SOTCAA


"To fathom hell or soar angelic,
Just take a pinch of psychedelic"

- Dr Humphry Osmond, 1956

Steve Coogan addresses a camera with his best old-school BBC announcer voice and declares that he's indulging in a fashionable exercise which most young people are trying these days. "I'm being 'fellated,' he says, by a young girl known as a 'groupie'. It's an interesting feeling, and certainly quite relaxing." As Coogan relishes the moment, the scene fades out.

A passage of time denoted, Coogan addresses the TV audience again, informing us that his initial feelings of euphoria have been replaced by those of "indequacy and gloom. It's not an experience I can see catching on. But neither is it one which I regret."

This memorable scene, part of the remarkable 'Attitudes Night' sketch in the first episode of The Day Today (BBC2, 19/01/94) is funny in itself as a pastiche of archive TV, but much funnier when you know that it references an actual, albeit untransmitted, incident from 1955 in which an equally plummy BBC presenter indulged in an equally counter-cultural television experiment.

Quite possibly one of the most famous 'unbroadcast' television shows of all time, the event - intended as a Panorama special - features the endearingly staid and proper-sounding Christopher Paget Mayhew MP demonstrating the effects of the mind-altering drug mescaline hydrochloride. With all the predictably comical incongruities which accompany this.

Christopher Mayhew
Christopher Mayhew was initially the golden boy of Labour politics, elected in 1945 as MP for South Norfolk and rapidly promoted to Parliamentary Under-Secretary. After a defeat in 1950 he was later returned for Woolwich East the following year.

An articulate and personable figure, Mayhew was also pretty well-known as a TV personality by this time. As well as being the chosen face for Labour party political broadcasts, he'd also presented a well-received series of half-hour documentaries on the subject of religion entitled Men Seeking God, which had also yielded a spin-off book of the same title (London George Allen & Unwin, 1955).

So what led such an upstanding pillar of the political scene to take part in such an eyebrow-raising experiment? The answer, as is so often the case, is that he was led astray by a rebellious mate from school.

Dr Humphry Osmond
The schoolfriend in question was one Dr Humphry Fortescue Osmond, a scientist who became interested in the field of hallucinogens in 1952 while working on a cure for mental illness. Having found himself eschewed by the British psychiatric establishment who were suspicious of his experiments, he upped sticks and relocated to Canada where, purportedly funded and protected by the CIA, he continued his research at the Weyburn Mental Hospital, Saskatchewan.

A key historical figure, often overlooked, it was Dr Osmond who, the following year, embraced science-fiction writer Aldous Huxley with the fruits of his research, introducing him to the world of mescaline and who, during the ensuing correspondence, first coined the word "psychedelic". As a direct result of his experiences at the receiving end of Osmond's spoon, Huxley wrote his infamous guinea-pig dissertation The Doors Of Perception (first published in Great Britain by Chatto & Windus Ltd 1954), a book which would later become a veritable bible amongst the 60s acid subculture.

Osmond was thrilled by the results. Huxley, despite modest claims that he was 'a poor visualiser', was an expressive and illustrative writer and skillfully translated his experiences to the printed page, drawing on an eager interest and knowledge of historical art and culture to help take the reader on an easily-digestible 77-page psychedelic trip.

I took my pill at eleven. An hour and a half later, I was sitting in my study, looking intently at a small glass vase. The vase contained only three flowers-a full-blown Belie of Portugal rose, shell pink with a hint at every petal's base of a hotter, flamier hue; a large magenta and cream-colored carnation; and, pale purple at the end of its broken stalk, the bold heraldic blossom of an iris. Fortuitous and provisional, the little nosegay broke all the rules of traditional good taste. At breakfast that morning I had been struck by the lively dissonance of its colors. But that was no longer the point. I was not looking now at an unusual flower arrangement. I was seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation-the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence.

"Is it agreeable?" somebody asked. (During this Part of the experiment, all conversations were recorded on a dictating machine, and it has been possible for me to refresh my memory of what was said.)

