The following is an excerpt from my next book, Kismet Quick: a travelogue/guide/ramble/rant through 40 of Norfolk’s towns and villages (I’ve visited each via public transport). Kismet Quick is now available to buy here. Check this site for regular updates & follow the journey in photographs here
Cromer pier is no stranger to the screen. It’s been used as a location in Hollywood movies (most recently Alan Partridge’s Alpha Papa) and numerous, nay, countless, TV series including ITV’s gentle drama September Song, starring Russ Abbott, which is still awaiting its South Bank Special – and could do for quite a while. (If even ITV3, a channel that’s more than happy to broadcast Wycliffe six times a day, won’t repeat September Song, you know it has to be pretty weak stuff.) Another show routinely avoided when the South Bank team sit around the table to discuss future Specials, is Most Haunted. In 2009, Most Haunted, too, brought its (shaky) cameras to the town’s grand old pier.
Before I go any further I feel I should give a cursory description of what Most Haunted is. It’s a programme in which a team of paranormal investigators and an ex-Blue Peter presenter stand around in the dark listening for ghosts. Among the Most Haunted posse will always be at least one ‘professional’ medium whose job it is to interpret the ghosts’ otherwise secret messages. The team’s late night vigils are often filmed in lime green night-vision and inadvertently look like adverts for the army. Any illusion that these people are in the army is shattered when they hear a mouse fart and all start screaming. After the mouse has farted, they all look at each and ask ‘Did you hear that?’ or, if they’re really scared, ‘Oh my God, did you hear that?’
Most Haunted is pretty much a live action version of Scooby Doo. Except nobody ever admits to being the ghost.
If, by some incredible coincidence, you happened to have had prior arrangements the night the episode about Cromer pier aired, or have yet to find a sufficient window to look it up on YouTube, I shall give you a short summary. It begins with the host, Yvette Fielding, who was last seen lighting the fourth candle on the Blue Peter coat-hanger advent calendar, pacing up and down the seafront whilst describing Cromer as, ‘A place where phantoms, poltergeists and the dead wander in abundance.’ It’s a rather unfair comment. The people of Cromer may be old, but they are still alive. Mostly.
Cromer, Yvette adds, ‘is now famed for the many supernatural visitors it receives.’ (This isn’t true.) ‘Medieval men in rags have been seen wandering the area,’ she purrs. (This isn’t true, either.) ‘Cries of lost sailors can be heard at night as they emerge from the sea and their watery grave,’ she says. (Again, not true.) ‘A man in a tall black hat and an ashen faced man with jet black hair have all been seen [all two of them!] in the theatre,’ she says, as a full-colour shot of the pier fades to a haunted black and white. What Yvette doesn’t mention is that the man in the tall black hat was spotted by the backstage door during a performance of Oliver. And that the man with the ashen face and jet black hair was seen the week the pier had a Cher tribute act on. That’s two mysteries solved right there.
Yvette then refers to Cromer pier as ‘Croner’ pier. Are there ghosts on Croner pier? ‘We have just 24 hours to find out!’ she says.
The big question here is, Why? Why just 24 hours? What kind of crazy self-imposed rule is that? Why not stay for a bit longer and do a thorough job? Surely if there are ghosts wandering in such an abundance it might be worth hanging around a little longer to catch one of the sneaky bastards mid-jaunt. Imagine Sir Isaac Newton giving himself a maximum of 24 hours after the apple fell on his head to formulate his ideas on gravity.
Most Haunted is insane. How it gets recommissioned is a testament to human idiocy. ‘There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,’ said Hamlet. Yes there are. But I’m willing to argue that none of these ‘things’ have ever dropped their standards to such a degree that they’re willing to put in an appearance on Most Haunted. Ghosts literally wouldn’t be seen dead on it.
‘We’ve had glasses that just for no reason break,’ reports a member of the Cromer pier bar staff. Well, I know how that feels. That’s why I stopped shopping at Wilko’s.
The professional medium in this particular episode is an American called Patrick Matthews. (I had a look on his personal website recently. It says that you can arrange to have an over-the-phone reading from Patrick. It only costs $600 an hour. A notice on the site says that ‘Patrick does not give readings by email’, which gives up his whole ruse in one fell swoop.) He bullshits his way through the show. He gives the general impression that he can’t believe his luck that people are buying this nonsense. He’s dressed like the last man left on the night bus: a cross between Phil Mitchell and some bloke who works in the car radio section of an electrical superstore. On his income, you’d expect at least a little pizazz. Here he is on the right:
Patrick stands on the pier’s theatre stage and says that he can see the ghost of a woman. There was a murder on the stage, he says, and ‘people thought it was part of the performance.’ The play, he adds, is Macbeth. The main question I want to ask isn’t about the murder or the ghost. What I want to know is who the hell goes to watch Macbeth on Cromer pier? Is there a panto version of it I don’t know about?
The resident Most Haunted historian probes medium Patrick further. She asks which Macbeth character the ghost was playing. The ghost replies, via Patrick, that it’s playing multiple characters. The historian nods approvingly and says that this is nothing unusual. ‘Of both sexes they would play,’ she says.
Of both sexes they would play? What kind of language is that? Is she talking about Macbeth or in it? (In hindsight, the bar staff’s earlier comment ‘We’ve had glasses that just for no reason break’ also sounds like it was penned by the bard. Maybe these people are the ghosts! Like in The Sixth Sense.)
There’s a scene in a backstage corridor in which Yvette asks a ghost to sing to her. Surprisingly, the ghost refuses. There then follows a period of about five minutes in which Yvette repeatedly asks the ghost to sing and waits for it in silence. It’s at this point that you realise that Yvette is probably the scariest spectre on the programme. She looks like the ghost of David Bowie in Labyrinth.
Outside the theatre, Patrick says he can see a kind of castle out to sea. ‘I don’t know the correct terminology’ he says, covering as many bases as possible. The historian says that there was once a church out at sea in that exact-ish location. (Good old Shipden.) This psychic vision clearly proves that Patrick is clearly at one with the ghost realm. Although, all things considered, it is perhaps surprising that he doesn’t know the ‘correct terminology’ for a church.
The episode ends with a séance and a vigil in the lifeboat house at the very rear of the pier. During the vigil, phrases such as ‘Do you feel that cold?’ and ‘Can you smell oil?’ are bandied about as though such phenomena are unexpected in a lifeboat house at 2am. By its own terrible standards, this episode is a low for Most Haunted.
Yvette Fielding wasn’t the first visitor to Cromer, or, indeed, Croner, to detect a ghostly chill in the air. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stayed at Cromer Hall and whilst there was told about the local legend Black Shuck, a devilish, saucer-eyed black dog who haunts the coastline for no apparent reason other than the fact he really likes his walkies. Conan Doyle went on to write his most famous Sherlock Holmes story, The Hound of the Baskervilles, with this East Anglian legend in mind. I am yet to see the naughty little mutt myself, but the story goes that if you do see him, you die. A threat that has always seemed a little thin when you consider the fact that you’re also going to die if you don’t see him. Another twist on the myth is that if you see Shuck, you die on your next birthday.
Why a local artist hasn’t got round to making Black Shuck birthday cards is anybody’s guess.
More Kismet Quick in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, here’s a picture of Sherlock Holmes looking at his boy parts: