It has become obligatory to speak of the ‘Magic of the FA Cup’ whenever there’s a big glamorous match such as Manchester United’s semi-final against Manchester City at Wembley this weekend. It hardly needs spelling out how much rides on the result with United in the running for an unprecedented ‘Double Treble’ while City are desperate for their first trophy in over thirty-five years. That’s why victory will feel like ‘magic’ to whoever wins, regardless of how victory is achieved. No doubt thousands of fans will be doing the same as me, following odd little rituals and superstitious rites prior to the game, anything to get Lady Luck onside. It wouldn’t be a surprise if players in red and blue are doing the same, appealing in various ways to some ‘higher power’. It’s a certainty that Javier Hernandez will be on his knees crossing himself in Catholic supplication if he plays, while others may don ‘magic underpants’, washed or unwashed. Of course it’s possible that one key factor in Roy Keane having won the FA Cup four times with United was his legendary ownership of a certain ‘Magic Hat’.
These practices run deep, with ancient roots, however much we may mock ourselves for indulging such primitive instincts. Which is why there was considerable interest fifteen years ago when the famous ‘spoon-bender’ Uri Geller tried on television to use his ‘paranormal’ powers against United in the FA Cup, when the Red Devils were aiming for an unprecedentd ‘Double Double’.
In one way this fairly light-hearted little exercise was good fun, especially as Geller’s magic powers didn’t actually extend to beating United with Eric ‘Dieu’ Cantona and the near-levitational Ryan Giggs. But in other ways it created enormous problems for me as head of the small documentary department responsible for the series which helped provoke a media storm about the BBC ‘dumbing down’,’ selling out’ and generally promoting irrationality and ‘anti-science’. At one point several months later I felt like a ref turning down a legitimate United penalty claim at the Stretford End when a heated session at the Edinburgh International Television Festival saw massed ranks of old friends and colleagues baying for my blood. How I then regretted using the word ‘paranormal ‘ in the series title as it seemed to trigger wild excesses of irrationality among those who saw themselves as the guardians of ‘evidence-based reason’. The head of BBC science had a particular go at me for ‘giving a platform’ to Uri Geller.
The project began the year before when the success of the US drama series ‘The X-Files’ was at its height. The controller of BBC2, Michael Jackson commisioned a relatively cheap 6-part series from us with the working-title ‘The Real X-Files’, made in a modified ‘Video Diaries’ style, shot intimately with camcorders.Each programme was effectively an experiment as we had no way of knowing in advance what would happen, whether with UFO researchers opening secret Ministry of Defence files for the first time (confirming that some sightings really are ‘unexplained’) or healers treating patients (successfully) or so-called psychic mediums trying to find a missing person (unsuccessfully) or Uri Geller trying to help Reading football club win cup matches (with at best mixed results).
Bend it like Uri
I must say I liked Uri Geller who can be very engaging and generous-hearted, although he’s sometimes surprisingly naive and unaware of how he can come across as a shameless self-promoter. He’s undoubtedly a great showman and entertainer, famous world-wide since the 1970s for his ability to bend spoons and keys, known for claiming to have paranormal powers ( a term he no longer uses, I believe). Underneath it all there is a caring and compassionate man, an Israeli dedicated to promoting peace and reconciliation, having himself been wounded in the Six Day War in 1967. He used to drive round the region in a car covered with dozens of bent spoons to provoke public debate about the peace process.
Uri became a willing participant in our series, now re-titled ‘Secrets of the Paranormal’, allowing us to follow his attempts to use his power of positive thinking and his collection of crystals to affect the outcome of a series of cup matches on behalf of his local team. He began well, accurately predicting a 2-1 home win for Reading in the Coca Cola Cup against Bury, and then the same again against Southampton in the next round, helped by a last-minute goal, perhaps resulting from his urgings, who knows. At least he got the scorelines correct both times. But then it began to go wrong. He was powerless to prevent Reading losing away to Leeds United. And then came the big one, the FA Cup against United.
