I approached this material with an open mind but also with caution, as the outer packaging implies that Tony – a brilliant comic actor and presenter whom, until now, I have admired – will be presenting various superstitious beliefs in a credulous fashion. “Unlocking information about the past using psychic techniques” skites the cover, alarmingly. “Tony Robinson and science journalist Becky McCall step into the unknown to investigate whether past paranormal events should be taken seriously or dumped into history’s litterbin.” Well, at least there’s a scientist in it; she can hold the lid open.
In each episode Tony starts off by saying “when you look at the past, everything should have a rational explanation”, which is a bit odd; where did Beethoven’s 9th Symphony come from? The three episodes deal respectively (and respectfully) with: the excavation of Glastonbury in the 1910’s, a séance in World War Two where the ghost revealed startling new information, and a whole group of people – actually two whole groups of people – who all believed that they were reincarnations of a whole group of other people, namely the ill-fated Cathars of medieval France.
But I found to my pleasant surprise that Tony and his team, while keeping an open mind, track down the details of each story very thoroughly indeed. The proper authorities, believers and skeptics alike, are found and interviewed. For the 1941 séance, for example, a lady is interviewed who was actually there and saw the manifested spirit, which purported to be of a dead sailor with “HMS Barham” embroidered on his hatband. The disastrous loss of the Barham, a few days earlier, was a carefully guarded military secret, such that this sort of séance attracted official displeasure and the medium was arrested, tried and thrown into prison for witchcraft. (Skeptics will also want to hear: that sailor’s hatband was found among her possessions; ships’ names were not written on sailors’ hatbands; the loss of the Barham was already known to the families of everyone on board, many of whom lived in the same city; and the medium had a long history – and future – of fraud).
The investigators, however, were so diligent as to consult Prof Chris French and Prof Richard Wiseman, who laid on a similar séance and allowed the crew to film it in infra-red light, with hilarious results. The pursuit of everyone that might bear on the investigation leads to the doubters and skeptics getting a lot more air-time than I have seen on TV before; there seems to be a 50-50 split between the rational and the woo-woo, which itself gets pretty well debunked as they go along.
Other skeptics have made scathing criticism of these programs, on a more dogmatic basis (which is how I feel personally); well, scathe away, guys, but for a TV program I prefer to see an open-minded investigation, properly conducted and without prior judgement, that will reach and instruct a general audience. Each episode deals with an obscure story that is rather old but still within living memory, and the resultant findings are, well, skeptical. Becky always brings up some inconvenient fact or concept to spoil every line of psychic inquiry, and rational thought wins every time, although Tony does manage to leave a tiny little bit of room for any believers to continue in their delusion.
Although there are only three episodes on this DVD and no extras, each episode is 50 minutes long and makes compelling viewing. I rescind my initial cynical view and I heartily recommend this DVD, and similar ventures if they come within range, to everyone. My admiration for Mr Robinson, who once made a very good documentary about shit, has increased.
Some extra copies of this DVD may be made available to us. We’ll probably hold some kind of competition to give them away- more news on this in later posts.