Inside Stage Hypnosis
The original version of this article was first published in 2007 in the book All in the Mind – Hypnosis, Suggestion and the New Mesmerists.
Is Stage Hypnosis safe? Of course it is… most of the time. It may surprise you to learn that behind the sensational tabloid stories about volunteers sent from the theatre still believing they are chickens and the corporate denials of the stage hypnotists, there may be some truth in the claim that hypnosis on stage isn’t quite the harmless entertainment it’s cracked up to be. But apart from the downright ridiculous urban myths surrounding stage hypnotism, there may be some real cause for concern.
Let me first put my cards on the table, face up. I made my name and my living doing stage shows all through the 1980’s and early 1990’s and I was good at it. Playing to audiences of 2,000 plus was the norm rather than the exception and that is something I did all over the world, from England’s green and pleasant land to the greener and pleasanter land of New Zealand and the sunburned splendour of Australia and South Africa. So it might seem a trifle hypocritical to now poke holes in stage hypnotism. Please do not misunderstand me; I do not have a problem with stage hypnosis – hypnosis on stage isn’t the problem. Stage hypnotists are the problem and I’m sorry to say I regard them (with very few exceptions, as you will see) as thoroughly unprincipled (in some cases downright dangerous) parasites who have a callous disregard for the safety of their subjects. And here’s why…
In Britain, the only real public protection comes from the Model Conditions published by the Home Office and attached to the 1952 Hypnotism Act. New updated conditions were introduced in 1994 and comprise of an easy to understand four page list of do’s and don’ts, musts and must nots. Under the Act, all public demonstrations of hypnotism in Britain have to have have special permission in the form of a licence which is issued by the licensing section of the local authority in which the hypnotist is to appear. The only exceptions are private shows such as those taking place in private members clubs like Working Men’s Clubs or British Legions, private birthday parties, weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs. These conditions are largely ignored because no one bothers applying for a licence in the first place.
The vast majority of hypnotists appearing in Britain’s pubs and nightclubs are unlicensed – a criminal offence in itself, but one which is also ignored by police and local authorities because it does not rate very highly on their list of priorities.
Some hypnotists blatantly exploit a legal loophole that allows public demonstrations of hypnosis for scientific and research purposes, which are exempt from licensing. Simply asking participants to fill in a very short questionnaire at the end of a show does not constitute serious scientific study or research. These performers are nearly all members of the here today, gone tomorrow school of hypnosis, difficult to trace and even more difficult to control. Never has the stage-name been so useful. One extremely well known hypnotist even took to claiming in his books and CD’s that he had a PhD. when in fact he did not.
Stage hypnotists can be divided into two main groups; the responsible performers and the cowboys. All stage hypnotists are responsible performers and all other stage hypnotists are cowboys. Responsible stage hypnotists go to great lengths to stress that they are eminently qualified to practice hypnosis and can pull out any number of phoney certificates to prove it. Like their therapeutic counterparts, they are usually members of fine, upstanding professional bodies and we will examine the veracity of these in a moment.
Stage hypnotists can’t help themselves when it comes to talking about the welfare of their subjects. This strategy is intended to raise the cheap pub joke to the level of science. The truth is that once they have picked up their seventy-five quid, they will forget the subjects who earned it for them even exist. Every organisation representing stage hypnotists has a strict code of conduct which its members swear to uphold. Each organisation’s code of conduct is exactly the same as every other organisation’s code of conduct and ceases to exist the moment the hypnotist walks onto the stage.
If, in the unlikely event a local authority licensing officer should ever appear at a venue and demand to see the hypnotism licence, there are two things the stage hypnotist can do. First, they could try claiming that the show is for the aforementioned scientific and research purposes but this might be a bit of a hard sell if the show is taking place in a pub in front of a rowdy audience many of whom will be drunk. The other thing they can do is argue that what they are doing is not actually hypnotism but Tibetan Mind Control and therefore doesn’t require a licence. In reality, because of the way the Act is worded, you do need a licence, but it might be worth a try. Anyway, it’s the licensee of the premises (the landlord) who gets fined £2,000 and not the hypnotist, so why worry?
Stage hypnotists love to crack on that they only do theatres when in fact they only do pubs and summer shows in bars in Benidorm. Lots of stage hypnotists use stage-names. This is because a lot of them are really painters and decorators during the day and do stage hypnotism at weekends for extra cash. This can be very useful if anything goes wrong and also has certain advantages when it comes to the rules regarding the payment of income tax.
The real skill of the stage hypnotist comes in to its own when one is faced with a smaller and altogether more hostile audience in a rowdy club at one-o-clock in the morning. There, one cannot rely on the sober and infinitely more polite behaviour of the theatre audience. In this instance the hypnotist must make the most of the limited working area, always aware of the territoriality of the performing space, created and maintained by sheer effort of will – an artificial barrier between the subjects and the drunken mob out front.
There is only one thing worse than getting no volunteers in a situation like this and that is, getting only one volunteer! Now you really have to deliver the goods – there can be no more excuses – you only have your skill and experience to rely on in order to pull a good performance out of the bag, especially if you are determined to observe all the rules and regulations at the same time.
There is one way to extricate yourself from this undesirable situation and it is this; you whisper to your one volunteer that if he plays along, you will give him £50 after the show. After a couple of tame routines, you should be able to get more people to volunteer and so you will be able to bluff your way through your forty minute slot. At the end of the performance, you tell all your subjects that all the suggestions you have given them will be completely cancelled out – except for the initial volunteer. In front of the audience and in a confident tone of voice, simply tell him that when he wakes up he will firmly believe that the hypnotist promised him fifty quid. Then simply retire to the bar and watch the fun. Unless of course you have to drive half an hour further up the the coast to earn another seventy quid in another bar.
There are however one or two stage hypnotists to whom this sort of ‘gig’ is the cornerstone of their living and they have developed, through hard experience, an approach to working in conditions that make doing stand-up comedy on amateur night look like a walk in the park. Unfortunately for everyone concerned, it is precisely these conditions that lead to the genuine problems associated with stage hypnosis and we will examine these shortly.
From the subject’s point of view, fifteen minutes of fame is fine, so long as it’s all experienced in the right environment and under the right conditions. There is a world of difference between a hypnotist who creates an appropriate environment for his act, which consists of suitable routines and appropriate safeguards and a hypnotist who charges in where angels fear to tread. Performing hypnosis on stage is really about resource management and depends entirely on willing volunteers from an audience. Usually these volunteers have a pretty good idea of what they’re in for as they make their way up onto the stage; a few silly routines, a little play acting or role playing and maybe a mild striptease to round off the evening. Then they’ll be sent back to their seats with a couple of free tickets for the next show or if they’re really lucky, a souvenir video of their performance that delighted their friends and thoroughly amused the rest of the crowd.
However, being asked to perform on stage may be more stressful for some people than they first imagined when they rushed forward to be the first onto the platform. Stage hypnotism is not Karaoke and stage hypnotists are not all educated to the same standards – a disturbing majority are incompetent. Even more alarming is the fact that they are not aware that they are incompetent. Membership of a supposed professional body does not confer competence upon a performer. Organisations representing stage hypnotists are nearly always self-interest groups whose only reason for existence is for the benefit of the hypnotist. The other reason for the existence of these so called Federations and Councils s to make it easier to get licences.
Volunteers for entertainment hypnotism may suddenly find themselves on unfamiliar ground – a stressful enough experience in itself, but when requested to perform acts or say things which constitute a breach of trust between the hypnotist and the volunteer, stress levels can increase to an unacceptable level. Remember, we’re not talking about a little mild embarrassment here – the difference between laughing with and laughing at – we are talking about a situation that could, if mishandled, get out of control. The hypnotised subject may suddenly find themselves in a terrible dilemma. He or she may want to opt out of any further participation, but this is not as easy as you would think, especially considering the unforeseen and sudden demands of the situation. There is tremendous pressure put on volunteers unexpectedly faced with an unscrupulous stage hypnotist. Combined with the confusion, the bright lights and an abnormally loud sound system, serious conflict can arise, which, ninety-nine percent of the time, goes unnoticed (or worse, is wilfully ignored) by the hypnotist concerned.
The symptoms of fight or flight are well known and understood, but not by your average stage hypnotist. A subject may be in a state of fear; what happens in this situation is that adrenalin is produced along with a hormone called cortisone. This is pumped into the bloodstream leading to other even less desirable symptoms; the lungs start panting in air, sometimes up to ten times more than is usual. Now there is the added danger that the subject could start to hyperventilate. Stored sugar pours out from the liver and into the bloodstream to feed the brain, which is now working overtime; digestion stops as all energies are transferred to more important functions designed to assist fight and flight; fat is dissolved and sent to the muscles to provide energy for possible violent physical action; the heart beats so fast it can become irregular; muscles lock and blood is diverted to the hands ready to grip a weapon. Most noticeable of all is that blood drains from the face so that any wounds won’t bleed too much and the mouth dries. The question is… do you really want things to get that far?
Stage hypnotists should be aware of these signs but the sad fact is that the vast majority of stage performers haven’t got the first clue what it is that’s happening, why it’s happening, what to look for when it does happen and what to do about it. If these signs are apparent, it means that the subject is under extreme stress and something should be done about it immediately. The most obvious and safest course of action is to send the participant back to their seat in the audience where, back on safe ground, they will recover their composure almost straight away. But hypnotists are unwilling to do that, preferring to fight on to the bitter end. No self-respecting stage hypnotist wants to admit that he has failed with a subject because that is not good for his carefully crafted image of someone who can exercise his seemingly amazing power over his fellow humans. Ironic then that increased levels of stress represent an even worse failure!
When under stress, more blood is pumped into the brain. Platelets in the blood that carry oxygen to the neurons are forced into the millions of narrow capillaries. Filled with blood, the walls of the capillaries expand and press against the surrounding brain tissue and it is this physiological reaction which can cause headaches.
Headaches can also be the result of physical actions carried out. Any routine where the head is moved violently from side to side (for example a suggestion that the subject is trapped in a washing machine) and the hypnotist is asking for trouble.
Of course, there is always the problem of the self inflicted headache associated with the consumption of large amounts of alcohol, either before or after a volunteer has taken part in a stage show. Individuals are often asked to carry out a series of instructions that are physically demanding – more and more of these shows are taking place in the summer heat of the Costa del Wythenshawe – there is increased perspiration and therefore increased risk of dehydration and thirst. The subject usually alleviates these symptoms easily and effortlessly at the bar. This becomes a particular problem when the hypnotist is appearing in a pub or a nightclub, when the show may not start until very late, where temperatures are very likely to be higher than in an air-conditioned theatre and where alcoholic drinks are, in the case of Spanish holiday resorts, cheaply available. This is just one reason why pubs and nightclubs are not ideal places for hypnotists to perform.
Another reason is that without the clear barrier between audience and stage that is obvious in a theatre, it is not easy to exercise the required control at all times. All this, compounded with the abundance of glassware close to the working area, means that you can easily find yourself heading for disaster. One drunk can ruin the show, not to mention someone’s life. People are simply not as well behaved at eleven-o-clock in a nightclub as they are at seven-o-clock in a theatre.
It is interesting to note that most headaches and depressions occur when the hypnotist is forced into a situation where there are only one or two people on the stage. In this event there is no ‘safety in numbers’ for the hypnotised volunteers to fall back on. In other words, there is no support group of people who are all in the same boat. It is such a fundamental part of the human condition that people find it much easier to perform unfamiliar tasks when in groups than they do as individuals that the importance of this one fact should not and must not be overlooked. It is far easier to get a large group of people doing something all together, without fear of embarrassment, than it is to get just one or two individuals to do the same thing on their own. The lone volunteer feels exposed, vulnerable, singled out and totally isolated and this can pile on the stress. The more stressed the subject, the less likely they are to perform well. The hypnotist can only offer more encouragement to the subject to keep the show going, which in turn piles on even more stress, and so both become trapped in a vicious circle, neither quite knowing how to get out; the hypnotist because he does not have the experience or know-how, the subject because they find it increasingly difficult to say no, which increases stress levels even more, and the result is a post performance headache, the severity of which varies from person to person.
The answer to this problem is two-fold. First, I have always avoided doing shows in small venues where this kind of problem might occur. Second, if a show in a large venue is selling poorly, then the solution is clear – fill it up by giving tickets away! At least you will have a manageable audience even if most of the punters will have got in for nothing. So you lose money… so what? At least you don’t have to struggle through a show taking unnecessary risks and the people who came for nothing will be grateful – they might even bring their friends next time!
But even on occasions when there are lots of other souls on board, subjects can be prone to feelings of depression either straight after, or more usually, some time after the conclusion of a performance, or worse, the following day. Even when subjects have enjoyed the experience and have thrown themselves wholeheartedly into the production there can be a sense of anticlimax when it’s over. Members of amateur theatrical groups experience these feelings of anticlimax acutely when a production comes to an end. A simple cure for this is some good old fashioned relaxation. A few deep breaths and, more importantly, some words of explanation from the hypnotist will work wonders. Breathe in and out slowly and relax. Relaxing will make the subject feel better and it is possible to correct any imbalance by doing this simple exercise. Unfortunately, at the time these words and actions are needed, the hypnotist is usually half way down the motorway.
In shows where subjects are asked to perform a series of loud or even violent routines, the nature of these routines can affect the way the subject feels afterwards. We have all had the experience of losing our temper with someone, perhaps saying things or behaving in a way we then regret a few minutes later. The sense of shame after the event can be quite profound. This is as a direct result of chemical activity in the amygdale and hypnotised volunteers occasionally experience similar feelings after a show is over.
All these kinds of feelings are often confused with depression, and to be fair, the symptoms are very similar. The hypnotist should be on hand for any debriefing and explanation, bearing in mind that any disgruntled volunteer may want to seek further advice from a doctor and later, possibly later. One of the conditions imposed by the Home Office is a requirement for the hypnotist to remain at the venue for up to an hour after the show has finished so that he is available for any necessary debriefing. Because the vast majority of hypnotists in the UK don’t even bother applying for a licence in the first place, this stipulation is usually rendered somewhat redundant.
If a volunteer does decide to seek medical advice as a result of any unpleasant after effects, there is always a possibility that they will go to see a ‘medical’ hypnotherapist rather than their GP. Even if the GP is the first port of call, he is more than likely to refer his patient to the nearest hypnotherapist, because the GP has little or no real knowledge of hypnosis himself, and so the safest and most obvious course of action is to pass the buck, sorry, patient, to someone he thinks might know what they’re doing. In any event, the last thing the disgruntled subject may want to do is to consult with the hypnotist who hypnotised him in the first place, presuming of course he is traceable.
Now the plot thickens, as only a tiny minority of hypnotherapists know anything about the causes of these problems either.
Because of the historical antipathy toward their stage counterparts, a lot of hypnotherapists seize on the opportunity to make their deeply held prejudices regarding hypnosis for the purposes of entertainment known to their new client. They won’t have the first clue about the real cause mind you, but they’ll book the client in for at least four sessions anyway, which is a massive negative suggestion in itself. The therapist may then proceed to make things even worse than they already are by getting the subject to re-live the experience and bombarding him with so many negative and unhelpful ideas that the poor bloke will feel worse. Eventually he will appear on a television show called ‘Hypnosis Ruined My Life’ where all his friends will see him and secretly wonder why he doesn’t just get over it, the sad bastard.
But it’s too late now for any of that, because at an unconscious level the subject feels that he has to continue with the act – after all, he is ill, the nice therapist told him so; he has been ‘damaged’ and he now is well on the way to convincing himself of it. The idea which has taken root in his mind will remain there until someone who really does know what they are doing takes him to one side and suggests, in the nicest possible way of course, that he stops wasting everyone’s time and pulls himself together; that he is addicted to the attention that all this has brought him and that it’s high time to get his arse into gear and move on, which is what should have happened in the first instance. I would prescribe a quick trip round the cancer ward to help him put his own rather minor complaint into perspective.
Occasionally, the stage hypnotist may encounter someone who will not ‘wake up’ when told to do so. This reaction is admittedly rare, but not so rare that it can be summarily dismissed. The subject sits motionless and does not respond to any suggestions. Remember, hypnosis takes place in the conscious mind and so there is no doubt that the subject can hear and is aware of, every word uttered by the hypnotist. So why won’t they open their eyes when the hypnotist tells them to? The answer is simple… the subject does not want to continue being part of the performance and this is the only way they can cover up their discomfort. They are either not hypnotised at all and simply don’t want to admit it publicly, possibly because the experience is not what they expected, or because they have just decided they don’t want to take part anymore.
So now what do you do? The audience can see this occurrence is out of the ordinary and obviously not what the hypnotist was expecting either, so their attention will be drawn to it as something rather significant. These are the words to say; “In a moment I am going to send you back to your seat in the audience so you can enjoy the rest of the show, so one-two eyes open, wide-awake!” and off they will go as happy as Larry and the incident will be forgotten about within ten seconds. Note I use the word enjoy rather than just watch… always use the language!
Most stage hypnotists wouldn’t be able to recognise a case of mild hysteria in a subject if they had the words ‘this is a case of mild hysteria’ written in red ink on their foreheads. Compulsive or uncontrollable giggling is a case in point. Hysteria is highly contagious and can spread along the line like wildfire. Again, the simple solution is to send the affected subject back to the audience as quickly as possible, thus isolating them from the rest of the group, or more accurately, isolating the rest of the group from them. Once a subject is back on familiar ground, any problems evaporate with a rapidity that borders on the miraculous.
Remember, hypnosis is a state of imagination. Under hypnosis, what one minute is purely imaginary can, the next minute, suddenly become very real, and so there are a host of imaginary problems, many of them based on preconceived ideas, that all of a sudden could become all too real and take on an importance in the mind of the subject disproportionate to the intention inherent in the original suggestion. The imagination can be magnified many times once a subject is in a state of hypnosis and so a small problem such as a minor stomach ache or very minor emotional problem can turn a molehill into a mountain.
This is when the fun really starts. One small problem is almost certain to attract a gaggle of spectators or worse, angry relatives, and this in its turn is guaranteed to attract an even larger crowd of curious sightseers. Now things are really out of control because the victim, as he or she is now known, feels that they will look foolish if they don’t continue in their new role of injured party, and their ability to play this character part grows with every passing minute, often culminating in an Oscar-winning performance in the back of an ambulance. Your life is now over – time to go back to painting and decorating. Also time for the journalists to get their notebooks out, time for the photographer to call round, time for the responsible hypnotists to bury their heads in their hands and intone their traditional mantra of ‘oh fuck, not again!’
Overall, in stage shows, subjects are always happier when performing familiar tasks and when there are plenty of other people doing these actions together, and when the consumption of alcohol is not the principal attraction of the evening. The application of a little common sense allied with a modicum of vigilance is also a good idea. ‘Pushing the envelope’ is all well and good if you are a racing driver, but when applied to hypnosis shows, what it actually means is pushing people, and pushing people is exactly what you must not do. Got that?
