The 1956 Magic Trick That Sent BBC Viewers Into a Panic

Getty Images
Getty Images

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?”

Soham Banerjee via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

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.

Orson Welles's Former Hollywood Hills Estate Is Taking Vacation Reservations

Fred Mott, Getty Images
Fred Mott, Getty Images

Orson Welles's former Hollywood Hills estate is a perfect place to get away from society, grow a bushy beard, and brood over a bottle of whiskey.

Interested? The late Hollywood icon's 3000-square-foot home is available to rent for about $755 a night through HomeAway. The house, which sits on its own private 15,000-square-foot knoll, was home to Welles at the very beginning of his career and is where he wrote the screenplay for 1941's Citizen Kane. Bring along your typewriter and try to channel some of his greatness.

Quite a few other celebrities have inhabited the house as well, including Rita Hayworth, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, and David Bowie. Features of the grand four-bedroom mansion—built in 1928—include a lagoon pool, Jacuzzi, deck, and both canyon and city views.

There's never been a better time to rent Welles's abode: his final film, The Other Side of the Wind, is set to premiere at this month's Venice Film Festival before arriving on Netflix. The unfinished flick, which was shot intermittently between 1970 and 1976, has been completed and restored for its much-anticipated release. (Of course the mansion has plenty of TVs for your viewing pleasure.)

The property has a three- to five-night stay minimum, depending on the season. For more pictures, see below or head to HomeAway. And since you're already in vacation-planning mode, another creative celebrity abode to consider is F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald's Montgomery, Alabama home, which is available to rent via Airbnb.

Orson Welles' house
Courtesy of HomeAway

Orson Welles mansion
Courtesy of HomeAway

Orson Welles' former home
Courtesy of HomeAway

Orson Welles' former home
Courtesy of HomeAway

Orson Welles' former home
Courtesy of HomeAway

10 Things You Might Not Know About Robert De Niro

RALPH GATTI, AFP/Getty Images
RALPH GATTI, AFP/Getty Images

Robert De Niro is part of the pantheon of independent-minded filmmakers who cut through Hollywood noise in the 1970s with edgier fare to create what became known as “The New Hollywood.” Following stints with Brian De Palma and Roger Corman, De Niro teamed up with Martin Scorsese for the first time with 1973's Mean Streets, which launched a fruitful artistic collaboration that has produced some of the best movies of the past half-century.

Even after his shift into commercial comedies like Meet the Parents, “dedication” has remained De Niro’s watchword. The two-time Oscar winner has earned Hollywood legend status with panache and bone-deep portrayals. Here are 10 facts about the filmmaker on his 75th birthday. (Yes, we’re talkin’ to you.)

1. HIS FIRST ROLE WAS IN A STAGING OF THE WIZARD OF OZ—AT AGE 10.

Robert De Niro got bit by the acting bug early. He threatened to thrash a hippopotamus from top to bottom-us as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz at the tender age of 10. (This is the remake and casting the world needs right now.)

2. HE DROPPED OUT OF HIGH SCHOOL TO PURSUE ACTING.

Robert De Niro arrives at the UK premiere of epic war drama film 'The Deer Hunter', UK, 28th February 1979
John Minihan, Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

De Niro’s mother, Virginia Admiral, was a painter whose work was part of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and his father, Robert De Niro, Sr., was a celebrated abstract expressionist painter. So the apple falling into drama school instead of the art studio still isn’t that far from the tree. Having already gotten a youthful dose of stage life, De Niro quit his private high school to try to become an actor. He first went to the nonprofit HB Studio before studying under Stella Adler and, later, The Actors Studio.

3. HE’S A DUAL CITIZEN OF THE UNITED STATES AND ITALY.

De Niro is American, Italian-American, and, as of 2004, Italian. The country bestowed honorary citizenship upon De Niro as an honor in recognition of his career, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing to the passport office. A group called the Order of the Sons of Italy in America strongly protested the Italian government’s plan due to De Niro’s frequent portrayal of negative Italian-American stereotypes.

4. HE GAINED 60 POUNDS FOR RAGING BULL.

Preparing to play the misfortune-laden boxing champ Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull required two major things from De Niro: training and gaining. For the latter, De Niro ate his way through Europe during a four-month binge of ice cream and pasta. His 60-pound-gain was dramatic enough that it concerned Martin Scorsese. It was one way to show dedication to a role, but the training element was even more impressive. De Niro got so good at boxing that when LaMotta set up several professional-level sparring bouts for the actor, De Niro won two of them.

5. HE AND MARLON BRANDO ARE THE ONLY ACTORS TO WIN OSCARS FOR PLAYING THE SAME CHARACTER.

De Niro won his first Oscar in 1975 for The Godfather: Part II, for portraying the younger version of Vito Corleone—the wizened capo played by Marlon Brando, who also won an Oscar for the role (Brando’s came in 1973, for The Godfather). No other pair of actors has managed the feat, although Jeff Bridges came close in 2010 when he was nominated for playing Rooster Cogburn in Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit (a role originated by John Wayne in Henry Hathaway’s 1969 movie of the same name). Oddly enough, Bridges was in contention for the role of Travis Bickle, the role that earned De Niro his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

6. HE DROVE A CAB TO PREPARE FOR TAXI DRIVER.

If you’re looking for commitment to a role, ask Hack #265216. De Niro got a taxicab driver’s license to study up to play Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and spent several weekends cruising around New York City picking up fares. It’s possible that having his teeth filed down for Cape Fear is the most intense transformation he’s undergone for a role, but picking up a part-time job to live the lonely life of Bickle is more humane.

7. ONE OF HIS FILMS POSTPONED ONE OF HIS OSCAR WINS.

The 53rd Academy Awards—where De Niro won for playing Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull—were originally scheduled for March 30, 1981 but were postponed until the following day because of an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. The would-be assassin, John Hinckley, Jr., claimed the attack was intended to impress Jodie Foster, who Hinckley grew obsessed with after watching Taxi Driver.

8. HE LAUNCHED THE TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL IN THE WAKE OF 9/11.

Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal speak onstage at the 'Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives' Premiere during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival at Radio City Music Hall on April 19, 2017 in New York City
Theo Wargo, Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Producer Jane Rosenthal, philanthropist Craig M. Hatkoff, and De Niro founded the Tribeca Film Festival in 2001 as a showcase for independent films that would hopefully “spur the economic and cultural revitalization of lower Manhattan” after the devastation of the 9/11 terror attacks. With its empire state of mind, the inaugural festival in 2002 featured a “Best of New York Series” handpicked by Martin Scorsese and drew an astonishing 150,000 attendees.

9. HE WAS ONCE INTERROGATED BY FRENCH POLICE CONCERNING A PROSTITUTION RING.

One of the most bizarre chapters in De Niro’s life came when he was publicly named in the investigation of a prostitution ring in Paris. The 1998 incident included a lengthy interrogation session (De Niro filed an official complaint) and a pile of paparazzi waiting for him when he left the prosecutor’s office. De Niro railed against the entire country, vowing to return his Legion of Honour and telling Le Monde newspaper that, "I will never return to France. I will advise my friends against going to France.” (He had cooled off enough by 2011 to act as the Cannes Film Festival’s jury president.)

10. HE LOVED THE CAT(S) IN MEET THE PARENTS.

Meet the Parents’s Mr. Jinx (Jinxy!) was played by two Himalayans named Bailey and Misha, and De Niro fell in love with them. He played with them between scenes, kept kibble in his pocket for them, and asked director Jay Roach to have Mr. Jinx in as many scenes as possible.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios