Thursday, August 11, 2016

Lesley Hazlitt and The Piddingtons

Lesley Hazlitt, of The Piddingtons, passed away on the 2nd August, aged 91. She had been in failing health for some years and my condolences go out to her family in Australia. She will be dearly missed.

I met Lesley in London in 2002. Ian Keable and I had been commissioned to write a documentary on mind readers for BBC Radio 4 (Men of Mystery 2003). We could hardly believe it when we heard that Lesley Piddington was in town. A phone call was made and we were invited to meet her at her daughter Kaye’s home in Parsons Green.

Although nearly forty years had passed since the famous Piddingtons’ radio broadcasts, the little lady in front of us was as lively and charming as she was in the British Pathe newsreel we’d seen where she picked up thoughts from the BBC studio while flying high in a stratocruiser. She answered all our questions except one, telling us how she first met Sydney Piddington and went from being asked to participate in his thought experiments to being asked to be his wife.

In the late 1940s  Lesley and Sydney Piddington performed as a telepathy act in Australia, working their miracles on radio, and then set out on a nine-week crossing to England in the hope of getting a theatre tour. The couple found it tough going and were almost on the verge of returning home when the breakthrough came with the BBC. Together they created radio shows that were listened to by the entire nation, this was an era before television, and appeared to demonstrate that mind to mind communication, as researched by J B Rhine at Duke University, was real. The effects were simply impossible and people all over the country asked, ‘How did they do it?’  It was this controversy that kept the nation guessing and the Piddingtons in the headlines.

‘We were very fortunate in that we had a wonderful response from the public,’ said Lesley, ‘It became very clear, very early on that there was something about the people here; they were very generous, they always wanted you to succeed. We felt that and we got hundreds of letters. Of course we got some wonderfully made ones as well.’

‘’One person wrote in and said he knew exactly how it was done. Syd had a little green man on his shoulder who would go over and tell me, fly over to my shoulder and tell me what the answer was. And he knew this was right because he had a little green man of his own.’

The Piddingtons were without doubt the most famous post-war telepathy act. Years later questions about their performance continued to be a matter of debate and even featured in The Guardian’s Notes & Queries column. It was an act conceived by amateur magician Sydney Piddington while a prisoner of war in Changi as entertainment for the troops. That it came to be one of the most famous acts in the history of mentalism is a story worth reading and you can read it in the book, The Piddingtons, authored by Sydney’s fellow prisoner, friend and ally Russell Braddon.

 Lesley was an actress, working under her own name of Lesley Pope, before she met Sydney. She was an experienced performer but confessed that the radio performances were nerve wracking.   ‘I was very nervous for all the shows,’ Lesley said,’  I used to be quite ill sometimes on the day of the broadcast.  I would walk around all day trying to get my mind off it but I was often quite sick physically.  Agonising it was.  It was different in the theatres.  I used to be nervous the first night but after that you sort of settled in.  It wasn’t like the broadcasts at all.  We did two shows a night which was pretty exhausting.  But it was only the first night you’d get uptight, the rest was all right.  But every broadcast was agony.  Because we were told there were more than 20 million listening to us.  And you couldn’t get your head around that.  It was more than we had in the whole population at that stage at home.’  

We stayed in contact for quite a while after the BBC documentary. I remember Lesley joining myself, Kevin James, Curtis and Sophie Evans on a trip to the Hayward Gallery to visit an exhibition of optical illusions. That was quite a magic gang. Later we joined Barry Murray for a drink in one of the Embankment’s well known gin bars. She visited The Magic Circle where David Berglas, who got his big break when the Piddingtons returned to Australia, welcomed her. When I suggested in 2003 that the Los Angeles Conference on Magic History would very much like to meet her, she made the trip and while there not only spoke at the conference but arranged for yet another interview on the BBC’s History of Magic series. When the Piddingtons were on air in the 1950s they had a lot of resentment and perhaps jealousy from the magic community. Many tried to expose their act. Lesley was surprised and delighted by the altogether different reception she received from the magicians of today.

Lesley and Sydney divorced and she married Jack Hazlitt, another war veteran and a man with an extraordinary story of his own which you can read about here. Jack too had since passed by the time we met Lesley and the Piddingtons’ act had more or less been consigned to a memory. I like to think that our BBC documentary did something to reawaken interest not only in the Piddingtons but also in recognising the part Lesley played in making them such a success.

As to the one question Lesley didn’t answer, it was of course the question that she had been asked so many times before. How did you do it? We didn’t expect an answer, of course. But the answer we got couldn’t have been better. 

‘We always ended the show with the word; “You are the judge.” And I have to say that it drives my grandchildren mad. They hate it - but I say it them too. “You are the judge.” And that’s the way I think it is rather nice to leave it.’

And that’s where I’ll leave it too.