Hypnosis in Britain had its last chance, or perhaps last trance would be a more appropriate expression by the mid nineteen-nineties, for reasons that will shortly become apparent. Of course the popularity of these things always comes in waves – every few years there seems to be a resurgence of conjurors, mind-readers, ventriloquists, multi-instrumentalists and assorted speciality acts. When I was a boy, performing dog acts were very popular for a while – everyone thought that they too had had their day, but then along came the Spice Girls. And so it is with hypnotists.
Having said that, I’ve never really been happy with the term Stage Hypnotist; the idiom has all the connotations associated with collusion and fakery. Add to this the impression the phrase conjures up, that the stage hypnotist is somehow engaged in something rather unprincipled, unscrupulous, unethical. Yet both stage hypnotist and therapeutic hypnotist use exactly the same techniques and methodology even if their approach varies. The mere mention of stage hypnotism within earshot of a hypnotherapist usually provokes a barrage of criticism, yet when the situation is reversed, stage hypnotists will admit that they do therapy work for the extra cash. Therapy work as far as stage hypnotists are concerned however is usually restricted to selling a few stop smoking CD’s at the end of a sweaty night in Torremolinos.
Hypnosis has been through some major changes in the last two decades, both on the stage and in the consulting room. Just as the number of stage performers rocketed in the 1990’s, so did the number of hypnotherapists, advertising cures for everything from smoking to fear of flying and, in at least one case, worryingly, cancer. The number of hypnotherapists in Great Britain has not only doubled in the last twenty years it has increased a hundred-fold! And as always, when we come to examine such small upheavals, it is not the hypnotism that proves to be the most interesting area of study, but the personalities involved – the hypnotists themselves.
To understand the convolutions of the stage hypnotism business in Great Britain, we should first take a brief look back in time and return to the claustrophobic music halls of Victorian England.
To Victorian audiences, hypnosis acts must have been truly thrilling. The hypnotist, it seemed, could send people to sleep with a snap of his fingers. His act consisted almost entirely of influencing the physical forms of his subjects in the same way as one would manipulate a shop window mannequin, often inserting needles into unsuspecting flesh – and that was about it. Before the outbreak of the Second World War, Dr. Walford Bodie was the best known exponent of stage hypnosis in England and more can be discovered about his amazing life in the article THE ELECTRIC WIZARD on this website.
Dr. Bodie injected a little more spice into the act and his demonstrations were played more for amusement than amazement. After the war, the British public was treated to the extraordinary demonstrations of Peter Casson, the first of the really modern stage hypnotists.
Casson had made a name for himself in North Africa during the war entertaining in the sergeant’s mess and using hypnosis to treat victims of shell shock. After the war he embarked upon a series of highly successful sell-out tours of the Moss & Stoll theatre circuit, playing for a week at a time in some of the country’s top venues. Casson enjoyed huge success, was invited to appear on radio shows and even at the London Palladium and became the only hypnotist ever to tread the boards there. Casson can also legitimately claim another first and that was to be auditioned for a starring role on television, then still in its infancy. He had come to the attention of the BBC because of his outstanding success on the theatre circuit. Poor Peter – summoned to the old BBC headquarters at Alexandra Palace and anxious to show off his skills to the distinguished gentlemen in the grey suits, he succeeded in hypnotising a cameraman located in another studio. This frightened the powers that be so much that hypnotism was banned from television for the next fifty years. It is said that the film of this episode has been kept under lock and key ever since! The fateful experiment was undoubtedly the cause of the mindset that was to persist in television until the early 1990’s.
In the late 1940’s however, Casson had a much bigger problem – serious competition from Ralph Slater, an American hypnotist, whose one man show ran for two weeks at Earl’s Court and played to packed houses.
It was no mere coincidence that the medical establishment in Britain, an establishment that had long been scornful of hypnosis, became interested in it for the first time. This new found interest however, was not merely academic.
After one of Slater’s performances a young girl (who had not been on stage but had remained seated in the crowd) had apparently become affected by the hypnosis and had fallen into a ‘trance.’ After the traditional ride in the back of an ambulance she was taken to hospital where it is said that she remained “in a zombie-like state, sometimes quite coherent and at other times lapsing into a state of unconsciousness.” This is supposed to have gone on for a week before she was “fully restored.” You’d think they would have caught on to the fact that these periods of wakefulness and sleep were as normal as day and night, especially as they in fact coincided. But where there is a spectacular effect it is always tempting to look for a spectacular cause and the doctors should have known better than to lavish so much attention on someone who, with the gift of hindsight, obviously desired it.
After consulting m’learned friends, she promptly sued. Slater defended the case, but rapidly ran out of funds and was eventually forced to dismiss his barrister and defend himself. Sensing disaster, he skipped the country and returned to the United States.
Questions were asked in parliament and this (after some cursory consultation with a few doctors, all of whom had previously claimed hypnosis did not exist) led to the passing of the Hypnotism Act of 1952. The Act was not intended to ban hypnotism, but designed to give local authorities the power to regulate public performances of stage hypnosis, based on local knowledge and some very flimsy conditions. Having read the newspaper reports of ‘the girl who didn’t wake up’ half the councils in Britain, including all those in and around London promptly banned performances of hypnotism outright.
This succeeded admirably in driving stage hypnotism underground and a few second-rate Casson look-alikes continued to ply their trade in the nightclubs, working men’s establishments and holiday camps, all deemed to be private premises and thus exempt from licensing. And so the situation continued up until the late 1970’s, by which time, town clerks and licensing officers had forgotten all about the 1952 Hypnotism Act and stage hypnotism began to experience a rebirth. Ironically, that rebirth started almost as far away from London as you could get.
On the other side of the world, Frank Quinn, who merged his first and second names to become the highly original Franquin, toured Australia and New Zealand during the 1950’s and 1960’s before retiring to the Gold Coast a multi-millionaire. Franquin was the inspiration for another Australian hypnotist, the diminutive Martin St. James, whose brash style struck a perfect chord with antipodean audiences.
While all this was going on down under, in the late 1970’s, the equally diminutive Robert Halpern had started to play at the Pavilion Theatre in Glasgow and the Caley Picture House in Edinburgh. Halpern’s success dwarfed even that of Peter Casson. In 1980 Halpern walked away from the Pavilion, after a three month season, with over three hundred thousand pounds in his pocket, which in those days, for the lucky few, was about par for the course. I had achieved a similar success at the Royal Court Theatre in Liverpool and at the City Varieties Theatre in Leeds following faithfully the formula that Robert had bequeathed me in a moment of uncharacteristic generosity.
Halpern and I understood that the secret of success was to concentrate on two or three towns and generate the business entirely by word of mouth and in the days before hypnosis was allowed on television, this game-plan worked flawlessly. Cunningly, I had another string to my bow which I kept very quiet about. Twice a year I would board an aeroplane and endure twenty-nine hours of purgatory to spend a few weeks in New Zealand, where, over a ten year period I managed to do twenty-seven farewell tours and sell a greater number of tickets than the total population of the country. My name was mentioned in parliament by the Prime Minister, David Lange, who jokingly wondered whether I would be available to hypnotise the leader of the opposition.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s, hypnosis on stage was carried out by only a handful of people, a league of extraordinary gentlemen, an exclusive club which probably had no more than a dozen members worldwide! Apart from a few professional rivalries, we generally behaved like gentlemen, with the public perception of the art of hypnosis a priority. Generally speaking, and with hardly an exception, stage hypnotists were educated, literate, well versed in psychology and knew their subject inside out.
In 1979 and by mutual agreement they formed the Federation of Ethical Stage Hypnotists (FESH) a move which was ostensibly designed to lead to greater acceptance of our art at a time when stage hypnotism looked like it was coming back into fashion. In actual fact, the creation of FESH was actually a thinly disguised attempt to persuade more local authorities into granting licences. Peter Casson even did a small theatre tour, the first for more than fifteen years.
And so it went on through the 1980’s. Casson never really made the comeback he had hoped for and anyway, most of the old school were by then retired and the field was left wide open for Halpern and myself to dominate the scene, which we did for the next ten years and with great effect. Of course, there were some other minor players in the game, but not in the theatres and that was where the big money was to be made, not to mention the respectability attached to playing more reputable venues. By the late 1980’s Halpern was close to retirement too and had disappeared from the scene altogether, hotly pursued by an irate tax inspector. I was selling out the two-thousand seaters from the Manchester Apollo and Liverpool Empire to the Edinburgh Playhouse to the Bristol Hippodrome. I knew that the time was right to ‘up the stakes’ and take hypnotism into the Capital once again.
In order to crack the London market and appear in the West End, I needed to persuade the City of Westminster to grant me a licence and this I did by very cleverly using the 1952 Act to my own advantage. I pointed out that far from being legislation which banned hypnosis on stage, the Act was really legislation which encouraged public demonstrations of hypnosis. Inviting the members of the licensing committee to a special show at the Cliffs Pavilion Theatre in Folkestone, five of them travelled down in a luxury fifty-two-seater coach and viewed the performance before drinking my wine and helping themselves to my sandwiches. A few weeks later, a decision was made to allow me to perform at Wyndham’s Theatre on Charing Cross Road, just off Leicester Square and right in the heart of the West End. Starting in early February 1987, each show was monitored by two officers from the licensing committee, neither of whom knew the first thing about hypnosis. At one performance someone in the audience became affected by the suggestions and fell into a hypnotic state. I was summoned by the concerned officers of the committee and explained the incident away as a prearranged stunt, which of course it wasn’t. Nonetheless, the door had been opened.
