The First Lady of the Paranormal, also known as the Queen of the Night, is waiting for me at Crewe railway station in a bright red vintage Mini. I just about fold myself into the front seat. She cackles, performs a miraculous U-turn and puts her foot to the floor. She talks as she drives, 19 to the dozen: the car is from 1969, when the Beatles were still together. She loves the Beatles – and the Mini. Sometimes, she’ll just beep the horn at someone, for a laugh, like this, beep beep, ay oop … A man walking on the pavement looks startled, then waves back.
“Hold on to your hat – we’re going to break through,” she says, turning right off the main road in front of a lorry. Perfectly safely, to be fair – I just feel quite small and vulnerable.
Now, we’re out of the town and into the Cheshire countryside. Up there is the Old Hall, Sandbach. It’s haunted. She spent the night there once; there were footsteps walking around the bed. And this place we’re passing used to be a care home. They investigated it once on Most Haunted; a see-through old man walked right past the film crew. No, they didn’t manage to film it, unfortunately. (Spoiler alert: they never do.)
Here we are then: home. The gates swing open magically. Home is an old Tudor hunting lodge, stuffed to the low beams with ghosts. We’ll come to them, and to Most Haunted, but first a quick recap …
Now 54, Yvette Fielding was the youngest-ever presenter of Blue Peter when she joined, aged 18 (she was 17 when she was hired), in the summer of 1987. She had been acting in a children’s BBC drama called Seaview. The Blue Peter editor, Biddy Baxter, saw something in her, invited her down from Stockport to audition for the show and she got the job. Now, she thinks she was too young. “I wasn’t ready for it, I was very naive. I didn’t know anybody, I was living in a hotel all on my own, I was terrified.”
There was no Autocue, she fluffed her lines, again and again – 23 takes once – and film was expensive. “Certain producers could have been kinder and more patient, bearing in mind my age. The first year was awful.”
She found her feet, though, and did some amazing things during her five years on Blue Peter. She interviewed Diana, Princess of Wales (“At that point, everyone knew [her and Charles] were really unhappy and you could really tell. I felt so sorry for her”). She learned to fly a Sea King helicopter and slid down a bobsleigh track with the British Olympic team in Germany: “I was so frightened I thought I was going to wee myself.”
She tells a funny story about having to redo the sound on that one because she had been singing on the way down. They recorded in the car in the car park, rattling the seats, making bobsleigh noises. “All the windows steamed up and the German police were called because they thought something lewd was going on.”
Another white-knuckle ride – on a Blackpool rollercoaster with fellow presenter Mark Curry – was voted the favourite Blue Peter moment of all time by viewers. It’s basically just Fielding screaming. And screaming on television would kind of become Fielding’s thing.
She has always been into the supernatural. As a child in Stockport she used to love watching Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World on the telly with her mum. It was at her mum’s place she saw her first ghost, she says, in her early 20s. “There was only half of him, at the bottom of the bed, and he was wearing a second world war uniform. He was only young, his face was so clear, hair sideparted with Brylcreem. I screamed the place down.”
She talks about the experience – half a soldier at the end of the bed, and other encounters – in a matter-of-fact way, no doubt that it happened. “Seeing is believing” is an Yvette Fielding maxim. She has seen and she believes. Afterwards, a local historian told her about a young soldier who didn’t want to go to war, threw himself off a train and was cut in half.
Ghosts went from an interest to a career several years after Blue Peter. In 2002, Fielding’s husband, cameraman Karl Beattie, asked her if she would spend the night in a haunted house, with a camera crew. She agreed it would be interesting. And so the monster that turned into Most Haunted was born. Monster in the nicest possible way. It became something of a cult hit as well as a cultural phenomenon and roared way louder than you might expect from something you had to scroll down the listings (to Living TV, later Really TV) to find.
It went like this: Fielding went into a spooky old mansion/castle/prison/inn with a crew and spent the night there. They had night-vision cameras, and devices to measure temperature and electromagnetic fields to give it the semblance of an investigation. Then, to blow away any shred of credibility, they had a medium with them. In the first few series, this was a scouser called Derek Acorah. Acorah had his own sidekick, an invisible spirit guide called Sam, a family friend from a previous life (2,000 years ago when Acorah was an Ethiopian boy, as it happens).
So they would go into these places and fail to film any ghosts but there would generally be some tapping or knocking, and if you were lucky something would move. Acorah would explain what was going on and who and what had returned from the other side, and Fielding would scream, all on shaky handheld infrared camera. It begged to be sent up, and it was – by Billy Connolly, by Saturday Night Live (with Hugh Laurie as Acorah), by French and Saunders and more.
Guess what? Turns out Acorah was faking it: caught out when he claimed to be channelling spirits of “Rik Eedles” and “Kreed Kafer” by a member of the crew (names that had to be fed to him, and anagrams of “Derek Lies” and “Derek Faker”). He was let go and they eventually did away with mediums, but Most Haunted survived, series after series – it’s all on Amazon Prime.
Fielding and Beattie sometimes do new episodes, which go on their YouTube channel. And they do the Most Haunted Experience, events in haunted locations where you can go along and get spooked. Now Fielding has added a new string to her ghost bow: books – spooky novels, for kids. We’ll get to those.
She’s warmer and funnier in the flesh than on screen – well, I guess it helps that she’s not bathed in infrared light, and screaming. We’re in her cosy kitchen, and she makes tea. Watson the bulldog snoozes on the floor.
