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John Self 17th May 2004 11:50

Derren Brown
Little Derren Brown (he couldn't have more than an inch or so on Little Mart) is the David Blaine it's OK to like. Not without reason has the Guardian called him "the scariest man in Britain", as anyone who has seen his TV series (currently on Fridays at 10pm on Channel 4) will willingly attest. What he does is a mixture - as he puts it - of magic, suggestion, misdirection, hypnotism and showmanship, which sounds pretty corny until you see him in action: making bookmakers pay out on losing tickets; getting a London taxi driver to forget where the London Eye is even though he's driving around it; playing nine grandmasters at chess simultaneously and predicting the number of pieces that would be left on each board at the end of the game; getting people in the street to 'read' one another's minds accurately; and so on. His effects really are almost literally jaw-dropping.

So when I saw that he was doing his live show in Belfast I couldn't resist going along. (Aside: last year I visited his website after one of his other TV shows, and saw that he was touring the UK but not coming here. I emailed him and suggested he do so, and one of his little wizards emailed back and said that he might just do that. So I would like to claim responsibility for getting him to come, except that he probably planted the idea in my head subconsciously to get me to suggest it in the first place...) I was only slightly concerned that I would end up on stage, eating an onion like an apple, down on all fours barking like a dog, and finishing every sentence with the words "amphibious landing craft." Because of course he's not that sort of hypnotist, although the speed with which he did put people to sleep during the show - supposedly to get them to transmit their thoughts to others - was truly astonishing. Shake hands, "Hello, I'm Derren" - a little touch on the back of the neck - "and sleep" - and down they went. And up went gasps.

What he did was a series of the sort of thing we have seen him do on the TV show, but all the more exciting of course for being live. So we wonder, for example, whether not all of his tricks work when he's making the TV series, and we only see the ones that do? The answer would seem, from the live experience, to be no, although not because he's infallible but because he quickly rejects anyone whom he feels he can't 'work with.' So we had people transmitting their thoughts across the stage to others, Brown guessing what images people had drawn on a piece of paper, accurately predicting half a dozen or more times which hand a person would put a coin in, and so on. The best thing from the first half, for me, was something I still can't work out - was it truly a stupendous feat of memory, or just a trick? What he did was appear to have memorised the entire Belfast phone book - proving it by getting anyone who was listed to catch a frisbee which he threw from behind his back ("Someone emailed me after one show and said I was deliberately choosing who to aim the frisbee at"), and then asking them their name and house number, whereupon he would - a handful of times - tell us their street and phone number. More gasps and open-mouthed stares at one's neighbours.

This is what is so appealing about him. With 'normal' magicians - and Brown doesn't hide his past in traditional illusionism - you know what they're doing is just a trick. But his effects combine so many elements that you don't know how it's done or even through what discipline. When he is 'mind-reading' he says it's nothing to do with mind-reading, it's just picking up on unconscious signals people give out and subconsciously influencing them with suggestion - but is that in itself just a cover for something trickier and cleverer? What is also appealing - and where he scores over Blaine - is his intelligence, sense of humour and the knowledge that he doesn't take himself seriously, all of which come out in the live show as they haven't always in the past on TV (although the new series has wittier moments: "People say that children are more psychically aware than adults. This rubbish is usually said by people who think like children, so they can be forgiven").

The second half of the show I am not allowed to tell you about - although the tour has now finished, he is doing a live run in the West End and he doesn't want it spoiled. So I recommend you go to that and see for yourself. Suffice it to say that the second half contains a debunking of certain belief systems not dissimilar to the effect in his show last week, when he proved to a new-ager that not everything you see is worthy of belief, by using a voodoo doll to render her immobile and speechless and making it clear to her that there was nothing otherworldly about it at all.

Of course he might well have been rubbish live, or indeed have sent the entire audience to sleep for two hours and just hypnotised us all into thinking we had a really good time. But he could never get away with that: what sort of weak-minded sponge does he think I amphibious landing craft?

