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From Across the Pond: "High Spirits with Shirley Ghostman"

I feel your pain, I feel your shame, but you're not to blame. You don't watch High Spirits with Shirley Ghostman, despite my many attempts to bring an American audience to this British import. I've tried talking about it in my What I'm Watching section, I've tried randomly dropping mentions into other posts, and I've tried sending telepathic messages to you, dear readers, all in an attempt to get you to tune into this hilarious and cringe-inducing show.

Currently airing on BBC America, High Spirits with Shirley Ghostman is a spoof psychic show quite unlike anything we currently have on U.S. television. Think Da Ali G Show crossed with Medium with a bit of Waiting for Guffman's Corky St. Claire thrown in there for good measure, all narrated by ubiquitous Brit actor Patrick Stewart. It should be noted there is no such person as psychic Shirley Ghostman. No, Shirley is a character created by comedian/actor Marc Wootton, who plays Shirley to the hilt as a white-suited, fur coat-wearing fraud, complete with frosted nails and a blonde mullet, and imbues him with a caustic, aggressive personality that is as eccentric as it is sadistic.

The show consists of several segments, all enacted by Wootton in various guises. The main sequence each week consists of Shirley Ghostman's appearance in an eerily lit (and garishly decorated) old church where he uses his dead dog Sheba as a spirit guide to read (and usually denigrate) the unsuspecting people in the church's audience, all of whom believe (at first anyway) that they are witnessing an actual psychic. Even worse, Shirley claims to have the ability to channel dead famous people, which he does to great and ghastly effect, channeling Princess Diana and Colonel Sanders before an uneasy and often horrified crowd. And each episode closes with a musical number in which Shirley is backed by a full Gospel choir as he sings a song channeled from beyond the grave from a famous singer (only after speedily issuing a bit of non-litigious business).

Shirley is far from alone in his quest. He has a crack team of "paranormalists" at his disposal, all of whom are played by the talented and twisted Wootton. Former pest control expert Alf Sczcurek is a Polish psychic who has seen too many viewings of Ghostbusters and now uses a homemade ghost-catching vacuum to catch errant spirits. Investigator Ian Jackson explores the darker mysteries of the occult, encountering a Rumpologist (seriously, you can't make this stuff up) who claims that she can predict the future by looking at people's butts. Finally, there's Colin Reynolds, a drunkard who claims he can psychically transform himself into any animal (notice I said psychically transform, not physically), usually with rather bizarre results. The funniest by far is Alf, who in one episode arrives at a woman's house to perform an exorcism... only to repeatedly hit on her, albeit in a mostly unintelligible accent.

My favorite ongoing gag on the show is Shirley's Spirit Academy, a sort of American Idol-style competition to find a psychic apprentice to train under Shirley. Each week, Shirley forces the contestants to perform increasingly bizarre feats, such as inanimate object reading, spirit channeling, and telepathic reading, before then allowing all of them (yes, all of them) onto the next round. Here's where it really gets wicked: Shirley invites them to stay at the Spirit Academy, which is actually a deserted and creepy former asylum. There they'll be forced to sleep on the floors in drafty, decaying rooms and, if they fail to psychically predict what they're being served for dinner, are sent to bed without food. And each week, Shirley devises some weird rite or ritual that he forces his "guests" to perform (last week's involved channeling a murderous spirit that haunts the asylum and kills his victims by defecating in their mouths... seriously) before eliminating one, who will be forced down "the walk of shame." It's both truly hilarious and disturbing at the same time. Why do these people--granted, a rather, um, eccentric and motley crew--remain part of the Spirit Academy instead of just walking out the front door? Why put up with this kind of torment? Well, they're on television, obviously, and Shirley plays to this with a knowing wink and a campy flair for drama.

Still, there's nothing that can beat the sight of Shirley interacting with the everyday public, as he visits antiques fairs and--in one of my favorite bits--goes to an optician to buy sunglasses because he feels that everyone is staring at him. They are, Shirley, but it's only because you are so damn hilarious.

"High Spirits with Shirley Ghostman" airs Friday evenings at 9 pm EST/10 pm PST on BBC America. (You can also catch a second airing tonight at 11 pm EST/ 8 pm PST.)

What's On Tonight

8 pm: NCIS (CBS); Celebrity Cooking Showdown (NBC); Gilmore Girls (WB); According to Jim/Hope & Faith (ABC); American Idol (FOX); America's Next Top Model (UPN)

9 pm: The Unit (CBS); Scrubs/Teachers (NBC); Pepper Dennis (WB); Hope & Faith/Less Than Perfect (ABC); House (FOX); Veronica Mars (UPN)

10 pm: Criminal Minds (CBS); Law & Order: SVU (NBC); Boston Legal (ABC)

What I'll Be Watching

8 pm: Gilmore Girls.

Hopefully continuing the high quality from last week's episode, tonight's brand new episode was written and directed by creator Amy Sherman-Palladino... and she usually delivers the goods. On tonight's episode ("I Get a Sidekick Out of You"), celebratory plans on both sides of Lane and Zach's wedding party get messed up in typical Gilmore fashion.

9 pm: Veronica Mars.

On a new episode of Veronica Mars ("Nevermind the Buttocks"), Veronica tries to locate the person who ran over a classmate's dog. Meanwhile, will be get closer to solving the mystery of the bus crash? While the Dick and Cassidy Casablancas insurance payoff is a nifty red herring, my money is definitely on Mayor Woody Goodman as the devious mastermind.


Anonymous said…
"Shirley Ghostman" once again proves that British comedy rules. While I would not want to be trapped in a room with Shirley, I do love to watch him prance about throwing tantrums and getting jealous of his dead dog. He is a painfully hilarious character who, like a spoiled child, commands our attention.
Anonymous said…
Glad the Americans like our Shirley! I hope the BBC commissions another series, but like most of Marc Wooton's other stuff, the problem is that most people will have seen it and won't be duped a second-run around.

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