"Neither agreeable nor disagreeable," I answered. "it just is."

The Doors of Perception - Aldous Huxley

All well and good, but surely this was only the beginning. Osmond sought to spread the word further and, to that end, he contacted his old friend Christopher Mayhew to see if it was possible to arrange a BBC radio documentary on the subject.

Mayhew later told his side of events in an address which was included in a book called Hallucinogenic Drugs and Their Psychotherapeutic Use:

I took the drug because I am an old school friend of Dr. Humphry Osmond. ... I am sure he is well known to a number of you. He said he was coming over to England and could I recommend him for a BBC Third Programme broadcast to describe his research work. I said, "Don't go on sound radio. No one listens to that. Explain about hallucinogens on television and give me this stuff in front of a film camera."

And the BBC quite rightly thought this was a first class idea for a program, and so did Humphry, and he came down to my home in Surrey, and in front of a film camera he gave me, I think it would be 400mg, of mescaline hydrochloride, sitting in my own armchair at home. Those are the circumstances of the experiment.

Hallucinogenic Drugs and Their Psychotherapeutic Use (page 169)

And so, on the 2nd of September, 1955, a small BBC crew descended on Christopher Mayhew's nice middle-class house in Surrey to film a load of footage which, sadly, was destined never to be edited into a full programme. It's entirely possible that, had it ever been broadcast, the show would have been remembered for decades afterwards as a unique event in television history and Mayhew would have been remembered as an underground hero for the mild-altering set (rather than 'that posh BBC bloke who took acid on black and white telly - ha ha, what were they thinking' which is more often than not the only response these days). His afternoon's experience of starving his brain of glucose certainly rivals that of Huxley's. However his spoken thoughts under the view of the camera are somewhat less than expressive. As Huxley himself observed, "The mescaline taker sees no reason for doing anything in particular and finds most of the causes for which, at ordinary times, he was prepared to act and suffer, profoundly uninteresting. He can't be bothered with them, for the good reason that he has better things to think about."

What follows is a complete transcript of the rushes filmed on that day. Cosmic.

"I'm feeling perfectly fit at the moment,
and as sane as... I ever am"
The first shot appears to be 'wild', that is to say an out-of-context bit of filming captured for editing into the finished programme, perhaps as an opening title sequence. Unlike other wild shots which occur later in the session this features audio and we hear Mayhew and Osmond's candid conversation (although probably not as candid as all that since they start speaking immediately after the director cues them in with his clapperboard).

A LIVING ROOM. CHRISTOPHER MAYHEW IS SITTING IN AN ARMCHAIR. DR HUMPHRY OSMOND IS SITTING ON A STOOL NEXT TO HIM. BETWEEN THEM IS A SINGLE OLD-STYLE BBC MICROPHONE.

THE DIRECTOR IS POISED NEXT TO THEM WITH A CLAPPERBOARD.

DIRECTOR
Okay... Panorama roll... Take one.

THE DIRECTOR CLAPS THE BOARD AND BUNDLES OFF. MAYHEW AND OSMOND IMMEDIATELY START TALKING

MAYHEW
...but surely there are lots of roles for small actors aren't there?

OSMOND
Well he didn't seem to think so - he thought there'd be a lot of small actors with the tall English girls coming over and it's...

MAYHEW
But if you're making jokes and comic turns, surely you can get terrific, er, showings for small part actors, even if you're four foot six.

OSMOND
Well, the thing is, he wasn't... he wasn't four foot six, you see. If he'd been that high I expect he'd have gone and asked...

MAYHEW
Yes.

OSMOND
...but, er, he was rather self-conscious about it. And, er, since he got that, he went to the director and found it much better.

MAYHEW
Poor little chap. What was his name?

OSMOND
Erm, I think his name was...

FILMING CUTS

Panorama: rushes session
Roll 1, Sequence 1 - 02/09/55

A recording break, the picture changes to more of a mid-shot. Mayhew is now addressing the camera.

