Well we come at last to my final review of the 2011 Cheltenham Science Festival, Richard Wiseman’s Seance at the Playhouse Theatre. Professor Wiseman was of course up to his old tricks — a despicable performance in which he tortured kittens, sacrificed goats to Dawkinsabub and then hypnotised the audience who compliantly became his slaves as he indoctrinated them against all that is good and holy — oh, sorry, no, that was my Paranormality review. Actually he was fantastic, and this was probably my favourite event of the week, though of course after over half a lifetime in psychical research I’m rather biased. Not many people can say this was there second (or actually fourth or fifth) séance they have observed this year at the Playhouse!
So what is Wiseman’s Seance? It’s a look at the phenomena of the Victorian physical mediumship scene (though of course such phenomena continues to be reported to this day, though less commonly – the Noah’s Ark Society produced some physical mediums I believe, and the Scole Group are the outstanding late twentieth century example). I doubt many in the audience today would know what I was on about it here, but it does not matter, as Wiseman provides a self contained, entertaining and actually rather informative narrative/experiment. Put aside your prejudices for a moment, and consider what Professor Wiseman has to teach us. I’m going to assume you know who Richard Wiseman is, because let’s face it apart from a few tribes living in the most impenetrable jungles of E17 who have never seen a Guardian readers face everyone knows who Richard Wiseman is, and if this week was anything to go by, regards him as a dear and bosom pal, have done several shows with him, and have taken deep personal offence to my Paranormality review (despite me giving it 5 stars on Amazon…) If you don’t know, flip back through my blog – he is the guy who gets mentioned more than my girlfriend, which has to be unhealthy!
So, to start with Richard shows a large picture of Houdini and asks the audience who it was. I was so tempted to shout Ehrich Weiss! (Houdini’s name, well actually that is the Anglicized spelling he adopted later, but close enough). 🙂 Before I got the chance someone answered correctly. So how did I know? Well because I happen to be a fan of Mr Weiss/Houdini, and have a few biographies, and this may surprise many of you, a number of books on conjuring and magic. I think it was the influence of another psychical researcher and very young magician, Mike Rose (UK), who I knew in Bury St Edmunds when he was still a young but very talented boy that led me to get interested. I’m good at the patter, but lack the practice, practice, practice that makes one a magician — but I genuinely enjoy my amateur conjuring exploits . I hate card tricks as it happens, but mind reading tricks delight me. I’m rubbish, but I do also love the history of magic, and read what I can, and yes I’m well aware of Houdini’s crusade against the spirits and the Scientific American committee controversy over Margery (Mina Crandon). All this is pretty much by the by, for Richard gave a very brief but highly amusing history of physical mediumship, and Houdini acted as a framing device.
Before I actually stop digressing and start reviewing, two quick things. An excellent biography of Houdini which I found very readable if that of Kalush and Sloman — but if you are interested in the psychical research aspect and the infamous Houdini codes then try to find a copy of Rinn, which I do not own. 😦 For the history of magic I always recommend Hiding the Elephant, a great book by Jim Steinmeyer. Secondly, and even more of an aside, sceptics are fond of telling me that James Randi has clearly shown that all psychical research is flawed by trained magicians not being involved — which shows a colossal ignorance of the pioneers of psychical research, a surprising number of whom were actually talented amateur magicians, yes even Harry Price who had a wonderful collection of rare magic books, now part of the University of London’s Harry Price Collection. One day I plan to write an essay on psychic researchers and magic, but to be honest Richard Wiseman could do it a hundred times better. Anyway, before you quote Project Alpha at me, or mention Randi and conjurers being needed in the investigation of mediums or spooks, please, please take out life insurance, and/or check your facts. Rant over.
OK, OK, the review! Richard Wiseman is a genuinely funny guy, and his presentation was both factually accurate and hilarious as he did a rather iconoclastic (by inference) blast through Daniel Dunglas Hume, the Fox Sisters, Katie King, in fact all the usual suspects for a quick presentation on physical mediumship. Only Agnes Guppy and Eusapia Palladino deserved a name check and failed to appear, possibly because they are too funny even for Richard’s wicked wit. Still, I nodded approvingly – Richard had a fairly neutral tone I thought, given his well known beliefs, but he was setting the scene for what was to come.
