Digging deeper into her debut documentary series, Paranormal, Sian Eleri talks spooky filming experiences, finding peace in pottery and why everyone should be listening to Elmeine.
Around 300 apparent paranormal phenomena have been documented at Penyffordd Farm: The secluded 17th Century house at the centre of Wales’ most chilling ghost stories. Muffled voices, messages carved on walls and a child’s gravestone are just a few eerie examples of creepy activity that the Gower family say they experienced while living there. The tale isn’t for the faint-hearted and many investigators have tried to make sense of it since the late 1990s. Attempting to solve the supernatural puzzle once and for all is Sian Eleri, the BBC Radio 1 broadcaster-turned-documentary-maker who’s filling me in on her TV debut, Paranormal: The Girl, the Ghost and the Gravestone, via Zoom.
Born in Caernarfon, Wales, Sian is no stranger to folklore. Learning The Mabinogion at school, a collection of mythological fables, the 28-year-old is aware of her country’s mystical allure. Penyffordd Farm has been told more as a ghost story, but it’s still widely believed to be the most haunted house in Britain. Being from North Wales, the Flintshire farmhouse has fascinated Sian all her life. Before filming, she was sceptical, but with multiple witnesses and still no rational explanation to be found, the presenter quickly realised that there’s more to the tale than meets the eye.
Before getting the bug for documentary-making, Sian was best known for her multiple shows on Radio 1. Hosting the BBC’s designated channels for soothing and sultry vibes, the 28-year-old hasn’t looked back since cutting her teeth in broadcast journalism at university. The Chillest Show and The Power Down Playlist are some of the station’s most important programs, offering listeners moments of catharsis at a time when almost half of young people experience mental health problems. Now presenting four nights a week, she’s blossomed into one of the BBC’s most respected tastemakers, interviewing artists as disparate as Jorja Smith and Disclosure. It’s this eclecticism she hopes provides listeners with an inclusive community who share her broad taste in music.
Nowadays, Sian can count herself as a true media multi-hyphenate, skilled in both broadcasting and documentary-making; she speaks about each expertise with equal fondness throughout our conversation. Digging deeper into Paranormal: The Girl, the Ghost and the Gravestone, here, the personality talks spooky filming experiences, finding peace in pottery and why everyone should be listening to Elmeine.
Growing up, were you into ghost stories? Were they told frequently between your friends and family?
They were but in a very casual sense. At sleepovers with my mates from school we’d try to wind each other up before going to bed by telling different stories and Penyffordd Farm was one of those. In certain Welsh schools, especially Welsh-speaking ones, you learn about something called The Mabinogion, which was a book of folk tales. You learn a lot of these fables in school, almost as if it’s part of Welsh history, which they are, but how much of it is based on reality is a different question. I think, if you’re from Wales, you’ve always grown up with this idea that there might be magic out there.
I tried to avoid watching horror films, and other scary things, growing up because I’m a bit of a wimp. But to get to Pennyffordd Farm and actually find out more about the place by meeting the family and the psychologists behind all the research was such a privilege.
Being on the show wasn’t the first time you experienced paranormal activity. You’ve said previously that you felt spirit energy in an old house you rented in London. Have you had any other interactions?
That house was weird. I never saw or heard anything, I don’t think. But it gave me the heebie jeebies. It just felt like I was living in someone else’s house and I’d never felt that about anywhere else before.
During filming, I began feeling particularly paranoid and on edge even when the cameras weren’t rolling. There was one time when I’d come home from a week of filming and I was home alone, unpacking my suitcase. I had the radio on and I remember hearing what sounded like a growling or a panting outside the window. It was late at night, maybe like half 10, and I couldn’t stop hearing it, so I turned the BBC Sounds app off. I thought it must be the radio but then the noise came back and it was in the room with me. It was so loud and terrifying. I got so paranoid that I had to seek refuge in the pub over the road. I can’t give a rational explanation as to what it was, or whether it was just in my head. Thankfully, nothing like that has happened since. I was a little bit worried I’d become haunted as a result of the program.
Paranormal: The Girl, the Ghost and the Gravestone took you on a six-month journey into the unknown. Did you feel any personal psychological effects throughout the experience?
It did take its toll. Midway through filming the excitement of participating and being able to dive into the story had calmed down. It was like the reality of the situation had hit me. At this point, I met one of the daughters and heard her accounts of what happened. She said that she woke up in the middle of the night and saw a monk peering over the cot of her newborn baby. At that point I thought, is it sensible what you’re doing? I was paranoid for ages. I want there to be logical and scientific explanations but there are so many parts of the story where I felt there was no other way of explaining it, bar paranormal activity.
When you were younger, were you sceptical about the story? Was it something you thought couldn’t be true?
I think that the psychology behind paranormal phenomena is really fascinating. If it is our minds playing tricks on us, then we can’t trust our own brains and that’s possibly a scarier thought than whether there is another plane of existence that we still can’t recognise. I think I’ve always been sceptical of ghost stories, purely because people love storytelling and exaggerating. I wondered, with Penyyfford Farm, whether it was a case of Chinese whispers; it’s gone through so many people, so how much of the story had changed by the time it reached me? I’m certainly still on the fence, which is frustrating because I want to give clear-cut answers. It’s an annoying, but fascinating predicament to have.
Do you want to make more documentaries in the future? Is this the start of something that you’re really interested in doing, aside from radio?
I’ve definitely got the bug for documentary-making. I’ve always had so much respect for documentary makers, having grown up watching Louis Theroux, Stacey Dooley and even David Attenborough. It’s given me such an amazing insight into what it takes to make a documentary compared to a radio show. Having them side by side for six months and seeing the different ways of working has been so insightful. With radio, there’s a week-long cycle of feeling, and I suppose accomplishment at the end of every Sunday night. Documentary making is long and arduous and it takes ages to make something that is visually spectacular but also, a captivating watch. It’s opened up a whole world for me which I can’t wait to dive into more.
Being a radio and now documentary presenter, you’ve got many strings to your bow. But growing up, what did you want to be?
I had no idea what I wanted to be growing up, and I found it really stressful. I never felt like I was particularly talented in one area, so I remember being really stressed as a kid, not knowing what I wanted to do with my life and what future I wanted.
I think what drew me to music journalism was the idea of storytelling. Music can be confessional or conceptual. People are building worlds in front of your eyes, whether it’s their own or one they’ve created. I think radio was almost hiding in plain sight. I’d loved Radio 1 my one my whole life; I was a religious listener of that station. I just realised, that with broadcast journalism, somebody had to do it as a job but I never considered it as possible or achievable.
Your radio shows play a vital role on the BBC network, especially in an age where people are becoming more aware of their mental health. How do you personally wind down and keep on top of your well-being?
I started doing pottery back in February and I love it. I was a big fan of The Great Pottery Throwdown and remember thinking, that looks like fun. I went to one class and I’m now obsessed with pots. I’m basically off grid for a few hours every week because I’ve got clay on my hands and can’t reach my phone. There’s no pressure to be good. I think that’s the main takeaway I get from it. I think we put so much pressure on ourselves to be at our very best all the time but with pottery, especially when I started, it’s okay to be rubbish and make mistakes.
What would you like listeners to take away from your shows?
I would like them to feel like they have a companion and a friend who loves their company just as much as they enjoy the music. It’s such a privilege to play music on a national platform like Radio 1, one of the biggest stations in the country, and to support people on various different levels. Whether it’s an artist trying to break through, or someone who’s really proud of their records, you can support them and then they potentially become someone’s new favourite artist. That’s such a special feeling.
All of the shows are really eclectic. What do you listen out for when curating the various programs? What gets the Sian Eleri seal of approval?
The production has to be top-notch. If something sounds clear, crisp and thoughtful, I think it’s already making its way up the list. Genre-wise, it’s really nonspecific. A big part of me putting the show and tracklist together is making sure that we try and make as many people happy as possible. If I can feel something from the artist, it’s mellow, and I feel a certain way about it, then I will more likely than not play the tune.
Which emerging artists are exciting you right now?
I don’t even know if he counts as emerging anymore but Elmiene is absolutely smashing it. His voice is just next level. He is such a vibrant and exciting artists from the UK. I think Miso Extra is great and I’m excited to see what she does. On the more theatrical side of things, FIZZ are quite exciting. As a band, they have so many young fans. I was at one of their gigs recently and the crowd was just phenomenal and they really know how to get one going. Wasia Project too, they recently played a gig of mine called TONNA. Victoria Canal is a great friend of mine, she’s rocketed in the last 12 months and she’s wicked. What she’s doing with her music is just so emotional and tender that she can do no wrong in my eyes.
What’s next for Sian Eleri beyond the radio shows, documentaries and pottery making? Is there anything else you’d like to achieve for the rest of 2023 or beyond?
There’ll definitely be more TONNA gigs on the horizon. I would love it if we commissioned a series two for Paranormal and whether we can look into different ghost stories. I wonder if there’s some extraterrestrial stuff that we could look into. And obviously pottering on with my pottery. I’d love to throw a vase or a fruit bowl. A fruit bowl is at the top of my list of things to achieve in 2023.