MAYHEW ADDRESSES THE CAMERA

MAYHEW
Well, erm, here I am in my home, and before I take the drug, Dr Osmond's got, er, one or two quite unrehearsed questions - I've no idea what they are - to put to me.

MAYHEW LEANS BACK IN HIS ARMCHAIR SLIGHTLY AND TURNS TO FACE OSMOND WHO MAKES NOTES THROUGHOUT

OSMOND
Right, Christopher...

MAYHEW
Carry on.

OSMOND
Could you tell me the date today please?

MAYHEW
The date?

OSMOND
Yes.

MAYHEW
(SMILES) Er... it's Friday the, um... second of September.

OSMOND
Right. I want you to repeat this sentence after me. Now, listen carefully. "To be rich and prosperous, a nation must have a safe, secure, supply of wood."

MAYHEW
"To be rich and prosperous, a nation must have a safe, secure, supply of wood."

OSMOND
Fine. Now, I want you to take away seven from a hundred and go on taking it away until there's nothing left. (PAUSE) Can you do that now? (MAYHEW SEEMS SLIGHTLY CONFUSED. HE GRINS. OSMOND CHUCKLES) Subtract seven from a hundred and go on until there's nothing left.

MAYHEW
(PAUSE) Yes, er...

OSMOND
Will you do that for me?

MAYHEW
Yes, er, do you mean ninety three...

OSMOND
Yes.

MAYHEW
...eighty-six... er, seventy-nine... seventy-two... sixty... five... er, forty-eight... forty-one... thirty... (FLOUNDERS, CHUCKLING) thirty-four... er, twenty-seven... twenty... thirteen... don't tell me I've got it wrong... and er, er... six at the end...

OSMOND
Er, do you think that was good?

MAYHEW
Well I don't know if it was right. If it was right it was good!

OSMOND
Er, it wasn't too right and it wasn't too good, but it doesn't matter here, at this point. (BOTH CHUCKLE) Well, shall we go right ahead then?

MAYHEW
Yes.

OSMOND
(GESTURING TOWARDS GLASS CONTAINING MESCALINE) Er... and...

MAYHEW
Oh, I take it.

OSMOND
Yes. There she is.

MAYHEW PICKS UP THE GLASS AND ADDRESSES THE CAMERA AGAIN.

MAYHEW
Well, er, I'm feeling perfectly fit at the moment, and as sane as... I ever am, and I'll take the drug now.

MAYHEW DOWNS THE GLASS OF FLUID IN ONE AND REPLACES THE EMPTY GLASS ON THE TABLE. OSMOND THEN POURS SOME WATER INTO IT

OSMOND
Can I just pour you a little to rinse it down.

MAYHEW
Fine.

MAYHEW DRINKS THE WATER, REPLACES THE GLASS AND ADDRESSES THE CAMERA AGAIN.

MAYHEW
Dr Osmond says that, er, nothing will happen for at least an hour so I'll carry on with my morning's work.

PAUSE, PRESUMABLY TO ALLOW FOR A FADE-OUT IN THE EDIT. MAYHEW THEN ADDRESSES THE CAMERAMAN.

Alright, Tubby...

DIRECTOR'S VOICE (OFF)
Cut...

MAYHEW DONS A PAIR OF SPECTACLES AND TURNS TO ADDRESS OSMOND

FILMING CUTS

Panorama: rushes session
Roll 1, Sequence 2 - 02/09/55

The "Tubby" Mayhew refers to was Adolf Arthur 'Tubby' Englander, a well-respected film cameraman who'd joined the BBC Film Department three years previously and who would later contribute his talents to such BBC classics as Maigret, Quatermass and the Pit and Kenneth Clark's Civilisation. He died on January 29 2004.

"It'll be jolly interesting television..."

Exactly how long the filming break took isn't clear as nobody gave the actual time during the first sequence. However, the mescaline has certainly started to take effect in that time.