27 January 1996: FA Cup 3rd Round: Reading 0 Man United 3
It was a cold blustery day, with traces of snow piled up here and there. Word had got round about what Uri was up to and when he bumped into BBC commentator John Motson on his way to his gantry he was asked ,’Do you know what I’m going to say about you today, Uri?’. Glowing with pleasure at the line he’d prepared in advance Motty ploughed on, ‘Bending spoons is all very well, but cups, especially FA Cups present a different problem”. Just in case Uri hadn’t taken it in Motty repeated the line as they parted, and true to his promise he regaled the Match of the Day audience with the same words when the mandatory cutaway of Uri came up on screen early in the match. Just in case Uri still hadn’t got it Motson told him afterwards, ‘I said in the commentary you can bend spoons but you can’t bend cups’, chortling into his voluminous sheepskin coat.
Meanwhile, before kick-off Uri was introduced to Sir Bobby Charlton in the hospitality area, with Eric Cantona’s splendidly mustachioed father, who looked bemused. Undaunted Uri proceeded to bend a spoon from the Reading FC canteen cutlery collection in front of Sir Bobby and Monsieur Cantona. Both were entranced, it has to be said, whether or not it’s a magic trick or a genuinely paranormal event. At the end Uri signed the spoon which Bobby advised the ageing Frenchman to put in his pocket as a souvenir. As Uri walked away Cantona Snr was left with a look of wide-eyed astonishment on his face.’C’est impossible’, he exclaimed shaking his head, ‘C’est impossible…’
Unfortunately for Uri that was the highpoint of his day. Soon enough he was reduced to an impotent by-stander just like any other football supporter when their team is flattened by manifestly superior opponents. On a worn, heavily sanded surface United took a little time to get their passing game straight, but once they did the result was never in doubt. United scored near the end of the first half, Giggs thrashing in a rebound following a parried Lee Sharpe shot. Then came something of a freak goal from full-back Paul Parker which, if scored by the Royals might have caused speculation that Uri Geller had finally worked his magic. Parker fired in what looked like a cross from the right and it somehow swirled in the air to sail unstoppably into the top right corner, as if caught by some unseen power. Completely intended by Parker, I’m sure. To rub it in the imperious Cantona scored a third a minute from the end with an emphatic close-range volley, putting United on their way towards the Double Double.
As the players left the pitch to be ushered to the dressing rooms by a cheerful Alex Ferguson, happy his charges had negotiated a potentially tricky away tie, Uri Geller came up to him and to Ryan Giggs, telling them that their positive thinking had overcome his. As he frankly admitted on camera, ‘positive thinking cannot overcome real talent’. Or as John Motson later concluded once again on Match of the Day, ‘You can bend spoons, but you can’t bend cups’.
The paranormal row – totally unforeseen
When our simple, rather unpretensious series was transmitted the reaction was mixed. Audiences were good, helped by extensive preview coverage, with lots of ‘Pick of the Day’ recommendations. But there was also a rapidly spreading firestorm of criticism from some sections of the serious press, especially writers appalled by the thought of the BBC promoting the notion of the paranormal, especially as there were at the time several other programmes also tapping into the clear public interest in such things, some on the BBC, others on ITV. I found myself having to defend Secrets of the Paranormal at the weekly programme review board right from week one, the film about UFO’s, containing our scoop, the first interview with the official in charge of the MoD’s hitherto secret files. I took a hammering from the managing director Will Wyatt, never retracted despite the fact that Newsnight covered essentially the same story a couple of weeks later, with the same man from the MoD, with no criticism directed at them.By now I had few allies, with even friends in my own department evidently troubled that we’d gone down the road of this kind of this allegedly ‘shameless’ populism.
Channel 4’s ‘Right to Reply’ programme invited a member of the public to put the case against us, giving us little scope to mount our own reply beyond a written statement, where, in part, I said:
‘We have been genuinely astonished by some of the vitriolic and partisan attacks on ‘Secrets of the Paranormal’. What has surprised us most is that some of the criticisms have been based on programmes which have not yet been completed, let alone broadcast. Are these critics gifted with some spooky form of second sight?’
I was generally unrepentant from start to finish as the row rumbled on over the following months, with Uri Geller’s name repeatedly cited as an example of all that had gone wrong at the BBC, with him dismissed as a fraud and charlatan. In vain did I point out that we had made no claims about Uri’s powers and that in the programme he’d actually failed to achieve anything more than predict a couple of football scores. He had been shown to be unable to overcome Manchester United, for all his positive thinking and use of crystals. Neither Uri nor I were in any way ‘anti-science’ or anti-rational, but we along with many others did believe that there are things that conventional science has so far failed to explain. However I did regret our series title, which undoubtedly left us open to some of our critics’ accusations, which carried on almost into the autumn, coming to a head at Edinburgh.
