As television’s most famous spirit medium and ghost hunter, Derek Acorah, who has died of sepsis aged 69, inevitably attracted controversy. He split opinion among viewers, who either believed in the paranormal and revelled in his “insights” or considered him a fake and a fraud.
A visit to Samlesbury Hall, a medieval manor house in Lancashire, was typical of the Acorah spookfest. He entered to the sound of “girlish laughter”, sensing he was in a former educational establishment, he wrote in his 2004 autobiography, The Psychic Adventures of Derek Acorah. “The energy around me changed and I felt as though I was in an inn. Once more there was laughter around me, but this time it was accompanied by the smell of ale and roasting meats in the huge fireplace … Then I heard a loud bang! ‘Somebody shot themselves here,’ I said.” Acorah came up with a name, Sir John Southworth, adding that he knew the man had suffered at the hands of witch-hunters.
He made his name as the resident medium in the first six series of the TV programme Most Haunted (2002-05), alongside its presenter, Yvette Fielding, and her team of ghost hunters – an astrologer, an anthropologist, a parapsychologist and a medical doctor. They spent nights at stately homes and castles around Britain reputed to be haunted, and purported to feel or hear the supernatural. The show was one of the reality programmes that helped Living TV to become a leading British non-terrestrial channel.
However, Acorah’s credibility was questioned in 2005 when Most Haunted’s parapsychologist, Ciarán O’Keeffe, accused him of being a fake. He claimed that he fed Acorah false information about spirits, including a dead South African jailer called Kreed Kafer – an anagram of “Derek Faker” – at Bodmin Jail, Cornwall, then saw the medium “possessed” by him.
Fielding, who owned the production company that made Most Haunted with her husband, Karl Beattie, said: “We tell people everything is real, then it turns out he was a fake, so he had to go.”
Nevertheless, the television regulator, Ofcom, ruled that the broadcasting code had not been breached by “fraudulently contrived” events because the programme was broadcast as entertainment, not as a legitimate investigation into the paranormal.
Living TV then commissioned a new show, Derek Acorah’s Ghost Towns (2005-06), which ran for three series, with Acorah offering private sittings to members of the public and with Danniella Westbrook and Myleene Klass among the presenters.
Acorah was born Derek Johnson in Bootle, Lancashire, to Frederick Johnson, a merchant sailor, and his wife, Elizabeth (nee Courtney). He said his psychic grandmother identified his gift for spiritualism when he was six and encountered her husband, who had died three years earlier, on her staircase.
He attended Warwick Bolam secondary school (now Bootle high school) and had a talent for football, playing for Bootle Boys, then as a schoolboy with Wrexham at the age of 13. He signed as an apprentice-professional two years later with Liverpool, then managed by Bill Shankly, whom he later claimed to have contacted in the spirit world.
Failing to make it beyond Liverpool’s reserve team after four years, he returned to Wrexham, following up with spells at Glentoran and Stockport County, before moving to the South Australia football federation to play for USC Lion (now Port Adelaide).
In 1982, as injuries began to take their toll and his wife, Joan (nee Hughes), whom he had married 10 years earlier, became homesick, he returned to Britain. The marriage broke up and he changed his surname to Acorah – he said it came from a Dutch ancestor – and started working as a medium, with a spirit guide called Sam, a 2,000-year-old Ethiopian warrior.
He went from giving private readings to appearing in front of spiritualist church congregations, then moving on to theatres and civic halls, in the manner of Doris Stokes, another medium who claimed to have seen spirits and heard disembodied voices since childhood.
Acorah’s television break came in 1996 on the satellite channel Granada Breeze, with appearances on the magazine show Livetime, followed by Psychic Livetime and Predictions; this led to his own series, Predictions with Derek Acorah (1999-2001), in which he visited locations alleged to be haunted, as well as members of the public at their homes.
Next came his appearance in the Most Haunted pilot Haunting Truths (2001), followed by The Antiques Ghost Show (2003), Psychic Live (2003), Quest for Guy Fawkes (2005), Paranormal Egypt (2007), Derek Acorah (2009) and the second series of The Past Hunters (2015). In 2004 Acorah won the Variety Club of Great Britain’s Multichannel TV Personality of the Year award.
His fame was confirmed with a cameo appearance as himself in the 2006 Doctor Who story Army of Ghosts, about an epidemic of ghouls. He came fourth in the 2017 series of Celebrity Big Brother and was parodied by Dawn French, in the guise of Dawnie Acorah, in a 2004 episode of French and Saunders, and by Jon Culshaw in the TV series Dead Ringers a year later.
In 2012 he apologised to the family of Madeleine McCann after claiming to have received a psychic message from their missing daughter saying she was dead.
Acorah’s second marriage, to Barbara Keeton (1985), ended in divorce. He is survived by his third wife, Gwen, whom he married in 1995, and by his son, Carl, from his first marriage.
• Derek Acorah (Derek Francis Johnson), spirit medium, born 27 January 1950; died 4 January 2020