Bright lights frame the stage where Derek Acorah is about to start his séance. Roving microphones are being checked. Cameras are being positioned to capture every word, every facial movement, every potential tear, nod, shake of the head. Claims that his ‘gift’ is simply showmanship and dramatic seem apt in light of the performance that’s being set up for his appearance at the Oxford Union. An hour and a half later, to say the séance was disappointing was an understatement.

Acorah, however, seems satisfied. ‘There was honesty out there. There were intelligent minds there, and considering there were a lot less people than the numbers I’m doing it to in theatres, even in the small nucleus I know there were people who if I’d been lucky enough to connect with they would have been so forthcoming. I was expecting sceptics. A sceptical mind and a cynical mind are healthy in my opinion, believe it or not, because it shows we’re using that brain matter that the old boss has given us. And I do love healthy debate; I question spirits, I tested spirits for years and years before I symbolically put my hands up and said I trust and believe. I actually expected a little bit more sitting on the fence but leaning sceptically.’

Derek Acorah turned to mediumship after an injury ended his career with Liverpool FC. A rather disconcerting career move, he concedes, but he knew it was right. ‘My gran, who was a working medium, used to write these diaries and in one she was so specific about the injury that would take me out of football that I knew it must be true. And she did a little drawing of a TV and wrote the letters GRANAD, and the first TV station I worked on was Granada.’

And with that first appearance Acorah began a television career that’s spanned over 20 years. His programmes Most Haunted, Derek Acorah’s Ghost Town and Derek Acorah have helped fuel the nation’s hunger for the supernatural. However, his claim to be one of the most respected television psychics was tainted in 2005 when there were accusations of fraud after claims he had pretended to be possessed by the fictional characters Kreed Kafer (an anagram of Derek Faker) and Rik Eedles (Derek Lies), who he had been fed misinformation about. Acorah’s voice rises slightly, but he flashes a charming smile, ‘I’ve had to defend myself against the media since I finished with that programme. It was sabotage, complete sabotage. A year before I’d asked for a meeting with the executives at LIVING TV and I asked to leave Most Haunted, although they couldn’t understand. You know, it’s an award-winning programme, it’s getting so many viewers, it’s an embarrassment to the bigger channels because of viewing figures, why would you want to leave? But I wanted to do other things, however, I agreed to one more series to give them time to develop another show for me. Unfortunately I let certain people know about this and they felt quite threatened that my new show would be competition to them. Then LIVING TV, Yvette Fielding and Karl Beattie put this parapsychologist, Ciarán O’Keeffe, up to making a statement, and then they threatened me with court action. So I said, ‘sue me, I’ll prove I’m telling the truth’. It wasn’t Derek who backed off, their solicitors did. I’d won, but the truth never came out’.

Acorah’s work, communicating with spirits, is led by his spirit guide, Sam. Acorah believes that over 2000 years ago in a past life he was an Ethiopian child whose family were murdered when his village was invaded. He escaped and was found by Masumi, a seer who used to visit their village, and the two travelled until the little boy was killed while trying to steal bread to eat. ‘I used to hate going to bed because I would go into this dream and suddenly I’m re-enacting this situation where there are families in this area of the same colour and I had a sense of belonging in this family and I got to know Sam (in those days, Masumi). After this long period of flash backs of my previous life, it was only then that I realised this must have been me. But then you have to keep on enquiring and pushing until you know the knowledge you have is neither illusion nor, in some people’s thoughts, schizophrenia. You have to learn to put aside those fears, which do come to you when you’re hearing a voice outside those which you normally know.’

Thankfully, it’s Acorah that brings up the issue of mental illness that dogs the majority of people who claim they hear voices. ‘But I know it’s true. This information is coming from people that I trust; I knew them both in two different lifetimes and just because they’re across the verge it doesn’t mean to stop trusting them. I asked them for ideas and impressions of the other side, and I’ve based my beliefs off that. I don’t believe in God in the traditional Christian sense. I believe we have a creating force; it’s all powerful, all seeing, technically humanitarian, which has the ability to understand what our needs are, and what our needs are when we leave here. That’s all I know. There’s a lot I don’t know, an awful lot. I’ll only gain that knowledge when I leave the universe the next time. I live my life in the knowledge that this is real. I see the cruelties and the bad things that happen in the world as much as anyone else, but because I have this belief, well it’s not even a faith, it’s gone beyond that, it’s got to a truth, that if I continue to walk the truth then I know I’m not disrespective. I only want to help.’

Yet this ‘help’ is often seen as manipulating the vulnerable or playing on the emotions of the grieving to goad them into reactions solely to make good television, and indeed he’s turned his gift into a very lucrative career. Does he find it justifiable to use his abilities for entertainment? ‘I don’t believe its manipulating the ‘vulnerable and the needy’ and all those words. I don’t believe in the vulnerability that the media portrays. Over the years, I’ve done readings for the highest level of intellect: doctors, specialists, dentists, government figures, one big member of the clergy who swore me to secrecy. He wanted answers and he used the information he’d got from his father in the spirit world and it’s helped over 200, 000 people. I’m utilising my gift to help people who before had been blind and lost. Yes, you can go on my website and mediums are available, but they’re not saying, ‘Phone me! Do this, pay that!”

On his website, at the bottom of an extensive list of tour dates, stands a short disclaimer, ‘Due to recent EU legislation it is now necessary to state the following: Theatre demonstrations are to be deemed for entertainment purposes only’. This disclaimer also stands (discreetly) at the bottom of all the banners put up in the theatres Acorah performs at. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t like his gift dismissed as ‘entertainment’. ‘It’s so silly. We’ve got to put up these notices, but, you know, it’s not Derek Acorah’s sentiment, we’re made to by Ofcom, by the EU. By law it has to be displayed. A few years ago, Ofcom said it’s ok for mediumship to be demonstrated on niche programmes and non-terrestrial channels. They said that people who watched niche programming rather than the 5 main stations were more intelligent. Imagine if I said, ‘did you know all you people who watch terrestrial TV, you’re thick!’ I mean I have free will; if I don’t want to watch a programme, I’ve the intelligence to change over.’ It’s a shame then that he didn’t foresee the opposition that his live Michael Jackson séance would provoke. Winning the accolade the ‘single worst hour of television produced in 2009’, it was branded distasteful, sick and exploitative by members of the public and press alike. ‘Can you honestly imagine anything – anything – more anus-invertingly unpalatable than this?’ Derren Brown succinctly summed up. Nevertheless Acorah maintains that it ‘did help people from across the world. I mean, I only had 26 minutes. You normally need 2 or 3 hours to connect with a spirit.’

Amidst the hubbub of thanks and apologies as Derek is rushed off to speak to a waiting tabloid reporter he flashes another charming smile at the rabble of students clamouring to hear a somewhat evasive answer to their question. I’m about to ask why someone decides on a career where they must constantly and publicly defend their beliefs, but Derek seems lost in the attention.