The 1956 Magic Trick That Sent BBC Viewers Into a Panic
Protul Chandra Sorcar, better known as world-traveling stage magician P.C. Sorcar, led his 17-year-old hypnotized assistant to a flat surgical table. As the BBC’s cameras crept in for a closer look, Sorcar secured the young woman to the surface. Above her was a circular buzz saw, big enough to cut through animal carcasses. Sorcar grabbed the handle of the saw, turned it on, and began lowering it toward the girl's belly button.
Sawing a woman in half is the great cliché of magic, a trick repeated tens of thousands of times over hundreds of years. But in 1956, it was uncommon to see the trick performed on live television—and even more unusual that Dipty Dey, Sorcar’s assistant, hadn’t climbed into a box to help disguise the illusion. Her body was in full view of the cameras, and the saw’s descent into her midsection—complete with a squealing motor, like it had met with resistance—was morbidly effective.
As Sorcar’s saw seemed to be passing through Dey’s spine, host Richard Dimbleby stepped in front of the camera and abruptly announced that the show had come to an end. Millions of BBC viewers were left to wonder whether Sorcar, an exotic-looking man clad in a turban, had just killed a woman on live television.
Sorcar’s April 9, 1956 performance on the BBC newsmagazine show Panorama—similar to the one seen in the video above—represented a pivotal time for a number of rising narratives in popular culture. The British, like much of the world, had become enamored with Indian stage performers who marketed themselves by playing up the stereotype of the Indian mystic—one who could summon peculiar abilities from a poorly understood corner of the world. With international travel relatively uncommon in the UK, a visit from a foreign talent was bound to be noticed.
It was also a time when television was continuing the fascination moving pictures had always had with illusionists. From the earliest movies of the late 19th century, cameras sought to capture tricks normally only available to theater crowds. In 1937, the BBC Television Service—which was then relatively new—broadcast a performance by magician Ahmed Hussain, who strolled across hot coals while clad in a turban and sherwani.
While Hussain was planting seeds for Indian illusionists on British television, Sorcar was occupied with appreciative Japanese audiences. Born in 1913 to multiple generations of magicians, Sorcar had embraced his heritage and used his unique ethnicity to travel the world. He could make a car vanish from the stage and copy the handwriting of audience volunteers on a board even though he was blindfolded. (In a sign of the slightly sexist times, he also enjoyed “clipping” the tip of his assistant’s tongue off for the sin of talking too much.)
Sorcar’s successful self-promotion made him a tremendous star in his native India, although he would sometimes regret how convincing his persona had become. Once, a family whose son had been bitten by a venomous snake brought him to Sorcar for healing instead of to a physician. By the time Sorcar convinced them to seek medical treatment, the boy had succumbed to the bite.
While he wasn’t being treated like a faith healer in other parts of the world, Sorcar’s reputation eventually caught the attention of the BBC, which invited him to be featured on Panorama. For Sorcar, it was a perfect bit of serendipity, as he had booked a series of shows to begin at London’s York Theater on April 10. Having a widely televised spot the night before was priceless advertising.
Sorcar began by performing several of his classic tricks, saving the buzz saw for last. As he had done for years, he guided a “hypnotized” Dey onto the table and began to use her body like a piece of lumber, severing her torso in half with the frightening roar of the saw. Abruptly, Dimbleby broke in to quickly bid viewers goodnight.
To the home viewer, it had appeared as though something had gone horrifically wrong. In less enlightened times, the mystique of foreign performers could sometimes give way to suspicion. Was Sorcar an uncivilized brute? Had he ineptly sliced a woman to ribbons, forcing the BBC to cut away from the carnage before the cameras were splashed with blood?
As soon as the program ended, the channel was flooded with calls inquiring about Dey’s well-being. So many queries came in that the BBC began to divert them to a designated operator who could counsel viewers on the magician’s capabilities.
Later that night, an unprecedented decision was made: The BBC’s late-night newscast would set aside a moment to assure viewers that Dey had not been dismembered. It might be the first and only time a news program was forced to report a magic trick had gone exactly as planned.
Left unsaid was why the network had cut away from the trick so suddenly. The next day, UK newspapers blared headlines like, “Did Magician Kill the Girl?”
Dey was fine, of course. She would go on to be disassembled and repaired night after night during Sorcar’s York Theater run. Many attendees, in fact, paid for tickets just for visual proof that Dey was still among the living.
Dimbleby had cut off the broadcast for a simple reason. Time had expired on the show, and the BBC refused to accommodate programs that ran long. To the network, Sorcar had simply bumbled by mismanaging his allotted time. It was sheer good fortune that it had resulted in his York shows being fueled by the ensuing publicity.
Sorcar probably enjoyed a private laugh over this explanation. An established performer and master marketer, he knew precisely how much time was left in the program and understood that there would be no opportunity to finish the trick with Dey. By seemingly leaving her in pieces, his visibility would rise exponentially in the British press. The trick was not only successful, but flawlessly executed. He would perform the same illusion in the U.S. on NBC the following year, riding the wave of publicity his British controversy had started.
Sorcar would go on to tour for another decade and a half, regarded as one of the best magicians of his era. When he suffered a heart attack in 1971 shortly after a performance in Japan, some wondered whether it was another stunt. Sadly, it wasn’t. Sorcar was dead at the age of 57, leaving behind a son, P.C. Sorcar, Junior, who continued the family business.
Much later, the younger Sorcar would recount the BBC duplicity, laughing at the idea that his father, who made his living by knowing what was happening every second he was on stage, could have misjudged the clock. To a magician, timing is everything. And P.C. Sorcar had known just when to leave them wanting more.