It might be cosy now, but that doesn’t mean it’s not haunted. She tells me about the time she came down and couldn’t get into the room because a chair had been pushed up against the door. “When I eventually pushed my way through, all these chairs were arranged in a pyramid on the table. I absolutely freaked out because I was on my own.”
It was, she says, the work of their two resident child-ghosts, Benjamin and Elizabeth. “When we first moved in they played a lot of pranks on us.” Once she and Beattie woke up and Elizabeth was standing by the bed. Then there was the cavalier who walked past the window; he was killed at the end of the garden during the English civil war. Again, all matter of fact. She could be describing seeing a woodpecker in the garden.
Come on, is she making it up? This is a good opportunity to come clean – is Most Haunted all a big fat lie? “No, absolutely not, 100%, and I get very passionate about it. That’s why we came up with the idea of doing Most Haunted experiences. We give the fans the chance to come along with me and the Most Haunted team and experience for themselves what we do on the show.” Seances, Ouija boards, table tipping, tapping and knocking phenomena. “We always say, put your torches on, look under the table, check there’s no wires.”
I must come along on one, she says. “I have written to New Scientist magazine so many times asking them to please send somebody along to analyse these knocking and tapping phenomena.” New Scientist hasn’t got back to her, as yet.
She does understand the scepticism. But it was a blow when Ofcom ruled that Most Haunted was an entertainment show, not a legitimate investigation into the paranormal, and “should not be taken seriously”. “Oh my God, I was livid – it is real investigation. We take what we do incredibly seriously.”
The pastiches amuse her, though: she even does an impression of Connolly doing his. “Has anybody seen that show Most Haunted? What a load of bollocks! That blond woman! Knocking, arrrgghhh, what was that?”
It comes up because she has got a portrait of Connolly on the wall. She’s giving me the tour now; her house is everything you would want Yvette Fielding’s house to be– beamy and creaky, with low doorways and dark staircases, a couple of stags heads here, a suit of armour there. Oh, and from under the bath she pulls a mummified cat. Seriously, they found it under the floorboards. It’s probably 400 years old. She’s framed it but it lives under the bath, obviously.
Here’s a picture of her grandmother. “She came through on the Ouija board, said: ‘I love you’ and that she’ll always be there.” Should we do an Ouija board now? “I wouldn’t want to do an Ouija board in my own house. This is my safe place.”
It would have been interesting to meet her grandmother. She was from Homs in Syria and came to Britain in the second world war. “When I started in television, my grandmother said: ‘Don’t tell anyone you’re from Syria.’ I said: ‘Why?’ She said: ‘They won’t like you – people don’t like us.’ For years I didn’t, because I didn’t want to upset my grandmother.” It’s a shame that a generation of Blue Peter viewers didn’t know that the youngest presenter was a quarter Syrian.
And here’s her writing room, overlooking the garden (where the cavalier got murdered). Fielding now writes ghost stories for young teenagers, The Ghost Hunter Chronicles, about three kids and their adventures. One is called Eve; she and her two friends are obsessed with ghosts and the supernatural, they mess about with Ouija boards and hang out in spooky places after dark. There’s an eccentric uncle, who has various ghostbusting devices and equipment, as well as a vintage Mini, and a bulldog named Boris (hello Watson!) … No need for Sherlock Holmes to see where it all comes from.
She admits that a lot of the story is based on her own experiences. But in novel form it’s less preposterous than Most Haunted. You don’t have to believe in ghosts to believe in ghost stories – children want to and they want to be frightened. Before embarking on the first one, she sat down and consulted a couple of children in a bookshop. “One said, ‘I would love it if you made me shake under the duvet. That’s how much I want to be scared.’”
So she went as scary as possible. I gave my 10-year-old the first story, The House in the Woods. He was certainly scared. He really wanted to read on, but would only do so in the morning, not at bedtime. It was the dead Nazi without a face that did for him; he’s going to wait a while before reading the next.
Probably wise. The new one, The Ripper of Whitechapel, stars the ghost of Jack the Ripper. Plus two child-ghosts, a girl and a boy, and I think I know where the idea for them came from – are you there Miss Elizabeth, Master Benjamin? Give us a sign – another chair pyramid would be good …
It’s not just about scaring living kids under duvets. It’s about, you know, What Happens Next, where you go. And, in the world of The Ghost Hunter Chronicles, that kind of depends on how you have lived in this life. To the Abyss, a fiery chasm perhaps, if you have, say, killed a lot of people. Or to be reunited with loved ones, if you have behaved better. It sounds quite familiar. “Yes, it is religion to me,” says Fielding. “I’m a spiritualist.”
Does she not fear death? “Can’t wait for the adventure,” she says cheerfully. “I’ve been shown what it’s like. I asked my dad, who has passed on, what it’s like, and he showed me twice in a very vivid dream. I was flying through the windscreen of a car; the noise was like jet engines. I can see the glass spinning around me in slow motion, I’m flying through the air but there’s no fear. Then this incredible feeling comes over me. I can’t even give you the words. Whatever more than love is – acceptance, beauty, bliss – it’s more than that …”
She’s not talking about an actual car crash. But then a tiny part of me is thinking about my lift back to Crewe station in a tiny car. So when her publicist offers me a lift in his much bigger 21st-century Mini, I’m pretty much already in there, strapped in and ready.
• The Ripper of Whitechapel by Yvette Fielding is published by Andersen Press, £7.99. To support the Guardian, order your copy at the guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.