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.

6 Protective Mask Bundles You Can Get On Sale

pinkomelet/iStock via Getty Images Plus
pinkomelet/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Daily life has changed immeasurably since the onset of COVID-19, and one of the ways people have had to adjust is by wearing protective masks out in public places, including in parks and supermarkets. These are an essential part of fighting the spread of the virus, and there are plenty of options for you depending on what you need, whether your situation calls for disposable masks to run quick errands or the more long-lasting KN95 model if you're going to work. Check out some options you can pick up on sale right now.

1. Cotton Face Masks; $20 for 4

Protective Masks with Patterns.
Triple7Deals

This four-pack of washable cotton face masks comes in tie-dye, kids patterns, and even a series of mustache patterns, so you can do your part to mask germs without also covering your personality.

Buy it: $20 for four (50 percent off)

2. CE- and FDA-Approved KN95 Mask; $50 for 10

A woman putting on a protective mask.
BetaFresh

You’ve likely heard about the N95 face mask and its important role in keeping frontline workers safe. Now, you can get a similar model for yourself. The KN95 has a dual particle layer, which can protect you from 99 percent of particles in the air and those around you from 70 percent of the particles you exhale. Nose clips and ear straps provide security and comfort, giving you some much-needed peace of mind.

Buy it: $50 for 10 (50 percent off)

3. Three-Ply Masks; $13 for 10

Woman wearing a three-ply protective mask.
XtremeTime

These three-ply, non-medical, non-woven face masks provide a moisture-proof layer against your face with strong filtering to keep you and everyone around you safe. The middle layer filters non-oily particles in the air and the outer layer works to block visible objects, like droplets.

Buy it: $13 for 10 (50 percent off)

4. Disposable masks; $44 for 50

A batch of disposable masks.
Odash, Inc.

If the thought of reusing the same mask from one outing to the next makes you feel uneasy, there’s a disposable option that doesn’t compromise quality; in fact, it uses the same three-layered and non-woven protection as other masks to keep you safe from airborne particles. Each mask in this pack of 50 can be worn safely for up to 10 hours. Once you're done, safely dispose of it and start your next outing with a new one.

Buy it: $44 for 50 (41 percent off)

5. Polyester Masks; $22 for 5

Polyester protective masks.
Triple7Deals

These masks are a blend of 95 percent polyester and 5 percent spandex, and they work to block particles from spreading in the air. And because they're easily compressed, they can travel with you in your bag or pocket, whether you're going to work or out to the store.

Buy it: $22 for five (56 percent off)

6. Mask Protector Cases; $15 for 3

Protective mask case.
Triple7Deals

You're going to need to have a stash of masks on hand for the foreseeable future, so it's a good idea to protect the ones you’ve got. This face mask protector case is waterproof and dust-proof to preserve your mask as long as possible.

Buy it: $15 for three (50 percent off)

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

Q&A: Kristen Bell Celebrates Diversity In Her New Kid's Book, The World Needs More Purple People

Jim Spellman/Getty Images
Jim Spellman/Getty Images

Kristen Bell is one of those household names that brings to mind a seemingly endless list of outstanding performances in both TV and film. She is Veronica Mars. She is the very memorable Sarah Marshall. She's the voice of Gossip Girl. She just recently wrapped up her NBC series The Good Place. Your nieces and nephews likely know her as Princess Anna from the Frozen films. She also has one of the most uplifting and positive presences on social media.

Now, adding to her long list of accomplishments, Kristen Bell is the published author of a new children’s book called The World Needs More Purple People. Born out of seeing how cultural conversations were skewing more toward the things that divide us, the new picture book—which Bell co-authored with Benjamin Hart—encourages kids to see what unites us all as humans.

We spoke with Kristen Bell about what it means to be a purple person, her new animated series Central Park, and becoming a foster failure. We also put her knowledge of sloths to the test.

How did The World Needs More Purple People book come to be?

Basically my genius buddy, Ben Hart, and I were looking around and sort of seeing how our children were watching us debate healthily at the dinner table, which is fine. But it occurred to us that everything they were seeing was a disagreement. And that’s because that can be fun for adults, but it’s not a good basis for kids to start out on. We realized we were not really giving our kids a ton of examples of us, as adults, talking about the things that bring us together. So The World Needs More Purple People was born.