Determined to make the London project as much of a success as all the other regional theatres I was doing at the time, I engaged the [now disgraced] publicist Max Clifford. After all the time and effort I put into what was obviously a major undertaking, I had to then sit back and wait for three months while the councillors at Westminster made their deliberations. Eventually, following a meeting of the full City Council, the policy of banning stage hypnosis in the Capital was reversed.
But it’s not in my nature to sit around while there are so many other things to get to grips with so in the interim I packed up and went on tour, first to Las Vegas for three months, returning briefly to fulfil a ten week summer season contract in the Channel Islands before a further six week tour of New Zealand and Australia and the following January, disappearing to Kenya for my annual holiday. In the meantime, a radio DJ called Paul McKenna, who had interviewed me in London, told me about his idea of making therapeutic hypnosis as big a business as Anthony Robbins had made the corporate training industry.
McKenna convinced me that his interest was in the therapeutic side only and I thought his idea was actually very good, but not something that appealed to me. I taught him everything I knew about hypnosis. He even stayed at my home in Manchester a few times.
McKenna had turned up regularly at my shows in London and elsewhere in the country and whilst the following year I was again in Las Vegas polishing my hypnotic skills, McKenna stayed at home polishing his political skills and started to make appearances as a stage hypnotist. Certainly McKenna’s performances in London were almost identical in almost every detail to mine and I have the videos to prove it – even down to throwaway one-liners, the exact order of the same sketches and routines, and most disturbing, his stage persona also displayed an eerie and rather creepy, resemblance.
In London, a place I could never get out of quickly enough, I disliked Max Clifford’s publicity stunts. The show-biz events I was expected to attend left me bored witless after about five seconds. I have never been one for courting publicity – I have always sought anonymity when away from the stage, although I have now realised that you can’t have both. The design of my advertising materials over the years bears witness to this. Only very rarely do I allow my own image to be used in publicity material, and then only after a lot of moaning and groaning. Look at any of my posters, and they are beautifully drawn cartoons, created by the very talented Russ Tudor. [see ART GALLERY page on this website.]
However, Paul McKenna and I managed to co-exist based on the mutual understanding that a line was drawn on the map and one did not appear north of that line and the other did not appear south of it. Certainly the arrangement worked well for a number of years as we each kept to our gentleman’s agreement.
Peter Powers assumed the role of Robert Halpern’s heir apparent in Scotland and I have nothing but respect for him – particularly the originality of his work. I rank him as one of the best in the world – he has a grasp of the subject of hypnosis that only comes from natural talent.
By the late 1980’s Paul McKenna and I schemed together as officers of the British Council of Professional Stage Hypnotists (BCPSH) to persuade the government to introduce a rule that only those hypnotists with expensive public liability insurance would be allowed licences. The real aim of this enterprise was not designed to ensure public safety, but was a deliberate strategy to put other stage hypnotists out of business thereby creating a monopoly for ourselves. To this end, together, we plotted the overthrow of the BCPSH president, Dr. Adam Cordean BSc., PhD., a man, who it turned out, was neither the proprietary owner of a BSc. or a PhD. and not a real doctor. Interestingly, when this regrettable fact was brought to the attention of the membership, which had by this time grown to about two dozen mainly amateurs, no one seemed to mind and so the plan backfired somewhat, leaving us no alternative but to resign.
And then, as often happens with the best laid plans, the situation changed again. Ever the opportunist, I had negotiated with Thames Television for a one hour TV special which was broadcast on 10th December 1992.
I did a twenty-two part series for SKY TV which was then shown all over the world, from Australia to Zimbabwe and was even included in some airlines in-flight entertainment programmes, something which caused me mild embarrassment on a Qantas flight to Sydney and more discomfiture when I found myself looking up to see an episode of the Andrew Newton Hypnotic Experience shown on television monitors in Singapore airport. Carlton Television went with Paul McKenna’s series of fourteen shows and Channel 4 followed with Peter Power’s ‘Naughty Naughty Hypno Show’ which turned out to be the best of the three – not only because of its superbly original material and departure from the usual sterile studio format, but because its success emanated more from Peter’s natural roguish personality and mischievous sense of humour. Peter, whom I know to be an extremely kind and generous man has since found huge success in Australia and now has three TV series to his name, making him (at the time of writing) the world’s most successful stage hypnotist, an accolade he richly deserves. His TV shows include stunts on a roller coaster and a helicopter. Peter has a rare gift for originality and that has been the secret of his deserved success.
But all this is merely an aside, because what happened next would ensure the demise of Stage Hypnosis in Britain for the next twenty years. While entertainment hypnosis seemed to be on the crest of a wave, something totally unexpected happened. Where stage hypnosis is concerned, there is ‘before television’ and ‘after television’. Before television, stage hypnosis resided in a Utopian world, one in which the only place you could see hypnotism was in the live theatre, performed by less than a handful of career hypnotists.
Six months after hypnosis got its first outing on television, hypnotists were appearing in every pub and club, in every hotel bar of every summer resort and at the end of every pier. The Stage newspaper even created a special section in their classified advertisements to accommodate them all. In one memorable issue, there were more hypnotists advertised than all the other acts put together, all claiming to be ‘the world’s greatest’ – a remarkable achievement given their comparatively recent arrival. All promised to be both outrageous and ethical at the same time. There was even a hypnotic double-act and at least two hypnotists who did their act in drag. In keeping with tradition, a couple of hypnotists adopted the title of ‘Dr.’ Yet another hypnotist appeared totally naked, promising his audience that he would not make anyone do anything he would not be prepared to do himself! Perhaps the worst bottom-of-the-barrel example was ‘Dr. Hypnogasm,’ not a real doctor of course, but an artist who promised an erotic hypnosis show, and who was also available for corporate events, theatre, summer seasons, private functions and, just in case there was any doubt, claimed that his act was, of course, ethical, having been passed by the International Association of Stage Hypnotists, an organisation of which he was the only member.
Hypnotism became an overnight and runaway success and it seemed that anyone without gainful employment was jumping on an already creaking bandwagon. In the pubs, stage hypnotism had become the new karaoke – at the height of the craze, which lasted about twelve months, it is estimated that there were more than two hundred stage hypnotists on the loose. At the same time, even more organisations came into being, all claiming to represent and regulate stage hypnosis, each more preposterous and absurd than the last. Memberships of these societies and associations were exchanged with the same casual abandon as the stolen sketches and routines.
There was an explosion in the number of hypnosis training schools (most of very dubious merit) where none had existed before. They offered qualifications that will never be worth the paper they were printed on. Many of these diploma factories were churning out bogus qualifications and certificates by the score. This was a dramatic change from the days when Peter Casson, asked by a licensing magistrate in Liverpool “how is a person hypnotised?” answered, “It’s a secret.”
In short, like everything else that is suddenly over-exposed, the novelty wore off just as quickly. Hypnosis had suddenly become commonplace and, as with all commonplace things, was soon destined for the dustbin of show business history, just as it had been in the 1950’s. Audiences that had once flocked in their tens of thousands to the Dominion in London and the Apollo in Manchester now stayed away in equal numbers. After all, why pay £10 to see a proper hypnotist in a theatre when you can see one for free in the local boozer? Johnny Hillyard, an old FESH stalwart eloquently observed, that the painters and decorators who now populated the industry were not entertainers; they were… painters and decorators.
I have said more times than I care to remember that an idiot can learn to do hypnosis and this is part of the problem – idiots are doing it and this is not a good thing.
I had always believed that on the stage, hypnotism had to be presented as something special, not something cheap and nasty – the days of getting subjects to cluck like a chicken were long gone before I even started. The real secret was to make the audience forget that what they were watching had cost them a fiver, and transport them. To do this successfully, I offered them refinement, hence only appearing in theatres and avoiding pubs and clubs at all cost. Refinement meant offering not just the show, but the whole theatrical experience; uniformed and well-drilled staff, the best sound and light systems so that the audience would hear every word and enjoy every effect; carefully chosen music because I have always believed that the musical accompaniment to the routines is just as important as the routines they compliment. Exactly the right music can enhance suggestions and encourage the subject, on an emotional level, to rise to the occasion. [The use of the exact same music tracks I chose nearly thirty years ago have been copied by many stage hypnotists, another testament to the lack of originality that permeates the business.] Refinement meant attention to every detail – the chairs we carried for the subjects were a set of heavy-duty cinema seats with arms and properly upholstered, that bolted together. In at least three theatres, I bought carpets for the stage. Even the lighting of the stage when the show had ended and the audience were on their way out did not escape my attention.
I was uncompromising because I believed that the same rules that applied to grand opera should apply to the hypnotic experience. I always strived not only to ‘give the people what they wanted’ but to give them something better than they expected. This is impossible in a pub. And I will admit to a distaste that borders on snobbery for the pub hypnotist. They simply cannot achieve the same standards of performance.
I would like to offer one more thought. Every stage hypnotist I have ever come across repeats the same tired platitude that it is the subjects that are the real stars of the show! I have to agree, if only because the vast majority of stage hypnotists are not entertainers, they are painters and decorators. This is something that the old school hypnotists agree with and represents a huge difference between the old school and the new.
The old school went into show business because they wanted to be entertainers – being an entertainer is not something that is offered along with accountancy as a career option. A true entertainer understands timing, originality, and an act honed to perfection through years of sweat, fear, good nights and bad. Most of the new lot became stage hypnotists because seventy quid and free lager for a late night in Ibiza is better than sixty quid for an early morning in Rochdale, and it shows. Either that, or they fancy themselves as the next Paul McKenna, a notion that’s always be dispelled within a very short time. But it’s still better than driving a bus, and as long as you can hide behind the talents of your subjects, you can get away with it. There is simply no comparison between a sharp, quick-witted professional hypnotist and entertainer, who understands hypnosis inside out, and the seventy quid a night pub hypnotist, who should be banned, if only because they have no charm whatsoever, but mainly for safety’s sake.
