You might hope – briefly, and only if you hadn’t been paying attention to the world – that a programme called A Very British Cult was a sitcom, set in the suburbs, based around a sect designed as a cover for a deeply unattractive man to have sex with other people’s wives in a cul-de-sac. But alas, as is so often the case with optimistic interpretations, you would be wrong. A Very British Cult is a careful, delicate, remorseless investigation and anatomisation of the real suffering seemingly caused by an organisation known as Lighthouse.
Journalist Catrin Nye takes us through it step by step. First we meet the people who are willing to go on camera to talk about their experiences. There is Jeff, who was full of ambition but lacking direction when he crossed paths, during a self-improvement webinar, with a man called Jai Singh who was with Lighthouse and offered him personal mentorship. Singh told Jeff that he was very open, very teachable and had a great work ethic, and under his guidance Jeff did learn to speak and write better than before. It seemed only sensible to sign up for the £10,000 “Discipline programme” for a year of more intense mentoring. And to “invest” £25,000 after that to become an associate member and gain better access to the revered founder of the movement, Paul Waugh.
We meet Jeff’s girlfriend Dawn, who recalls becoming more and more concerned about the increasing number of hours he was spending on the phone to Singh and how dependent he was becoming on his mentor’s approval in all matters, including their relationship.
Anthony Church is another former member of Lighthouse. He was on medication for a longstanding anxiety disorder when he met the man who would become his mentor at a networking event. “I felt seen and I felt heard,” he says. His story follows Jeff’s in most particulars – the money handed over, the gradually increasing length of phone calls with, and dependence on, Lighthouse. But where the organisation seemed to be working to separate Jeff from Dawn, with Anthony it worked to separate him from his medication.
All of this is well documented by Lighthouse because it recorded everything – including every personal admission and secret shared by mentees. Part of the members’ duties to the group was to transcribe the recordings of every phone call every day, proof and correct them. Waugh claims it’s because they have nothing to hide. But it also served to keep them busy and enmesh them further in Waugh’s web, with members being aware that they have every confession recorded if they leave.
“Erin” (whose name has been changed and whose testimony is voiced by an actor) had been a victim of child sexual abuse. When she tried to leave Lighthouse, we hear the audio recording of Waugh reminding her that they have taped everything and saved her journals. “You’re so fucked up,” he snarls at her. “Broken. You come from a family of serpents, pricks and cowards … You’re a cynical little old witch.” In keeping with the dreadful psychological damage already inflicted on her, she began to believe he was right.
Martin’s daughter is still with Lighthouse and professing her happiness while declining to see her family. “It’s as if she’s died,” he says, fighting back tears.
Thus the money kept rolling in – Nye’s team finds millions paid into the Lighthouse account, half of which is paid out to Waugh, who lived in a mansion while his underlings were crammed into shared houses. The team also discovers that Lighthouse is already under government investigation and Nye confronts Waugh as he leaves court after his vicious business has been shut down, though he himself does not seem to have been subject to any sanctions. He denies that Lighthouse is a cult, and reacts as aggressively and nonsensically (“You supported Jimmy Savile! You must receive the facts!”) as any bully faced with someone insisting on the truth, but Nye does an admirably persistent job.
What A Very British Cult does most effectively, however, is show the workings of the group and make comprehensible its success in what appears to be brainwashing perfectly intelligent, ordinary, reasonable people. Different vulnerabilities were seemingly exploited in different ways – praise and blandishments for Jeff, and the promise of refuge for Erin, plus self-actualisation, support and a little more avuncularity for Anthony. Then appearing to use coercion, isolation, monopolising their time and energy, and eventually, once they were weakened enough, straightforward bullying, draining them of their financial resources.
This documentary is a study in the worst of humanity, with glimpses of the best. We see it in the courage of those talking to Nye, in Dawn’s love for Jeff and in her faith that he could be restored to her. You can only hope that one day soon Martin’s love for his daughter will be similarly rewarded.
• A Very British Cult aired on BBC Three and is available on BBC iPlayer.