The Edinburgh TV Festival hot seat
I frequently attended the Edinburgh TV Festival in the 1980s and ’90s, often as a panel speaker, a role I enjoyed. Any excuse to show off, especially if there was some hot potato topic. In ’96 I was invited as a speaker in four sessions which was gratifying in one way, although I knew I’d probably have a hard time in two, on drugs and on the dreaded paranormal, which happened to follow straight on from each other on the last day.
By now the paranormal moral panic was in full flow, as I’d found in that morning’s Sunday Times, where one of my fellow debate panelists, the eminent scientist (and fundamentalist atheist) Professor Richard Dawkins had delivered a half-page broadside headlined, ‘Human gullibility beyond belief”, expressing the view that ‘Paranormalism debauches true science’. In fact I thought it largely a rant, not well argued or based on detailed knowledge, certainly regarding our series, but it was potentially very damaging for the BBC, given the man’s prestige and reputation. It didn’t help my position that he called on those responsible for commissioning Secrets of the Paranormal at the BBC to be sacked. In as far as I was involved in the process that would include me, so I looked forward to meeting the next day to go toe-to-toe with him. I had the strong suspicion that he hadn’t actually seen any of our programmes beyond the short teaser video package of clips assembled to set up the debate from a whole range of ‘paranormal’ shows, including ones from ITV, who’d also be in the dock.
Are You Watching, Jim?
On the Sunday I managed to escape from all these hassles for a little light relief, watching United live on TV against Blackburn Rovers, among our closest rivals over the previous two or three seasons.Unable to find a TV covering it in any bars I had to hasten back to my hotel room and watch it in splendid isolation. I wondered if the chair of the paranormal session the following day would be watching somewhere too. I knew journalist Jim White was not only a United supporter he was author of one of my favourite books on United, ‘Are You Watching , Liverpool?’ I took some comfort from knowing such a good guy would be in such a crucial role at a time when I would enter the lion’s den.
25 August 1996: United 2 Blackburn Rovers 2
Of course I remember this game clearly because it came in the middle of such an intense period of my working life, but there was another reason that lingered long in the mind. It wasn’t that the match was so great in itself, as United were actually quite patchy against a declining Blackburn who still managed to take the lead twice.United first equaliser came from Jordi Cruyff, signed in the summer after an effective Euro 96 performance, but more famous as his father’s son. As Rovers led 2-1 and United laboured away the turning point came after an hour with the introduction of a new, little-known Norwegian signing, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. It’s a cliche, which he hated, but he really did look very young, like a little kid, all fresh-faced and keen. The ‘Babyfaced Assassin ‘ tag came later, but it was apt from the very beginning of his distinguished United career, the highpoint of which was, of course, his injury-time winner in the Champions League Final against Bayern Munich in 1999 which clinched the historic Treble.
On this day in August ’96 when he made his first appearance for United he made an almost instant impact, hitting a powerful volley which the Blackburn keeper Tim Flowers could only beat away straight back to Ole who coolly slotted it home in that nerveless fashion we came to love over the next ten years or so. What a debut. There was something about him even then, so cool, so clean in his execution, so unerring in accuracy. United had stuttered to a rather edgy draw, but a star was born. I just knew it. I was itching to compare notes with my paranormal chairman.
I was nervous about the drugs debate the following day in which it was possible our ‘My Secret Life ‘ film would get a lot of flak, having had an adverse judgment at the Broadcasting Standards Council (which I thought absurd and wrong). I met several of my fellow panel members for that debate beforehand for breakfast in the George Hotel. As I got up to go I noticed the parents of Leah Betts, the 18-year old girl who had tragically died after taking an ecstacy tablet, a death which became the centre of a major awareness-raising media campaign about the dangers of ‘e’, ‘Sorted’. I could see they were alone but I knew they’d later be contributing to our session on drugs and my heart went out to them. Here were we professionals blithely able to discuss things with detachment on something that had totally turned their world upsde down and would scar them emotionally for ever more. I went up to them to say how sorry I had been to learn about Leah’s death, especially as the father of a young daughter myself. As I spoke I began to choke up and tears rolled down my cheek. Wordlessly Mrs Betts gave me a hug. I composed myself enough to say I hoped they would find the debate of use in their coming to terms with what had happened. They asked kindly about my daughter, then aged eleven, and we headed off to the session.
