“This programme fuses magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship” declares Derren Brown in the opening of this ‘Trick of the Mind’ television series.
Suave and charismatic, the weasel-faced illusionist has captured British public imagination for more than a decade. Brown’s revolutionary brand of magic incorporates hypnosis, subliminal suggestion and cold reading to mind-boggling effect.
Here, we pay tribute to Derren with an examination of his five most audacious stunts.
Careful, spoiler alert…
The Idea: Through a process of de-individuation, Brown persuades an audience to inflict an evening of misery on an unsuspecting subject in a fake reality show.
Brown’s celebrity status means that can he can no longer perform incognito, so he turned host in fake game show Remote Control. An actor was passed off to the audience as an unwitting subject set to face an eventful evening.
The audience, under a veil of anonymity afforded by white masks, were able to vote for either a positive or negative outcome to each part of the evening, before watching it unfold live in the studio.
The results were a shocking exposé of mob mentality. By the end of the night the crowd were in fits of laughter as they saw their victim’s hellish evening capped off by a kidnapping – all at their own behest. An elaborate set-up with a straightforward premise, The Gameshow offered a sobering insight into social psychology and crowd mentality.
The Idea: Brown loads a single bullet into a gun with six chambers and plays Russian roulette with his own life.
Aired live on Channel 4 in 2003, Derren Brown Plays Russian Roulette Live was a ground-breaking venture stooped in controversy.
After whittling down over 12,000 applicants to a single contestant, Brown instructed his randomly-selected accomplice to insert a single bullet into a six-chambered revolver as the illusionist looked away.
Having worked with the impressionable contestant for weeks, Brown was able to ‘predict’ which chamber would hold the bullet, clicking through the empty chambers with the gun’s muzzle against his temple before plugging the round harmlessly into a sandbag.
Now wait a minute, you cry. Why on earth is this staggeringly daring (somewhat sadomasochistic stunt) confined to fourth place?
Well, after enduring a relentless grilling from Fiona Phillips on GMTV the following morning, Brown conceded that the bullets were blanks. A televised call to Deputy Chief Police Officer Lenny Harper confirmed that live ammunition would have been legally prohibited in the Channel 4 studio. And let’s face it, would mainstream television really flirt with a potential suicide?
Brown’s breakthrough show was riveting nonetheless and the trick still stands: he correctly identified the ‘live’ chamber.
The Idea: Brown convinces ‘law-abiding’ subjects to rob a security van.
This is why it’s generally inadvisable to attend night classes with Derren Brown.
Brown transformed a batch of contestants into his criminal toadies using a combination of subliminal misdirection and natural charisma. The unwitting victims believed they were attending a seminar to learn a few of Brown’s tricks but, of course, he had other plans.
Through a process of subtle hypnosis involving songs, sound bites and colours, in addition to exploiting his position of authority as the seminar leader, Brown was able to manipulate a group of ostensibly honest individuals into robbing an armed security van. Luckily, the driver was a planted stooge.
Brown’s stunt bears striking similarities to the Milgram experiment, in which subjects were found to yield to the commands of authority figures, even when instructed to harm others or behave illicitly. Brown took advantage of our innate urge to comply with instruction, leading perfectly honest folks to do things they’d never attempt under normal circumstances. Spooky stuff.
The Idea: One unfortunate punter chances upon a videogame designed by Brown. The subject is hypnotised by the game and thrust into a post-apocalyptic, zombie-ridden nightmare.
Barely missing the top spot, The Walking Dead nabs silver for its tremendous scope and delicious cruelty. In this stunt, Brown brought Dawn of the Dead to pass for one poor soul.
After stumbling across a seemingly innocuous arcade game in a pub, the victim began playing a House of the Dead-style game using the light-gun supplied. A series of hypnotic flashes, noises and images soon rendered him unconscious.
Brown’s team immediately got to work, rushing him to a set designed to resemble an abandoned building environment from the game. On waking, the subject found himself sprawled on the concrete, gun in hand and surrounded by bloodthirsty ‘zombies’ (played by stooges).
Fully convinced by the illusion, the intrepid ‘survivor’ immediately began shooting all and sundry in a desperate bid to escape, before Brown brought his nightmare to an end and revealed the truth. The gun, as it happens, only fired paint pellets.
The usual naysayers immediately tore into Brown’s stunt, accusing the victim of being an actor. Pay no heed to these philistines; Brown pulled this phenomenal trick off with a mix of complex psychological manipulation and an elaborate stage-set. Throw in a dose of human gullibility and an overabundance of zombie apocalypse fiction and you’ve got yourself one seriously pant-wetting stunt.
The Idea: Building on previous experiments, Brown achieves the inconceivable by transforming a random citizen into a cold-blooded killer.
Any man who can convince an Average Joe to murder a national treasure using nothing but force of will and psychological manipulation should either be in prison or at the top of a list of impressive stunts. We chose the latter.
The Assassin aired in October 2011 and depicted Brown hypnotising an ordinary member of the public into taking a pot-shot at cuddly QI presenter Stephen Fry. For an extra dramatic touch, the setting for Brown’s faux assassination was modelled on the site of Abe Lincoln’s murder at the hands of John Wilkes-Booth.
Obviously, everybody involved was aware of the situation and hence nobody was hurt. However, Brown’s stunt revealed an unsettling truism, that under certain circumstances and with a little guidance, anybody can abandon their morals and become a killer.
As well as demonstrating the shocking capacity of the human mind to succumb to coercion, the stunt attests to the staggering talents of a world-class illusionist and master psychologist. Bravo Derren, Bravo.