The final episode of the three-part BBC series Victorian Sensations, broadcast on 5 June 2019, was titled ‘Seeing and Believing’. It was presented by Philippa Perry, whose remit was to examine the last decade of the nineteenth century to show, at a time when established religion was under pressure, how the Victorians squared major scientific and technological developments with their interest in the paranormal, particularly life after death. Perry is a psychotherapist who appears to have no credentials in this area and spent much of her time depicting wide-eyed awe.
It was a rich field to get her teeth into with only an hour to do it, and the result was not entirely satisfactory. She began by describing Marconi’s work, noting the parallel between the development of wireless telegraphy and the possibilities of telepathy and contact with those in the afterlife, utilising the supposed ether. Such speculations demonstrated that the implications of scientific developments, such as communication at a distance by invisible means, could be co-opted by Spiritualists and psychical researchers.
Naturally we were shown examples of physical mediumship. In a segment on spirit photography, Almudena Romero, not a noted expert and looking out of her depth, attempted to demonstrate the principles. W T Stead’s Julia’s Bureau, set up to allow messages to pass between living and dead, and Stead’s association with Ada Goodrich Freer, with whom he conducted editorial meetings telepathically (though contrary to the impression given they did use the postal service as well), was the subject of some amusement. Slightly off-topic was a segment on the fascination with life on Mars and its depiction in popular culture.
For part of the film Perry relied on the archive of the Society for Psychical Research at Cambridge, visiting the University Library to leaf through the records that make up the 1894 Census of Hallucinations and describe a crisis apparition. The scientific and psychical researches of Sir Oliver Lodge (SPR president 1901-1903 and 1932) featured prominently, while other famous SPR members William James (SPR president 1894-1895), Alfred Russel Wallace and William Gladstone received name-checks. Conan Doyle was shown getting his hands dirty going out on an SPR poltergeist investigation at Charmouth, in Devon.
Oddly, considering how prominent the SPR was in the programme, meriting first-billing in the acknowledgements at the end, nobody from the Society was interviewed. Instead Matthew Tompkins popped up, presumably on the back of his Wellcome exhibition-related book The Spectacle of Illusion, to discuss Eusapia Palladino and some of the tricks mediums used in the séance room, including a demonstration of slate writing the secret of which, as a magician as well as a psychologist, he did not reveal.
There was an intriguing programme trying to get out on the overlap between psychical research and the new medium of cinema, which early on began featuring spooky themes. While there was a mention of Hove filmmaker James Williamson, as Perry pointlessly recreated his The Big Swallow, there was no reference at all to G A Smith, who would have exemplified the connections between psychical research – working as hypnotist, among other things, for the SPR – and later, as a colleague of Williamson’s, as a film pioneer. Bryony Dixon, silent film curator at the British Film Institute, was interviewed at length and showed a variety of trick film snippets, so it was a surprising omission. And if you are going to quote from Maxim Gorky’s famous essay beginning, ‘Last night I was in the kingdom of shadows,’ why call him ‘one early reviewer’ rather than give his name?
Despite the weaknesses it was good to see the SPR receive this much coverage in a mainstream programme, and treated with respect rather than as an organisation filled with cranks. Perry was at pains to show the extent to which its activities fitted in with scientific explorations of new frontiers in the 1890s, ‘an era when anything seemed possible’ as she put it, hence the SPR’s ability to attract a wide range of members, many of them possessing a scientific background.
Unfortunately she laid on the eccentric persona a little thickly, with the time-wasting Williamson ‘tribute’, having her picture taken sitting in front of someone completely covered by a sheet as a ‘spirit photograph’, and recording a humorous message on an Edison phonographic cylinder (there was nothing on Edison’s interest in communication with the dead either), but the programme was enjoyable as far as it went. A better one would have ditched the Mars section, good for a documentary in its own right, and focused on the other topics in greater depth.