Whereas before television, Stage Hypnosis had been the exclusive domain of well informed and educated performers, it now became over-populated by people with a poor command of the English language and worse, council estate entrepreneurs whose last ambition had been to go on a stag do in their own stretched limo. This new breed of stage hypnotist had not just read one book, they hadn’t read any books, and their starting experience was based on the observation of ‘fellow professionals’ performing in pubs and tips exchanged in bars in Spain.
The vast majority of stage hypnotists are woefully ignorant of the possible consequences of their actions. Completely irresponsibly, they succeeded magnificently in stripping away every trace of hard won respectability from a profession that had hitherto held such qualities in high regard. If ever there was good reason to ban stage hypnotism, they are it.
Soon after the hypnotic Cambrian Explosion, a series of sensational stories began to appear in the tabloid press. People were emerging from hypnosis shows with headaches, some were lapsing into unexplained incurable depression, having their lives ruined, their brains fried – by stage hypnotists! Suddenly there was a flood of these stories. And then along came the big one, guaranteed to strike dread into every God-fearing reader of the Daily Mail. A woman had allegedly died after being hypnotised on the stage! Oh shit! we all cried.
The Sharon Tabarn case is the one most often referred to in anti-stage hypnotism propaganda. The facts of the case are as follows;
1; Sharon Tabarn goes out with friends and takes part in an unlicensed stage hypnotism show at the Roebuck pub in Leyland, Lancashire, carried out by the world’s number one hypnotist Andrew Vincent, a former bus driver with virtually no experience whatsoever, having learned hypnosis by watching someone else do it in a disco in Benidorm.
2; The last stunt of the show consists of a suggestion from the hypnotist that she will have a ten thousand volt electric shock which, it is politely suggested, will “shoot up your arse” and cause her to leap from her seat.
3; She has consumed a moderate amount of alcohol, estimated to be three pints of lager and returns home late where she lies on the bed and falls asleep fully clothed, next to her estranged husband who is asleep in the same bed.
4; In the morning she is discovered lying dead on the bed having choked on her own vomit.
5; The incident is blamed on the hypnotism show and the Home Office Pathologist, Dr. Edmund Tapp, is called in to investigate the cause of death.
6; At the inquest, witnesses who are experts in the field of neurology, psychology and hypnosis are called and are unanimous in their opinion that the death has nothing whatsoever to do with hypnosis but rather the result of a fit which could have happened at any time. One expert calls any connection between the death and hypnosis “laughable.”
7; The mother of the deceased, Margaret Harper, goes on national television and is interviewed in the media still claiming that hypnosis was the cause of death and stating that Sharon had always had a pathological fear of electricity, a fact that oddly, was not mentioned at the inquest. There is no mention of epilepsy in the pathologists report or at the inquest, yet this becomes the buzz word in hundreds of subsequent tabloid newspaper and magazine articles.
8; The case is taken up by Mrs. Harper’s MP and questions are asked in parliament, reminiscent of the debate which led to the 1952 Hypnotism Act.
9; Mrs. Harper forms the Campaign Against Stage Hypnotism (don’t forget to make your cheques payable to CASH) and lobbies for the inquest to be reopened.
10; Referring to the evidence of the experts, a High Court judge says that there is no evidence to suggest that hypnotism played any part in the death and refuses permission for the inquest to be reopened.
11; The stage hypnotist concerned is not prosecuted under the 1952 Hypnotism Act but leaves the business anyway to become a cleaner of wheelie-bins.
12; The verdict of the inquest and of the High Court is subsequently overturned by various subsequent television programmes and tabloid newspapers.
I have always been puzzled as to why Mrs. Tabarn’s ex-husband didn’t wake up when she was being sick. This is an important question and one which has never been satisfactorily explained.
A couple of years after the Sharon Tabarn case finally faded from public view, I was doing a show in one of my regular theatres. One of the people I had just hypnotised was lying on his back on the stage, which is completely normal after a postural sway induction. Then, working my way along the line of volunteers, I suddenly saw the young man’s mouth fill up with the contents of his stomach, the mess spilling out of his mouth, down his face and onto the stage. Quick as lightning, I stepped quickly over two prostrate volunteers and turned him onto his side and put him in the recovery position. In the two or three seconds it took me to get to him and get him to open his eyes, I noticed that there had been no reaction from him, no gag reflex or other movement of his body – he did not open his eyes and I came to the inescapable conclusion that had I not intervened quickly, he could well have choked. The young man told me he had been drinking heavily before the show and this was confirmed by his friends in the audience. It was without doubt excessive alcohol consumption that was the cause of him being sick, but the incident is an object lesson in how important it is to be vigilant, take responsibility and remain in control at all times.
If any stage hypnotist tells me that stage hypnotism is absolutely safe, I always quote this example amongst others. There is no activity on earth that is one hundred percent safe – there are risks even crossing the road. I mean who knows? It doesn’t matter how many times you look left and right, you could still get hit by a meteorite. Human beings can be unpredictable and while you’re busy “giving the audience what they want,” it is vital to remain aware of the possible pitfalls, of which there are many. It is simply impossible to retain sufficient control in a noisy pub or noisy beachfront bar.
The truth of the matter is that every stage hypnotist has at some time or another encountered the kind of problem discussed in this article. Without exception. Any stage hypnotist who claims they have never had a problem with a subject is either being economical with the truth or is too stupid or careless to have noticed. These things are only discussed in private and the ‘profession’ (laughingly referred to as ‘the brotherhood’ by some hypnotists) keep these innumerable accounts and anecdotes of close shaves, scary moments and lucky escapes to themselves, and for obvious reasons.
Around the same time the Tabarn story broke, one Lynne Howarth won an undefended action against Stage Hypnotist Phil Daemon (not his real name, but a stage-name) and was awarded £6,000 in costs and damages largely because the hypnotist couldn’t be bothered to turn up to defend the action. Typical. The facts of this case are simple. Lynne Howarth claimed she was abused as a child and when, during the course of a stage hypnotist show she was asked to act like an eight year old (part of the stage hypnotist’s stock of tired but tested material) the memories apparently came flooding back and, as all eight year olds do in this situation, she picked up the telephone and called her lawyer.
Who is really to blame in the case of Lynne Howarth? Is it the hypnotist, who was just copying something he’d seen another hypnotist do on another stage in another town, or the man who had buggered her when she was eight? Furthermore, what sort of emotional upset does this woman experience every time she walks past a school playground or catches a glimpse of children’s television? The Howarth case is not of interest solely because it was the first time someone had actually succeeded in a civil litigation against a stage hypnotist, but because Ms. Howarth’s claim was un-opposed. Even so, the final award of £6,000 was derisory. Phil Daemon ‘The world’s No. 1 hypnotist’ was yet another former bus driver who subsequently gave up hypnosis to run pub karaoke contests. By the time the case came to court he was either too lazy or too indifferent to offer a defence and this adds a cheerless postscript to the story. Nevertheless, it is a depressing indication of the calibre of the people who became involved in stage hypnosis in Britain in the early 1990’s.
All this left a nasty enough taste in everybody’s mouth, but the stage hypnotism business continued as usual. Then in 1997, Christopher Gates sued Paul McKenna in the Civil Court claiming he suffered depression and had become schizophrenic after being told to imagine that he was eight years old in a show at the Swan Theatre, High Wycombe. The case was rejected by the judge after listening to expert testimony from, amongst others, Dr. Graham Wagstaff of Liverpool University. It struck me at the time that in using Graham Wagstaff as an expert witness McKenna was playing a desperate card. The defence relied upon – that the plaintiff Gates could not possibly have been adversely affected by hypnotism because hypnotism doesn’t exist in the first place – could have backfired. Any suggestion that hypnosis doesn’t exist could well be misinterpreted by an unprepared public who might then consider that, well… hypnotism doesn’t exist, so why bother going to see a hypnotist? But then I suppose with hundreds of thousands of pounds at stake, anything is worth a try.
I spoke to the journalist who first broke the Chris Gates story in that bastion of accurate and unbiased reporting, the News of the World. He told me that he had visited Gates at home and that Gates had claimed that he was left in a permanent state of being eight years old by McKenna. Most of the interview was conducted with Gates’ girlfriend while the twenty-five-year-old eight-year-old sat on the floor and played with a selection of building blocks and colouring books. The journalist, who died a few weeks later in a mysterious motorcycle accident in France, told me that he was initially suspicious when Gates asked for £15,000 and not a trip to Toys-R-Us. He said he didn’t believe a word of it but it was just too good a story to pass up.
Given the opportunity to tell his side of the story in the Sunday Times in January 2006, McKenna appeared humiliated. “As soon as the story broke I stopped touring; adverts and corporate work were cancelled. I worked out the case cost me four or five million quid. But the money was the least of it. I was so traumatised I couldn’t sleep, I lost a lot of weight and I began to believe my own bad publicity: I could help other people with stress control, but I couldn’t help myself.” Poor chap. Still, makes a change from believing his own publicity. Perhaps his weight loss and mental state had more to do with all the ecstasy tablets he was throwing down his throat at the time or his cocaine habit which, until recently, he managed to keep very quiet about. The more likely truth is that by the time the story broke, stage hypnosis was already dead in the water.
With regards to the McKenna/Gates case, it is an object lesson in how not to deal with a potential problem. Christopher Gates had a history of mental illness and schizophrenia before he went on stage at the Swan Theatre. Schizophrenia is a genetic illness and cannot possibly be caused by hypnosis.
