What Grandad Did In The Dark
by Chris Eldon Lee, BBC Producer
Like many of the more successful BBC Radio 4 programmes, this one about the life work of the pioneering Spiritualist, Noah Zerdin, broadcast in January 2002, happened completely by chance.(listen to the programme here What Grandad did in the Dark)
IN EARLY 1999 I was sent by BBC Radio Shropshire to interview Ruth for the Millennium Oral History Project “The Century Speaks”.
Ruth is a circle-dancing massage therapist, in her mid fifties and of the Jewish faith. There aren’t many like her in Shropshire, so it was thought she would be an interestingly different contributor to the series.
Before the interview began I was obliged to ask census-like questions such as father’s name. Now I’d never heard of Noah Zerdin (who’d died in 1972) but I did have a residual interest in Spiritualism and was intrigued to hear Ruth describe how her father before the war had attempted to prove beyond reasonable doubt that life-after-death really did exist.
Ruth related the story of how Noah and his first wide Bertha had agreed that whoever died first should try to contact the surviving spouse. Little did they realise that Bertha would die in a fire at Noah’s Oxford Street furrier’s business shortly afterwards . . . in the spring of 1927.
Seemingly, Bertha eventually contacted Noah via a private home circle . . . and Noah decided to share this ‘proof’ with as many people as possible. So in the early 30s he conducted what he called “The Great Experiments” . . . a series of annual mass public direct voice séances in major London Halls.
Ruth paused in her story and I must have said something along the lines of “what a pity the voices heard at the séances weren’t recorded.” “Oh, but they were,” said Ruth.
“Then,” I blundered on, “what a pity the recordings don’t still exist”. “Oh, but they do,” came the reply. “At least, there’s a batch of 78 rpm acetate records in my older brother’s garage. But we’ve never listened to them.”
Ruth’s half-brother is Dan Zerdin, born to Noah and Bertha shortly before she died. Noah later married Bertha’s younger sister and they produced Ruth.
We discovered that the records really did exist in Dan’s South London garage, together with boxes of Noah’s written records. They were hidden behind a pile of his mother’s piano music and stored side by side without the protection of record sleeves in a pre-war paper carrier bag.
But what was on them and would they still play?
We engaged the expert assistance of a sound archive rescue specialist, Phil Farlow, who gingerly examined the flaking discs and decided how best to extract the audio signal from their grooves without destroying them in the process.
The material that emerged during that morning session in Phil’s studio was quite amazing. Noah had not only taken the trouble to record his own heavy Russian voice describing how the public demonstration at The Aeolian Hall in 1934 had been conducted and recorded, he’d also interviewed the direct voice medium Mrs Mollie Perriman who described the sensations she experienced whilst the apparently discarnate voices spoke. “It was like having a tooth drawn out of your larynx,” she said.
Then came what appeared to be edited highlights of a number of messages purporting to be relayed directly by the dead to the living, sitting in the hall.
Many of the voices were remarkably clear and even the kerfuffle of the audience reaction could be heard.
The communications were of two types. Personal messages from loved one to loved one; and short lectures on spiritual philosophy, Christianity, and survival beyond physical death.
There were other recordings of what seemed to be of home circle séances, most arresting of which was a voice calling out “Noah, this is Bertha. I love you Noah. I can hear you.” It wasn’t clear if this was the ‘first’ contact that led to the experiments, or a later incidence.
Dan Zerdin was clearly very excited by what he heard, especially when it became clear he was hearing his late parents. I wondered how the sound engineer Phil was taking it all.
But he revealed himself to have been a Spiritualist all along and was impressed by the surprisingly high technical quality of the recordings and the content of the messages. He managed to rescue about an hour’s worth of audio.
The job of a BBC producer is to remain sceptical at all times. I also had to convince Radio 4 that there was a potentially remarkable programme here that could tell the tale of Noah’s quest without passing judgement. So we submitted the idea and waited.
