Last Night's TV: Dream woman with a hypnotic presence

Alternative Therapies, BBC2; The Things I Haven't Told You, BBC3
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The Independent Culture

Kathy Sykes is the professor of sciences and society at the University of Bristol, and, also, if I might be forgiven an unscientific observation, a bit of a babe. The first professor I ever encountered, 27 years ago in a musty-smelling study halfway up a spiral stone staircase in Oxford, had a grey beard in which a family of finches could have nested without ever being disturbed. In my day, professors didn't look like Kathy Sykes. I might not have skipped so many lectures if they had.

I don't want to get sidetracked by the prof's looks, but there's no doubt that for a middle-aged academic she is unusually telegenic, and not for the first time I find myself wondering whether the female equivalent of Sir Patrick Moore, for example, or Dr David Starkey, or the late Dr Magnus Pyke, would stand a hope in hell of landing a TV series of her own? One of the paradoxes of television is that it is staffed, on the whole, by bright liberal types who read The Independent and know just where to buy the best organic hummus, yet it is one of the last bastions of sexism. When the BBC appoints a woman who looks like John Sergeant as its chief political correspondent, the ghost of Mrs Pankhurst can at last rest easily.

Not that the University of Bristol's professor of sciences and society was given opportunities on telly because she is just a pretty face, far from it, and in the first edition of Alternative Therapies, a three-part collaboration between the BBC and the Open University, she proved as much, nimbly maintaining an even keel between cynicism and an open mind as she sought evidence either to demonstrate or debunk the curative powers of hypnosis.

According to hypnotherapists, the solution to any number of personal problems, both emotional and physical, can be found in hypnosis. Professor Sykes cited guilt, impotence, asthma, warts and irritable bowel syndrome as a few examples of such problems, and I couldn't help hoping that she'd find one supremely unlucky person as a case study for the lot, putting me in mind of the old Tommy Cooper joke about Britain's roads being terribly dangerous these days: "One person gets run over every 15 minutes ... he says he's fed up."

Anyway, Professor Sykes visited a nice man at Wythenshawe Hospital in Manchester who has an impressive success rate in hypnotising sufferers of irritable bowel syndrome into thinking their guts back into full working order. He invited them to visualise their innards as "a nice, smooth, gentle, flowing river" and he seemed so sympathetic that I gave his ideas a whirl myself. For the last few days I have been suffering from a particularly epic cold, and so I visualised my nose as a tap that has stopped running because the stopcock has been turned off. It didn't work.

Maybe you need the right kind of psyche for hypnosis, or even simple visualisation, to succeed. Like many of us, Professor Sykes is rather dubious about those stage hypnotists who seemingly have only to click their fingers to entrance selected members of the audience, before getting them to do daft things, like eating onions as if they were apples, or sitting on a chair appearing to be astride a motorbike. But she found that some people are highly suggestible, and in a group situation will do as they are told whether they are in a trance or not, which explains a lot about hypnosis as mass entertainment, and about Nazi Germany, too, for that matter.

She also followed the experiences of two people who had received hypnotherapy to, respectively, stop smoking and stop eating chocolate. In a trance-like state, the smoker was told to imagine his distraught relatives standing over his grave, while the overweight chocolate-scoffer was asked what she most dislikes eating, which was corned beef, then told to imagine corned beef being mixed with every mouthful of chocolate.

This treatment had limited success; the smoker kept smoking, and the chocoholic kept eating chocolate, albeit in smaller quantities. Prof Sykes had neither bolstered nor undermined the case for curative hypnosis, which seemed a little unsatisfactory, until she finally hit the jackpot with a Scottish dentist who believes that he can hypnotise his patients into feeling no pain, and an intrepid woman prepared to be his guinea pig. We saw her having two teeth extracted without anaesthetic, while the dentist told her to imagine she was walking on a beach. "Aaaaaieeee, the bloody sand's burning my feet," she screamed. Actually, she didn't. She didn't feel a thing.

There were mind games of a different sort in The Things I Haven't Told You. One part Hollyoaks to three parts Twin Peaks, it is told from the perspective of troubled sixth-former Aisling Hunter (Elizabeth Day), apparently from beyond the grave after a car accident. The plot is a little self-consciously labyrinthine, some of the acting is slightly ropey, but it's pacy, ambitious, and properly spooky. A B-plus.