In the 1950s, husband and wife Sydney and Lesley Piddington commanded an audience of 20 million on BBC radio with their live mind-reading act. But were they really telepathic, or was it just a clever magic trick? As Sydney Piddington always said at the end of the shows, ‘You are the judge…’
The Piddingtons – Lesley and Sydney – came from Australia. Radio actress Lesley Pope and ex-serviceman and accomplished conjurer Sydney Piddington married in 1946, in Sydney. And, in the years after World War Two, the young couple took Australia by storm with their hugely successful radio shows in which they, allegedly, read each other’s minds. These shows were followed by equally popular live stage appearances.
Then, in 1949, the couple came to England, where they appeared over eight weeks on BBC radio programmes, which were a sensational success. The couple captured the public imagination and became famous for their broadcasts. They became a household name almost overnight.
The Piddingtons baffled the world with their thought transference act. Sydney would appear on stage in front of a live audience while Lesley, meanwhile, would often not even be there with him – she’d be in a diving bell in a test tank, on a plane flying over Bristol, in the Tower of London…
A call would be placed to Lesley by a phone operator and she would ‘read’ Sydney’s mind. In one episode, Sydney apparently telepathically sent her a whole line of text from a book that had been randomly selected by an audience member from a pile on the stage – while Lesley was in the Tower of London miles away. In another show, Lesley recited a poem – chosen and written down by a member of the audience again selected at random – despite being on a plane in midair.
So how did Sydney convey messages to his wife? Of course, everyone had a theory…
Sydney had a severe stutter and this was proposed as a type of Morse Code. Another idea was that the couple communicated using the brief pauses in their conversation. But both these ideas were rejected as unworkable.
There were even books published with ideas on how the act was done. There were suggestions of concealed electronic devices, in a time well before such gadgets had been invented, but this was ruled out by thoroughly searching the Piddingtons. One by one, each ingenious explanation of trickery was eliminated. Still the act remained a puzzle.
But perhaps one fellow magician now knows the secret…
In 2014, on NYC radio programme Radiolab, Lesley Piddington’s grandson Jesse Cox told his story. After he discovered his grandparents’ history, Jesse desperately wanted to know how their act had worked. He’d question his father, who apparently also had no idea, he’d ask his grandma at family gatherings – all to no avail.
But, a few years ago, radio producer Jesse discovered that some of the recordings of his grandparents’ shows had survived and he set out to discover how they did it, in his award-winning documentary, Keep Them Guessing. Jesse recorded a short interview with grandma Lesley and believed, after chatting to her about the mind-reading act, that she wanted to keep her secret, and its mystery, alive.
However, the presenters of Radiolab, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, were still intrigued to know how the trick might have been done. So they sought the view of magician Penn Jillette – of Penn and Teller fame – and he offered several explanations. Jillette explained how magicians can replicate mind-reading tricks in various ways. He called the Piddingtons’ act a ‘book trick’.
But he said that to reveal the secret would, indeed, spoil the illusion. He warned, ‘The only secret in magic… is that the secret must be ugly. You cannot have a beautiful secret.’
Jillette said that he could easily tell listeners how the Piddingtons did their trick, but warned it would not be what he called an ‘a-ha’ moment – one where you might hear how the trick was done and feel satisfied by the ‘reveal’.
Penn Jillette also suggested that, while Lesley was part of the illusion, she had only a role to play and was probably being honest with grandson Jesse when she told him that she wouldn’t be able to recount the details of how the trick was done – only that it could be done…
Producers Jad and Robert were now in two minds themselves – they felt some people might want to know the answer, while others might prefer to maintain the mystery. So they decided not to reveal all on the show. Instead, they set up a separate online link with Penn Jillete’s ‘ugly truth’.
Will you be tempted to check it out? And the question is: could the Amazing Piddingtons really have been telepathic or is Penn Jillete right with his ‘ugly secret’?
As Sydney Piddington would have said, ‘You are the judge.’
To listen to the Radiolab show about the Piddingtons, Black Box, and – if you’re prepared to be disappointed as to how the mind-reading act worked – go to Radio Lab.
To listen to grandson Jesse’s documentary Keep Them Guessing, visit ABC.
So… do you believe in telepathy? Tells us in the comments box below…