Book cover of Kristen Bell and Benjamin Hart's 'The World Needs More Purple People'
Random House via Amazon

We decided to create a roadmap of similarities to give kids a jumping off point of how to look for similarities ... [because] if you can see similarities, you’re more likely to walk through the world with an open mind. But if you walk into a conversation seeing only differences, your mind is going to think differently of that person’s opinion and you just never know when you’re going to hear an opinion that might enlighten you. So we wanted to give kids this roadmap to follow to basically say, “Here are some great features that no one can argue with. Have these features and you’ll have similarities with almost everyone on the planet.”

Part of the reason I love the book so much is because it encourages kids to ask questions, even if they're silly. What are some silly questions you’ve had to answer for your kids?

Oh my god. How much time do you have? Once she asked in rapid fire: Is Santa Claus real? Why is Earth? Who made dogs?

How do you even answer that?

It was too much; I had to walk away. Kids have a ton of questions, and as they get older and more verbal, the funny thing that happens is they get more insecure. So we wanted to encourage the question-asking, and also encourage the uniqueness of every child. Which is why Dan Wiseman, who did our illustrations, really captured this middle point between Ben and I. Ben is very sincere, and I am very quirky. And I feel like the illustrations were captured brilliantly because we also wanted a ton of diversity because that is what the book is about.

The book is about seeing different things and finding similarities. Each kid in the book looks a little bit different, but also a little bit the same. The message at the end of the book is with all these features that you can point out and recognize in other people—loving to laugh, working really hard, asking great questions ... also know that being a purple person means being uniquely you in the hopes that kids will recognize that purple people come in every color.

What was it like behind-the-scenes of writing a children’s book with two little girls at home? Were they tough critics?

Shockingly, no. They did not have much interest in the fact that I was writing a children’s book until there were pictures. Then they were like, “Oh now I get it.” But prior to that, when I’d run the ideas by them, they were not as interested. But I did read it to them. They gave me the two thumbs up. Ben has two kids as well, and all our kids are different ages. Once we got the thumbs up from the 5-year-old, the 7-year-old, the 8-year-old, and the 11-year-old, we thought, “OK, this is good to go.”

I hope that people, and kids especially, really do apply this as a concept. We would love to see this as a curriculum going into schools if they wanted to use it to ask: What happened today in your life that was purple? What could you do to make tomorrow more purple? Like as a concept of a way of living.

Weirdly, writing a children’s book was a way of getting to the adults. If it’s a children’s book, there is a high probability an adult is going to either be reading it to you or be there while you’re reading it—which means you’re getting two demographics. If we had just written a novel about this kind of concept, we’d never reach the kids. But by writing a kid's book, we also access the adults.

Your new show Central Park looks so incredible. What can you tell us about the show and your character Molly?

I am so excited for the show to come out. I’ve seen it and it is exceptional. It is so, so, so funny and so much fun. I signed on because I got a phone call from my friend Josh Gad, who said, “I’m going to try to put together a cartoon for us to work on.” And I said, “Yes. Goodbye.” And he and Loren Bochard, who created Bob’s Burgers, took basically all of our friends—Leslie Odom Jr., Stanley Tucci, Kathryn Hahn, Tituss Burgess, Daveed Diggs, and myself—and created a family who lives in the middle of Central Park.

I play a teenager named Molly who is very socially awkward but has this incredible, relentlessly creative, vivacious personality going on only inside her head … and it’s a musical! So, she's awkward on the outside but when she sings her songs she really comes to life. And she's a comic book artist, so the cartoon often switches to what she's seeing in her head.

It's so funny and Josh Gad plays this busker who lives in Central Park, who is the narrator. Stanley Tucci plays this older woman named Bitsy who is trying to build a shopping mall in the center of Central Park, and the family’s job is to basically save Central Park. But the music is so incredible. We’ve got two music writers, Kate Anderson and Elyssa Samsel, who write the majority of the music, but we also have guest writers that come in every episode. So Sara Bareilles wrote some music and Cyndi Lauper wrote some music. It is such a fun show.

My husband, who does not like cartoons or musicals, watched the first couple of episodes, and he looked at me and said, “You’ve got something really special in your hands.” And he doesn’t like anything. It made me so happy. I cannot wait until this show comes out, I am so proud of it.

