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Saturday, 26 January 2008

Derren Brown, Channel 4

Derren Brown: Trick Of The Mind, Channel 4
After Derren’s recent Russian Roulette was dismissed as a hoax by much of the media, he seemed very keen to ensure viewers as to the authenticity of the tricks on his new show.

Firstly he explained that “no actors or stooges were used in this show”. Evidence of his wish to appear genuine came as he swathed himself in a crowd on a London street to get two complete strangers to read each other’s minds. When a young woman correctly guessed the name of a man’s friend just from touching his head, the assembled throng burst into applause. If this had been his third or fourth attempt at the trick it’s unlikely the response would have been so enthusiastic, or at least that’s what we would be expected to think.

Derren, through what seemed to be autosuggestion, also managed to make a cabbie forget the route to the London Eye and even what it looked like. Afterwards the cabbie was filmed stating how perplexed he was. No stooge then. An actor did appear, though, in the trustworthy form of Stephen Fry, who was amazed by one of Derren’s card tricks.

But he saved his best illusion for when he challenged nine of Britain’s best chess players to simultaneous matches. Derren confided to the viewers though he was only average at chess, he was still confident of securing some wins. He then went and told the assembled group he was decent at chess to perhaps secure a psychological edge. Indeed from the nine games, Derren won four drew two and lost three, and also explained how he did it.

He had split eight of the players into four pairs and essentially played them off against each other in an astonishing feat of memory so he was bound to finish level with the group in those eight ties without exercising his chess skills at all. He then gambled that he could defeat the weakest player by himself with the aid of some of the moves he had remembered from his illusory matches with the eight stronger players. He succeeded.

In doing this Derren had not only revealed the secret of his success, one of the major reasons for watching the show, but also astounded through the power of his memory.
But the trick wasn’t complete. Before the experiment Derren had passed a note to one of the players. On it were his predictions how many pieces each player would have left on the chessboard at the end of the game. He got eight out of nine correct, but on this occasion wryly claimed he “couldn’t remember” how he’d done the trick.

And it’s Derren’s willingness to disclose how he performs some of the lesser illusions and then trumping them with something even better that makes this format so attractive, along with watching and listening closely to spot any hint of a hoax or even how he did the trick. And next week I’m sure I’ll be able to work out how he performs his conjuring, and if not then, the week after.

Derren Brown: The Gathering, Channel 4
What to say of you liked it
The master of psychological illusions confounds a select audience of the great and good with more of his masterly magic.
What to say of you didn’t like it
A scrawny little man with a dodgy ginger beard curries favour with the lowlife of London Town in a scabrous spectacle of self-indulgence.

What was good about it?
• Derren’s tricks are wonderful to behold; whether he’s guessing what the League of Gentlemen’s Reece Shearsmith secretly drew based only on his knowledge of Reece’s comfort in performing on stage, or employing a convoluted cacophony of bluffs and double-bluffs to coerce a member of the audience into choosing a portrait of his pet parrot over a cheque for a grand, Derren is rarely less than mesmerising.
• Loading up the audience into blacked out buses like sheep on the way to the slaughterhouse added to the ambience of intrigue.
• Even though Derren had a sprinkling of celebrities in the audience, he hardly gave them a look-in aside from Reece Shearsmith helping out (which was random), Krishan Guru-Murthy’s acting as a stooge in a phone number trick and the occasional An Audience With… camera shot of Al Murray applauding or Jonathan Ross looking bemused.
• When the kitten landed in the lap of Derren’s mother, hampering his efforts to find someone who’d he’d never met before.
• Derren predicting the exact route a London cabbie would take from Buckingham Palace to a completely random destination in the capital. And then trumping it by revealing the “random” location the cabbie had driven to in his imaginary journey was the secret location they had gathered at – the Shepherd’s Bush Empire.

What was bad about it?
• As Derren subliminally inserted words and phrases into his performance to compel the audience to forget what occurred, we might have fallen victim too making it damn difficult to remember particular details. What did Derren get mixed up with boa during the demonstration of how he had memorised the A-Z of London, and what did Jean Christophe Novelli do at the start of the jamboree?
• Jean Christophe Novelli’s role in the intro. We’re not quite sure what he did; it may have been because of Derren’s trickery or perhaps it was so rubbish we’ve already forgotten.
• Members of the audience were selected to participate by a fluffy cat toy being randomly tossed around the rows. One of Derren’s tricks was to predict who the cat would be thrown to (an attractive woman), which he got right if Jeanie been 20 years younger, so we’ll give him that. But the answer to the question: pick any country in the world was a little suspicious. The answer Jeanie gave was Africa – which as anyone, aside from the geographically illiterate, will know is a continent. Now either Derren used a duplicitous magician’s ruse to extricate himself from her answer or he planted in Jeanie’s head a compulsion to say “Africa”. If it’s the former, we’re very disappointed, but if it’s the latter we’ll genuflect before his deified image for a year and a day.

