What’s the difference between Paul Daniels and Uri Geller? Well, not a lot, as Paul Daniels would say. They are both magicians who made a living entertaining people with tricks and both achieved fame for their talents. Most people who were around in the 70s and 80s will remember Daniels’ Saturday night television show and Uri Geller’s spoon-bending antics.
But there is a one big difference between them. Daniels never claimed to be anything other than a magician but Geller claimed to be a fully-fledged psychic with powers given to him by an extraterrestrial. He talked a load of tosh, in other words, and this got him in hot water with James Randi. Randi was a magician himself for many years and later became what some people call a “debunker” — someone who tasked himself to investigate claims of psychic abilities and paranormal activity.
Randi first met Geller in the 70s and described him as a likeable person but also a fraud and the pair locked wands many times over the years. Geller even sued Randi for libel and slander a number of times, although he never won except for one time in a Japanese court when Randi was ordered to pay one-third of one percent of what Geller requested, but even that ruling was later cancelled. In one case Geller had to settle for $120,000 when Randi produced as evidence a cereal box, the back of which revealed how easy it is to bend spoons as part of a magic trick. The problem here, you understand, is not that Geller performed spoon-bending magic tricks but that he claimed to have genuine psychic abilities.
After such expensive court outings you might have thought Geller would have just fessed up to being a magician all along, but that didn’t happen. Geller continued to claim he had genuine paranormal powers such as telekinesis, remote viewing and he even claimed to have teleported a dog through the walls of his house. There is no record of the dog’s opinion on this matter.
Maybe Geller was encouraged to continue the charade because of the sheer number of people who are only too willing to believe in things like psychic powers. Derren Brown, another magician, once ‘debunked’ psychics by giving readings himself and even when he told his audience it was just a magic trick afterwards, some of them refused to believe him and continued to praise him as the best psychic they'd encountered. There’s never a shortage of gullible people for this sort of stuff and someone skilled at cold reading can be quite convincing. I think Mulder’s poster on his office wall in the X-Files sums it up: the caption under the UFO said I want to to believe. It explains why the membership of these end of the world cults often gets stronger when a guru’s predicted doomsday passes without the world ending, despite the common sense expectation that the guru would be tarred and feathered and run out of town. The need to believe can be more powerful than logic.
It’s astonishing how far this sort of nonsense goes and how lucrative it can be. Mineral companies used to hire Geller to ‘dowse’ for them at $1m a time. He was also asked to use his psychic powers to investigate the kidnapping of a Hungarian model. Geller said at the time she would be found safe and well but she’s never been found and is presumed dead.
Geller is also renowned for getting involved with football clubs and using his psychic abilities to help them. He once claimed to be able to save Newcastle United, which is the team I support, from relegation but even Jesus Christ himself couldn’t have saved us that season and we were duly relegated. He tried to help Exeter City avoid relegation in 1997. They needed to win their last game and Geller put some energy-infused crystals behind the Exeter goal, whereupon they lost 5-1. Rather more successfully, he did — according to him, anyway — save Reading FC from relegation in 2002 but Alan Pardew, who managed Reading at the time, dismissed the idea, saying:
As soon as we get a bit of joy, thanks to all the hard work and efforts of my staff and players, he suddenly comes out of the blue and tries to claim the limelight.
Having watched Newcastle suffer under Pardew I’m inclined to think Geller might be right about that one. He seems more likely than Pardew to have the wherewithal to save Reading.
The thing is, it’s all about marketing. Lots of magicians market themselves with mystique when they’re on stage and that’s fine, but it seems to backfire when people realise the magician is serious about their claims of paranormal power.
To be fair, in 2007 Geller did say in an interview that he would:
… no longer say that I have supernatural powers. I am an entertainer. I want to do a good show. It doesn't mean that I don't have powers. It means that I don't say 'it's supernatural', I say 'I'm a mystifier!'
Although in 2019 he was back on form when he said he would telepathically stop Theresa May from taking Britain out of the EU. Maybe that worked because she never succeeded, although his telepathy seems less powerful against Boris Johnson, who has of course since taken us out of the EU. Maybe Johnson’s random hair somehow prevents telepathic interference.
Then again, what do I know? Maybe Geller is a psychic and can teleport dogs through walls, but I’ll remain a skeptic until someone demonstrates paranormal powers under strict laboratory conditions and in front of my own eyes. I will always find this sort of stuff fascinating, though.
I am however available to do some psychic dowsing for mineral companies and I'll charge far less than $1m a time. I'll even bring my own stick.