Last night, Channel 4 began broadcasting a 3-part series, “Unexplained,” presented by the loveable Tony Robinson. I am a huge Blackadder fan and these guys are comedy geniuses in my opinion. However, I know this series will annoy me. The first episode, “The Blitz Witch” was based on Helen Duncan, the last person to be jailed under the Witchcraft Act of 1735 for her reputed psychic revelations during WWII. The second, “The Ghosts of Glastonbury,” will investigate antiquarian Frederick Bligh Bond who claimed that his excavations of Glastonbury Abbey were guided by communications with dead monks. The final episode, “The Medieval Reincarnation,” looks at a group of Bath residents who recounted past life dreams to a local psychiatrist in the 1960’s.
The series already annoys me for a number of reasons. In addition to all the analysis based on hearsay, Tony will take part in pseudoscientific studies of psychic ability, past-life regression, séances and automatic writing. These are all discredited and yet presented in a framework that suggests they are possible.
“Unexplained” perpetuates the belief that there is something real going on by confusing the public with the veneer of the scientific credibility. In last night’s episode, Robinson latched on to every piece of ‘evidence’ where possible. Moreover the production team deliberately misled the audience. They began by going over again the well-hashed episode where Helen Duncan claimed to materialize the ghost of a dead seaman from HMS Barham before news of the ship’s destruction was made public. The truth was that not all hands were lost and in fact it was common knowledge that the ship had been sunk. The Admiralty had already sent condolesence letters to relatives before the séance took place.
Faced with the fact that the sinking of HMS Barham had not been a secret, the TV audience was left with two more clinchers. One was from the last surviving person to attend one of Duncan’s séances who described the medium’s materialized ectoplasm – the spiritual snot that is supposed to exude from various orifices. The witness was a very elegant, demure and well-spoken old lady so you can imagine my shock when she revealed that the ectoplasm ‘smelt rather like semen!’ Maybe she meant seamen?
The second conclusive piece of testimonial evidence came from an authority figure. At another séance in Edinburgh in 1941, Duncan revealed that HMS Hood had been sunk by the Bismark to no other than Brigadier Roy Firebrace before word had reached the Naval Office. Clearly this was no gullible believer. However, the TV production company failed to tell the viewing audience that Firebrace was already a major spiritualist at the time and went on to set up his own movement.
Nevertheless, Robinson concluded that the case of Helen Duncan was one of a ‘mixed medium,’ someone who may have used daft gimmicks like ventriloquist’s dummies or linen ‘ectoplasm’ but undoubtedly she was someone with a gift hounded by the authorities for her abilities … Give me strength.
The number one reason people believe in the supernatural is because they have experienced something they cannot explain. If people are inclined by their supersense to such beliefs in the first place, then it is all the more easier for them to accept the supernatural. But let’s not bring pseudoscientific made-for-tv investigation into the picture if it is going to be used to present an unscientific conclusion.
“Unexplained” was partly produced by a Bristol-based company responsible for the series “Time Team” where Tony gallivants enthusiastically around the country with a team of archaeologists speed-dating digs in the course of 3 days. When Time Team first appeared, it used to annoy the hell out of serious archaeologists but they had to admit after the third or fourth series, that its huge success with the general public led to a popularizing of archaeology. It is about to broadcast series 16 in 2009! Let’s hope that “unexplained” does not increase applications to join psychic societies.
UPDATE: Just in case you think that I am being mean, see what the reviews say
Tony Robinson and the Blitz Witch
IT SOUNDS like a rival series to the Harry Potter books: Tony Robinson and the Blitz Witch (and its sequels over the next few nights: TR and the Ghosts of Glastonbury, TR and the Medieval Reincarnation, TR and the Mystery of the Missing Acting Career). But unfortunately the Time Team man’s new series is less thrilling than that and with less scientific rigour.