THE SCENE AS BEFORE. MAYHEW IS NOW SLUMPED IN THE ARMCHAIR, RESTING. OSMOND IS CHECKING THROUGH HIS NOTES

DIRECTOR'S VOICE
Carry on...

OSMOND ADDRESSES THE CAMERA, OCCASIONALLY GLANCING DOWN TO READ FROM HIS NOTES.

OSMOND
The time is now, er, 13:12... er, and... in the interval, er, Christopher and I went for a short walk in the garden. After our walk we came in and at about, er, 12:30, Christopher told me that he felt physically a bit tired and that he had a curious feeling at the top of his spine. We discussed this and he then, er, complained of a feeling of nausea. Over a period of about, um... (TURNS OVER SHEET OF PAPER) an hour, this feeling of nausea waxed and wained. It now seems to be going away. Then he began to tell me of a development of colours when his eyes were shut, and he will tell us a little bit about that later. Now, at the present moment I'm just about to test him with the test that I started with before, and I'm going to ask him if he would, er, er, take away seven from a hundred. (TURNS TO MAYHEW) You remember, just how you did it before, Chris.

MAYHEW
Yes, er, I don't think I was very good before, and I'm gonna be just as good now...

OSMOND
Good...

OSMOND MAKES NOTES THROUGHOUT THE FOLLOWING WHILE CONSULTING HIS WATCH.

MAYHEW
A hundred, er, ninety-three... eighty-six... seventy-nine... seventy-two... sixty...five, er... sixty-five... fifty... sixty-five, is it? Sixty... no, fifty... Fifty-eight... I'll say it's fifty-eight - I'll start from there - fifty-one... forty...four... thirty...seven... thirty... twenty-three... forteen... sixteen, as you were, sixteen... nine... two... and zero. Well I wasn't much better the first time actually but I'm worse now, I can't concentrate so well.

OSMOND
Um... Yes, I think that took a bit longer didn't it.

MAYHEW
A bit longer, mm. But I can't, I don't think, concentrate quite so well now.

OSMOND
Now, would you like to do the one of, er, the sentence that we did - do you remember it?

MAYHEW
About the date - you asked me the date first... oh, then I did the sentence.

OSMOND
Yes, well, we'll...

MAYHEW
Er, yes. Er... I can remember this message came in, 'supply' and so on.

OSMOND
Shall I then go over for you..?

MAYHEW
Yes, you try and say it again.

OSMOND
"To be rich and prosperous, a nation must have a safe, secure supply of wood."

MAYHEW
"To be rich and prosperous, a nation must have a something something supply of wood."

OSMOND
(PAUSE) Fine. Would you like to try that once more?

MAYHEW
Yes...

OSMOND
"To be rich and prosperous, a nation must have a safe, secure supply of wood."

MAYHEW
"To be rich and prosperous, a nation must have..." (SMILES) there's the two I missed... "...supply of wood."

OSMOND
Fine. Well, now would you like perhaps to give some account of what you've been seeing with your eyes shut and any other points you think may be of interest.

MAYHEW
Yes...

OSMOND
I think you told me that the bodily discomfort was more than you'd expected.

MAYHEW
Yes, er...

OSMOND
This is an important point.

MAYHEW
The... well, it's... it's... the central nausea's gone now, Humphry, but um... er, I still feel, er, in the extremities of my limbs, er... small nauseated convulsive movements...

OSMOND
Mm-hm.

MAYHEW
...but that doesn't worry me now... at all. Not like it did. And, physically, I notice I'm not looking at the camera... (ADDRESSES CAMERA) ...I don't see why I shouldn't... er, physically I look, um... I feel... (PAUSE) alright. N.. not good, but alright. I don't feel as slightly camera-consciousness.

OSMOND
Would you like to say something about the patterns, which you told me some interesting things..?

MAYHEW
Yes, well, um, er, we all have patterns I suppose when you close your eyes. This drug obviously makes them very very vivid indeed, and er, strange shapes, and er, strange colours... but now, Humphry, I haven't reported to you that I get strange shapes and strange colours even when... er... I don't close my eyes.

