Hypnotism: the fourth emergency service

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"It's possible for you to decide yourself how to perceive the world," announced Paul McKenna in the investigation of the "phenomenal powers of hypnotism", which went out under the Network First (ITV) banner last night. I decided it would be nice to perceive a world without Paul McKenna, but I don't seem to be suggestible enough. Grim reality triumphed over wishful thinking. Network First is the most wildly variable of all the documentary strands: one week it will serve as a fig leaf, properly concealing Carlton's naked commercialism, the next it is a spangled posing pouch, complete with peekaboo flap. But it has never before been quite as vulgarly skimpy as "Paul McKenna's Secret World of Hypnotism", an ugly mating of fairground bunkum booth with documentary manners.

The notional subject was the contested powers of hypnotism. "Are [the critics] right to be concerned," McKenna asked, "or are they mistaken because they really don't know what to criticise?" Tricky one, Paul. But any shabby thoughts that a professional stage hypnotist might not keep his fingers off the scales while weighing up the alternatives were set aside by the dispassionate sobriety of what followed. We would see, he promised, "the incredible power of hypnosis being used to track down a very dangerous rapist!" In the interests of scientific rigour he travelled to his meeting in a police car, its tyres squealing and lights flashing, and then watched as a victim assisted a police artist to draw a picture of her attacker. I don't know whether the woman really was a rape victim, but if the producers are capable of transforming what must have been a routine taxi ride into the car chase from Bullitt, it's forgivable to wonder exactly where they draw the line.

As assertion piled on assertion, as stunt followed stunt, you began to wonder why the tone of voice was so familiar, where you had encountered this sprinkle of coercive exclamation marks before. The scene in which a multicoloured brain scan was superimposed on Paul McKenna's head, "proving" that pain was being controlled by hypnosis, jogged your memory. You were watching the longest shampoo commercial ever broadcast, a puff for the year's best brain-care product. "Recent eye tests show her eyesight's improved by 40 per cent!" McKenna reported excitedly, after we had seen a hypnotherapist at work on a myopic patient. Yes, but does it contain hydro-activated kero-proteins, you thought, and can I watch as they go to work? By the end he didn't even bother to fudge the evidence. "Oh God - why am I doing this?" whimpered a women, about to bungee jump from a crane. She could barely stand up for terror. "Susanna has lost all her fear of heights!" shouted McKenna, in a genuinely breathtaking display of auto-suggestion.

There was a real subject here, concealed behind the snake-oil salesmen and bogus cures, but it was one which needed an Equinox or a Horizon to sort truth from fiction. Or even QED (BBC1), which hasn't always been a byword for intellectual restraint, but which last night broadcast an excellent report on cot death. The programme was a response to a far less distinguished investigation, The Cook Report's over-excited claim that babies were being poisoned by their mattresses. QED carefully checked the findings and found them flawed - the forensic scientist responsible appears to have mistaken a bacteria for a fungus among other things. QED resolved much of the panic and confusion caused by the earlier film but it replaced it with a bitter truth. The biggest single risk factor for babies, they revealed, is parents who smoke. "No one should be blamed for the tragedy of cot death," the voice-over said. It was a humane utterance but not a realistic one, ignoring the relentless prosecuting zeal of parental guilt. Bereaved parents who smoke now have to face the possibility that it wasn't an unwitting purchase that poisoned their children but their own loving breath.