It’s so typical of the weird hothouse nature of TV festivals that no sooner had I dried my tears with the Betts, than I was gossiping with fellow panellist Mal Young, then series producer of the Channel 4 ‘soap’ ‘Brookside’, which was a big favourite at home and which often had drugs story lines. I took my opportunity to find out whether it was true that Ryan Giggs had broken up with his ‘Brookie’ girlfriend. It was.
The drugs session went well, a mature and thoughtful discussion of the issues facing anyone trying to deal with the true nature of drug taking in the modern world. Gratifyingly there was much praise for our Secret Life film from experts in the field. I think the Betts were pleased with their own contribution and I was chuffed to get a bag of Brookie souvenirs from Mal, which I knew Kat would love. The following day there was a long report on the debate in The Times, in which there was a slightly garbled quote from me. They named me ‘Gyles’. What were they on??
Putting drugs aside now it was time to get into the paranormal. The panel met in the Green Room beforehand and I noticed with contempt that Dawkins would not look me in the eye, which strengthened my resolve to challenege him to describe anything, anything at all, from any one of the six films in our series (apart from the ‘taster’ clips). I was certain he hadn’t seen a thing, he’d based his attacks at most on hostile reviews. And so it transpired.
‘Selling Out to the Supernatural?’
Jim White did a brilliant job chairing what turned out to be an increasingly hot-tempered affair, the tone set up by the title, ‘Selling out to the supernatural?. At one point there had been talk of Uri Geller himself taking part but it was decided to put TV execs like myself on the block for giving a man like him ‘a platform’. I asked Dawkins why he’s put quote marks round the term ‘healer’ when referring to one of our contributors in his Sunday Times article. Was he implying that the man did NOT heal? He looked embarrassed and said no, that actually he believed in ‘faith healers’, and, prodded further by me had to concede that he equally accepted the placebo effect. So I demanded to know, what was wrong in examining the work of such people? How was it irrational or anti-science? Throughtout this whole debate Dawkins never once looked me in the eye, and when I put my challenge to him, to describe ANYTHING from our programmes he blustered but couldn’ do it.
By now I was very happy with how things were going. I’d managed to say what I wanted, helped by Jim blocking the endless attempts to interupt me and shout me down. But I also became increasingly aware that by defending our series so strongly I had become the lightning conductor for hostility about the paranormal in general. I was very shocked at the increasingly personal nature of some of the attacks from people I thought of as friends. Someone demanded to know if I believed in ‘alien abduction’ (not covered in our series) and when I said I had no knowledge of the subjest I got a barrage of screaming demands to ‘Answer the question, Answer the question!!’
I was very hurt when the head of science joined the pack when I said that public interest in ‘the paranormal’ presented a challenge to conventional science, ‘perhaps requiring new methodologies’, to which she spat back at me, ‘There is only ONE scientific methodology!’ to great applause.
Jim conducted a series of votes on things such as whether people believed in astrology and so on, always with huge votes against anything remotely non-orthodox (way out of line with public opinion as it happens). To lighten the tone somewhat I suggested a vote on whether I should be sacked, as demanded by Dawkins in the Sunday Times, which at least got a laugh.
An apology on the Horizon
In a perverse way I enjoyed the session, although I was very angry at some more hostile comments directed at me, and at the whole bear-baiting atmosphere. I felt I had done well in the circumstances and I was gratified when various people came up to me at the end to congratulate/ commiserate with me. But when the editor of Horizon, the BBC’s flagship science series came over with a conciliatory smile, I tore into him , saying, ‘I found your behaviour totally unnacceptable and over the top. I have never treated anyone the way you have just treated me and I never would. Have you even seen any of our programmes?’ He had to admit he hadn’t, to which I responded by saying, ‘Well fuck you then!’ and I walked off, furiously. About 20 minutes later he came over and apologised which I curtly accepted but again turned away. (Back in the office a couple of days later I got a generous letter of apology which I accepted more graciously, not wishing to pursue a grudge.)
By now more and more people were coming up to say how well I’d handled the debate, which was reassuring, especially when Roger Bolton, a legendary figure in the industry came up to say how much he’d got from the two debates I’d spoken in. I said I appreciated that, coming from a QPR fan! (One of the last occasions I’d seen him was at Loftus Road when Ryan Giggs scored one of the greatest goals in his career in a 3-2 win. Roger had been less happy on that day.) I was flattered when Roger asked if I’d be interested in joining the committee for the next year’s festival.
