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15 August 2014


AS IN comedy, so in magic: it's the way you tell 'em that counts. The language of magic - abracadabra, Expelliarmus, and the like - which contributes that essential fug of exotica to a bland sleight of hand; that is what makes the difference between Derren Brown and the fumbling amateur.

Stephen Fry has spent more time than any grown man should have to in the world of Harry Potter. His is the voice that many parents, veterans of long car journeys, hear, as Potter issues his "Accio" charm, or commentates on the Quidditch World Cup. Thus Fry's English Delight (Radio 4, Monday of last week) offered a perfect match of content and presentation.

It also offered Brown, whose work is all about the power of language over people's expectations and behaviour. Brown is comfortable bandying around jargon such as "neuro-linguistic programming", and at least tricked me into thinking that he knew what he was talking about. The grand finale of the show involved his hypnotising Fry so that the latter could not lift his hand from the table.

Not great radio, you might think - especially since some obscure broadcasting law meant that we could not experience the full hypnotism ritual at home. But perhaps that is a good thing, because Fry sounded genuinely disconcerted by the episode; and the thought of thousands of Radio 4 listeners stuck to the kitchen table from Woman's Hour until "Sailing By" is not a happy one.

The reason why the Magic Circle keeps the mechanics of magic secret, Brown says, is to conceal the banality of the tricks. Similarly, if, at the start of Punt PI (Radio 4, Saturday of last week), we had been told the real story behind "Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?", then there would have been no chance of our continuing to listen for 25 minutes.

The set-up, admittedly, is an intriguing, if disturbing one. In April 1943, a woman's body was discovered embedded deep within the hollow of a tree in Hagley Wood, in the West Midlands. A severed hand was found buried near by. Steve Punt's trick, then, was to take us all round the houses, examining again the hypotheses that had emerged over the decades, and entertaining us with a stream of dreadful puns.

As with any dramatically charged mystery, some people will not be content with the banal truth, which was revealed at the end of this programme: namely, that it was most probably the body of a local woman who had disappeared three years previously. And, in pursuit of red herrings, we heard from the forensic biologist, now 101 years old, but whose appetite for gory detail is undiminished; an occultist; and even a Professor of Probability, who devised a computer model based on mathematical networks to determine which of the various legends was most plausible.

What the story does remind us, though, is that war does strange things to people's imaginations; and the improbable seems somehow less so. Who would have be- lieved, for instance, that a coven of wartime witches dedicated itself to the prevention of invasion by Germany by holding gatherings on the south coast? Should we believe it?

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