Uncanny podcaster coming to Yorkshire with show for sceptics and believers

Danny Robins, writer of 2:22 – A Ghost Story and creator of the hit BBC podcast and TV series Uncanny, is coming to Yorkshire with a stage show aimed at both sceptics and believers. He spoke to Greg Wright.

Forget the headless horsemen, spectral monks and grimacing psychics.

Real terror can be found in the most mundane settings; inside apparently humdrum family homes, student bedrooms, playgrounds, tube stations and farmhouses, where ordinary people are confronted by something which makes them question everything they thought they knew.

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Our collective fascination with the supernatural goes some way to explaining the stunning success of Uncanny, a podcast which has had more than 10m plays on BBC Sounds.

Danny Robbins is the host of the hit podcast UncannyDanny Robbins is the host of the hit podcast Uncanny
Danny Robbins is the host of the hit podcast Uncanny

In each episode the writer and journalist Danny Robins speaks to people who have plucked up the courage to tell the world about their unnerving experiences. They know what they saw, even if they can't explain it.

The spin-off Uncanny TV series ranks among the five most popular documentaries on the BBC iplayer. The affable Mr Robins will soon hit the road with a stage show which aims to provide sceptics and believers with plenty of food for thought.

His other podcasts, The Battersea Poltergeist and the Witch Farm, told real life paranormal tales with support from a stellar cast. He’s also written a hit West End play, 2.22 A Ghost Story, a darkly comic thriller about a mother plagued by apparently unearthly noises at night.

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Mr Robins was fascinated with the stage as a child and the obsession with detail which accompanies all great theatrical productions has underpinned the success of Uncanny.

"I went to see my first Shakespeare play in Newcastle when I was about six or seven years old,’ he recalled. “I was also fascinated by comedy and I loved the rhythm of jokes. I started doing stand up comedy in the pubs and clubs of the North East from the age of 15 and 16. Alongside that, I had this kind of void in my life, of growing up in a very belief free household. My mum was an atheist. She had been brought up as a Catholic and decided very definitely that religion was not for her."

However, trips to his devout grandparents provided a different perspective.

"I was just fascinated by what made people believe,’’ he said. “At the same time, I was really interested in ghost stories. Over time I became very interested in the idea that there was more to the universe than I might know or comprehend. Some people would have found God, and I found ghosts.”

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At the heart of Uncanny is a respectful focus on the evidence. In each episode, a gently sceptical voice tries to find a prosaic explanation for the distressing or just plain baffling phenomena experienced by the people at the heart of each case.

"Belief without evidence is madness; that way lies conspiracy theory and lots of things that blight our lives right now,’’ said Mr Robins. “But belief with evidence is sensible."

He said his interest in the supernatural "bubbled away underneath everything, this itch to scratch" as he built a successful career as a comedian and writer.

The Battersea Poltergeist came out at the beginning of lockdown when many people were asking deep questions.

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He said: “We were in this moment when life froze and you had time to think and also the familiar became unfamiliar. Our homes suddenly became oddly claustrophobic and oppressive."

Before Uncanny, many paranormal programmes had been based around film crews paying night-time visits to places which were said to be haunted, in the hope something would happen.

"That expectation bred anti-climax,’’ said Mr Robins. “I'm not knocking those shows, because a lot of them were fun and entertaining, but they pushed themselves into a corner. The thing about Uncanny is that an anti-climax is impossible because something has actually happened. A lot of paranormal shows are obsessed by place, I'm obsessed by people. I'm fascinated by what happens to these people to make them feel so frightened or so moved.

"Some of the most powerful stories are experiences related to grief and loss,’’ he said. "When we went on tour around the UK, we heard some really powerful stories about people thinking they had had contact with someone they had lost, but also the flip side of that, people who were desperate to make contact with people they'd lost and frustrated that they couldn't.

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"I'm someone who is very much torn between belief and scepticism. I would very much love to believe but I don't think I do at the moment; I'm on that cusp where I can't explain the things people tell me but I certainly haven't signed up to fully believe yet."

"I feel our society deals too much in polarised belief structures,’’ he added. “It's an OK thing to say, 'I'm not sure' or 'I don't know'."

He said the concept of “Team Believer” and “Team Sceptic” was built around the model of two people listening to evidence calmly and objectively.

"If we can do that talking about ghosts, just what would it be like if we could do that about other things? Like politics or religion?"

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"I always feel deeply privileged that people share these stories with me. It's a real journey of trust. A lot of people wouldn't have felt comfortable telling their stories to really close friends and sometimes their partners.

"The fact we've created a safe space where people do feel comfortable and respected and know they will be treated kindly is something I'm really proud of. I also feel the discussions around Uncanny from people watching and listening is really respectful. There is a reason we're still talking about ghosts. Even if you don't believe in ghosts, you don't think it's a preposterous conversation to consider whether they might exist.

"We as a society need ghosts for some reason. We need ghosts as a way of processing death; whether you think ghosts are something we have invented, and they are just a comfort blanket or you believe they are the dead returning to try and pass on messages; it's a part of the discourse around death.

"People sometimes say to me, 'Do ghosts exist?' I say, 'Yes, because people are seeing them’.

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"You can believe ghosts are a malfunction of the brain or the dead coming back to life, but whatever they might be, they are something that feels entirely real to the person experiencing them.”

The live show – Uncanny: I Know What I Saw – is returning this spring following its sell-out success last year, including a performance at York Grand Opera on June 18. He loves the buzz of live shows which can prove cathartic as people build up the confidence to share their stories. At heart, you sense he’s still the child in love with the theatre.

"You never know what sort of stories you're going to get; sometimes they are spellbinding and you can feel an episode of Uncanny in the making,’’ he said.

Uncanny: I Know What I Saw tours from May 23 to July 22 2024 For ticket and venues visit uncannylive.com

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