For Entertainment Purposes Only

Iain Dale might (or might not) be an incisive political commentator, but an item on his blog today suggests (rather like his conciliatory words about Hazel Blears on Radio 4 recently) that he has become a little too mellow. Tonight, he tells us (I'm writing this on Saturday evening) he's off to watch "celebrity psychic" Sally Morgan perform in Hastings.

"I have always been extremely sceptical of psychics," he begins, unconvincingly. You can just tell, can't you, that there's a "but" on the way. "But when you know people who have had their minds read - and then had it done to you yourself, you tend to re-evaluate things."

Only if you've mortgaged your brain to an Icelandic subsidiary of the Bank of Sucker, in my experience. But go on, Mr Dale, what caused you to re-evaluate things?

My only experience of this sort of thing was at university when we had one of these shows in one of the lecture theatres one evening. I got called on stage and had my mind read. I can't remember the psychic's name but he asked if I had a library card on me. I produced it and he proceeded to read a 15 digit number off it without being able to see it.

Wow, great evidence, Iain. What would you have made of it, I wonder, if you'd been told that evening that you were going to see a magician? Would you have thought - that guy must have supernatural powers? Or would you just have thought, "Nice trick, I wonder how he did that"?

But it gets better.

He then asked me who my favourite TV character was and to think about the person as I wrote it down. He correctly guessed it was J R Ewing.

This would have been some time in the early Eighties, I'd guess. What are the chances? I know, Iain, let's go and re-write the known laws of physics, shall we?

I'm being a little unfair, perhaps. That isn't all the proof Iain has accumulated in a lifetime of failing to acquire a safe Tory seat.

My sister went to a similar evening recently and the medium spoke to her via my Godmother who died last year. She was completely spooked by it as there were a number of things which the medium said which she could not possibly have known.

It's called "cold reading", Iain. Try Googling it. Or, better still, watch any of Derren Brown's shows on Channel 4.

There seems always to be a place in the national psyche for a handful of camp and not-terribly-convincing "psychics". Back in the day it was Doris Stokes, a kind of mediumistic Thora Hird who shared mind-melding duties with another Doris whose surname momentarily escapes me. Now Sally Morgan gives readings to pop-stars while Lily Savage soundalike Derek Acorah claims to sense presences in creepy old houses. It's fairly harmless unless you confuse it with anything actually real. Under a new EU law psychics now have to advertise their services as being "for entertainment purposes only". It doesn't seem to have done too much harm to the business, yet, but we can hope.

Being "a psychic" is a theatrical persona, and the performance can be impressive in its way, requiring skill in improvisation, a certain histrionic ability and brazen cheek. And it's a high-wire act. When it goes wrong, it can be a disaster (or side-splitting). After a litany of specific information is met with blank stares, the psychic will say, "well, I'll leave that information with you" and move on. The implication is that it's somehow the audience member's fault they haven't recognised the information. I've watched psychics in action myself, though never one so famous as Ms Morgan, who claims Uma Thurman, the late Princess Diana and, er, Baby Spice among her clients.

Sally Morgan was profiled a few weeks ago in the Independent by a more-than-averagely sceptical Robert Chambers. "The biggest compliment I've been paid", she told him, "is not that I'm Britain's most accurate psychic, but that I'm Britain's best-loved psychic. Because there's a lot more to my work than just getting the hits". And if Chambers' experience was anything to go by, that's just as well. Coached by Dr Richard Wiseman, the celebrity sceptic (because sceptics can be celebrities too) Chambers gave little away and most of Morgan's observations were either generalised or wrong. Although, to be fair, she did describe Chambers' ex-girlfriend as a "nut-nut", which Chambers thought was bang on. But then again, perhaps he would.

As might be expected, the Bad Psychics website has plenty of dirt on Morgan, including misleading claims about her involvement with the police (which subsequently disappeared from her website) and numerous reports on her appearances from unconvinced audience members, including one who watched her in action in Grimsby and thought she was "rubbish beyond belief". Writes Julie Carter, "After watching Sally’s TV series my friend Richard & I both felt that she was the best psychic that we had ever seen on TV." After a couple of hours of sitting through her show, however, Julie had had enough. "I was getting angrier & angrier at the total charade of this woman who obviously wasn’t concerned that she was exploiting & conning some very vulnerable people".

I wonder if Iain Dale will have had a similar epiphany.

UPDATE: It seems that he did:

What a load of old bollocks. She may be hugely convincing on TV but in the theatre she's rubbish. The polite applause at the end told the story of the evening. But the number of people who were hanging on her every word and willing her to play with their emotions was astonishing. After the second person she reduced to tears I felt like leaving, but the sheer mawkishness of it was somehow too gripping. "I'm getting Justin, or Justine ... Maybe justice. Has anyone had a problem with the law?" she asked at one stage. Half the audience then looked at their feet. Well, it was in Hastings... She finished by telling a story about a 23 year old British soldier who came to her for a reading. "I fitted him in on a slack day between TV filming," she informed us. He wanted to know if there was an afterlife. Three days later he killed himself. "His Mum came to see me," Sally told us. I bet she did.

Can't say I'm surprised. There's a reason she's so much more convincing on the TV than in the flesh. It's called editing.


Anonymous said…
Nice article.
Thanks for the plug to BadPsychics too.
Always appreciated.
Will give you a shout out on my forum.

Jon Donni
Anonymous said…
One of my favourite novels is a recent one, the great Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black, which takes the subject of mediumship entirely seriously, and portrays the psychic world as it would be if it really existed. It's wonderfully funny and wonderfully grim.

As you intimate, some of these people do a lot of hurt alas, one hopes unconsciously.

I'm an extra in an upcoming episode of Taggart, overacting madly in the background as a medium does her stuff. I got chatting to one of the crew while the real actors were doing some real acting stuff in the Citizens bar - and he said it's all rubbish of course, but then conceded he was 'freaked out' by the experience of filming the scene.

Re Iain Dale's original feeling, remember that al con men know that educated people are more likely to fall for a scam than uneducated people. You see it all the time. the guy with a degree thinks he can talk his way through the scam with the perfomer, but it's the performer's living to talk his or her way through the questions. The punter walks away, the educated person tries to talk it through - and loses.
Anonymous said…
Myra Erdleigh springs to mind in this context, too.
Heresiarch said…
Talking of novels that take the psychic world seriously, have you read Susannah Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Morrell? One of my favourite books of recent years.
Anonymous said…
@ Edwin: you said "Re Iain Dale's original feeling, remember that al con men know that educated people are more likely to fall for a scam than uneducated people."

Which goes some way to explain why seemingly educated people fall for Scientology and the Man-Made Global Warming nonsense.
Anonymous said…
I love Susannah Clarke Heresiarch!

Henry there is a piece in the last Sunday Times mag about a conwoman (a 'shaman') that makes the same point.

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