Never said goodbye…
Dawkins of course never said goodbye or shook my hand or looked me in the eye, from beginning to end. I had noticed how the great evidence-based rationalist had appeared to form his opinions on heresay regarding our series. More disconcerting was to see how wild-eyed and lip-trembling he became when someone stood up to him and challenged him. Much like a religious zealot, I thought to myself, someone on the One True Path. He’s a fine writer, at least on purely scientific matters, but he’s no theologian and I have to say, based on my limited direct experience of him I have less respect for him than I would have expected. I was later told however that he’d said he’d changed his mind over his demand that I be sacked.
Now it was all over I could relax, and some of us went off to a rather good Italian restaurant round the corner, I was delighted that Jim White came with us, rather than hob-nobbing with the elite. It was never really clear where he stood on things paranormal, but his love for United shone through. It was such a relief to get away from all the incredible aggro, which I had not expected, or ever really experienced before. Must be a bit like playing for United against Liverpool at the Kop end.I was glad Jim was the ref.
Always in the Running over lunch
Jim told me about a project he’d been involved in, a TV United Family Tree programme, plus his latest book, ‘Always in the Running: The Manchester United Dream Team’, which came out later that year (a great read, like all Jim’s books). He’d talked to a lot of players, past and present, including Ray Wilkins, a ‘true gentleman, as his image suggests and a genuinely nice man’. Then there was Norman Whiteside, ‘now a much more rounded and mature person than the average ex-pro. On tour with Everton he was one of the few players to show an interest in the country, including a visit to Tianaman Square. There was ‘no bitterness’ about his leaving United, where he had a drink problem towards the end, as Big Norm conceded.
Among older ex-players, Jim said Willie Morgan was ‘a marvellous bloke, a good socialist’ (like Matt Busby who signed him, and like Fergie,who was interviewed around that time in the Labour Party magazine). Then Jim gave me a somewhat worrying account of Golden Boy Albert Quixall, some of whose behaviour in the dressing room in the early 60s was quite bizarre, involving turds. Stange folk, footballers.
Jim said none of the ex-United players or staff he met left him disappointed or with a feeling of let down, although he found those still at the club inevitably more distant.
So, a fine lunch with some solid United gossip to end the Edinburgh festival . I really appreciated how Jim handled the paranormal debate and it was certainly not his fault that so much venom was directed my way. I calmed down eventually and was even persuaded to take part in a similar debate at the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Birmingham a few weeks later.With an audience entirely of scientists, and a panel including Professors Colin Blakemore and Steven Rose there was much more grown-up and temperate discussion. What pleased me here was that it was accepted that public interest in the paranormal, or whatever one calls the hitherto unexplained, is not just a legitimate challenge to the scientific community but also an opportunity to engage in a different form of dialogue.
The Les Sealey story
In the wake of all this I am sometimes asked if I believe in the paranormal myself. I don’t like the term, nor the lazy insinuation that it’s somehow ‘anti-science’. But there are strange things one hears.
Apparently after Les Sealey,United’s goalkeeper in the League Cup Final against Sheffield Wednesday in 1991 got horrifically injured in the match,ripping his knee open to the bone, his chances of appearing in the European Cup Winners Cup Final against Barcelona some three weeks later were nil. Flying home from the Wembley final his knee swelled up alarmingly as infection had set in and there were even fears he’d lose the leg entirely. United’s skipper, Bryan Robson, no stranger to injury himself, recommended a healer he knew in Blackpool. Desperate to play in the Barca match, the biggest in his career, Les, always a flambouyant, larger than life character went to see this old lady, who I like to think of as some withered old crone with a fiendish cackle. She gave him a bottle of vodka to drink and then put her hand on his knee for nearly an hour. Gradually Les felt a sensation of heat in the affected area. Then she told him to get up, go home and sleep it off, and his knee would recover in a day or two, which is exactly what happened.
Les was declared fit enough to play in the Cup Winners Cup Final, with his knee bandaged up, and United won, their first European trophy since 1968.
Whether United will need paranormal intervention now in pursuit of the second Treble I have no way of knowing. Fergie keeps stressing how important luck is on these occasions which is certainly true. But beyond that I do know that a bit of Uri Geller’s ‘positive spirit’ wouldn’ do any harm, from players and – just as important – supporters.
So Come on You Reds!