Nevertheless, McKenna should have sent him back to his seat at the first hint of trouble, presuming of course he noticed Gates’ distress in the first place. McKenna did not attempt to make himself available for any kind of debriefing, other than to spout some psychobabble about Gates being “in touch with the dark side of his mind” when he was subsequently telephoned by Gates’ girlfriend. He could have afforded himself the opportunity of offering some reassurance or even some hypnotherapy but Gates might as well have phoned Darth Vader. Hoping a problem will just go away on its own is not the answer.
Only a very small minority (less than half a dozen cases) have claimed genuine mental health problems as a result of being hypnotised on the stage. These complaints date to the mid 1990’s and there have been none since. This is commensurate with the fact that out of the nearly two hundred ‘stage hypnotists’ who appeared after TV, most disappeared as quickly as they had arrived and the current total of stage hypnotists in Britain is now around a couple of dozen.
According to Government figures, approximately one in six people suffer some kind of mental illness at some time in their lives. It doesn’t take a genius to work out the odds that very occasionally there may be a coincidence of an individual who is unaware they may be suffering a mild form of mental illness and who then volunteers to be hypnotised on stage. Common sense dictates that a much more scientific approach should be adopted when investigating these claims but as yet, there is no empirical evidence to suggest a link and stories in tabloid newspapers do not constitute empirical evidence.
Derren Brown relates a truly hideous tale of how he had been booked to appear at a student ball at Bristol University when he was still doing a stage hypnosis act. One of the young students, a girl, was obviously drunk and Derren quite rightly refused to hypnotise her and sent her back to her seat. Some time after the performance was over, the girl collapsed and an ambulance was duly summoned. Later she was taken to hospital where she was diagnosed as suffering from alcohol poisoning and had her stomach pumped. But the first thing the demonic Derren knew of the incident was an announcement over the public address system asking the hypnotist to immediately present himself at reception. There, he saw the girl flanked by paramedics and the usual crowd of no-agenda sightseers. It was at this juncture that the ambulance driver suggested that he try to bring her out of hypnosis. This, he attempted to do – and that was the mistake. Personally, I would have refused. Why? My reasons are straightforward and logical. First, the girl hadn’t been hypnotised in the first place. Second, she was obviously dead drunk and third (and most important) to attempt to interfere in a matter that is patently nothing to do with you is tantamount to an admission that it might be. My response would have been something along the lines of “Oh, I remember this girl… I didn’t hypnotise her because I considered that she was drunk so I sent her back to her seat. It is absolutely impossible that she has been affected in any way, shape or form. So I would get her to hospital and pump her stomach. I don’t know… students eh?!”
A cautionary tale, nonetheless. What is interesting about the story is the way everybody automatically associated the girl’s drunkenness with hypnosis. I don’t know… the public eh?! Stupid fuckers some of them.
I never do pubs, nightclubs, private parties, corporate dinners, firm’s Christmas do’s, in fact anything where alcohol is the main attraction – and for all the reasons sated above. I limit myself to legitimate theatres or town halls or venues where the audience is sat in rows, theatre style and not getting up and down going to the bar. I research my venues beforehand and only perform in those where I am able exercise the requisite degree of control that the job demands. Thus I have never had anyone complain of headaches or depression, nor have I had anyone level the accusation that I have psychologically damaged them. I have never received a complaint from a member of the public, the police, the licensing authority or the medical profession, although I admit one of my subjects slipped and fell off the stage in Blackpool in 1980. The man, who hadn’t believed in hypnotism in the first place but had just come up to “give it a try” was miraculously only slightly injured and took it all in his stride, but the incident served as a massive wake-up call.
Perhaps the worst damage to stage hypnosis was the erroneous claim made by the Great, but buffoonish, Delavar on at least one high profile TV programme. He stated that anyone could learn stage hypnosis in a couple of hours. Trawling the internet, it appears the standard price tag for this powerful knowledge at present sits at around £200. Most therapists are in it because they genuinely want to help people and there is always the confidentiality of the consulting room and the reasonable expectation that whatever occurs will be beneficial. The common or garden stage hypnotist on the other hand is in it for the easy money (if you can call £75 a night easy money) or the chance of fame or both.
The vast majority of stage hypnotists couldn’t give a stuff about their volunteers. Paul McKenna once told me in a quiet moment, “they’re scum really… just a bunch of fucking bastards who should do as they’re told… total bastards all of them…” Maybe he was just joking…
Of late, his well publicised philanthropy has been of benefit mainly to certain celebrities as well as members of the public. Unfortunately, his altruism is mainly reserved for those he thinks he can use for his own advancement. Paul McKenna stayed at my house on occasion (until my wife told me never to invite him again) so I know him quite well and it is my opinion that there is no one Paul McKenna likes to help more than er… Paul McKenna. He has successfully cultivated a whiter than white image, the result of tens of thousands of pounds spent on public relations.
The by now public knowledge that hypnosis was an easy skill to acquire was without doubt the most damaging news of all for stage hypnosis. Where audiences had once marvelled at the hypnotist’s mysterious skill, they now felt as if some cheap fraud had been perpetrated on them. All the mystique vanished virtually overnight. At least the born-again Christians were rubbing their hands with joy.
The subsequent 1994 Inquiry into stage hypnosis, chaired by the Home Office and with expert opinion from a panel of medical specialists, psychiatrists and psychologists, many of whom came from the Royal College of Psychiatry, concluded that, with the attachment of a couple of extra conditions to the licence, stage hypnosis could be considered as safe as any other activity which involved the participation of members of the public. This news got precisely one column of five centimetres in length in the Guardian but otherwise went unreported.
In recent times, we have become increasingly subject to a compensation culture, fuelled by no-win, no-fee arrangements with solicitors. Add to this an insurance market that was already reeling from the massive pay-outs caused by the Piper Alpha disaster, multi-billion pound asbestosis claims and World Trade Centre attacks, and one can start to understand why the insurance companies were beginning to think twice about insuring anyone that represents even the slightest risk, such as stage hypnotists.
Typically, most stage hypnotists expect to get something for nothing – a lot of them were out to make a quick buck from the hypnosis bandwagon but with the notable exceptions of myself, McKenna, Ken Webster and Peter Powers, few stage hypnotists carry their own public liability insurance – those who were members of Equity get by using the union’s own brand insurance which is free to members. After the McKenna/Gates case, this insurance was withdrawn and had the all too predictable effect of driving the hypnotists back underground, back to the pubs, nightclubs and caravan parks which is where they were in the 1950’s and 60’s and where there are no checks and no redress when things go wrong.
Thus the vast majority of performances in Britain are not only unlicensed but also uninsured. It is possible to get the required insurance but, like any other type of insurance this comes at a premium – a premium of £2,000 – which is simply beyond the reach of the pub hypnotist.
Why on earth should a responsible insurance company provide free cover to a group of individuals about whom they know nothing? If someone wishes to insure their car, the insurance company wants to know where the car is kept, who is going to be driving it, even what colour it is. The paradox is that as far as the insurance companies are concerned, the problem is not that there are too many hypnotists but that there are too few hypnotists to generate a sufficient balance in premiums to cover potential pay-outs.
It is up to the stage hypnotists to prove themselves worthy of our trust once more, although it has to be said that for the majority, public approval does not seem to be very forthcoming.
Unable to find work in Britain, some of the ex-painters and decorators have moved permanently abroad, to the holiday resorts of the Mediterranean. It is in the cheap package holiday infested bars and pubs that most now ply their trade, pandering to the very worst excesses of their inebriated and uninhibited audiences with routines that twenty years ago would have resulted in their arrest on charges of indecency. The average fee for a night’s work in these places ranges between £70 and £100, which is why the majority have given up their dream of being the next hypnotist on telly, have dusted down their overalls and headed back to B&Q.
Paul McKenna has successfully reinvented himself as the Messiah of the ‘make your life a happier place to live’ business, running NLP training courses, self-improvement seminars and marketing hypnotic therapy CD’s and books. McKenna these days prefers to be known as Dr. Paul McKenna PhD., a qualification which, according to the Daily Mirror, is entirely bogus. But it’s gratifying nonetheless to see that he’s more than willing to carry on a great tradition. Apparently, there was only one question on the examination paper – have you got $2,600?
In the interests of completeness (and not getting sued) he did claim that in preparing for his doctoral thesis, he read a staggering twelve books, including the airport bookshop favourite, Brain Power, and spent five hundred hours writing it and completed it in a mere eighteen months – an achievement of which the academic world must be in awe.
McKenna claims that he was made “a laughing stock” by journalist Victor Lewis-Smith and sued for libel. La Salle University, the organisation that conferred the doctorate was, without any shadow of a doubt, a cheap diploma mill and was subsequently proven to be so in the United States by a Federal Court (its founder was sentenced to five years imprisonment for fraud.)
McKenna won the case, but the judge, Mr. Justice Eady agreed that much of his claim was baseless. McKenna claimed that he had “earned” his “PhD” getting “top grades for most, if not all” of the courses he completed. The judge was of a different opinion, calling the claim “manifestly inaccurate… This… is quite incomprehensible… he did not complete those courses.”
Defending Counsel for the Daily Mirror, Mr. John Kelsey-Fry QC, argued that “Mr McKenna is an intelligent man… We suggest that such a man could not conceivably have believed that the programme he undertook could legitimately have placed him in the upper ranks of academia. What he wanted was not betterment, education and study but the three letters (PhD) he was seeking and which he got. He wanted them for sound commercial reasons.”