Which was,as the name suggests, a séance. Now Derren Brown did a show called Seance, which I rather suspect Richard was involved with somehow, though I do not know that. That was as far as I recall about “mental mediumship”, that is talking to the dead, Derek Acorah/Colin Fry style. This was about physical mediumship, which I could easily spend the next couple of hours discussing, but for the sake of this review it will suffice to say that it involves the spirits doing physical stuff, that is, moving objects around, physically manifesting (usually but not always out of a substance called “ectoplasm”) and otherwise physically interacting with the world.
He then asked for ten volunteers from the audience; people were allowed to opt out by raising their hands, and I did so immediately, as I had read his write ups of his earlier seances using the same model, and let’s face it I have a bit of experience in investigating seances (I have sat in well over a hundred now despite my religious objections and general distaste for them, as an observer rather than a participant). So I definitely DID NOT want to spoil the fun. Anyway I was sneakily taking photos of the side of the theatre, for reasons I’ll mention later in this review.
A quick test for suggestibility, ten audience members were selected and taken off to the séance room. Now you could see Wiseman the psychologist coming through; he performed a process of open disclosure and informed consent which would pass any Research Ethics committee, and commendably so. They all knew what they were letting themselves in for, and commendably so! They were taken off to another room – the panelled room just to the right of the Stage door near the Playhouse Bar as it happens, and then with a melodramatic patter that would embarrass any TV medium with it’s gleeful over the top-ness, they sat in the Victorian style séance room in total darkness, holding hands and controlling the medium (Wiseman) by holding his hands. For us still in the auditorium, it was all rather fun — for the poor volunteers it may well have been spine chilling!
And we could see just fine, as a Night Vision camera (active IR I’m guessing?) gave us a wonderful look at EXACTLY what was going on inside the room. The objects on the table were marked with phosphorescent tape, so the sitters could see them move, and move they did! A wicker ball rose in the air, castanets rattled, and so forth. In fact the table even lifted up in the air and moved violently. And the method used? Exactly the same as that used by my fake seances in my freeform live action roleplaying game Last Flight of the Albatross, which a few of you may have played in! So what was the method?
Um. I’m not going to say.
I’m not a magician, I’m not bound by that brotherhood’s code of secrecy. That it was faked you know, and faked by methods that require no real conjuring skill by the fact you know I have done it in the past for tw runs of the aforementioned game – right down to the table rattling. In fact because my “sitters” were playing in character, and because the séance in my game lasted rather longer, it was I think arguably more effective than Richard’s, what with all the screaming. 🙂 So why not say? Well because to do so spoils the fun here: it was not by any method that any sensible psychical researcher would not immediately spot. If you want to know, look up Richard’s JSPR article on the Fielding Report on the Naples sitting with Eusapia Palladino – because no one ever hits the donate button on this blog (this may count as an unsubtle hint!) I can not afford to rejoin the SPR yet and my LEXSCIEN account has lapsed, but if you look up the terms I just mentioned in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research you will find the article, and just assume it was a rather simpler version of that, requiring no carpentry!
The idea for the series of experiments was created by Richard with the wonderful Andy Nyman who did the West End show Ghost Stories, and like that is simple but remarkably effective. I thought it worked really well, and the audience (and I among them) loved it, but honestly, the science festival attendees while clearly nervous were just not primed to lose it half as much as people did during the real seances Ross Andrews ran at the Playhouse during the Paranormal Festival earlier in the year. No trickery was used there, and any phenomena were real, and heck, did people scream, shout, freak out and have intense emotional experiences — all real.
And here is my first critique. In all my hundred plus séance experiences/observations, at Derby Gaol, a couple of dozen other places, and here in the Playhouse Theatre, I never faked anything. Stuff happened, people freaked out, people were convinced. But it was real – which is not to say it was necessarily paranormal, indeed many times I am absolutely convinced it was not, but people had very intense experiences. Here the volunteers did not seem to come close, and the reason was Richard was working against the almost impossible problem they knew it was faked, and they were at a Wiseman show. Not completely impossible to overcome as I shall explain in part 2 of this review, but certainly difficult. For now I need a rest so part 2 will follow tomorrow…
I have a lot more to say,and most of it good! 🙂