Essays: Medicine man called Geller |
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Medicine man called Geller

IMBUED with the Dunkirk spirit, prominent people are already telling the papers that the restricted telly schedules are not as bad as they expected.

The picture being painted is one of family solidarity and cultural renewal, as husband and wife are released at 10.30 from bondage to the Cyclops, with tons of time to keep that long delayed appointment with Dostoevsky or load the turntable with one of those boxed record sets they never previously found time to play.

A sad fact, then, that ITV could have countered BBC2’s Othello with a screening of the Glyndebourne ‘Figaro’ last Tuesday night if it had not been for early closing. Quite apart from his ‘Aquarius’ activities, Humphrey Burton had previously assured his place in television history by getting an entire evening of ITV’s lucrative transmission time devoted, with stunning results, to Verdi’s ‘Macbeth.’ With ‘Figaro’ he was all set to work the trick again. But fate intervened, and what did we get instead? Uri Geller (Is Seeing Believing? Thames).

I don’t mean anything impersonal when I say that Uri is a pain in the neck, not least because of his ability to cream off so much air-time. Magicians hate it when one of their number starts claiming divine powers, for the good reason that they can’t discredit him without blowing trade secrets. For this reason, a guru can usually extend his field of operations to the full distance public gullibility will allow. Nor is it certain that the ability to see through such hocus-pocus has much to do with raw IQ. Conan Doyle was Houdini’s mental superior by a mile, yet Houdini could never convince Conan Doyle that the spiritualist mediums to which he gave credence were simply tricksters. Houdini reproduced every spiritualist phenomenon Conan Doyle ever encountered, without changing Conan Doyle’s mind by one iota.

The difference between the two men was that Houdini, as a practising illusionist, knew that there could be more to nature than met the eye. Conan Doyle, who severely overrated his own common sense as a speculative instrument, thought that those aspects of nature whose workings weren’t immediately apparent to him couldn’t be explained without reference to the supernatural. Such a man tends to credit himself with an open mind, when actually his mind is closed to the full variety of life.

Medicine men like Uri can equally count on eager assistance from gormless professors ready to say that Science is Baffled. Scientific method means nothing if it is applied to the wrong problem, and in questions of magic it nearly always is. Transformations, for example, usually depend on working a quick switch, and if the scientific examination is applied to how the material is transformed it will get nowhere since the only real question is how the magician gets rid of the first object and substitutes the second.

With Uri we’re dealing, I think, with a master of misdirection — there can be little doubt that this hectoring shaman is an illusionist of a high order. In addition to his talent, though, he’s working under dream conditions. Knowing little about magic — but enough to know a pro when I see one — I can’t say how Uri does his stuff: it’s for Romark and his fellow tradesmen to say that. But I can say that nothing beats a telly studio as a place for a Messiah to do his thing.

Uri can divert the attention of millions as effectively as if he were sitting in the director’s chair. And when he’s working in front of a pack of charlies like some of the Thames crew the sky’s the limit. Uri can tell the time at least as well as they can, and knows to within a few seconds just when a mag of film is going to run out. What a surprise, then, when he did all that controversial stuff while the poor dopes were changing mags! Here’s a bet: the minute a director tells Uri, ‘I’m going to keep one camera on your hands and superimpose that image over the programme so that it never leaves the screen,’ you’ll find that Uri’s destiny suddenly calls him elsewhere.

It wasn’t a good week for science. On News at Ten the ITN science correspondent said that nuclear power stations were the cheapest source of power, which is arguable, and that there was a ‘bit of a squabble’ over what sort of nuclear power stations to build, which is an understatement, and that ‘a lot can be done, a lot will now be done, but it can’t be done in a hurry,’ which is another way of saying that a lot should he done, a lot will have to be done, but none of it can be done until we know what we can get away with.

Magnus Magnussen fronted a Tuesday Documentary (BBC1) about oil coming to the Shetlands. It needed all his considerable authority to make the proposition sound tenable that these beautiful Islands would be able to exploit oil, instead of oil exploiting them. A BBC1 play called The Lonely Man’s Lover, by Barry Collins, also featured the advent of change in a trad landscape. Lizzie (well played by Jan Francis) rejected her destiny as a farm-girl (‘We’ll need to futtle out them ruddocks before the trunch felths,’ said her foster-mother, or words to that effect) and went to live with the famous young poet temporarily second-homing up on the hill. He was identifiable as a poet by his monosyllabic brutishness, although the occasional quotation from his writings was meant to reveal an unsettling command of language: ‘We are the reasonable men / The afterbirth of mathematics,’ he wrote, thrilling her to the marrow. In due course he confirmed his artistic nature by getting her pregnant and abandoning her, whereupon she returned to the farm (‘Get yer boots on and slag that mawk,’ etc.), but the old ways had been irreparably broken. One strove to convince oneself that this was a bad thing.

Vienna 1900 (BBC2) ground to an end, with Robert Stephens freezing in the frame and becoming a portrait of Schnitzler. On Beryl’s Lot (Yorkshire) a faith-healer cured Beryl’s husband’s bad back. ‘If you wish hard enough,’ Buttons told Cinders in Cinderella on Ice (BBC1), ‘anything can happen.’ In case we found it too easy to follow, the story had a voice-over by Alan Weeks.

The Observer, 20th January 1974

[ An edited version of this piece can be found in Visions Before Midnight ]