I would argue differently and for very sound reasons. Remember that in the late 1980’s, Paul McKenna and I were chairman and secretary respectively of the now defunct British Council of Professional Stage Hypnotists. McKenna and I both knew that the outgoing chairman “Dr.” Adam Cordean PhD. was nothing of the sort. In fact the whole farcical situation was one that caused us both much amusement, so much so that in personal correspondence (which I kept for posterity) and telephone conversations, we jokingly referred to each other as “doctor.” Sometime later, Paul told me that he was considering buying “one of those dodgy American degrees” if only he could find one which “looked the business.” This became a recurring discussion, even though he knew as well as I did that, certainly at the time, there was nowhere in the world where one could obtain a legitimate qualification of any kind in either hypnosis or hypnotherapy.
Hypnosis by itself is a comparatively narrow field of interest and even today one would be extremely hard pushed to find any bona-fide qualification that is accredited in the normal sense of the word and certainly not at the doctoral level. Imagine then my amusement when my attention was first drawn to Victor Lewis-Smith’s excellent and well researched article.
I do not believe for one moment that Paul McKenna obtained the phoney PhD. for commercial reasons only – that would be unfair, although phoney it is, even though he managed to convince Mr. Justice Eady that he had, at the time, sincerely believed it to be genuine, which was the only reason he won the case. On several occasions in interviews, most memorably on the ITV flagship programme This Morning, the great man himself makes much of the fact that he failed his English O level and yet managed to write a best-selling book. The acquisition of a phoney PhD. was undoubtedly obtained to massage his own ego and one in the eye for those who had once had the audacity to think that he was just a sad tosser.
The truth is that those who take short cuts by purchasing diploma mill credentials know exactly what they are doing and wilfully ignore all indications to the contrary; they know full well that what they are doing is distinctly dodgy and they rely on the assumption that no-one will ever question them. McKenna would have got away with it had he not been rumbled by the Daily Mirror. When he was, he threw his toys out of the cot with a passion and enthusiasm of biblical proportions.
The wily McKenna says that he asked for a refund when he discovered that it wasn’t worth the paper it was written on (this was after the article appeared in the Daily Mirror) but it is impossible to ignore the fact that he continued to use the letters PhD. on his therapy CDs, which, in my opinion, are amongst the worst I have ever heard – half-hearted efforts with a wish-washy induction, repetition of a few banal stock phrases and, you guessed it, devoid of any originality whatsoever. These recordings were also presented to the court as part of his ‘thesis.’ Had work of such extraordinary brevity been presented to a genuine academic institution it would have been rejected out of hand. I wonder what Mr. Justice Eady would have said about it had McKenna’s ‘dissertation’ been on the subject of say, law…
At University College London, there has been in existence for more than twenty-five years, a pioneering unit which specializes in hypnosis and it is led by the brilliant Professor David Oakley. The unit is not only world renowned but is the only centre in the world that offers specialist training in hypnosis studies. It is also the only place in the world where hypnosis studies are validated by a recognized academic institution, in this case, a British university. To my (not great) surprise, McKenna has stated that he had never heard of it.
McKenna’s libel victory is shallow, even though he may yet (at the time of writing) get a modest pay-out by way of damages. It should be around the 1p mark. Do not despair however; this is almost bound to be offset by the fact that the judge indicated that McKenna might have to pay a sizeable proportion of his own costs as “the matter could have been resolved at a much earlier stage had Paul McKenna presented Victor Lewis-Smith with a copy of his dissertation. This he failed to do…” And no small wonder!
There are at least 4,500 hypnotherapists in the UK alone, working the same kind of miracles every day of the week. The vast majority are content to devote their time and energy trying to help people without the self-aggrandising publicity machine that is part and parcel of every ‘cure’ McKenna achieves. I, and many of my colleagues, rate his ability as distinctly average – a very dangerous thing for me to say, given the way he normally responds to even the slightest criticism. So who knows, I might get sued after all.
In fairness, Paul McKenna is not the only offender. Alex William Smith, also known as Dr. Jonathon Royle PhD, by his own admission, bought his doctorate/PhD from the non-existent Chelsea University. He now claims he has a doctorate and PhD from the American Universal Life Church – cost: $265. Using the name Alex Leroy he performed in pubs (for scientific and research purposes) once suggesting to a young woman that she would think that she had just been raped. Years later, he claimed it had all been set up and the woman was a paid stooge. He gave Channel 5 a video of him having sex with a young girl who appears to be unconscious, again, later claiming the girl was a paid ‘glamour model’ and the stunt itself was faked. Fake or not, these stunts had a negative effect on the public perception of stage hypnosis. Is it any wonder that the public lost faith in hypnosis?
To get round the problem of possible public opprobrium, a lot of stage hypnotists have invested in a cunning contingency plan. A quick trawl of the internet reveals a surprising number of stage hypnotists (in Britain especially, although perhaps not so surprising, given that stage hypnosis in Britain seems to attract a certain type of individual these days) who claim to have PhD’s. A quick check of these credentials, which are without exception, awarded by bogus academic institutions, reveals that the owners are not only trying to fool others, but are also fooling themselves. Some have taken an even shorter route to academic excellence by simply awarding themselves the coveted letters PhD, without the inconvenience of handing over the $200 it normally costs. You may have noticed that I hold these charlatans in utter contempt.
The ups and downs of stage hypnosis in Britain however are a localised phenomenon. Other countries seem not to have been affected – in New Zealand, Australia and the United States business is booming. Although entertainment hypnotism has been televised all over the world, only in Britain has there been an upsurge in the number of hypnotists eager to take to the stage – this really has been a totally British phenomenon, at least up until recently. The United States seems now to be awash with stage hypnotists, most of whom survive on the college circuit. In Sweden and Norway, where British hypnosis shows have been regularly aired on TV, not one single Swede or Norwegian has taken to the stage. The same is true in New Zealand and South Africa. The smaller populations in these countries may in part explain this, but I think a more likely cause is to be found in the subtle cultural differences that indicate audiences in those countries are amused by it but have no desire to go into it themselves.
So will stage hypnotism in Britain come full circle and eventually go through a resurgence of popularity sometime in the future?
The real problems of stage hypnosis are nothing to do with to the rules and regulations imposed upon it or the exigencies of insurance and licensing. The main problem is that when it comes down to it, it is a novelty act, and one that really belongs to the last century. Given the fact that such a simple science carries with it the baggage of such great public misunderstanding, it is surely no big surprise that the public have turned their backs on it as an entertainment after so much bad publicity. In contrast, every year at least half a dozen punters are genuinely injured on fairground rides, and yet there is never a call for the banning of these entertainments – certainly there has never been the emotional outcry that resulted in the aftermath of the boom in stage hypnotism. I suppose it’s because a fairground ride is a machine and people understand that machines sometimes go wrong, but hypnotism is not understood by the public and in that respect it is still as dubious as it was when it was called mesmerism.
Between 1994 and 2002 have been at least half a dozen TV programmes in the UK calling into question the safety of stage hypnosis. The main problem with these shows is that they always seem to wheel out the same sad-faced inadequates who regurgitate their same hard luck stories. These programmes always start out with the best intentions of balance and fairness, but in the end they always succumb to the irresistible attraction of sensationalism once they find their way into the final edit. Myself, Peter Powers and the ever shy Paul McKenna are noticeable by our absence on these programmes and thus the defence of hypnosis is left to those enthusiastic amateurs with lamentable inexperience in the art of the interview and no inkling that once their piece reaches the editing suite, they will be made fools of, which they almost always are. The result is, as strangers to erudition, they nearly always appear on the small screen looking not only bad, but sad. Margaret Harper appears on them all, but as yet has been unable to explain what exactly it is she knows about her daughter’s death that the medical experts don’t. Mrs. Harper has made a career (and some have suggested, a nice little earner) from these television appearances and interviews in magazines that were a bit light on real news that week.
In fairness however to Mrs. Harper, her treatment by the television companies will have been five-star. Surrounded by production assistants and researchers whose only wish is make good television, er, sorry, I mean to lend a sympathetic ear, it is hardly surprising that she is seduced by the chauffeur driven cars to and from the studio, the five-star hotels and all the other perks that go with being the central attraction on a television programme. It’s a lot more exciting than just being a member of the studio audience where you just get pointed in the general direction of the bus stop once the recording is over.
I believe that Mrs. Harper genuinely believes that her daughter died as a result of being hypnotised in an illegal show in a pub. I am even more in sympathy with her than you may imagine. I also know that her story was seized upon by Derek Crussell, now deceased, a hypnotherapist from South London who operated from the front room of his house. Crussell had generated a lot of media coverage for himself over the years by making a career out of trying to destroy stage hypnotism. Crussell made himself available as Margaret Harper’s personal expert and he should have known better than to prey upon this woman’s grief. Desperate for publicity, Crussell has needlessly prolonged Mrs. Harper’s suffering. He could not have done worse damage if he had suggested that the cause of her daughter’s death was as a result of her being kidnapped by aliens.
I have a different and rather personal memory of Derek Crussell. I first saw him in the late 1970’s wearing a white suit resplendent in with gold medallions – being booed off the stage of a caravan park social club in Skegness.
Perhaps it is a little unfair to round on Mrs. Harper when the same can be said for the other half dozen habitual moaners who have learned to love the camera every bit as much as the camera loves them. They all have similar stories to tell; of depression, of time off work and damaged lives. They just can’t bring themselves to accept that everyone had a good laugh at their expense at the office Christmas party. Now their workmates and colleagues will never look at them in the same light again. If there has been damage to their (possibly high) self-esteem or if they think that their position in the company hierarchy has been compromised, it begs the question, why did they get up there in first place? I am wondering if they would suffer the same emotional affront to their dignity if they suddenly found themselves the victim of a practical joke, something which they would have no control over. In the case of the hypnotist, they did volunteer… and the hypnotist is an easy target for blame, providing a useful abdication of responsibility for their own loss of face. What would be the effect of say, a company downsizing where they were forced to accept a demotion?
