THE GHOSTWRITER, the Phantom of the Opera, or just plain AJW. Whatever you know him as, he’s been at it for so long now that we in the Black Country almost take it for granted that every so often we'll see a news piece about the discovery of a beermat with a sketch of Mario Lanza and a cryptic caption, which appeared in a pub, shop or library as if by magic.
But after half a century of his surreptitious tributes, the Phantom may well be about to come to the attention of the nation, if not the world.
West Bromwich art gallery The Public will be hosting a new exhibition from this week until 6th May. Its title is Black Country Legends, and it will include some of the work of Turner Prize nominated photographer Richard Billingham, of Cradley Heath; Brendan Jackson's giant map of Black Country oddities and peculiarities, and a computer adventure game set in and around some of our best known landmarks, created on-site by a young team of apprentice designers. But one of the most fascinating exhibits will be exclusive footage from a forthcoming film by renowned director Barney Snow. London-based Barney, whose work you'll be familiar with if you saw Trawlermen or the recent Summer in Blackpool documentary on the BBC, became aware of AJW four years ago when he spent some time with the Bugle, on the lookout for possible subjects for his next project. It wasn't long before we'd led him to the bizarre world of AJW, and the idea of a mystery figure dedicating his life to the glorification of a long-dead opera singer was, Barney felt, too good to ignore.
It speaks volumes for his tenacity and investigative rigour that Barney managed to do what very few have done before; not only find the Phantom, but be allowed to film him at work — heavily disguised of course.
Hundreds of hours of filming over several years have resulted in a 45 minute film which, Barney hopes, will be shown in its entirety at a national or even international film festival later this year. But in the meantime, The Public will be showing exclusive clips of the film, the first time any of it will be seen. Appropriately enough, the footage will be shown in a mocked-up pub within the gallery.
Given that the Phantom has been at it for five decades and still remains unidentified, how did a film maker manage to get anywhere near him? The first thing Barney did was approach Wednesbury artist Fred Barnfield, who in recent years has become known as an acquaintance of the Ghostwriter.
Many believe that Fred is in fact the perpetrator himself, and though he has always laughed it off, the rumours only add to the intrigue.
Some time after his initial enquiries, Barney found himself moving gradually closer to the centre of the mystery.
He wasn't even sure whether AJW was one person or a group; or perhaps one man known only to a very select few. There have long been rumours that the original Ghostwriter, occasionally interviewed by TV reporter John Swallow in the seventies and eighties, is long dead, and his work has been taken up by a disciple, if not an entire team. There is even the suggestion that many of the drawings found in recent years are fakes, the work of an imposter ...
"It's like being allowed into a very small club," Barney told the Bugle. "I had to earn the trust first, you can't just show up and expect to get into the story. You have to spend time and pay your dues."
His patience paid off. The film, entitled Some Day I'll Find You (the title of one of Lanza's biggest hits) shows the Phantom at work, and even attempts to uncover what motivated him to start doing it, and to keep on for decade after decade. Woven into the story are the attempts of a retired detective to identify the perpetrator, bringing his experience to bear in just the way he would with a murder case.
His psychological profiling of AJW makes fascinating viewing.
But with so many rumours and counter-rumours, and such a long period of time since the saga began, can Barney even be sure he's got the right man? "I believe I know the writer," he told us, "and I think the person whose work was appearing in the early eighties is the one who is doing it now."
A selection of five minute segments from Some Day I'll Find You will be on constant rotation exclusively at The Public until May 6th. Be one of the first to see it, before AJW becomes a national phenomenon.