. She wasn’t out there flogging her story, telling people about it. Actually it wasn’t until James Clark, who wrote the book with Shirley [The Poltergeist Prince of London, published in 2013], heard about her story and approached her. That was the first time she went back and looked at this archive of material she had. It really did get put away. It was literally sitting in her attic for fifty years.

Daily Mirror article from 20 February 1956, the first article written about the case.

It must have been thrilling when you first got wind of Shirley’s story.

Oh yeah. I mean, I was like a kid in a haunted toy shop! It was very exciting to come across a major ghost story that people just did not know about. I loved the fact that, whilst we were making the series, there was this conspiracy theory going around that I had made it all up. Some people thought it was like a new Ghostwatch, that I’d invented this fictional ghost story.

Did you anticipate any of that?

No, not at all! I mean, I was touched and baffled by it. There were people who were resolutely saying ‘This is fake, he’s making all this up, you can’t find anything on the internet about it’. And I thought, that’s not really true, there is stuff on the internet about this if you search.

Another brilliant thing was that, as soon as the show started going out, listeners became armchair sleuths. They were going out there and turning up some amazing, brilliant stuff that I hadn’t found. They were going digging through old newspaper records and maps of the area. Battersea Library was deluged with inquiries.

The Hitchings family in the front room of No. 63 Wycliffe Road in 1957.

In the event, the show came out in the middle of this global pandemic. You wouldn’t necessarily make the leap that a story like that would be what people wanted under those circumstances. but they seemed to latch onto it.

It was very exciting. We had these two-page spreads in tabloid newspapers and Shirley was on This Morning. There was this huge buzz around it that went way beyond and above anything you’d normally expect for a podcast.

I think it just caught a moment. It’s about this family trapped in their house, and people connected with that, at a point when we were all becoming very claustrophobic in our houses. We’re living in these crazy, chaotic and sadly, death-filled times… and I think we want ghost stories. We’re looking for answers. We’re hitting on those moments like you saw after the First World War, after the Second World War, these kind of uncertain times when people become interested in the paranormal. I think we’re seeing a very definite boom in interest in the paranormal and ghost stories at the moment.

The Exorcism: Medium Harry Hank sits in the centre, Shirley and her Dad Wally are on the right.

What kind of experience will the live show be? Will you be drawing on your own theatrical background for it?

It’ll be me, Ciaran O’Keeffe and Evelyn Hollow [the podcast’s resident experts]. Shirley will play a part in it, too, either by video or actually there in the flesh for certain shows. She’s elderly and we can’t take her around the whole country with us, but we’re really excited about her playing a role in each show.

To some degree it will be like the podcast come to life. It’ll be us talking about the case, but we’ll also have this amazing visual element. We’ll be able to use the big screen on stage to show a whole load of the evidence we have, photographs, newspaper cuttings and video of witnesses.

This is an ongoing story. We’re still getting new evidence coming in. I’ve got this incredible new pair of witnesses who have terrifying new stories and insights. We’re going to share those stories for the first time on stage, totally new information that we’ve not been able to reveal in the podcast.

But yes, with my theatrical head on, I want it to be a fun, spooky night out, particularly as these shows are falling around Halloween. It’ll be the full bells and whistles, the Woman in Black-style moments of darkness and screams and poltergeist sounds.

I’ve just been through producing my play 2:22 and that’s been so delicious, to be back in a theatre and scaring people, seeing people jump and throw their popcorn over their neighbours. We absolutely want to have a bit of that.

Beyond the show, what’s the future for you? Can you say much about the Battersea Poltergeist TV show?

Some of it is out in the open. Blumhouse are this amazing Hollywood market leader in horror, so it’s such a thrill to be working with them. That’s a thrilling new chapter for the story that Shirley’s really excited about as well.

The other exciting thing is that we’re launching a new podcast series in October. It’s called Uncanny, a new series for BBC Sounds which tells individual ghost stories. It’s purely documentary, not drama-documentary. It’s investigating some of the stories that have been sent to me. I’ve been deluged by this amazing array of real-life ghost stories, so this is the chance to tell them. Then early next year there will be another series on a case like The Battersea Poltergeist. That’ll be told through drama-documentary and will be much more in the Battersea mode.

For many years after it happened, Shirley Hutchings kept her poltergeist experience to herself. Now it’s a spawned radio show, it’s become a stage show and it’s going to be a TV series.  Has she finally made peace with it, then? Is she happy?

I think she is. It’s been cathartic for her. As a 15 year-old, she was very exploited. She became famous in a salacious, prurient kind of way. There was this idea of her being ‘in love’ with the poltergeist. I think that was a traumatic, mixed experience for her. It was exciting on one level – she suddenly became this celebrity – but it was very much not in her hands. This time around, as an 80 year-old woman, it’s been on her terms and she’s been able to tell her story in her way. I think people have really connected with that.

Shirley’s excited about the future now, but she does retain this nervousness about ‘Donald’, the poltergeist, about whether she’s reopened this Pandora’s Box. I know that after some of the episodes, she did have nightmares, She was troubled by unleashing some of it again. But I think the pros outweigh the cons and she’s glad it’s out there, really. I think Shirley’s enjoying telling her story.

❉ Listen to the podcast: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p09401n0

❉ Website for The Battersea Poltergeist – LIVE!: https://batterseapoltergeistlive.com/

 Andy Murray is Film Editor for Northern Soul and a regular contributor to We Are Cult. He’s also the author of the Nigel Kneale biography Into the Unknown and co-author (with Dr Mark Aldridge) of the Russell T Davies biography T is for TelevisionHe’s not the tennis guy, obviously. But he did once receive a publicity photograph of him to sign by mistake.

❉ Article image sources: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p094gjn4/p094gjnn

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