Interview for Bad Psychics, May 2005

BP Q1. Welcome to BadPsychics, for those people reading who are unaware of you and your history, can you please give us a quick history lesson about yourself and how you got into what you do today.

I started off as a hypnotist, and then moved into close-up magic for many years. Ultimately it was the psychology of magic which interested me more than the sleight-of-hand, so I looked to combine my two careers to form what I do now, which combines magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship. Since 2000 or so I’ve been appearing with repellent frequency on C4 television.

BP Q2.A. Lets start off with “Seance” When you first came up with the idea of doing a “Live” seance on telly, what exactly were you trying to accomplish?

Well – it wasn’t live, although it was designed to feel live so that the ‘dupe’ of the thing would be as effective as possible. I said at the start of the show that it was designed to see if Victorian fraudulent techniques – which even the most fervent modern spiritualist will admit were being used – would work on a modern, sceptical audience. It wasn’t an attack on anything, which some people took it to be. I was hoping it would be dramatic television, a real ride for the participants and the viewers at home, and I wanted to have my cake and eat it: have all the fun of a scary seance without leaving people thinking it was real.

B. Were you disappointed that so many people completely missed the point of the show, for example i heard so many people proudly exclaiming things like. “Its fake” “He made us pick the picture of Jane” “He hypnotised the girl” and so on

Not at all. I think the vast majority of reasonably intelligent viewers understood the point of it. Maybe if you came to the show late or missed the end, you might have missed the point. But I try and make shows which leave a certain amount to the viewers’ intelligence, so I didn’t want to beat people over the head with the fact that it hadn’t been genuine. In fact I said at the start that I would be using fraudulent techniques, so it was hardly a huge twist that that was what I’d been doing. If a few people didn’t get it, that’s always going to happen.

C. This is something i am very curious about, when demonstrating a spirit cabinet, the second person involved was restrained with straps, which he then broke after he went “mad” why did we never see the replay of this from the overhead camera like we had with the girl before him?

I like the idea of letting people into something so far and then pulling the rug from underneath them. I suppose that after we see that the first girl has unwittingly created the phenomena herself, I though it would be more interesting for us to imagine the same thing had happened in some way but be left disturbed by what exactly did happen. Far more effective than having everything explained.

D. How do you feel when you see shows like LivingTV’s “Most Haunted” and “Famous and Frightened” doing seances, table tipping, ouija boards and so on, but trying to pass them off as “real”? Especially in light of your show which showed without doubt that these things are nothing more than Victorian parlour tricks?

Well, my show didn’t prove or disprove anything – it can’t. I look at those things and see a reliable psychological explanation (called ‘ideomotor movement’ – unconscious movements we make because we’re expecting movement to occur), and it is a fact that that the phenomena of ouija boards etc can be explained in these ways without talking about spirits. Especially once one allows for how stories get exaggerated and so on as they get told and hyped-up and misremembered. However, it’s more exciting to think about spirits, and plenty of people will always prefer that explanation, which is fine. I don’t have any urge to change anyone’s beliefs, though I do think that if people are making life-decisions based on what might be false information, then it’s probably worth them having the knowledge to hand to make informed decisions. I do think that an understanding of non-paranormal explanations and the mechanics of out-and-out fraud is useful information.

BP Q3. A.Now i would like to move onto my favourite show you did, Russian Roulette, from beginning to end i was utterly captivated by the whole thing. I think what you accomplished was truly genius in the world of Television. How did you feel when you saw claims in the paper denouncing the show as fake because Blanks were used in the gun? Especially as you had show and proved on the show that even a blank at point blank range would blow half your head off?

It was frustrating because we had been so careful to make the show responsibly, and I was worried that some kid might then go and try it with a blank and kill himself. Also it was frustrating because I couldn’t talk about exactly what happened as I didn’t want a big police enquiry to kick off. But it did me a lot of favours – so I can’t complain in the long run.

B.On the 5th pull of the trigger you pointed the gun away and fired, nothing happened, i personally predicted that the bullet was in chamber 5, so I was definitely worried at that point as to what you would do next. Now be honest was that part of the show to make the last two pulls of the trigger seem more nervous, or did you genuinely make a mistake, and if so what on earth was going through your mind when you realised your first assumption of where the bullet was, was wrong?

It was a mixture of working out what I had to do and playing for drama. More than that I can’t really remember.

C.Would you ever do a similar stunt again where you literally put your life on the line?