Derren Brown: Trick Of The Mind, E4/Channel 4
1 – Derren bamboozling Simon Pegg into wanting a BMX bike for his birthday, by peppering his conversation with phrases such as "beam excitedly". Simon had written down that he's like a leather jacket; but that was the last thing he wanted when Derren had finished with him.
2 – Derren's recreation of Dextrous Vision, a trick made famous in Victorian times by a 15-year-old called Lilian, in which he could read through his fingertips.
3 – Derren taking on a Scouse chav and the world's oldest Hell's Angel in a staring contest in Portmerion.
4 – Derren managing to guess the contents of a man's wallet, right down to the shopping list.
5 – Derren guessing how much folk at Cardiff Market had in their wallets. After being spot on all day, he failed with a young boy – but was brave enough to show his failure.

Derren Brown: The Heist, Channel 4, Wednesday 4 January 2006
Did we like it?
The law of diminishing returns can now be applied to Derren's specials. There were fantastic moments in this attempt to get four professionals to rob a security guard of two cases, each containing £50,000 in cash, but this one wasn't as good as his previous mind-control marathons.
What was good about it?
• The juxtaposition of the hilarious sweet robbery stunt with the re-creation of the Stanley Milgram test. In the former, the volunteers were instructed to steal from a village shop – leading the bemused boys behind the till to wonder if they were being wound up as a series of men in suits came in and tried to make off with Jammie Dodgers, KitKats, Fruit Pastels, stockings etc. In the latter, the volunteers were made to think they were administering potentially fatal electric shocks to someone (half of them did).
• The use of The Jackson's brilliant Can U Feel It as the song that triggered the robbery

What was bad about it?
• Although Derren did demonstrate that normal people can be persuaded to become criminals, the conclusion – when the four hand-picked volunteers made their robbery attempt – failed to be as exciting as we'd hoped, especially as one of the four copped out.
• Most of Derren's mind control tricks had been seen before.
Derren Brown: Trick of the Mind, Channel 4, Sunday 26 March 2006
Did we like it?
We're still big fans of The Master but there's only so much mileage in his showmanship and we feel he may be nearing the end of the road.

What was good about it?
• The flabbergasting of Matt Lucas with a card trick. "He's controlling my mind," Matt complained. "I'm having nothing more to do with him. He scares me."
• Derren dressed as a sad clown with a black balloon accosting members of the public and spooking them by his intimate knowledge of their lives. A woman was told about her interior decor; a man was reminded about how he nearly drowned as a boy. Scary.

What was bad about it?
• Fooling a camp American student into thinking the sun has disappeared from the Valley of Fire in Nevada didn't impress us much.
• The outcome of the global psychic trick was too predictable. When he got people in England, America and Spain to draw their hands and then gave them all a detailed assessment of their characters, we knew already that they'd all be receiving the same report.
Derren Brown: Messiah, Channel 4
What was it all about?
Derren poses as five different “messiahs” in order to convince various organisations and religions that he has phenomenal Christ-like powers.
What to say if you liked it
A profound exposé of the duplicity of organised religion and bodies who claim to be in possession of paranormal abilities.
What to say if you didn’t like it
The fraudulent fop stomps across the beliefs of others “exposing” their beliefs as “false” through one singular and highly nebulous experiment all of which served no other purpose than to polish his glowing ego.

What was good about it?
• Derren’s remarkable skill at using his non-magical powers of suggestion and illusion to dupe all of his targets into believing he was blessed with the insight of a messiah.
• Derren “converting” a room full of atheists into a belief in God through a simple touch, and also making them all fall over in unison.
• Derren conning a woman that through a pathetic little contraption that he claimed to her would trap her dreams.
What was bad about it?
• While it was billed as Derren dispelling the counterfeit cons on the other side of the Atlantic, it seemed almost as much as him trying to prove his own authenticity after doubts over his Russian Roulette trick. The huge emphasis on using people that would be hostile of his methods had they known his true identity and also the way he continued to emphasize he would admit his true intent had he been asked if it was a trick by any of his targets were prime examples of his insecurity. However, he needs prove nothing to us as we think he’s brilliant.
• Even though Derren admitted great discomfort, the scene where he claimed to be able to speak to the dead relatives of three women was quite disturbing, even though they all consented to the broadcast once they had been informed it was a trick.
• Because the whole show was angled subjectively from Derren’s perspective it was difficult to authenticate the veracity of any of his experiments, which was crucial as the whole exercise was essentially a hatchet job. As it was meant to illustrate how easily some people were swayed by dubious dogma, it would be foolish to unquestioningly sanction Derren’s conclusions as truth because they were emitted from a familiar source, as this is the same deception used by many of those whose principles he was debunking.

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