The plan was that it would be Noah’s three granddaughters who made the programme. Judith, Naomi and Tanya — all in their early twenties — never knew their grandfather. They’d obviously picked up some vague sense of his spiritual interests but had only a scant knowledge of his life-story.
Having aroused their interest, we now had to keep them in the dark until Radio 4 commissioned the programme, agreed a budget, and work could begin. This they did in January 2001.
At this point Dan got rather cold feet for a short while. What would the publicity do to his private family life? Would Noah want such attention drawn to him?
In response, the granddaughters logged onto the Internet. Why I hadn’t thought of this before can only be put down to my age. “Noah + Zerdin” was typed in . . . and up came the website for The Noah’s Ark Society.
As they scrolled their way past the society’s fiery logo, they were amazed. Grandad had apparently already been in touch from the “other side” and was carrying on his work after his own death. He clearly had no qualms, so neither should the living Zerdins.
Whilst the rescued 78rpm audio was further processed for broadcast, George Cranley of The Noah’s Ark Society was sent an e-mail.
Yes, he had personally heard a voice claiming to be Noah speak at a circle just a handful of years ago. And yes, it might be possible to arrange for the granddaughters to attempt to speak to their Grandad – and for us to record the session.
After much consulting of many diaries, a sitting was planned with the direct voice medium Cohn Fry in his séance room at Hayward’s Heath in Sussex. As we made the booking we had no idea how significant that date would be. September 11th, 2001.
I began my drive down the motorway from Shropshire to Sussex just as the first plane hit the World Trade Centre. I drove in a daze as my BBC Radio colleagues boldly tried to convey the horror of that afternoon.
I also wondered how that night’s séance would go. Would we all feel too distracted to sit? Would the “other side” be too busy with the aftermath to put in an appearance?
Colin Fry’s welcome restored a sense of normality. With ponytail and earring he wasn’t quite what I’d expected of a medium, but he had a no-nonsense, un-spooky approach to the job in hand, I placed my equipment as best I could. How do you point a microphone at a voice that’s supposed to come out of thin air?
As we sat down, the circle was made up of Colin Fry, George Cranley, 5 members of the Zerdin family, myself and a second independent radio producer.
Three voices were heard in succession. The first – apparently a child – announced himself as ‘Charlie’.
He chatted inconsequentially for about 30 minutes and then gave way to a much older voice, which Ruth recognised as that of Leslie Flint, a medium she had sat with the day after her wedding.
‘Leslie’ said he recognised the presence of members of the family of the man who was so influential in his own life. Ruth then asked if he remembered the year of her wedding. The voice said 1971. It was in fact 1972. ‘Leslie’ described how Noah’s work “had enabled spirit to touch the lives of thousands of people” and how he was “nobody’s fool”.
Then, desperately faintly, we heard another voice say “Daniel. Hello my boy. My name is Noah Zerdin. Why haven’t you sorted these things out before? What is contained in my boxes is so badly needed by your side now. Now you have opened the box it is like opening Pandora’s Box”.
The voice went on to explain that the Great Experiments were not his own idea. He was instructed to conduct them through Mollie Perriman’s mediumship.
In all ‘Noah’ spoke faintly for about 40 minutes. Afterwards the family seemed to have mixed feelings. A great many of the things said rang very true, but specific questions aimed at soliciting firm evidence were dodged by the voice – which didn’t sound at all Russian.
But ‘Noah’ did say he must “practise this communication” and hoped they might “reconvene”. In the most touching moment he told his granddaughters “how lovely you look” and “perhaps you might be brave enough to say ‘hello grandpapa’.”
As we finally put the programme together, the girls were suitably self- searching and sceptical.
Judith, a budding journalist, remained not entirely convinced.
Naomi felt she was surer now of the afterlife than she had been at the beginning.
Tanya said she now had a strong inner belief and was no longer afraid.
Tongue in cheek I had asked ‘Noah’ if our radio programme would change anything.
Equally tongue in cheek came the reply “it will cause a small bruise”.