“I don’t understand why this squire is so anal,” is something I bet you never knew was once said by Cheryl neé Tweedy, FKA Cheryl Fernandez-Versini, FKA Cheryl Cole.
Cheryl is in the supposedly haunted Welsh manor house, Plas Teg. And she is pissed. The ghost of a posh 17th century man is winding her up like you wouldn’t believe. Hands rammed into the pockets of her gilet (this is 2006), she scowls from behind a heavy fringe (this is 2006), lit by that green light they use when filming with night vision cameras.
“Why do you have to be like this?” says Girls Aloud bandmate Sarah Harding, addressing the invisible “squire” in the same way you would a boyfriend who is in the middle of ruining your package holiday in Corfu by drawing a dick on your back in sunblock.
Welcome to Ghosthunting With Girls Aloud. Or, as I will argue, the greatest televisual event since the moon landing. Ghost Hunting With… [insert celebrity] was a surprisingly long-lived spin-off of Most Haunted – that programme on Living TV where former Blue Peter presenter Yvette Fielding would run around famously haunted locations, screaming at delicate knocking sounds, all the while egged on by “spiritual medium” and driving ban recipient Derek Acorah.
That is to say: it was simply great TV. Primo. Lovely stuff. Both a study in the sometimes hilarious effects of group hysteria, and a chance to see full grown men and women behave like 12-year-olds at a sleepover. And – although it pains me to admit this – a show permeated by the possibility that something genuinely spooky might happen.
Ghosthunting With Girls Aloud was everything any given episode of Most Haunted was, with added Cheryl Cole starting beef with a poltergeist. The programme openes with Yvette, dressed in a sort of Victorian funeral coat and black dominatrix boots, picking up Girls Aloud in a black cab.
Cut to Cheryl, with a towel over her head for some reason, saying that a paranormal investigation is something, “we’ve never done as a band”. Letting us know that this is – if nothing else – an absolute Girls Aloud first. The women arrive at Plas Teg and are greeted by an elderly housekeeper straight out of an episode of Scooby Doo, who you just know is going to tell future guests: “We had The Loud Girls in here the other week. Lovely, they were.”
Yvette, the maternal spirit guide in this tribute to female bonding, leads Girls Aloud (minus Nadine Coyle who apparently chickened out) into a chintz be-curtained room where “Hanging Judge” Jeffreys had people executed. She challenges them to stand on the spot where the gallows once were. Cheryl – all bravado at this point – rises to the dare with her now signature “come at me you bellend ghosts” pose.
Then comes the séance. And if the idea of contacting the dead with an early-2000s girl band doesn’t excite the hell out of you, I’m afraid you can’t be helped. Meanwhile, someone who is apparently a psychologist and behaviour expert watches the goings-on remotely, in a car outside the house. In an attempt to inject science into the show, he says things like, “Sarah’s hair smoothing has nothing to do with vanity whatsoever. It’s for self-comfort.”
“In the name of God… please come forward to this circle of women,” says Sprit Mother-Poet-Enigma-Guardian of the Divine Sisterhood, Yvette Fielding. Around a table, Girls Aloud proceed to communicate – via knocks audible only to them – with some ghosts.
Now, watching a group of adults freak out over things you can’t see or hear is either very funny, or a little bit disturbing. Or can it be both simultaneously? Is it possible that Ghosthunting With Girls Aloud is opening your mind to an entire spectrum of emotions – all at once? It’s not just possible, it’s probable.
After a post-séance psychological consultation with the guy in the car, the women explore the rest of the house. And this is when shit gets real.
Sarah senses a malign male presence.
“He doesn’t want us here,” she says.
“Did he tell you?” asks Cheryl.
“He doesn’t have any respect for women,” says Yvette, because this is all very feminist.
Cheryl is now livid. Something has flicked her hand and she is having absolutely none of it.
“If you’re here just tap the fucking table,” she says. The others accuse her of “pissing him off” and “winding him up”. But perhaps her intentions are misunderstood. In the face of an invisible misogynist, Cheryl is standing up for herself and her girls. To this day, when in potential danger, I’ve been known to mutter to myself, “You’ve got this. You’re Cheryl Cole in a haunted house.”
Ghosthunting With… ran until 2011. The final episode was With The Only Way Is Essex. By that point, Yvette Fielding had ghost-hunted With McFly, With Coronation Street and With The Happy Mondays, among others. I can only imagine that she was spent – the “anal squire” still haunting her nightmares, perhaps.
The “real life paranormal investigation” format seems to have lost popularity in the past decade. Maybe, now that the world is an oven run by despots, invisible threats have lost their bite. But if Yvette (because only she could possibly do it) fancies a reboot, here is my one and only suggestion: Ghost Hunting With Ed Miliband.
Read more from the New Statesman’s retro reality TV week 2018 series here.