Turn back the clock about seven years and you’ll find that Danny Robins had a perfectly decent career on the go.
It was mainly focused around comedy writing, either for popular Radio 4 shows like Rudy’s Rare Records and The Cold Swedish Winter, CBBC’s Young Dracula or mainstream BBC One panel shows. He felt proud of the work he was doing too, but, he says, “I was feeling increasingly unfulfilled by comedy. I wasn’t enjoying it. I felt like I was locked into desperately trying to fill remits, to be this guy who fits Radio 4 or prime time BBC One or whatever. I was ending up being a jack of all trades and I just wasn’t very happy with that. I found myself wanting to do something that said a bit more about the world.”
The solution arrived in an unexpected fashion when a friend confided in Robins that she’d seen a ghost.
“There was something about her story that was incredibly compelling and real and convincing, and it struck me that people in our friendship group would react to her in very different ways. Some people would believe her, some would laugh at her. Some would be irritated by her, some would question her mental health. And I just thought, if you could distil that spectrum of reactions into a couple, you’d have that divergence of opinion between people who love each other – that thing of ‘how can you love me if you don’t believe me?’. That felt like a huge, huge conflict and I wanted to explore that.”
As a result, Robins was inspired to write a stage play, 2:22: A Ghost Story, and when it finally made its debut in August 2021, it proved to be a sizeable hit, running in one West End theatre or another pretty much ever since. It’s now spawned a touring version, which arrives at Salford’s Lowry to make audiences jump just in time for Hallowe’en.
Writing the play tapped directly into some of Robins’ deepest childhood interests. “I loved theatre from a really early age,” he says. “I was about six or seven when I went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company with my mum. I remember seeing rain on stage and thinking it was like magic. So I joined youth theatres. I was in the People’s Youth Theatre in Newcastle and I sort of hoovered up theatre.”
His other main interest at the time, though, was the supernatural.
“My two twin obsessions were ghosts and theatre basically, and they kind of combined in The Woman in Black.” The celebrated, atmospheric stage version of Susan Hill’s Victorian ghost story, until recently a West End staple, was perhaps the key example of genuinely scary theatre in its day. “I remember going to see The Woman in Black as a teenager and being really struck by it, thinking that it was amazing and really frightening. It’s a very simple and effective demonstration of what theatre does best.”
In writing 2:22, the power of The Woman in Black remained a kind of touchstone for Robins, but only up to a point. “It is a great reference point, a great inspiration, but what I wanted to do in 2:22 was create a modern ghost story. The Woman in Black is very much a period piece. So many of the ghost stories that we consume are period pieces – Dickens, M.R. James – lots of things set in that past of gas-lit streets and big old houses in the countryside. I wanted to write something that’s set in a very recognisable modern house. I mean, it’s effectively set in in my house.”
The plot of 2:22 (as much as spoiler sensors will allow) is that young parents Jenny and Sam have bought an old house which requires renovation. Jenny starts to have strange experiences at the same time every night – hence the title – but Sam is certain that there’s a rational explanation. When the couple host friends for a dinner party, they’re all drawn into finding out the cause.
Robins says: “I wanted to write a play that felt recognisable and modern and contemporary and dealt with people like us, so that when you come and watch it, hopefully you see people like you on stage. I don’t get frightened by CGI monsters and ghosts, or by headless horsemen or phantom monks, but I get really frightened by the idea of stuff happening to real people in a real house, where you feel like ‘if it can happen to them, it can happen to me’.”
At this point it’s important to acknowledge that Robins has more than one prominent paranormal-centric project on the go at present, so much so that this Hallowe’en is, in his own words, “Danny overload”. To rewind again to the time when he was writing 2:22, Robins decided to follow up on his friend sharing her own personal ghost story by doing some more research.
“As part of that research, I started asking on social media if anybody else I knew had a ghost story. I wanted to see how widespread it was and how people would feel talking about it. I started to get things from friends, and then it kind of spread and became friends of friends, and then suddenly I was getting stuff from strangers.. It felt like the tip of an iceberg suddenly, and I just thought, these stories are too fascinating to keep to myself. So it gave me the idea to ask these people if they’d take part in a podcast.”
So it was that, long before 2:22 even reached the stage, Robins launched Haunted, an independent podcast in which he, as presenter, examined personal stories of the supernatural, often talking to ‘sceptics’ or ‘believers’ in search of explanations. This begat The Battersea Poltergeist, a series-length podcast investigation into a real-life 1950s paranormal case for the BBC. Launched in March 2021, the series became a genuine international phenomenon, launching Robins’ career in a whole different direction. In turn, this lead to Uncanny, an ongoing BBC podcast series following a similar format but looking at a different case every episode, the runaway success of which shows no signs of slowing. Besides 2:22, Robins is currently promoting the latest series of the Uncanny podcast, plus the successful new TV version, an accompanying book, and a touring stage version. Make no mistake, this Hallowe’en, the nation is in the grip of Uncannymania.
For Robins, the initial COVID-era success of The Battersea Poltergeist – a US TV adaptation of which is currently in development with horror specialists Blumhouse – came at “a moment in time when we were all lonely and we all wanted to be entertained, and I think podcasts became incredibly important for people at that point. Sometimes people have said to me they feel like I’m their friend, which I love. That’s the ultimate tribute to anybody making this kind of stuff, and I think that relationship has continued. It was forged with that Battersea audience in lockdown, at a time when a haunted house story resonated because we all felt haunted by our houses.”
Nevertheless, he suggests that the continued interest has gone beyond that initial period because of what’s going on in the world around us.
“Interest in the paranormal is enduring, but there’s a particular fervour for it at the moment, I think, just due to these strange times we live in, really chaotic, uncertain, and sadly death-filled times. We live in an era of COVID and climate change and war and all these horrible things that make us think about mortality, and that makes us think about the opposite of mortality, if you like – the idea of life after death.”
Robins’ one-man real-life ghost story industry might be going strong, but he confesses to an urge to follow up 2:22 with more fiction work.
“I would love to write another play,” he says. “I would love to tell a supernatural drama story on screen as well. That’s something that I’m really exploring and keen to do. To create a supernatural thriller for TV or for cinema, that’s something I would be really intrigued by.”
However, he doesn’t seem anywhere near the stage where exploring his paranormal fascination has become a chore.
“Just starting to kind of explore those ghost stories, I suddenly felt like, ‘This is what I want to do. This is the thing I care about, this is the thing I’ve been interested in all my life.’ Suddenly it felt like more of a vocation than a career, and I just loved it. Making Battersea was the first time that I’ve really, honestly felt I was using my own voice and speaking as myself. I feel a total release and a freedom. Now I look forward to going to work. I enjoy my work and I love the fact that it connects with people.
“Doing this tour going around the country at the moment, having that connection, meeting people who are interested in the same stuff as you, is just brill. I mean, how could you not love being in a room full of people who enjoy what you’re doing and are like-minded, who are seeking the same kind of answers? It feels like magic. I talked about that magic of theatre, and this feels like magic again to me.”
Main image: 2:22: A Ghost Story. Credit: Johan Persson.
2:22: A Ghost Story is at The Lowry in Salford from October 31 to November 4, 2023, and continues touring into 2024. For more information, follow this link:https://222aghoststory.com/uk-tour-tickets/
The live show, Uncanny: I Know What I Saw, is currently on tour, with dates including Sheffield Crucible (November 3) and Salford Lowry (November 4). For more information, click here.
For more details on The Battersea Poltergeist, the podcast and TV versions of Uncanny and Robins’ book Into the Uncanny, see his website here.