Last year, at a private school fundraiser, Clinton Baptiste gave a live psychic reading that ended as fans of Phoenix Nights might expect: with Baptiste scarpering from a furious member of the audience. In this particular case, a Frenchman named Pascal. In front of 500 people, Baptiste passed a message to Pascal from the other side. “Someone called Dave says you’re a c–––.” As Clinton Baptiste always says: “Don’t shoot the messenger, I’m only telling you what the spirits are telling me.”
Clinton Baptiste, of course, is a real fake – a comedy psychic, medium, and clairvoyant played by Alex Lowe. The character first appeared in the noughties sitcom Phoenix Nights, one of many disastrous cabaret acts to come through the doors of Peter Kay’s fictional working men’s club. But on this particular occasion, Lowe himself walked back out the doors with a busted nose, after delivering one insult too many from the celestial realm. Clinton has since been resurrected for a live act and podcast – the Paranormal Podcast – which is currently in its third series and releases new episodes every Wednesday. But as Clinton might say himself, the spirit of that Phoenix Nights debut is very strong. The school incident was a case of life imitating art.
“In the knockabout style of Clinton you assume everyone’s on board,” says Alex Lowe. “When you’re up and down the country on tour, the English sensibility gets it. But there’s a difference between doing it in the north west – where Phoenix Nights is god-like and people know it inside and out – and going to the home counties and doing it with a French bloke. He chased me down a corridor and tried to kill me. He had to be rugby tackled by my agent and James Gill, the compere. At the time I was laughing because it was so ridiculous. I had PTSD a few days later. You’re slightly taking your life in your own hands doing some of the stuff I do as Clinton…”
Alex Lowe, 52, was a child actor. As a teenager, he appeared in BBC’s Mansfield Park, and had an early association with Kenneth Branagh. Lowe was Branagh’s stand-in and performed in the Renaissance Theatre. He also had supporting roles in Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing and Peter’s Friends (“I played a woodchopper who had it off with Emma Thompson,” says Lowe). Now, Lowe is best known as a comedy actor. “It's sort of where my passion lay all along,” he tells me.
His many comedy credits include The 11 O'Clock Show (“I was on between Ali G and Ricky Gervais… I don’t know what happened to those two”), Fun at the Funeral Parlour, and Sam Delaney's News Thing. To some fans he's best known as dithering octogenarian 'Barry from Watford', who was a comedy caller on radio and grew into his own act, with live shows and a long-running podcast partnership with Angelos Epithemiou (Dan Skinner). Lowe describes it as “a bit like Derek and Clive but not quite as crude.”
Lowe first met Peter Kay at the 1998 Edinburgh Fringe, where Lowe was performing The Wrestling, a one-man show based on Simon Garfield's book about the glory days of British grappling. Kay came to review the show for BBC Two’s Edinburgh Nights, along with wrestler-turned-Auf Wiedersehen, Pet star Pat Roach. “That sort of faded glamour end-of-the-pier British entertainment was right up Peter’s street,” says Lowe about The Wrestling. “I think he came more than once.” Lowe appeared in That Peter Kay Thing – playing a bingo hall staffer in the episode 'Eyes Down' – and recalls being invited onto Phoenix Nights. “Peter phoned me up one day and said, [adopting a spot-on Peter Kay voice] ‘Have I got a part for you!’”
Though Clinton Baptiste’s appearance in Phoenix Nights amounts to little more than three minutes, he was a much-quoted fan favourite (indeed, one of my own friendships was largely forged over repeating Clinton Baptiste lines). Billed as an “international psychic”, Baptiste emerged from beyond the celestial realm/smoke machine, with his glorious platinum mane and low-rent campery (“Y'alright... spirits very strong tonight, very strong”). Clinton’s psychic abilities were immediately impressive: “I’m getting the name… John. Is there a John in the audience?”
Making his way around the Phoenix Club's Pennine Suite, Clinton gave relationship advice (“Don’t you think you should tell her John, before you both get hurt?”); delivered tough news (“Don’t worry love, you’ll still be able to visit”); and tackled big issues (“Hands up who can’t have children”). Clinton's extra-sensory assessment of one large, hard-as-nails drinker landed him in trouble. “I’m getting the word… nonce,” said Clinton, before being walloped by the drinker.
“To this day, 20 years later, that’s the thing people say to me,” says Lowe. “It’s a horrible, horrible catchphrase. I do these Celeb VM messages. People want me to do these dedications, and nine times out of ten I have to call their friend a nonce. I’m always at great pains to say, ‘I’m not calling you that, it’s your friend Dave!’ When I’m touring there’s a queue of people with their iPhones out wanting me to call someone that straight into the lens. I try to fend them off with ‘Y’alright? Spirits fading now…’ But they don’t want that, they want nonce.”
Clinton was the creation of Kay and co-writer Neil Fitzmaurice. Like the rest of Phoenix Nights, the character was brilliantly observed. As a regular visitor to caravan parks and Butlins as a child, I saw many entertainers, particularly hypnotists and illusionists, with powerful Clinton Baptiste vibes. He feels like someone Peter Kay might have seen on the north west club circuit. Lowe says the inspiration is more obvious than that. “It’s clearly, clearly Derek Acorah,” he laughs. “I think Neil Fitzmaurice tipped me the wink that that’s who it was. In fact, no one’s been particularly coy about it.”
As far back as Phoenix Nights, Lowe wanted to turn Baptiste as a live act. But it wasn’t until Phoenix Nights returned in 2015, for a run of live shows at the Manchester Arena, that Peter Kay gave Lowe his blessing to take on the character. “He let me do it, very kindly, I have to say,” says Lowe. “I run everything I do as Clinton by Peter as a courtesy. He’s been nothing but supportive.”
Lowe took Clinton on tour with his stand-up show The Paranormalist Returns. His psychic readings and messages from beyond were delivered with characteristically poor tact, but Lowe thinks the key to Clinton's success was an affection between the character and audience. “People respond to Clinton because – although he’s acerbic – he’s not nasty,” says Lowe. “He’s got a vicious tongue but he’s a buffoon. He’s the butt of his own joke. If you’re too nasty, and dealing with death, people can get upset. You do it with a certain charm and twinkle in your eye.”
The show was a big ticket-seller but Covid cut the tour short, with dates postponed. “I can’t tell you how happy I was touring that show,” says Lowe. “Suddenly it just stopped dead. It felt really cruel. I thought the worst that would happen is I might lose my voice on stage. I didn’t expect a worldwide pandemic.”
A pandemic, however, seems like the sort of environment in which a charlatan like Clinton Baptiste would prosper: a golden opportunity to sniff out a few bob. “It is comedically, but you have to be very careful,” says Lowe. “The older you get the less funny death seems.” During lockdown, Clinton plied his trade with seances and readings over Zoom, an oddly apt medium for the character. But Lowe misses the adrenaline of live performances. “You put down the laptop, take the wig off, and go back to watching telly with the wife,” he laughs.
While Clinton's clairvoyant skills might be phoney, the true trick is making the character completely authentic. Like the distinction between Steve Coogan and Alan Partridge, a commitment to the performance and in-character appearances make Alex Lowe and Clinton Baptiste convincingly feel like two separate personas. Clinton has even become a semi-regular guest on Chris Moyles’ Radio X show, and Lowe has gradually built up the character's backstory. He's created a similar sense of strange comic reality with Barry from Watford. “I feel like Clinton and Barry are separate people to me,” says Lowe. “Trust me, I spend a lot more time on costumes for Clinton than I do with Alex.” Clinton debuted a sequined jacket on Radio X this week, with a spangly rendition of his 'third eye'. “My wife thinks I’m like Tootsie, morphing into someone else,” Lowe says.
Also like Barry from Watford, Clinton has found new life in podcasting. Lowe recalls many “meetings about a meeting about a meeting” for radio and TV projects that never happened. Clinton Baptiste's Paranormal Podcast, which launched in 2018, has given Lowe creative autonomy. “It’s lovely to feel like you’re not dependent on a load of Oxbridge people to give you the nod once a millennia,” he says. “It’s nice to feel like I’m not going mad. There is an audience for it.”