Wavid 17th May 2004 12:50

I like Derren Brown - the stuff he does on his TV shows is excellent, and he seems like a pretty decent guy. Some of the press have been a bit sneering, casting doubt on some of his 'tricks', but I kind of feel this misses the point. The same is certainly true of his 'Russian Roulette' show - while the bullets may have been blanks (and even if they were, a blank fired at point blank range is enough to cause quite a lot of damage, I'd have thought) - who cares? It was an absorbing spectacle and a great bit of TV.

And anyone who manages to flabbergast Stephen Fry with a card trick deserves a pat on the back.

amner 17th May 2004 13:13

Fry's response was gloriously honest and lacking in erudition wasn't it ("Fuck off!")?

John Self 17th May 2004 13:29

Yes, he sort of spluttered "Shut up!! - oh fuck off...!" before recovering sufficiently to say to-camera afterwards (something like) "I want to see him burned at the stake and watch his witch's heart bubble." That's our Stephen.

amner 17th May 2004 13:34

Now, can I just ask, on Friday's show, where he took the attractive young woman into the woods and voodoo-dolled her, was that really as harsh as it seemed? I was kinda drunk and kinda tired but to me it seemed like he said (essentially) "tell me about all this New Age bullshit you believe in ... right, I'll just undermine it and make you feel stupid".

That is what happened isn't it?

John Self 17th May 2004 13:40

Yep, but as with many irrationalists, afterwards she didn't seem to take the point at all and the only thing she kept talking about was how the ring was in her pocket and not in the doll all along, i.e. the basic sleight of hand element of the effect and not the suggestion/hypnosis bit. As though, if it had been in the doll - she would have believed he really was practising voodoo. For the record I think some people will have come away from last night's live show with the same addled thoughts about the thing I'm not allowed to tell you about. But then lots of people used to think Alf Garnett was an unironic straight-talker geezer so that's people for you.

John Self 19th May 2004 11:16

And you can watch the clip of the above trickery here (you need Real Player).

Incidentally, all the women I know who know who Derren Brown is, fancy the arse off him. Where can I get some of that??

amner 21st May 2004 13:54


Originally Posted by John Self
And you can watch the clip of the above trickery here (you need Real Player).

That's terrific (as are all the other clips off that site).

I'm assuming that the series ends just as we all get bombarded with BB again? Shame. Anyway, I'll be tuning in again tonight.

John Self 1st Jun 2004 23:36

Did anyone else watch Brown's Séance last night? Since he's gone and given it a wide audience himself, I can now exclusively give away that that was what the second half of his live show consisted of - so I am not sure why he was at such pains to keep it secret for the West End run this month.

One thing he did last night that he didn't do on stage was make it absolutely clear that the whole thing was fake - though it was clear enough for anyone listening to him hammering on about his scepticism of spiritualism. Of course he didn't show us how he did do it. Of course some might say that just because Brown's séance was a trick, doesn't mean they all are. Well perhaps: but I can only turn to the estimable James Randi, illusionist and Uri Geller-baiter, who for decades has indefatigably shown that all Geller's effects can be performed through professional magician's techniques, and who says simply, "I'm not saying Uri Geller is a fraud: just that if he really is doing these things by psychic powers, he's doing it the hard way."

I watched it with a couple of friends and we even got the wine glass and letters of the alphabet out, but alas the spirits were not with us. Of course they weren't: we are hardened sceptics and as Brown pointed out, the wineglass on a ouija board moves by ideomotor effect: subconscious muscle movement toward an expected outcome. His students on the other hand were not only suggestible but also reduced to jelly-legged terror by a couple of well-placed stunts earlier in the show. Still, I would have liked to see their reactions when he wheeled the real 'Jane' in at the end.

Marks too for his joke at the start: "These twelve students have been specially chosen ... but by the end of tonight's show, one of them will be dead. [Pause] Only kidding ... I give them about a week."

youjustmightlikeit 2nd Jun 2004 8:24

I didn't get to see it, partly because the mrs believes in all that ouija board stuff, which is the wont of many a woman.
But i'm a fan of Derren's in general, especially, as you say, the fact that he pops in the odd chortle.

If only i had his 'magic' powers of suggestion. I read an interview somewhere in which he said that he used to use some of his techniques to pick up women (with a presumably very high success rate), but that he'd stopped doing it because it was like shooting fish in a barrel and because it was 'wrong'. It's enough to make you cry.

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