No, I don’t think so.

BP Q4. What are your thoughts on The Project Alpha Experiment with Steve “Banachek” Shaw and Michael Edwards where for 4 years they “proved” psychic ability at the Washington University in St.Louis? How important do you think it is for magicians/conjurers to replicate or even show how psychic abilities are apparently done?

I think the ‘Alpha Project’ you refer to was terrific, and these 2 guys are great performers. It’s clear that a magician replicating phenomena doesn’t prove or disprove anything other than the fact that the phenomenon can reliably occur without a paranormal explanation. It’s then up to the discerning spectator to decide what he/she does with that information. For almost as long as fraudulent psychics have existed, there have been magicians out there to de-bunk them. I suppose that’s a healthy balance, although more often than not the de-bunking has been witless and unimaginative. Ultimately the psychics are offering the more exciting and appealing explanation, so to de-bunk them through dry, embittered copy-cat demonstrations probably isn’t hugely effective. The best thing I’ve seen from the sceptic perspective for a long time is the Penn and Teller series ‘Bullshit’, of which I’m sure your readers are very aware.

BP Q5.A. I often quote you in interviews after you said you found the whole idea of spiritualism “Ugly” Do you still have that view on spiritualism? and if so how did you first gain such a view?

I don’t have any issue with spiritualism as a personal belief that someone might have: it’s not my place to. However, if an individual masquerading as a medium were to lie at a very intimate level to the vulnerable and grieving, then I would find that shameful. Unfortunately most people are unaware of how easy it is to fake these things… it doesn’t take much: just charisma, some techniques, and a total lack of moral fibre. People can of course believe what they want, and we all believe what makes us feel nice, and if it makes someone feel better and get on with his/her life, then I’m delighted for that person. But if it’s lies, and despicable lies at that, who decides that we need to hear such things for our own good?

B. What do you think of how modern spiritualism seems to have moved out of the churches and into the TV studios, we have many psychics in the UK who make an absolute fortune from passing on messages from dead people?

After the discovery of infra-red cameras which revealed the fraudulent mediums moving things around in the dark, the nature of spiritualist phenomena moved into non-physical proof. No longer did tambourines move: instead we had clever talk and cold-reading which was far more difficult to show as a scam. It’s easy to pull off or fake if you’re happy to do so, so it’s not surprising that plenty of people have started doing it, and where better than on TV? It’s compulsive viewing.
C. In the States we have James Van Praggh and John Edward, in the UK we have Colin Fry and Tony Stockwell not to mention Derek Acorah, have you ever seen these people perform, and when you do, do you find it easy to spot their techniques for their apparent psychic ability?

I’ve only ever seen a bit of John Edward, who I think has been exposed since. I haven’t seen any of our lot: I don’t get the requisite TV channels. I would LOVE to be convinced by them – to see or hear something I just had to accept as real. It would be a real treat. I heard that Derek Acorah is having a go at me in his stage show. I don’t know what he says or if he really says anything at all, but I’ve no wish to pick a fight. I’ve only ever spoken about frauds from the Victorian times or, in ‘Messiah’, made the point that IF medium-ship is real then it’s wonderful and very important, and IF it’s a lie then it’s a really ugly and exploitative one. I’d have thought that Derek and others would agree with that, and be as critical of fakes, and encourage people to be intelligent in approaching readings.

D. As an expert hypnotists, magician, mentalist, psychologist and probably more things I don’t even know about, in your expert opinion do you think that anyone currently on TV can actually communicate with the dead?

Well, I don’t watch a lot of TV, so I can’t talk for these guys. But I think it’s a big assumption to make when, as I say, it can so easily be faked.

E. There is a Famous Psychic School in Sweden where they employ a self proclaimed Master Hypnotist, he claims he can use his hypnotic abilities to help people go into trances and communicate with the dead. What do you think of Hypnotists who involve themselves in such activities, and what kind of power does a hypnotist really have over someone when hypnotised?

