Review: The medium has a message for you all

I don't know what it is about the spirit world but it always appears a little humdrum to me. The writer Radclyffe Hall was a big believer, in common with thousands of others just after the Great War, when mass bereavement fuelled an explosion in spiritualism. She was once reassured to discover that a loved one would be able to enjoy whisky and soda in the great beyond and also had the use of a swimming pool. Mavis, the medium profiled in last night's Everyman (BBC 1) reassured one grieving couple by assuring them that their dead son was now involved in a training programme, helping young people to 'come across'. The pay may not be great, sure, but the job security is matchless.

'They treat us as if we're stupid people,' said Mavis. Up to this point she'd been Julie Walters in one of her more mumsy roles, a touch of genteel twee in the voice - she talked about people being 'poorleh'. Now, though, she was indignant. 'We're ordinary people who have a faculteh that everybody else has but for us it's developed to a great degree.' Gullibility, I assume. We're all credulous to a degree but mediums and their followers have exercised this human attribute until it is so muscular that it can bend iron bars.

Everyman placed its feet carefully here. Mediums are fair game on television but the grief and unhappiness that nourish them are not. You can trample all over the former but it looks very bad if you tread on the latter in the process - if you mistake excess of sorrow for feebleness of intellect, however similar the symptoms may be. So, while a priest offered some anecdotal evidence for the detrimental effects of spiritualism (it slows down the grieving process), for the most part Krishna Govender's film just paid very close attention to Mavis at work. Believers will have gone away with their faith untroubled, probably reinforced. The sceptical won't have missed the small print that revealed how Mavis achieves her effects.

There are no unwilling victims. Her clients want to believe so much that they will gladly convert a stab in the dark into a reverse-charge call from the other side. 'She said, 'I have a message from a boy called Paul,' ' one bereaved relative recalled with awe, oblivious to the fact that almost any name shouted into a crowded hall will find a target somewhere (if he'd been called Septimus, even I would have been impressed). Another woman explained that she hadn't gone to Mavis's sister Joyce, also a medium, because, well, Joyce was a friend and knew her too well. She was very struck, as most viewers will have been until this revelation, by Mavis's detailed knowledge of the drinking habits of the deceased. 'It was just as if she knew them,' she said without irony.

Most telling of all were the scenes in which prospective mediums were taken through the training procedure. 'Would I be right in saying you've lost your husband?' said David, a trainee who had come to spiritualism through the death of his son and who was visibly struggling with a lack of inspiration. 'No . . . he's not in the spirit world,' replied one of his fellow students, '. . . but we are divorced, so in a way he's gone.' 'Loveleh, super,' said Mavis hastily, her desire to encourage David leading her into tactlessness.

Earlier she had been more explicit still, jumping in when an over-eager apprentice had got tangled up in specific detail. 'If you're looking at Rose . . . you can see that Rose's body language is saying to you, 'I do not understand this contact' . . . and what you should do at that stage is stop,' she explained. A con man or a salesman would call this a 'tell', the unconscious sign that shows whether their pitch is working or not. With mediums it's called 'cold reading', a technique that harnesses the client's desperation that the medium to be right. Wrong guesses are discarded instantly as interference on the line, those that get a warmer response are dwelt on. In effect the client says, 'Just a little bit higher' or 'A little to the left', and before long the sensitive medium is scratching them just where it itches.

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