We're sitting in the under-stage tunnel at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Opposite us is a series of arches. Behind them are further, bricked up arches and dark cavities. A cabinet contains old charred bits of wood and a few bones; remnants from the previous building on this site, which burnt down in the early eighteen hundreds.
"What's that noise?" there's a tapping at the top of stairs. "Can anyone smell lavender?" says Gerard, our tour guide, who has been telling us about the ghost of Dan Leno, the first pantomime dame, who is supposed to haunt these corridors still, rapping his walking stick on dressing room doors, dancing in his clogs and smelling of the lavender oil, which he used to drown the whiff of his chronic incontinence.
Suddenly, the lights go out. There is a gust of wind and an almighty crash. We all gasp in fright. Then the door at the top of the stairs opens and the through the light walks Nell Gwynne, with her basket of oranges, known to us as Katherine, the other tour guide. "Afternoon, my darlings!" she says and we all laugh nervously in relief.
I'm taking advantage of my time in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane to do the famous backstage tour with the rest of the cast. Drury Lane is the oldest and most haunted theatre in London. In fact, some say it is the most haunted building in the world. So far, I haven't personally seen any ghosts since we opened in June, but other members of cast and crew claim to have. So I've brought with me a real paranormal expert. Roger Clarke was, at fifteen, the youngest ever person to be invited to join the Society of Psychical Research. This and his book A Natural History of Ghosts, make him a bit of an authority on supernatural phenomena, so he should be able to tell whether our gorgeous old theatre really is full of ghosts or is merely the backdrop for the projections of a bunch of hysterical actors.
What is it about theatres that makes them so particularly prone to ghosts? To the extent that some theatres still have a bare bulb, or 'ghost light' burning at all times to keep the spirits away? There's something unsettling about an empty theatre; rows and rows of empty seats, vast spooky areas of darkness above your head, drafts that seem to come from nowhere. And the whole purpose of the building is to make people imagine that something is there, which isn't there. Actors are capable of making you believe in stuff that isn't real, and the way they do it is to convince themselves first. Couple that with the history of murders, fires, burials and bombs that have beset this particular theatre and it's not surprising, I suppose, that we have a ghostly tradition.
The most well known and often sighted of the Drury Lane ghosts is 'The Man in Grey'. He wears an 18th Century hat, wig and cloak and is seen in the fourth row of the Upper Circle between the hours of ten and six - if you're lucky that is; evidently he avoids dud shows. Then he walks along the row of seats and through the wall. When refurbishment of the theatre was going on in the 1840s, behind that wall a cavity was found that contained a skeleton with a knife in its chest, so many legends have arisen as to his identity. Sightings of the Man in Grey began in the twentieth century, the biggest was in 1939, when the entire cast of The Dancing Years saw him. Why he waited a hundred years to start his haunting is not explained. But more of that later.
Our other most popular ghosts are; the severed head of the clown, Joseph Grimaldi, seen floating in one of the boxes, the great but troubled actor Charles Macklin - who murdered a colleague in the wings over a wig by putting his cane through his eye, and the mysterious 'Helping Hand' ghost - possibly Dan Leno again - who nudges actors into better positions on the stage and pats them on the back when they get a laugh. The Helping Hand ghost is sometimes confused with the 'Jacket Tugging' ghost, who likes to tug your jacket when you are bowing and to goose dancing girls and plays around with wigs, false moustaches and props. It's nice to think that all of our ghosts are reputed to be benign, camp even, and that their behaviour is as theatrical in the spirit world as it was in this one.
It's strange for me seeing the place I work in every day in a different light. Or should I say dark? I have to say that ghosts do not figure very heavily in my daily list of concerns. But I don't have to ask around much amongst the cast and crew to find that the tradition is still going strong. Wigs and wig combs have disappeared, floated to the floor even. Swing doors have swung to reveal - just for an instant - a man in a beige trilby. Could that, in fact, have been the tricorn hat of the Man in Grey? Sudden gusts of wind have been experienced and strange knockings and sharp intakes of breath have been heard. There are reports of tugged trouser legs, moustaches getting stuck onto mirrors, and people hearing their name being called out. Is this all because nowadays people are so alert to the legend that even a water bottle rolling across the floor is attributed to ghost activity?
Speaking to Roger Clarke after our tour into the gloomier recesses of the building, he seems more interested in these unexplained, random and apparently trivial phenomena than in the big stories. He long ago gave up being an official 'ghost hunter', he explains. That's something he did in his youth. In fact Drury Lane has been the subject of various sealed up investigations, including once, an episode of BBC's Most Haunted, and none of them have ever come up with anything concrete. But Roger seems convinced that there is something going on here. Exactly what, is less clear.
In his book, Roger divides ghosts into eight distinct categories, which go from poltergeists - the ones who move things around - at one end, to ghosts of the living, and time slips - where the witness goes back to the ghost's time - at the other. On the way, he takes into account things called 'mental imprint manifestations', and 'crisis or death survival apparitions'. There is an interesting section on something called 'infrasound', or low level building hum, which tests are revealing can actually affect your eyesight and perceptions. Could that explain the Drury Lane legends?
There is not the space here to analyse each ghost sighting at Drury Lane, but suffice it to say that we have at least four of Roger's categories here. For instance a bomb landed on the top of the building during the war and crashed through three floors, eventually coming to a halt unexploded. Several of the reports I have read and heard are of crashing noises, things banging up against doors, of almighty fallings. This is what might be called a 'crisis survival apparition'. The Man in Grey could be one of many of these things, but is most likely to be hoax, as I discovered when I talked to Mark Fox, the Drury Lane theatre archivist.
When we meet in his attic office among the rafters of the building, initially Mark tells me is that he is sceptical. The mass 1939 sighting of the Man in Grey, for instance was much puffed up by the great theatre historian Macqueen Pope. Macqueen Pope also happened to be the advertising manager of the Theatre Royal at the time and some might say that he would not have been above hiring an actor to walk across the circle in 18th century kit. Although how he got him to walk through the wall is another matter.
But as I found with Roger Clarke, even the sceptical Mark Fox thinks there is something unexplained and spooky about the building. He has heard his name called out late at night, and strange crashing noises against his door. His dog is afraid to go down certain corridors.
Personally I have never had any kind of supernatural experience, and I've been working in West End theatres since 1978. Then again, some nights, if I'm leaving the building late I experience a slight wisp of uneasiness. What if my jacket were suddenly tugged? I look more carefully into the peripheral areas of my vision.
As I write this, late after a show in my dressing room, I can't help looking over my shoulder in the mirror. Everyone's gone home, the theatre is empty but for Jill the stage door keeper, and she's miles away on the other side of the building. My door rattles and a draft blows in from under it. What was that noise? Mice?
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London. www.CharlieandtheChocolateFactory.com