Hypnosis is back on TV. You’re Back in the Room might have rehabilitated the reputation of stage hypnosis. On the other hand…
I once met Phillip Schofield in Christchurch, New Zealand of all places and I’m pretty sure it was in 1981 or perhaps 1982. I was touring with Hot Gossip as first-half support act for Arlene Philips’ soft-porn-thinly-disguised-as-choreography dance troupe. Even then he was even more perpetually young than Cliff and fronting a show on TVNZ called Shazzam! an antipodean Top of the Pops for kids.
After the Hot Gossip show at the Theatre Royal, Phillip dutifully put in an appearance backstage, like the true professional that he is, and the dancers, myself, and a couple of the roadies ended up downing Steinlagers in the bar at the Vacation Hotel. He had the sort of genuine warmth not only rare in show business, but rare in humans.
The other thing I remember was that he told an appallingly lame joke about a bunny-rabbit, the punch-line of which I forget – but it was his disarming and genuine personality that made everyone laugh hysterically at something that wasn’t that funny. A very few years later, he popped up on British TV to continue his journey to mega-stardom. Few things about show business please me, but I’m happy for Phillip Schofield’s success.
Fast forward 35 years, past This Morning, The Cube, innumerable TV Awards Specials and we get to You’re Back In The Room, a stage hypnosis-based game show where contestants are given the opportunity of winning up to £25,000 – all they have to do is perform a number of relatively simple tasks whilst hypnotised to muck them up.
It reminds me of Mesmerized, a show I did for Yorkshire Television in 1993 – a stage hypnosis-based game show fronted by comedian Tom O’Connor where contestants were given the opportunity of winning up to £25,000 – all they had to do was perform a number of relatively simple tasks whilst hypnotised to muck them up.
Historical accuracy is my personal OCD when it comes to stage hypnosis. Understanding the history of stage hypnotism is key to understanding its development, or in this case, lack thereof. It’s also well known that as a stage hypnotist, I am also one of it’s harshest and most vocal critics.
Stage hypnosis got its first outing on TV with The Andrew Newton Hypnotic Experience, a one-hour, one-off special broadcast by ITV on 10 December 1992, followed by a 22-part series of half-hour shows on SKY1.
By the time Paul McKenna tarted it up with elaborate scenery and props and padded it out with a handful of Z-list celebrities, it’s content was already dated. Inevitably, the TV hypnotists of the 90’s – myself, McKenna and Peter Powers – quickly learned that hypnosis on TV doesn’t have very long legs – you can’t keep it going if it’s the same every week.
The most startling and wholly unforeseen effect of putting hypnosis on TV was that within six months the number of stage hypnotists in Britain increased from five to more than 200! Unsurprisingly, with so many improperly trained amateurs roaming free-range in the pubs and clubs, things soon started to go wrong.
Stage hypnosis began to attract a slew of bad publicity – allegations of damaged minds and a hypnosis-related death fed the tabloids’ hunger for sensation. When Paul McKenna was sued by one of his stage subjects, it was the last straw. The public perception was that if the top guy in the business had it wrong, then was hypnosis really safe? McKenna was exonerated, but the damage was already done. [There are more details on this in the Article Inside Stage Hypnosis on this website.]
The cumulative effect of all the controversy was that hypnosis was absented from UK TV screens as understandably cautious broadcasters fretted over potential lawsuits. Now, after more than two decades, it’s back with a prime-time Saturday night bang.
The ‘ALL NEW’ Your Back In The Room (YBITR) is the same every week, with contestants performing simple, lightweight tasks. Looking through X-ray glasses, forgetting numbers, dancing like a ballerina, and of course, falling in love with Phillip – all material that dates back to 1900 and Walford Bodie and the staple diet of Hi-De-Hi era holiday camp hypnotism, with a dollop of Generation Game slapstick.
Given the restrictions imposed by the format, it’s hard to see how it could be improved – short, simple, quick-fire stunts, are easy to programme in and are undemanding for the subjects. Add to that the customary cutaways to camera where the participants swear on their children’s lives it was all real and we’re back in the 1970’s… so ‘ALL NEW’ it aint.
And therein lies the show’s insurmountable problem – what was funny 30 years ago is not nearly so now. Unless of course it’s the first time you’ve seen hypnosis, and there’s a whole new generation that hasn’t. But there was not a single original idea or stunt less than 30 years old!
Occasional on-screen reminders of what the contestants are supposed to be doing – Jane thinks she’s in love with Phillip! John thinks he’s walking through treacle! Jim thinks there’s a terrible smell! and so on – speaks volumes about the programme-maker’s view of their audience. Whichever way you look at it, YBITR is designed with Sun readers in mind.
Celebrities drafted in from shows like Coronation Street (another device from the 1992) attempts to bestow some credibility – the celebs laugh and giggle along with the audience, but it reminded me of a terrible pantomime I saw when I was a kid – the cast, rolling about laughing at private jokes were the only ones in the theatre who were.
Contestants on YBITR are pre-auditioned for their ability to perform. Understandable the producers don’t want to take too many risks, but working through nearly a thousand potential participants to find a final 20 is ridiculous – and a cheat. Stage hypnosis utilises language and suggestion to draw imaginative performances from subjects, so what happened to the skill of the hypnotist? Pre-selecting subjects is a luxury stage hypnotists don’t have – it smacks of collusion and is only one genome away from hiring stooges, though Paul McKenna often recruited subjects from his stage shows.