Crammed with innuendo and British comedy's best swearing, the Paranormal Podcast is filthily funny. It's also unexpectedly insightful, as Lowe peels back the layers on the true tragedy of Clinton Baptiste: a fraud, certainly, but downtrodden too. It's a softer Clinton Baptiste than the original in Phoenix Nights, a believable trajectory for a bottom-of-the-barrel entertainer who's been beat up (we can presume figuratively and literally) for 20 years. Clinton joins a long line of British comedy greats – Tony Hancock, Basil Fawlty, Del Boy, Alan Partridge, and David Brent – who are woefully inept for the intellectual, social, and celebrity status they desperately crave.
Across the first two series, Clinton has pulled back the celestial curtains with psychic readings over the phone; trips to spooky locations; and fallings-out with almost every living being he comes across.
He's less malicious, but messages from the spirit world to his listeners are no less unpleasant: “Diane... someone called old Mr Brackley says you think it’s the central heating creaking at night. Not a bit of it. It’s my ghostly spirit hiding in your wardrobe! And I’m staring at you all night. I hope that’s a comfort to you, Diane”; “Dan in Rochester, your dad says, ‘I know you’re missing me, but leave off them Chinese takeaways or you’ll be seeing me sooner than you think!’”; “Peter in Chesham, please let the anger go, your mum says. There’s nothing you can do… Doctor Who’s a woman now, that’s it.”
Sometimes led by his spirit guide Taruak the Eskimo – later changed to Taruak the Inuit after he’s given a stern talking to about political correctness – Clinton has made contact with multiple dead celebrities on the podcast, including Kurt Cobain, Michael Jackson, Neil Armstrong, and Jesus Christ (“He’s got a beard and the long robes and everything”). But he is more haunted by pranksters or irate callers than spirits. “From the advice you gave me," says one caller, who had been present for one of Clinton's psychic readings. “You have completely and utterly ruined my life.” The calls are improvised, and guest stars include Harry Shearer, Neil Fitzmaurice, Lucy Montgomery, Vicki Pepperdine, Ted Robbins, Nina Wadia, and Dan Skinner.
Most popular are appearances from Clinton's friend-cum-arch rival, the flamboyant Scottish psychic Ramone (played by Lewis MacLeod). “I thought it would be funny if Clinton had a rival,” says Lowe. “They’re both equally camp and end-of-the-pier. Both claim to have a hotline to beyond the celestial curve but they’re similarly fraudulent.” Their meetings inevitably erupt into hilarious, foul-mouthed arguments about which of them is really channeling the ghost of Michael Jackson, whose book is most credible (clue: neither or them), or whose mother was the roughest old bag.
On the surface, Clinton vs. Ramone is an excuse for the pair of them to sling obscene mother insults at each. “It’s not exactly clever but if it makes me laugh,” says Lowe. “You’ve got to have the courage of your convictions. I think, ‘Well, I’m laughing…’” But there’s a bigger joke beneath it: Clinton, strangely asexual and without any obvious companionship, might need Ramone’s turbulent-but-codependent friendship more than he realises. Ramone is that sort of friend you want to see fail at every turn. But a friend nonetheless.
The latest series of the podcast has retooled the format. Co-written by Lowe and Josh Cluderay, the series has been in the works since lockdown began, and has been mostly recorded down the line. Clinton and Ramone are now stuck together in a teepee at a healing festival. “Clinton is with all these new agers, out of his depth, and trying to get up the social ladder,” says Lowe. “He doesn’t want to be an end-of-the-pier entertainer. He thinks he’s arrived in this alternative view of life, with all these posh middle class people, which is where he wants to be, but finds he doesn’t really fit into all that.”
So far Clinton has fallen foul of sexual deconditioning therapy, claims that he's located the remains of King Harold (under a Tesco loading bay), and a toxic masculinity workshop. With more episodes to come, there are more harsh lessons for Clinton Baptiste about his tragic-but-always-hilarious inadequacy. As Clinton Baptiste told the shocked regulars in the Phoenix Club: “You’ve got to be cruel to be kind!”