Derren Brown’s latest Channel 4 show, Apocalypse, appears to be the product of a magician who’s bored with what he does – at least on television. His increasingly formulaic shows now involve just one real ‘trick’ – that the person selected is acting under hypnosis and unaware of their role in a TV production. If you remove this conceit, you’re left with a dull and plodding ‘reality drama’.
There’s been speculation that Steve Brosnan, the person featured in Apocalypse, isn’t what he seems; that he’s really an actor. And as usual, Derren Brown has released a convincingly vehement denial. Because as he has drummed into our heads over the years – he’s ‘honest about his dishonesty’. And that’s the trick – he’s not.
Derren Brown’s a magician who achieves his effects by any means necessary. But that’s balanced against the need to keep the mundane reality of his methods away from prying eyes. He has no need to use actors – at least not actors in the conventional sense.
To get an idea of how his illusions are created, here’s an interview with somebody who featured in one of his earlier TV shows. They wanted to remain anonymous so anything referencing the specific show has been removed but it gives an insight into the way it works. Here’s what he said:
“I agreed to take part because I thought it would be a fun experience. I enjoyed Derren Brown’s shows and it was exciting to be a part of it. I approached it as a kind of acting role; like I was playing a version of myself – rather than it being me.
“And as a piece of entertainment I can appreciate the finished item; it worked well. But it was really strange to see people’s reaction after it was broadcast; how seriously some people took it. They don’t see it as entertainment, they genuinely believed Derren Brown was demonstrating some kind of special power.
“The reality is nothing like what you see on screen. With me, they made it look like I was being secretly filmed during my day-to-day life. It’s something they often do. But that was all planned and pre-arranged with the production team. They told me where to go and what to do. There was a man lugging a big camera around right in front of me – so it was hardly secret.
“When it came to the final scene I was supposed to have been ‘programmed’ to act in a certain way by various subliminal messages and triggers, but that was just part of the misdirection for the benefit of the viewers. The way it actually worked was that Derren was off-camera and giving me directions, telling me what to do.
“Before the filming had started he’d been through a hypnosis routine with me; although this was never mentioned or shown in the finished item. I never felt hypnotised but I went along with it.
“And after a couple of minutes Derren seemed to drop the pretence and switched to more of a work mode. When it came to the filming he was directing me from off-camera – not much different to how a producer would direct an actor.
“It was all slightly disappointing. I’m not sure what I’d expected exactly but I just thought there would be more of a ‘trick’ involved. It blows away the mystique – but it’s the viewer the illusion is being created for.”
So in this case, it’s a real person being used but Derren Brown’s insistence that he doesn’t use stooges appears a little wobbly. Technically, he may be right in that the person was playing along with a situation in which he’d been placed – with some prompting from Derren.
But it shows that, like with most magic, the truth behind an illusion is usually painfully mundane. Derren Brown doesn’t need hypnosis or subliminal messages or ‘anchoring’ to achieve his effects, he uses the same powers as any reality TV. It’s the reason why it’s not really possible to debunk Derren Brown’s recent shows – because there’s nothing there to debunk.
There’s no trick being played, other than a person going along with whatever situation Derren Brown plonks them into; the only contrivance is their willingness to respond in an appropriate manner. It’s the reason why he usually selects people from his pool of followers, people who feel privileged to be allowed into the world of their hero and who understand the role expected of them.
And what somebody like Steve Brosnan will have found is the pressure that any performer on reality TV feels – a pressure to perform appropriately. He finds himself the pivotal figure in a big budget production, there’s an innate pressure to provide what they’re looking for. Especially when it’s the reputation of somebody he admires at stake.
Here’s how the participant in a previous Derren Brown illusion described it:
“Something which is hard to appreciate, unless you’ve experienced it for yourself, is the huge pressure you feel under when it comes to filming.
“Nothing was ever said to me, but it didn’t need to be. You just know how much time and effort has gone into setting up something like this. And you know that everything ultimately depends on you to make it work. So you’re trying to give them what they want.”
The thing that needs to be understood about Derren Brown is that he’s a mentalist – that’s not an Alan Partridge insult. It’s a brand of magic which sells the tricks and misdirection as demonstrations of a genuine power. And 20 years ago, another mentalist performer occupied Derren Brown’s position, an entertainer who also shocked and confounded with his mind control ability.
The power that Uri Geller claimed to use was ‘psychokinetic’, it gave him the ability to bend metal with the touch of his finger. The power Derren Brown purports to use comes from his innate knowledge of science and psychology, something which enables him to control humans like obedient puppies.
To succeed as a mentalist performer requires the person to throw themselves into the role 100 percent – they have to live and breathe it on and off the stage and screen. They have to convince not only their immediate audience that what they’re doing is plausible but the whole of society needs to buy into it. It’s something Uri Geller achieved with a handful of magic tricks and his natural gift as a showman.
It enabled Geller to convince scientists, academics, media organisations and a large slice of the public that he was accessing a genuine ‘PK’ power, or at least that he may have been. The aura he managed to create was a world away from the conventional magic of somebody like Paul Daniels – but behind the packaging, it was exactly the same.
The public gradually became weary of his wide-eyed spoon bending routine and his claims to have special powers were debunked. The more he raged and railed against those who dared claim he was a fake, the more desperate and pitiful he appeared. These days Geller makes occasional appearances on the TV shopping channels where he uses his special powers to flog jewellery.
And Derren Brown is leading a similarly precarious existence, caught in the same kind of trap as Geller found himself. He has created the illusion that it’s his knowledge of science and psychology which provides the core of what he does. He’s also been able to convince society that he’s not merely an illusionist – there’s more substance to him. He’s a man of science, reason and logic.
It’s helped him to attract high-profile support from the likes of Stephen Fry and Richard Dawkins. He’s built a large and passionate following of people inspired and energised by the powers he displays. They show the same kind of faith and belief in his science-based demonstrations as you might expect from the audience of a spiritualist.
These aren’t merely tricks – there’s something we need to take notice of here. It’s what he’s been telling us for the past 10 years. His latest Channel 4 shows have dispensed with the usual disclaimer about the illusions featuring a mix of psychology, magic and showmanship. He said that last year’s, The Experiments, was an attempt to move away from his ‘magic’ background. It included interviews with academics, scientists and references to real-world case studies.
And Brown has started to position himself in the role of a kind of self-help guru. Somebody who takes hapless losers from their humdrum existence and converts them into winners with the inspirational wave of his mind control magic wand. There’s really very little difference between what he does and the psychics he has used his TV show to expose as frauds and charlatans.
One claims psychic power, the other claims psychological power. The people who believe it are similarly deluded.
So Derren Brown continues to furiously protect the persona he’s created; he has no real choice. He has to maintain the pretence, to keep churning out the TV specials, to clobber any accusations with legal threats. Because the alternative is to deal with the wrath and rejection of those who have believed in him. And to face up to the haunting prospect of a 2 am slot on a shopping channel.