In any event, auditioning to find the liveliest performers creates more problems than it solves. The subjects either perform too well, in which case it looks like they’re actors (a suspicion loudly voiced in the press and online) or they’re stale by the time the cameras roll. If I presented an audience with subjects as over-the-top as those on YBITR, the audience would be shouting “fake!” long before the interval!
Stage hypnosis performed live is a unique experience for both participants and audience. It only becomes credible when volunteers are allowed to be themselves and bring their own personalities to the table.
The YBITR contestant’s application form includes questions such as Who are your favourite celebrities and why? Who is your favourite singer/popstar and why? What is your favourite television show? These are almost certainly used to identify applicants who may be able to do impersonations – a stock-in-trade of stage hypnotism.
Have you ever trained as a hypnotist or hypnotherapist? Is undoubtedly a clever ploy to weed out any potential trouble-makers – the last thing a hypnotist wants on stage is another hypnotist, and in fairness, this is a very sensible precaution, given what some of these people are like!
YBITR has not had nearly the same impact hypnosis did when given it’s first airing in 1992. In the intervening 25 years, Derren Brown and a succession of reality shows have numbed our ability to be shocked or amazed. Of course, any entertainment is better when it’s experienced live, but this is especially true of stage hypnosis, which doesn’t translate well to TV. It only becomes exciting when it’s unrehearsed and spontaneous.
Live, audiences get to see the induction – the process of hypnosis – and this is an integral part of the experience. No way can this be shown on TV, for obvious reasons. The live audience is then afforded the opportunity to edit with their eyes and pick up on important action in a split second. On the small screen, the audience is at the mercy of the editor – you just don’t get the full picture in 48 TV minutes. More important, modern stage hypnotism is based on character development – routines are now more complex and inventive and live audiences given time to get to know the subjects.
All that aside, YBITR is very much Phillip Schofield’s show and not the hypnotist’s. Phillip’s almost child-like innocence – the same trusting, unaffected personality that gets him through the most hideously embarrassing moments on This Morning – is what makes it watchable.
Apart from repeatedly saying ‘aaaaand, sleep!’ and giving the suggestions, Keith Barry barely gets a mention and precious little screen time. It really is all Phillip and the irony is, with a little training and supervision he could have done the whole thing himself.
I tried my own experiment after the end of the first series, asking people general questions about the show. Most could remember some of the contestants – the ones who did this or that, if not by name, but no one could name the hypnotist. However, someone did comment that YBITR was proof that some TV presenters will do anything for money.
Keith Barry is a household name in his native Ireland. In the United States, his reputation comes from a Derren Brown-style magic, mind-reading and mentalism series, much of which was filmed ‘live’ on the streets, just like the early Derren Brown shows. He’s also made appearances on the Ellen De Generes show.
I suspect his foray into the dodgy world of stage hypnosis is designed to break him into new markets. If that’s the plan, it might work – Keith Barry is the hypnotist on the Australian version of YBITR and will be again on the FOX version in America.
However, his inexperience with hypnosis very nearly highlighted one of the pitfalls of stage hypnosis – sometimes subjects interpret the hypnotist’s suggestions too literally. Take the woman hypnotised to think she was on a rollercoaster and became momentarily but obviously frightened? Most people would have missed the significance of that and in fairness Barry stepped in and put it right. But it shouldn’t have happened in the first place and I’m surprised they let it go out like that. Then again, we’ve all made mistakes and only another hypnotist would have spotted it.
Britain’s stage hypnotists have breathed a sigh of relief and mainly because the show hasn’t had the disastrous effect hypnosis on TV had last time around. There has been no sudden explosion in the number of stage hypnotists and no adverse publicity, and as YBITR steered clear of anything I do in my stage shows, I’m also happy.
In fact, other than the positive rehabilitation of stage hypnosis in the eyes of the public, something we are all grateful for, YBITR has had no effect whatsoever. I know for a fact that the expectation that suddenly hypnotists would get lots more work has proved to be a forlorn hope. This speaks volumes about the impact and popularity of the show. I have seen neither increase or decrease in audience attendances – my life goes on as normal.
The main failing of YBITR was that it turned out to be a one-show joke. The BARB (Broadcasters Audience Research Board) ratings dropped from an average of 4.5million viewers per week for series 1 in 2015 to under 2million for series 2. In Australia, viewing figures dropped by a quarter of a million after the first episode and attracted much negative online ridicule.
There is a long tradition of stage hypnotism in Australia that goes back to the 1950’s – Franquin, Martin St. James, Peter Powers – and audiences there demand a higher standard. YBITR is up against Peter Powers’ third and highly original series on Channel 9. Compared to Peter, YBITR looks like a kiddies magic show.
The YBITR format has also been sold to France, Colombia and Slovenia, who have employed their own hypnotists. In the United States, the FOX Network’s researchers have already emailed hundreds of stage hypnotists and hypnotherapists asking them to provide subjects. When I received mine, I was incredulous. Why can’t their boy find five good subjects from the studio audience on the day? This is more than just playing it safe – asking for people who have already been hypnotised indicates a lack of confidence on someone’s part.
However, in the land where repeats of the Jerry Springer Show are still popular, they might just get away with it, and I can’t wait to see how it goes down in the Bible belt!
Keith Barry will tour the UK this year, doing what he does best… a Derren Brown-style magic, mind-reading and mentalism show which will include a hypnosis segment. In the meantime, he’s got himself a nice little earner doing the voice-over for the show’s sponsors, SCS furniture.
One-two, wide awake – You’re Back in the Room!
Copyright Andrew Newton 2016. All rights reserved.