What was it like to reunite with Josh Gad on another musical animated series that isn't Frozen?

Josh and I talk a lot, and we had a lot of behind-the-scenes conversations about how we can work together again, just because we adore each other. And part of it is because we get along socially, and part of it is because we trust each other comedically. He's a creator and writer more so than I am, so I usually leave it up to him and say, "What’s our next project?" We have other things in the pipeline we would love to do together, but [Central Park] was an immediate yes because I trust how he writes. Josh is at every single one of my recording sessions; he is very hands-on with the shows that he does or produces or creates. I trust him as much as I trust my husband, creatively, and that’s saying a lot.

Given your well-documented love of sloths, we do have to throw out a few true or false questions about sloths and put your knowledge to the test …

Oh my gosh. OK, now I'm nervous. Hit me.

True or false: Sloths fart more than humans.

Fart more than humans?

Yes.

I’m going to say it's true.

It’s actually false. Sloths don’t fart at all. They might be the only mammal on the planet that does not fart.

You’re kidding. Another reason to love them. You know, I was trying to think medically about it. I know they only poop once a week and that if you only go poop once a week ... I thought, “Well in order to keep your GI healthy, perhaps you have to have some sort of flow from the top to the bottom during the seven-day waiting period until you release.”

True or false: Sloths are so slow that algae sometimes grows on them.

One hundred percent true. In the wild, they’re always covered in algae and it helps their fur, all those microorganisms. But in zoos, they don’t have it.

Nice. OK, last one. True or false: Sloths poop from trees.

No way. They go down to the ground, and they rub their little tushies on the ground, and then they go back up.

You are correct.

I know a fair amount about sloths but the farting thing was new. My kids will be excited to hear that.

We heard recently that you are a part of the “foster failure” club. What went wrong? Erright?

Well, what I learned from Veronica Mars is you root for and cherish and uplift the underdog always. And my first foster failure was in 2018; I found the most undesirable dog that existed on the planet. She is made of toothpicks, it is impossible for her to gain weight. She has one eye. She looks like a walking piece of garbage. Her name is Barbara. She's 11 years old. And I saw a picture of her online and I said, “Yes. I just want to bring her over. I don’t even need to know anything else about her other than this picture," which was the most hideous picture. I mean it looks like a Rorschach painting or something. It was so awful. I was like, “She’s mine. I’ll take care of her. I’ve got this.” And it turns out she is quite lovely even though she can be pretty annoying. But she is our Barbara Biscuit, and she is one of the most charismatic dogs I have ever met. She piddles wherever she damn well pleases. So that is a bummer, because she is untrainable, but we love her.

That was our first failure. Then last year, we genuinely attempted to just foster a dog named Frank. And about two weeks in, I realized Frank was in love with me—like in a human way. He thought he was my boyfriend.

Oh no …

I just felt like … I didn’t even want a new dog—well I shouldn’t say that, because I always want all the dogs—but we weren’t planning on getting a new dog. But I had to have a conversation with my family and I said, “I think it’s going to be like child separation if I separate him. We have to keep him.” And sure enough, he can’t be more than two feet from me at any time during the day.

Does he still give you “the eyes”?

Oh my gosh. Bedroom eyes all day long. I can’t sit down without him like … not even just sitting comfortably in my lap. He has to have my arm in his mouth or part of my hair in his mouth. He’s trying to get back in my womb or something.

That’s love.

Yeah, I said, “What am I going to do? The guy is in love with me. He can live here.” So there is foster failure number two.

Wow, so it’s Frank and Barbara.

Frank and Barbara. And we also have Lola, a 17-year-old corgi-chow chow mix. Who I have had since she was one-and-a-half, who was also a pound puppy. She is our queen bee.

Before you go, we do this thing on Twitter called #HappyHour, where we ask our followers some get-to-know-you questions. If you could change one rule in any board game, what would it be?

I am obviously going to Catan ... oh I know exactly what I would do. In Catan, I would allow participants to buy a city without buying a settlement first. In Catan, you have to upgrade from a settlement to a city first, which is a waste of cards. If you have the cards for a city, you should be able to buy a city.

What was your favorite book as a child?

My favorite book as a child was Are You My Mother?

Aw, I love that one. I forgot about Are You My Mother?

It’s a good one.