Hypnotism's Weird History #2 - The B.B.C. Experimented With Hypnosis Through Television
Note: There seems to be some discrepancy over various sources. An obituary cites the year as 1952 but a news article puts it as 1946. From what I can determine this may be due to two different tests being done and the obituary writer relying on an inaccurate secondary source.
If there's one thing I know about classic Doctor Who it's that the Sarah Jane Smith character (Elisabeth Sladen) got hypnotized way more than statistical chance would probably dictate. Not saying that is a problem. It's just an observation.
But our story today isn't about any companion of the Doctor. Our protagonist for this post is a real life man named Peter Casson. Instead of space and time Casson and the British Broadcasting Corporation explored the human mind's vulnerability to hypnotism.
Image Source: Doctor Who
Born in 1921 the young Peter Casson developed an early interest in psychology. His first experience hypnotizing a subject took place when he was 16 years old. After WWII began Casson served in the Royal Marines. While working as a radar operator he still found time to practice the art of hypnotism and performed his hobby for his fellow servicemen.
After the war until the beginning of the 1990s Casson would perform hypnosis on stage before audiences. Being a heckler would risk getting invited on the stage and becoming part of the show. Whatever was asked of the hypnotized subjects wouldn't be degrading though. Late in his life Casson formed the Federation of Ethical Stage Hypnotists.
Photo of hypnotist Peter Casson.
Source: ANL/Shutterstock.com (Editorial license)
It seems fitting that Peter Casson would spend his life promoting ethical stage hypnosis. After all, he was involved in experiments to determine whether it was possible for someone on television to hypnotize a viewer.
The technology for electronic television had already been around for almost two decades before it became mainstream and regulated soon after WWII. There were many unknown and untested aspects - one of which was whether or not a televised hypnotist could affect a viewer.
There are some references I could find on Google Books such as from The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom: Volume IV: Sound and Vision
By Asa Briggs but an archived article from December 1946 that can be found on the National Library of Australia's website has much of the same information.
In 1946 the B.B.C. invited Peter Casson to their studios at Alexandra Palace to test what would haapen if a genuine hypnotist were televised. Some members of the B.B.C. staff volunteered to be test subjects who would watch monitors in another room through closed-circuit system as Peter Casson performed his hypnosis directly in full view of the camera. In the first test almost half of the volunteers watching the performance on the monitors were put to sleep successfully. In the second test the success rate was four out of six.
Reportedly two of the volunteer staff members were so deep in a hypnotic state that Peter Casson had to come to the room that held the volunteers to bring them back to an awake state.
Based on their tests the B.B.C. decided that broadcasting actual hypnosis on the air would put some vulnerable viewers in danger if nobody was around to wake them up.
Does any film documenting these tests exist? I can't find any references to the B.B.C. recording their tests that way but based on the number of episodes of classic Doctor Who that are listed as lost media my guess would be probably not.
The next time you're watching classic Doctor Who and seeing a character getting hypnotized remember that it's all just an act. Otherwise it simply wouldn't have been broadcasted.