He's got me under his spell

Paul McKenna can hypnotise people into performing all kinds of bizarre acts. But when Sholto Byrnes joined his show, he was determined not to succumb...
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"I've got to talk to you about it," says Jemima Khan, beckoning me closer during the interval of Paul McKenna's show at the Garrick Theatre. "Were you really into it?" I shake my head. "I don't think I'm really hypnotised," I reply. "It's about peer pressure, isn't it?" she adds. It was obvious that of the 15 volunteers left on stage at the end of the first half, I had not "gone under" to the extent that some of the others had. McKenna had given instructions to about half of us as to how we were to behave in the intermission. Back in the auditorium we could still hear one of my confrères bellowing through a loud-hailer. He had been told that he was a film director overseeing a particularly unruly crew, and had not stopped shouting "Action!" and "Clear the set!" throughout the interval. Another, tasked with wearing a mac and taking on the persona of an uncontrollable flasher, was still fulfilling his assignment with gusto as the lights went down for the second half. I, on the other hand, felt little inclination to obey my orders, which were to converse with inanimate objects. "Is this saying anything to you?" asked a man waving a bottle of mineral water in my face. Alas: from the Evian, speech came there none.

Yet however convinced I was that I was fully in control of my senses, my behaviour suggested otherwise. I'm told that I came off stage slightly dazed, my speech slow and faltering. And the fact is that, had my girlfriend not taken notes, I would hardly be able to relate what happened, so incomplete was my memory. To some extent at least, I had fallen under McKenna's spell.

The show began with a boomy voice speaking out of the thundery depths, a voice low and commanding but overlaid with a portentousness that couldn't entirely evade the comic, like Brian Blessed in Flash Gordon. Lights - more thunder - and our host dashed on stage clad in black. This is a look that only the man in the Milk Tray ads can carry off without seeming at all the spiv, and since McKenna also opened his act with jokes about sheep and Britney Spears that, while funny, were gags that Jim Davidson wouldn't be ashamed to use, there was a slight air of the Blackpool comedy special about the proceedings. An air tinged with danger, though, for some of us were about to place ourselves entirely in his hands. "You will have an overwhelming desire to do what I say," said our host, who was later to lead one volunteer to make out with a broom and another to strip off to the music from The Full Monty.

Overwhelming, yes, but not complete in my case. There are some, perhaps, who would feel not a shred of embarrassment about snogging a broom handle in front of a packed theatre. I do not count myself among them, however, and the tension caused by the knowledge that this was the kind of behaviour I might exhibit if I "went under" undoubtedly played a part in why I was tapped on the shoulder and told to return to my seat early in the second half.

About 50 of the audience were accepted as volunteers, around 15 of us sitting on a row of chairs on stage, with the rest in a circle behind. Jean Michel Jarre issued from the speakers as were told to shut our eyes and clasp our hands ever more tightly, taking deep breaths, while our host wandered round, rearranging some, sending others off, all the time throwing genial insults at us, comparing one volunteer to a tramp and me (thank you, Paul) to Julian Clary. McKenna tilted heads down and to the side. "Sleep," he commanded, telling us to count down from 300. By this point, even though I found another volunteer's woolly hat being planted on my head, I was deeply relaxed and happy to follow the suggestions. I got lost somewhere around 220; I next remember counting 150. We were at the seaside, mopping our brows in the midday sun, the image aided by the sounds of the sea lapping at the shore and the lights turned forcefully up. Next, we were told to stretch our hands in front of us; we were all John Wayne on a horse. "What are you going to do?" asked McKenna, going up to each of us individually. We all automatically adopted Western-style accents. "I don't know yet," drawled one man, "but I'll figure it out." When my turn came, it seemed entirely natural to yell: "Yo, pardner!" Later, McKenna asked us to say the first thing that came to mind when we heard the word love. "You too", "bed", "chicken", "shag" and "car" were among the replies; "yes, baby" was mine.

This is where the trouble began for me. I had no problems taking part in many of the increasingly ludicrous activities, but others I was reluctant to participate in fully - or as fully as someone who is properly hypnotised is supposed to do. At one point a musical cue led us to believe that the right foot of the person next to us was a telephone, at the other end of which was a caller telling us we'd won the lottery. Afterwards, McKenna asked me why I'd grabbed the trainer of my neighbour, who was by now sprawling on the floor. I had no hesitation in answering: "Because it was ringing!" Likewise, when we were told that it was 3.30pm on a Monday afternoon I swigged from a cup of coffee (an action interpreted as another kind of imbibing by the audience, I gather) and typed away at a keyboard with such industry that the actor Ross Kemp - who was in the audience - commended me for it afterwards.

But when we were in the saddle, I was reluctant to do more than an easy canter. Others sprang up when we were transformed into world-famous conductors; I waited till I'd caught the beat, and then gladly let another move in front of me to gesticulate wildly, although I definitely think I brought the orchestra together on the final chord of the 1812 Overture with greater precision than my companions.

Much as I wanted to go along with it - and I was certainly part of the way there - I could not rid myself of the fear of being controlled by somebody else. While in a state of semi-awareness, an element in me was furiously struggling to retain my independence of mind. After the show - and I was disorientated for a couple of hours - I found myself quite angry that someone else should attempt to control my mind.

This is not a criticism of McKenna, more an admission that I was not quite as willing a volunteer as the others. The 10 left on stage in the second half, to the audience's delight, showed no such inhibitions. A reverse version of Blind Date, in which three men had to repel Tammy, a pretty Australian, would not have passed Cilla's cut. "I'm a daddy's girl," said Tammy (who had already asked McKenna back to her place because she thought he was Brad Pitt). "If I took you home to meet him how would you impress him?" Number 3, whose answer was that he'd tell her dad some home truths - "she's such a slut" - was the one she picked as being the least offensive. "If we were alone at night, what sweet nothings would you whisper to me?" tried Tammy. "Thank fuck it's dark," was the first reply. McKenna commiserated with her. "I can tell you're not happy," he said. Tammy's response was admirably forthright: "They all have small penises."

Asked how long they thought they'd been on stage when they were brought back round, the volunteers guessed a few minutes. It had been hours. Peer pressure? No, I don't think so, just a group of very willing, very trusting people. Although I found myself unable to lend McKenna my trust, those who could were properly repaid: in bringing them out of the trance, he also induces a feeling of euphoria in his subjects. Best of all, especially for the man who spent a good 15 minutes rolling round the floor with the broom he thought was Uma Thurman, they don't remember any of it.