MAYHEW LOOKS TOWARDS OSMOND AND STARTS BLINKING A LOT

OSMOND
Do you remember you told me something very early on, which you weren't quite certain about, when you were looking at me?

MAYHEW
(PAUSE, SMILES) Now you've got to say it again, you see... I can't concentrate...

OSMOND
Yes, I think that, you remember, you looked at me and you told me that there was something about an 'outline', or something of this sort?

MAYHEW
Yes I did, quite early on, I distinctly noticed that your outline, er, 'hit' me... er, that is to say, it, um... it had 'significance'. The outline that you had, against the... pale wallpaper behind.

OSMOND
Would you like to tell us all here some of the... what you mean by these changes in the outside world too?

MAYHEW
Er... well, at the moment, er, if I concentrate my conscious mind, so to speak, and take a full on myself... (PAUSE) Er, I know I'm not up to scratch in appearence, or physically, but my mind is quite alert, I think, in the sense that I can see those... candles there... (NODS TOWARDS THE LEFT) ...I know the television team is here... (NODS TO THE RIGHT) I know the cameraman is there... (NODS TOWARDS CAMERA AND SMILES) ...there's Tubby, focusing me up as he's done many times before. Er, at that level I feel quite normal and, er, I've no worries at all, but of course the... things I'm seeing are quite different and I see...(SMILES) I see the er... colours quite differently, and very marvellous.

OSMOND
Could you perhaps tell us any particular colour which, er, you think...

MAYHEW
Yes, er. this colour just behind Tubby there...

OSMOND
Yes...

MAYHEW
This colour of... (PAUSE) Damn, I warned you, Humphry, that er... on colours, my vocabulary's bared...

OSMOND
Are you talking about the reddish curtain behind Tubby?

MAYHEW
(STARING STRAIGHT AHEAD) Yes, er, and in fact it has the most extraordinary gradations of mauve... and er... and er... and lights... sorry, this is just my... my own, er, poverty of vocabulary. I can't describe it.

OSMOND
Er... would it, er, surprise you if I said it looked to me like a rather dullish red curtain, er, which, er, has a very...

MAYHEW
It would actually. I'd be amused, Humphry, yes...

OSMOND
Now who would you feel, in this situation, was... er, whose judgement would you feel was sounder?

MAYHEW
Ah, now you're asking the sixty-four dollar question...

OSMOND
Mm-hmm.

MAYHEW
...whether I'm seeing the curtain normally it is, or whether... I'm intoxicated and seeing pink elephants...

OSMOND
Mm-hmm.

MAYHEW
...which is, of course, the thing that fascinates me about it. Um... (PAUSE, CHUCKLES) Well, all I can say is that it's still the sixty-four dollar question, Humphry, I'm looking very hard now...

OSMOND
Yes...

MAYHEW
...beyond the camera... at the er... at the curtain.

OSMOND
You see, Christopher, when I look at the camera, it's almos... extremely difficult for me to see because of the lights, and er...

MAYHEW
Oh very interesting. I suppose so. Now I can understand, quite easily, that... I can see beyond the lights... to you... to these lights beyond... and I quite see now how absurd that, er, these heavy camera lights are, and here am I seeing this extraordinary purple of the cur... the curtains... yes...

OSMOND
(PAUSE) Yes...

OSMOND RESPONDS TO THE DIRECTOR WHO IS EVIDENTLY MAKING SOME SORT OF SIGNAL OFF CAMERA

OSMOND
...now?

MAYHEW
(GRINS AND GESTURES TO DIRECTOR) Yeah, cut, go on - the director's saying cut!

DIRECTOR'S VOICE (OFF)
Cut!

BOTH MAYHEW AND OSMOND GRIN

MAYHEW
(TO DIRECTOR) I tell you, it'll be jolly interesting television anyway, Rex!

MAYHEW SCRATCHES HIS EAR FOR A BIT
FILMING CUTS

Panorama: rushes session
Roll 1, Sequence 3 - 02/09/55