Spa Man unmasked!

note: This article was written for the Daily Telegraph by Adam Lusher on the 25th May 2003 but has since disappeared from the Telegraph website, but luckily a copy has been sitting on my hard disk.

Holy hoaxes, Batman! The Telegraph can today reveal the truth behind the mystery that has gripped the nation, or at least part of the South East of it: who is the Caped Crusader of Tunbridge Wells?

Matt Lees reveals his identity

As this newspaper reported earlier this month, the Kent town once famous for its retired majors and "disgusted" letter writers recently attained a new notoriety - its very own superhero, complete with cape, mask, orange suit, brown underpants and tight belt.

He was dubbed "Spa Man". He rescued men from violent youths and helped women carry heavy shopping. News of his good deeds spread far and wide, from Orpington to Sevenoaks, from New York to Australia.

Yet the puzzle remained. Just who was this superhero braving those spa town streets, armed with nothing but a desire for justice?

At last the answer can be provided: in the corner of the White Hart pub on the outskirts of Tunbridge Wells last week, a bearded, shaggy haired man dressed in jeans and a blue shirt slipped away for an instant, then reappeared in an orange top, brown mask and brown underpants (worn, naturally, outside the orange trousers).

Meet Matt Lees, mild-mannered hairstylist by profession, would-be superhero in his spare time.

The 31-year-old stood proudly, ignoring the stares of some rather surprised pensioners. "Ha, ha!" he said. "It was me all along! Do my pants look all right like this?"

Mr Lees and his Robins - Chris Shaw, 33, and Rachel Bishop, 21 - then confessed to how they had created the character whose supposed exploits had gone round the world. It had, they admitted, been one big joke.

For much of his life, the Caped Crusader existed only on paper, in spoof letters written by the three to the Kent and Sussex Courier, the local newspaper. The letters purported to be from witnesses to the avenger's heroism. The truth is: none of it happened; even the names of the "witnesses" were inventions.

"We were just a bunch of chumps doing it for a laugh," said Mr Lees. "I was Gladis Webb [whose letter to the Courier said a masked gentleman had helped her with her shopping bags] and B. Williams, the arthritic pensioner [who said the masked man had changed a tyre for him]."

Mr Shaw, a designer in a publishing company, said: "This 'Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells' thing is such a cliche. We decided to see how far we could push it, to write the funniest letters we could."

The three pranksters started small, writing to the Courier about dog mess. A fierce debate soon raged in the letters pages. Genuine citizens of Tunbridge Wells felt compelled to join in. The trio got the bug. They discussed what they could invent next.

Alien abductions and a "Beast of Tunbridge Wells" were both rejected. Mr Lees recalled the moment when his true calling was revealed. "Chris came running down the road and said, 'We're going to do a superhero in Tunbridge Wells'. That was it."

He added: "Within 10 days, we were global." Articles in the Sun, The Times and others were picked up and sent across the globe. "They were talking about the Caped Crusader in Australia, in France, even Pakistan. We couldn't believe it. It was brilliant!"

But there were some setbacks. Chris said: "A photo appeared in a tabloid, taken by a passer-by, of a bloke in a Batman suit running through Tunbridge Wells. It was a stunt and so wrong. It wasn't even the right costume."

There was only one thing for it. Mr Lees made a costume that fitted the "witness" descriptions. "The O on the chest was supposed to be a zero, because it was nothing all along," he said.

At lunch hour on May 12, the "superhero" made his first genuine appearance on the streets of Tunbridge Wells. It wasn't an unqualified success. "The idea was to get him on television," said Mr Shaw. "Matt put on his suit and ran past the BBC studios in Tunbridge Wells. There was only one problem: the BBC wasn't broadcasting from Tunbridge Wells that day."

Undeterred, they sent the Courier photographs of Mr Lees taken by Rachel, posing as an improbably named Polish tourist, Wozyck Wozyck.

The accompanying note spoke of Wozyck's amazement. "I am the tourist in pretty Tunbridg Weells and am nearly falling off my knees today when I see this superhero sweeping through the pretty streets. He look strong and oh so brave to me."

By last week, however, the trio of tricksters felt that the net was closing in, and that it was time to come clean. Friends had begun talking, and the leaks had reached the Courier..

They contacted The Sunday Telegraph to put the record straight. They insisted that thanks to "Spa Man", Tunbridge Wells was a better, happier place, and claimed that tourism to the town was booming, as a result.

Mr Lees said he hoped his time as Spa Man may have given him a small place in history. "You know those television shows - I Love 1982, I Love 1985?" he said. "Well, in 10 years, that's where I want to be: in I Love 2003.

"Would I appear again, if the citizens needed me? That's a very good question."