Documentary Season: Introduction and Ghost Hunter Harry Price

I have decided to go ahead and do something which I have considered for some time but fought shy of doing, namely a series of posts about documentaries, as opposed to the purely fictional shows I normally write about here. I have fought shy of this project because the last time I had a few odd TV shows to write about I declared I was having an orphaned episodes series, which got out of hand and ended up with puching fifty posts and took four months. I could see documentary season becoming even more unwieldy, but I'm going to set out and see what happens.

I will try to stick to documentaries which are TV shows naturally, although you all know that I'm going to break this rule. As always I'm going to select documentaries purely because they interest me so I have a whole like of shows about weird shit lined up: we have religion, pirate radio stations, abuse, and all sorts of odd things. I'm also going to try to stick to documentaries which are available for free on the internet so that anyone can watch them if they want.

And so we begin with Ghost Hunter Harry Price, which was broadcast on Sky One in 2005.

Harry Price (1881 to 1948) was a famous yet controversial magician, psychic investigator and paper bag salesman (I'm not making this up) who had a very high profile on the early twentieth century interest in all things ghostly and psychical. Basically if there was anything high profile in the field of psychical research at that time Price would get involved in it somehow.

The show devoted its beginning and end to Prices's various high profile cases, including the talking mongoose, mediumship, fire walking, Joanna Southcott's box and the attempt to turn a goat into a man (again, I'm not making this up), and it is here that I come bang up against a real problem I personally have here and it is this. If you describe yourself as investigating ghosts you are already implying that you believe in their existence and that is the opposite of the scientific method. A really scientific method would be to investigate some of the things people experience which they interpret as ghosts. For example people often describe coldness when they experience ghosts and there we have something definitely measurable which can be investigated, but to leap to the conclusion that this is a ghost, is to leave the evidence way behind. You may say that this means that ghosts can never be proved and that's exactly what I'm saying!

In his lifetime Price started a laboratory to investigate psychical phenomena and you don't turn a paper bag salesman into a scientist by putting a white coat on him, and I think this documentary brings this aspect of Prince's life out very well. It shows this famous interview with him in his lab, but honestly if you're trying to turn a goat into a man your forte is showmanship rather than scientific investigation. His method in investigating Borley (more anon) is described in a very clever, completely flat way which brings out the huge defects of his investigation in a way which is completely devastating.

In the middle the show covers Price's most famous case, the 'Most Haunted House in England, the rectory at Borley, Essex. The show cleverly describes what is reported at Borley contrasting interviews with locals who'd seen the phantom nun and then just describing the strange explosion of all sorts of activity which started with Price's arrival and just as quickly ended when he left. Wonder why. 

I suspect it did this to try to get it past the faithful who can get very fanatical about Borley. It's even divided the Society for Psychical Research, which has published at least three reports on it, both fanatically accepting that everything happened and denying that anything happened. I don't know how you would perceive this documentary if you were one of the true Borley faithful, but personally (I think that people did have strange experiences there but none of the evidence is clearly free from the possibility of trickery or suggestion so can't really be accepted) I didn't find it biased in any way. In fact in myh opinion it is an excellent documentary about a controversial subject.

Readers of this blog will appreciate that it is narrated in great style by Tom Baker. There are interviews with lots of interested people, the one best known to me being Derren Brown. It also has a section with the wonderful Maurice Grosse who investigated the famous Enfield Poltergeist (and this is the point at which you really should google him to see his magnificent moustache).

My main criticism of this documentary is that it omits some of the more sensational parts of his tale. It has the benefit of producing a very calm and yet devastating documentary, but it's really impossible to do a full documentary on Price and not comment that he was repeatedly accused of producing phenomena himself, and I also feel the show soft pedals valid criticism of his supposed scientific investigations. I should probably also note that I have read a review by Eddie Brazil, who has a long standing interest in Borley, who feels that this show was unnecessarily controversial, so obviously not everyone agrees with me.

Otherwise its straight faced nature allows the facts to stand and this documentary is well researched historically, has good interviews with knowledgeable people and is just plain interesting.

Edit 25/10/22: I have found a 1981 radio programme called Are You There Harry Price, which is even more critical and there to my mind more objective. You can hear it here.

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