Victorian Sensations: Seeing and Believing

Ep 3/3

Wednesday 5 June

9.00pm-10.00pm

BBC FOUR

In the final episode of this series, psychotherapist Philippa Perry explores how the late Victorian passion for science co-existed with a deeply held belief in the paranormal.

Using a collection of rare and restored Victorian films from the BFI National Archive, Philippa shows how the latest media innovations made use of contemporary ideas of ghosts and the afterlife and how this ‘new media’ anticipated today’s networked world.

Philippa travels to the windswept Bristol Channel to see how Marconi’s early experiments with wireless telegraphy encouraged speculation among the public and scientists that telepathy - communication between minds - would be the next scientific breakthrough.

She replicates eminent physicist Oliver Lodge’s pioneering experiment with radio waves, and discovers his fascination for exploring the paranormal with the Society for Psychical Research. This Victorian group of ghost hunters included William James, a pioneer of psychology; the biologist Alfred Russel Wallace; and even the Prime Minister, William Gladstone.

Dr Matthew L Tompkins, experimental psychologist and magician, reveals the eerie story of Italian spirit medium Eusapia Palladino and the rigorous test seances she was subjected to by the SPR (Society for Psychical Research) and teaches Philippa the tricks of the fraudulent mediums who ran lucrative rackets in Victorian Britain. Buried in the archives of the SPR in Cambridge University Library, Philippa finds an incredible Census of Hallucinations that contains 17,000 ghostly encounters sourced from the Victorian public.

Every Victorian innovation - from photography to motion pictures, phonographs to fantasy books - has its own supernatural genre. Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the hyper-rational Sherlock Holmes, draws on his real-life experience as a ghostbuster to write his ghostly fiction, and Philippa recreates a poltergeist stake out in which he participated.

She learns the art of spirit photography from Almudena Romero and poses for her own ghostly picture, above, as well as exploring a rare private collection of phonographs, a craze that allowed Victorians to hear communications from the past and listen to their loved ones after their deaths for the first time. Recording her own message and listening to the voice of the elderly Florence Nightingale, Philippa is moved by the power of these ghosts in the machine.

At Alexandra Palace Philippa explores the impact of the arrival in 1896 of motion pictures, the decade’s greatest and most magical media innovation, where these early films were once screened. BFI curator Bryony Dixon shows her restored Victorian trick films and she also finds out how the Pope and the British Royal Family let in the movie cameras to become truly modern icons.

But the boundary between fact and fantasy is often blurred, and sensationalism infuses the new tabloid journalism, from the Daily Mail to the work of W.T. Stead. Prof. Gowan Dawson reveals the eccentric Stead’s use of telepathy and dead correspondents for his 1890s journals, and his own communications from beyond the grave after his death on the Titanic.

Philippa travels to Cambridge University’s Institute of Astronomy to learn about other forms of long-distance communication and the flurry of press interest in stories from Mars. Dr Joshua Nall reveals that some of the greatest public figures of the decade, from Nikola Tesla to Sir Francis Galton, were convinced that signaling with Martians was possible.

H.G. Wells’ story The Crystal Egg takes up this theme and predicts future media developments and the power of communications. And even Queen Victoria herself takes advantage of the globally networked world that was emerging to allow the film cameras in to capture her triumphant Diamond Jubilee procession for all her imperial subjects. The Jubilee is the first global mass-media event and the footage captures the essence of the 1890s: the old Victorian order with an empire and an empress, rubbing shoulders with a world we recognise, a modern one of film cameras and global communications.

Victorian Sensations (3 x 60) is a BBC Arts programme for BBC Four, produced by Academy 7 Productions. Mark Bell, Commissioning Editor, BBC Arts. Series Producer & Director, Helen Nixon. Executive Producers, Sebastian Barfield for Academy 7 Productions and John Das.

AM