Robinson has become a sort of professionally interested person these days, presenting all sorts of documentaries, usually history-related, and making them accessible through his apparently genuine fascination. But this hokey programme about the case of the wartime medium Helen Duncan didn’t convince me that he actually cared about the subject. Which was fair enough, because it was daft. Andrea Mullaney “The Scotsman”
Tony Robinson and the Ghosts of Glastonbury was another exercise in credulity, him and Becky McCall doing their feeble Mulder and Scully act, this time over some simple-minded stuff about automatic writing and dead monk spirit guides offering archaeological advice. I wondered whether any of the academic institutions that have awarded Robinson honorary degrees for his services to archaeology might consider withdrawing them, or at least issuing statements dissociating themselves from this wilful stupidity. Robert Hanks “The Independent”
10 responses to “Ectoplasm Smells Like Seamen”
I should add that Mary Roach covered the case of Helen Duncan and her cheesecloth ectoplasm in the book, “Six Feet Over: Adventures in the Afterlife.” Apparently one of the ways that mediums produced this was to regurgitate the cloth. So maybe the smell was less like semen and more like sick.
I watched the programme too, expecting to see the Witchcraft theme de-bunked or an investigation into the trial that would have been quite interesting. Instead the programme consisted of the 2 investigators running around the countryside pontificating as to whether or not these “psychic phenomena” had a basis in truth. It was disappointing and actually frankly rather dull. They didn’t come up with anything new, relevant or even interesting. There are so many weird and wonderful stories out there that could be told and explained via intuitive reasoning and “supersense” that it was a real shame the programme makers didn’t think to explore a new angle to their theme!
I have no idea how much damage these kinds of programmes actually cause. I do know that when I was a kid I was all into UFOs and other ‘unexplained’ phenomena. I seem to even recall being amazed by Geller. Fortunately, I was also into science and after a while one got in the way of the other.
You’re probably right Konrad, this programme has not made much of anything other than a mockery of documentary production…. I have to confess that I have taken some pleasure at how bad it is as the production company originally approached one of my team to get her to audition for the show and I put my foot down as I thought it would be wrong for her (and more honestly, for me) to take part in something that I was sure would give credibility to the reality of the supernatural. So I guess I have been less than positive about the whole thing. However, I still think Time Team is a good show and they should stick to that.
Best. Blog title. Ever.
Wow, I’m also disappointed in Tony Robinson’s choice here. Particularly considering the documentary he did about the book of Revelations a while ago. It wasn’t exactly ‘revelatory’ but his whole vendetta seemed to be fueled by outrage at the suffering inflicted by cults devoted to Revelations. Pretty Pretty strange move to then do a series attempting to popularise the paranormal.
Just once I’d like to see one of these ghost-encounters be with a really practical, snarky ghost who makes the medium channel out something like: “Yeah, so you found a ghost. Now what? Stop bothering dead people and do some charity work for actual living people. Or get a job. Or both.
Oh, and thanks for reminding me that I’m dead. Jerk.”
Preferably it would be a really hot ghost as well – it is telly, after all.
A ghost made me type “pretty” twice! Maybe it was the hot ghost.
Yeah Katie, a ghost with attitude.. like, “what the hell you doing here… I never liked you anyway!” No that I would believe.
I agree with all the comments already posted.
The show was very poor.
If you remember in the show Tony received a reading from psychic Darren Brittain
We produced a small video for our site looking at the reading and how Darren did it, check it out at
Thanks for this Jon…I agree with your analysis. But why the urban guerrilla look? Are you in cognito? Are the psychic mafia out to get you? only joking… keep up the good work.. these people take money from those that can ill afford it!
And to answer your question, yes I am in cognito.
You joke about the psychic maffia (I assume you read the book too), but it is very real, in this country as well as the States.
I have had death threats, daily abuse, in fact one psychic themselves got threatened purely for being a member on my forum.
They hate me and they hate my site.
Must admit things have calmed down in recent years, maybe they realised that they were not going to stop me lol.
Anyway i like your site, very cool.