Dress-up, drama and the Devil: Bill Spectre
"An American woman actually fainted at the end of one of the stories!"
Having entertained, charmed and frightened inquisitive and daring ghost hunters for many years across the county, Bill Ritchie – the man behind Oxford’s Victorian undertaker’s Bill Spectre – speaks to OX’s Jack Rayner…
Pleased to meet you Bill. How does a man end up being a theatrical ghost walker?
Many years ago, I went to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, with such luminaries as Sheena Easton – she was the big name I went to college with at the time. Then, I worked as an actor in London, Scotland and elsewhere in the UK doing various TV roles.
After about 7 years, I wasn’t making enough of a living to lead an ordinary life any more so I packed it in and became a picture framer for quite a while. Then, I thought I’d try out doing a ghost trail just for the fun of it – that first one was in Burford – and it worked out really well. There are some great ghost stories in Burford because it’s an old coaching town and has plenty of history attached to it. I linked up the various stories on a walk around Burford, and dressed up and added a few props and illusions. I wanted to make it as involving and entertaining as possible. The first time I did it, an American woman actually fainted at the end of one of the stories! I told the papers about that and that got me a lot more publicity.
How did you end up in Oxford? Presumably the dreaming spires are full of ghost stories.
I was at a tourist event in West Oxfordshire, and someone there was from The Oxford Story. They said they were looking to do something for Hallowe’en, and I by that point I had already written a tour for Oxford but had nowhere to base myself. I did that one tour and The Oxford Story really helped me get going with regular tours in Oxford. After a while, Oxford was so popular that I packed in regularly doing tours in Burford. I am doing one in Burford this year, however, on the Sunday just before Hallowe’en.
How do you get yourself prepared?
I have lots of props and illusions which I need to organise beforehand, which is one thing. When I practice on my own, I spend quite a lot of time working on the spooky character – I wear my black top hat and dress up as a Victorian undertaker and base my voice acting loosely on Vincent Price’s style. I make it as immersive as possible, because there are loads of walking tours in Oxford and I wanted mine to stand out as a piece of street theatre, not someone just talking about stories. Where is the most ghostly place in Oxford? Well, the most famous Oxonian ghosts, I suppose, are by Broad Street, where the martyrs were burnt at the stake in 1555. There’s the memorial in the road where they were killed for supporting Elizabeth I against the catholic Queen Mary. That’s one that people walk past every day without even noticing.
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