OBITUARY : Peter Casson

Stephen Amidon
Saturday 28 October 1995 01:02

In 1952, the BBC tried to film Peter Casson's remarkably successful stage show at their Alexandra Palace studio. It was to be a defining moment for the pioneering stage hypnotist, an opportunity for him to introduce his skills to a whole new medium. In the event, he proved to be too good. During filming he not only hypnotised his volunteers, but also inadvertently mesmerised several engineers watching on monitors in the control booth. Worried that Casson would have home viewers nodding off by their thousands, a skittish BBC abandoned the project.

Although Casson continued to sell out 2,000-seat theatres with regularity, he never really gained the wider recognition enjoyed by other, safer performers, whose conjuring tricks or comedy routines could be easily stomached by Auntie and her timid charges. There was an element of mystery about his remarkable ability to hypnotise people that lent Casson's act a sublimity not often encountered on variety stages.

Peter Casson was born to a working-class background in Yorkshire in 1921. An early interest in psychology led him to discover his skills as a hypnotist - he was able to put his first subject "under" at the age of 16. During the Second World War he served as a radar operator in the Royal Marines, where he honed his hypnotic skills by performing for fellow servicemen. When an overbearing drill sergeant accused Casson of fakery, the young private soon had the entranced officer drilling through the mess hall, to the delight of the squaddies.

After a world-wide tour with Ensa, Casson stepped out of uniform right on to the stage. In 1946 he was headlining at the Palladium; by 1948 he was among the first performers to have a one-man show, playing seven nights a week to full houses throughout the thriving variety circuit. People had literally never seen anything like his show, during which he would lead a group of hypnotised volunteers through a series of alarmingly unselfconscious activities such as performing on phantom musical instruments or weeping at imaginary films. Noisy sceptics were invariably invited on stage, where they were quickly transformed into the most willing subjects.

Casson also began a lifelong application of his unique skills into more serious fields, lecturing in psychotherapy, painless childbirth and natural anaesthesia. He devoted one week in three to a free clinic during a time when he was among the top earners in British entertainment. Although his abilities were occasionally treated with disdain by a clannish and bemused British medical community, he was asked in 1948 to give the annual lecture by the Hunterian Society as well as later serving as an adviser to the Neurology Department of Wake Forest University in North Carolina.

With the winding down of variety, as television became predominant, Casson built his own theatre night-club in Barnsley to foster stage talent as diverse as Paul Daniels and Sandie Shaw. He also continued to perform his "Hypnotic Phantasy", selling out cavernous venues such as New Theatre, Cardiff, and the Sunderland Empire to fanatically loyal audiences. A passionate traveller, he also played in countries such as Morocco, Iceland and America, as well as being a regular on the QE2. He was still going strong at the age of 70, when he gave a magnificent final performance at the London Palladium.

Alarmed by the rise of "cowboy" hypnotists who would use the craft to induce people to perform degrading and dangerous acts, Casson recently formed the Federation of Ethical Stage Hypnotists, an act which brought him into occasional conflict with younger practitioners. He became a leading debunker of such sham hypnotic practices as past-life regression. It was wholly characteristic of the man - Casson's act was a model of circumspection. He inspired awe rather than giggles; wonder rather than ridicule. Anyone lucky enough to see him would come away with a deeper appreciation of the uncanny potential of the human mind.

Stephen Amidon

Peter Reginald Casson, hypnotist: born Bridlington, Yorkshire 13 December 1921; married 1952 Magda Bain (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1986); died Wakefield 24 October 1995.

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