It is impossible to ignore the fact that these sort of complaints contradict some expert’s views that hypnosis is simply social compliance and nothing else. On the other hand, could it be their consequent distress and numerous visits to the shrink is also a continuation of their role-playing? Could it be that they are just plain barmy? Or were they mentally ill in the first place? Were they possibly self-absorbed individuals who have suddenly found something worth moaning about and people who are willing to lend sympathy and give them some sought after attention?
If you look carefully, it is possible to detect a pattern because their stories are uncannily similar. None of them believed in hypnotism in the first place and didn’t think it could ever happen to them, but somehow they were the ones that ended up being ‘the star of the show,’ the one subject that everyone found the most hilarious. Now that their heady fifteen minutes of fame has expired, they unconsciously satisfy their newfound need for attention by exchanging their dignity for a starring role as injured party in front of a larger television audience. If only they could get some compensation, life would be a lot better. They feed off the programme makers in the same symbiotic relationship as the programme makers feed off their need to play the victim. Sometimes they too get the red carpet treatment of five-star hotels and first-class travel and the attendant satisfying though fleeting feeling of importance.
All this grumbling and whining about stage hypnosis is a peculiarly British disease – nowhere else in the world does stage hypnosis attract this sort of kangaroo court justice. In every other country stage hypnotists carry on their craft without the slightest hint of criticism. So what makes the Brits so different? We are not particularly a nation of complainers. The answer lies in our love affair with tabloid newspapers and our woeful inability to spot when we are being fed a line.
Our European cousins read proper grown up newspapers and as a consequence are more capable of exercising individual critical judgement. The British tabloids on the other hand are juvenile and dwell on the sensational. The Sun, Britain’s best selling daily, has a reading age of ten. Brought up on a diet of scandalous gossip and cheap, tasteless, artificial culture, is it any wonder that an unhealthy fascination with the absurd has become part of the national psyche? Only in Britain could a paediatrician be confused with a paedophile and have his home attacked by the mob.
The French and the Germans take much more of an interest in their country’s politics than the British do. When the French hit the streets it’s because they have something to say and they want their government to listen; when the Brits hit the streets it’s because it’s an excuse to throw stones at the police. The European ideal is one that encourages self improvement by means of literature and art. French children routinely visit art galleries without their parents; Swedish teenagers have much more common sense and aspire to something better. As a result, they can be trusted to behave. Compare the centre of Stockholm late on a Friday night with downtown Manchester. Both cities are just as busy with drinkers and club-goers, but Stockholm is safe. I Manchester you’re far more likely to get your head kicked in by a drunken yob. In Italian cafes, whole families eat together, and that includes the teenagers. The Brits on the other hand aspire to nothing more than getting completely pissed. And there’s the difference. Did you know that the French now refer to the British as ‘les fuck-offs’ because of our reputation for loutish behaviour and the liberal use of the expression?
In Britain, the myths and legends surrounding stage hypnosis have become part of urban mythology. Have you heard the one about the hypnotist who told a man that his wife had stolen his belly button? Everyone thought it was a scream in the pub but in the middle of the night he took a kitchen knife and cut out his wife’s navel. This never happened of course, but it’s a story that has been quoted to me several times over the years. Trying to find the real victims of these stories is like trying to find the little old lady who tried to dry her poodle in the microwave. She didn’t exist either.
The new stage hypnotists have no inkling of what things were like before hypnotism went on TV. When the league of extraordinary gentlemen were performing night after night, there were none of the bars, bistros and restaurants that have in the last two decades become permanent features of Britain’s town centres. When I was pulling them in by their thousands, week after week, year after year in Liverpool and Manchester, there were just a hand-full of night clubs open in those cities. Now there are literally scores of themed pubs and bars, of comedy stores and restaurants and multiplex cinemas, where the entertainment and the booze is cheap.
Television has changed too; the outrageous behaviour of the self-absorbed contestants on Big Brother and most mainstream ‘reality’ TV these days make the antics of the stage hypnotist look positively tame! When Channel 4 broadcast a programme with the title ‘The Top 100 Sexual Accidents,’ shown with the appropriate close-ups, voyeuristic entertainment plumbed depths I never thought possible. The great British public has simply found other sources for their love of mischief .
But there is another, deeper, more fundamental reason that stage hypnotism is in the doldrums at the moment and that is, unlike many other forms of entertainment, it stagnated a long time ago. On television it was always destined to be, because of its nature, a one show joke. Even in the twentieth century, hypnosis on stage remained stuck in the nineteenth century. There are no new tricks – the same tired routines and identical one-liners are run out over and over again by dreadful clones and because of these self imposed limitations, hypnosis has been unable to progress in the same way that stand up comedy and street magic have evolved and caught up with the times. So far, not one stage hypnotist has had the creativity or originality to put a different gloss on it by claiming to be, say, a ‘Performance Hypnotist.’ That might take it up a notch or two. ‘Mesmerist’ – there’s another good one.
Peter Powers, always thinking outside the box, is the only exception; he has abandoned all the old ways and has taken entertainment hypnotism to the next level – and it works brilliantly. In The Power of One, filmed for the Comedy Channel in Australia, he puts his subjects in helicopters, on the beach, paddling a raft up the street and in situations that no other hypnotist has dreamt of before. Setting up two subjects to have a domestic argument, oblivious of the fact they are on a rollercoaster was nothing short of pure genius. At present, he is also the only hypnotist with a series on TV, so that makes him the best hypnotist on TV. Well done Peter – it couldn’t have happened to a nicer fellow.
David Blaine provides one example of how magic has moved into the modern world. Although the tricks are the same, his dress sense (or lack of it) as well as the persona he portrays is much more tailored to more youthful, though not necessarily more sophisticated, audiences. The stage hypnotist however refuses to give up his medallion and exchange it for a t-shirt and a pair of jeans because he is reluctant to give up the illusion of authority he thinks is essential for his image. Even Derren Brown (using a blend of ‘mind reading’ trickery, suggestion, magic tricks and plain old fashioned flummery) seems stuck in this mould. Except of course he’s smart enough not to mention the word hypnosis, something he relies on heavily in his live shows. Derren has taken hypnosis, or mesmerism, or whatever you want to call it back to its original music hall roots, even donning an updated version of the time-honoured Victorian frock-coat. He plays it for amazement rather than for laughs and that, as it turns out, has been a very smart move on his part. But I feel I have to go one step further here, although given his current popularity with audiences, this may not go down so well with some readers.
If a stage hypnotist had pulled some of the stunts Derren Brown has perpetrated on his guinea-pigs in his TV shows, there would have been a public outcry. In one episode, a young student was hypnotised whilst playing a video game in a pub. Once in hypnosis, the unsuspecting young man was transferred on a hospital gurney to a warehouse where, once ‘awakened’ he found himself a part of the game for real, gun in hand and actor zombies all round, all coming to get him, and it turned out to be an experience that he clearly found very frightening and upsetting. Had that stunt been labelled with the word hypnosis (and hypnosis it indeed was) the viewing audience would have been sickened by it. But without the word hypnosis attached, it was magically elevated to the status of the fantastic.
“How did he do that?” I heard another student ask (in Manchester) in sincere admiration. “He used hypnosis” I replied. “Oh no, I’ve seen hypnotists – they humiliate people… but that was fucking brilliant what he did!”
When the great Derren approaches a young lady in the middle of a busy road and sticks her feet to the ground so she is now fixed in the midst of heavy traffic, viewers are mystified. This is yet another old stage hypnotist’s trick; watching a seventeen stone Barnsley miner struggling to get his feet off the floor before he can go back to his seat in the audience used to be hysterical. But even though there is a clear element of risk in stationing a member of the public in the middle of the high street in heavy traffic, we are not actually laughing. So that’s alright then.
Even inserting needles into the arms of the famous crooner Robbie Williams (haven’t we seen this somewhere before?) was, for most viewers something momentously spectacular. If a stage hypnotist had attempted this – even on a pre-briefed and willing volunteer, it is likely there would have been moaning and groaning on an epic scale as the Tabloids united to condemn the act and hunt the hypnotist down on behalf of their outraged readers. But not on this occasion; Derren is an enigma; he’s unfathomable; he’s smart enough to know not to use the word hypnotism… and he’s on the telly.
In his defence I would also add that I have nothing but admiration for the way he has relentlessly sought to expose as frauds spirit mediums and others of their ilk who rip off susceptible and defenceless old ladies. Good on you Derren.
People’s critical faculties seem again to undergo a temporary suspension when they witness something that they can’t explain. This is why magicians have never given away their greatest secrets. In the same moment one gives away a secret, one voluntarily relinquishes the respect (and love) of the audience. Once they realise it can be learned in a weekend…
Just as an aside here, an historical footnote if you like, Derren Brown was, at the time of writing, managed by a theatrical agent called Michael Vine. Michael Vine also managed Peter Casson in his later years. Apart from his hypnotism shows, Casson also presented a ‘paranormal’ show on the stage which was later (very poorly as it turned out) imitated on TV by Paul McKenna, whom Casson used to refer to as “the little prick”, probably as a response to McKenna’s somewhat reprehensible strategy of purposely putting on a special show in London on the same night as Peter Casson gave his lifetime farewell performance at the London Palladium. The little prick… always the comedian!
Possibly Psychological Illusion has become the new hypnotism. Stage hypnotism is dead; long live stage hypnotism. (I heard the Spice Girls are making a come-back… is that right?)