There’s a lot of debate over what exactly hypnosis is. Some suggest it’s a neurophysiologically distinct and special state, others that it’s just about people ‘playing along’. Both extremes, I think, are misleading. I think ‘hypnosis’ is a short-hand term for a lot of interesting behaviours, responses and experiences which are brought about by quite ordinary psychological factors such as suggestion, hype, response-expectancy, social-pressure and charisma. It’s not dissimilar to the way that ‘magic’ breaks down to sleight-of hand, misdirection, etc etc, but we still know to call it ‘magic’ when it’s all put together because of how it looks. Sometimes we can recognise something as hypnosis, because it happens in a clear context (soft lights, swinging watch chains, ‘you are feeling sleepy’, whatever.) On other occasions it’s not so obvious – does that speaker ‘hypnotise’ his crowd? Is that guy ‘hypnotising’ women with his speed-seduction technique or just improving his luck by acting shamelessly? The word becomes meaningless and unhelpful in these cases.

I see it as a way of manipulating unconscious responses: some people will find the experience bizarre, others very ordinary. Stage hypnotists who get sued by someone who has suffered problems after a show rightly make the point that people will attribute problems to the performance which may have nothing at all to do with it, but they miss the fact that in dealing with vulnerable and suggestible people in front of a crowd they should take some responsibility for the participants’ state of mind after the event. If the volunteers are made to feel resentful and embarrassed, or confused as to whether they’re still hypnotised at the end of the evening, it’s to be expected that occasionally one of those volunteers will end up with a psychological complaint or symptom which they wish to blame on the performer. However, we can safely say that there’s no psychic link created through these techniques, and there’s no more reason to believe that one is really in contact with the dead or regressing into a past life through hypnosis than through any other technique that relies on amplifying the imagination.

BP Q6.A. Have you ever met Uri Geller? and what do you think of him?

I’ve met him a few times, and he was always very charming.

B. Do you think that psychics like Uri are less harmful than mediums? after all they are not dealing with grieving people?

I’m not sure what you mean by ‘psychics like Uri’. I can’t see him giving readings to lost souls for £30 a pop. These ‘ordinary’ psychics are still in the business of encouraging people to make life-decisions based on the information they give: just like the mediums. So I think the same issues apply: ideally the public should be aware of cold-reading techniques, as well as more devious methods, which are used to fake these things at an extremely convincing level. Then they can apply that understanding and make more informed decisions about what they’re hearing. At one end of the spectrum, who cares if some well-meaning but self-deluding old lady tells a giggly couple of Blackpool tourists that they’re going to have a happy life together. But at the other, there’s the recent story of the guy told to bring £3,000 to the next meeting which would be burnt to release the curse on his family: if he didn’t, either he or his son would die within the month. I heard of this story a while back: it’s the old scam whereby the ‘psychic’ puts the money in an envelope and switches it before burning. However, in this case, the guy knew he couldn’t raise the money, and didn’t want his son to die, so he killed himself. I think that’s pretty harmful. And even if you think that some of it is real, between these two extremes lie plenty of people revoltingly duped by insidious frauds. Even the most ardent psychic has to admit there are many around. I don’t know if one can seriously argue that people visiting these frauds are ‘helped’ by the process: who is to say that lies at this level and misguided dependency are what people need?

BP Q7.A. Who is your favourite magician of all time?

Chan Canasta. A ‘psycho-magician’ from the 50s and 60s. He was a Polish chap with oodles of charm and authority.

B. What is your favourite magic trick of all time?

Difficult to say. Teller (of Penn and Teller) has a terrific piece with a fish-tank in his current Vegas show, and David Berglas had a great stage routine involving audience members levitating huge tables. Both I find wonderful for different reasons.

C. Knowing what you do, as well as magic techniques, are you still able to go to a magic show and genuinely be surprised and amazed?

God, yes. And seeing Penn and Teller in Vegas made that very clear to me. It’s a heartbreakingly good show.

D. A few years ago Valentino (as the masked magician) did a series of shows that exposed many great magic techniques, his claim was that he did it to help get people interested again in magic, and to make the magicians come up with bigger and better tricks, what were your thoughts on these shows and do you think they helped or harmed magic in general?

Well, they were horrid to watch, although I’d already started to drift away from that sort of magic. Ultimately, though, they did help magic on TV. In a perverse way, they kept interest in the subject from waning: they were a decadent symptom of the television magic we were all rather tired with at the time. People did watch the shows, which meant that TV execs knew there was still some life in the subject. It took Blaine to then make the change.

BP Q8. Can you tell us or at least give us an idea of any future shows or projects you have planned and what they might involve?

Sure – I’m on tour at the moment, and the next project is a London run at the Cambridge Theatre in the West End. If it’s not too smack-deserving, I might add that unless I’m very much mistaken, tickets are available on 0870 890 1102. I thank you.