There were only two DVDs by Derren Brown that were appropriate to the Pulp Reference Library, Items 1175 and 1176, which can be found reviewed towards the bottom of the Twelfth Shelf.
These barely scratch the surface of the relevance of this man’s work in a broader RPG context, however, and so I determined to slot into my schedule a deeper examination of the subject, in the order that I first saw them (as best I can remember it).
Those memories are a little confused because I re-watch them anytime any of them are repeated, but I’ll do my best.
Nor can I treat the subject with the depth that it really deserves. Doing so would probably make for very boring reading, in addition to being unreasonable in length. This is very much going to be a tour of various high points, with lots of links to further information.
Before we get into that actual subject, though, a little background (both his and mine) and a couple of ongoing themes in many of his works need to be examined to provide context.
Who Is He?
Derren Brown is an Illusionist and Mentalist from England. He frequently insists that he has no special powers, and that his effects are all tricks, deductions, and psychological techniques that anyone can master with the right training and practice. Nevertheless, he is a master manipulator and psychologist, and an accomplished hypnotist.
He has presented a number of TV documentaries, hosted TV series, written books, and had a series of successful stage shows, some of which have also been broadcast (those I have seen are detailed below).
Derren Brown, Hypnotist
In fact, until you see him in action, you cannot comprehend how accomplished a hypnotist he is. No gimmicks like spinning rings or any of the other clichés that I’m sure most people are familiar with – with the right subjects, it’s as simple as putting a hand on the subject’s shoulder and telling them to “sleep”.
He makes it look so easy that you find yourself wondering if it’s ‘staged’ the first few times you see it.
Paulo Lumierre of the Adventurer’s Club
When I first joined the Adventurer’s Club, I was a player, not a co-GM, and my character was Paulo Lumierre, a master hypnotist based on some of the stunts and tricks that I had seen Brown perform in the shows described later in the article. To make the character seem credible,though, I actually had to downgrade his abilities from those displayed by Brown – I added a hand-gesture to attract the attention of the subject and a snap of the fingers to signal the actual act of hypnosis. Neither are necessary, but verisimilitude demanded some more overt display. I also downgraded what the character could do with a hypnotized subject for the same reasons.
Derren Brown, Illusionist/Mentalist
Throughout the 20th century, Illusionists and Magicians have been performing all sorts of tricks and stunts, many of which have become the stuff of legend and myth – which is to say that no-one ever actually did them. Every decade or so, some magician or another becomes popular on TV. A large number of them follow in Harry Houdini’s footsteps an Escape Artists, others have a broader repertoire. Chris Angel, Penn & Teller, Dynamo, and the ‘granddaddy’ of TV Magicians, David Copperfield, are all names that I recognize (and yet, for one reason or another, none of these really appealed to me, with the exception of Penn & Teller, and even they only had limited appeal).
That makes me really unqualified to judge, but here’s the difference between these professionals and Brown, as I see it: most of them give the impression of excessive flamboyance to the point of pretentiousness. It’s as though they have to work hard to achieve their illusions. Brown, on the other hand, gives the impression of being able to do what he does casually, at will. I have no doubt (because he’s shown us in several specials) that he works as hard, if not harder, than any of these others – but despite Brown regularly showing us how his grand illusions work, the apparently impossible seems easier for him.
Derren Brown, Skeptic
Brown has followed in Houdini’s footsteps in at least one respect: he debunks mystics and faith healers in a number of documentaries. He regularly insists that he has no special powers, unlike the majority of Illusionists who play up the mystique of what they appear to be doing. In the process, he actually makes his stunts and Illusions seem all the more miraculous and surprising.
Derren Brown, Socially Responsible
While Brown admits that his first priority is always to be entertaining, there is a strong undercurrent of social responsibility to a great many of his shows. This was a key aspect of the first show of his that I saw on TV, and was only reinforced by subsequent shows. “The Heist”, for example, has a subtheme of opposing ageism. He is frequently at pains to emphasize that any apparent danger is actually tightly controlled, and many of his shows are about people being taught how to have better and more responsible control over their lives. It could even be argued that his approach to subjects such as faith healing is an off-shoot of this social responsibility.
Derren Brown, Showman
First and foremost, Brown is a showman; his effects and stunts are designed to be entertaining. The broadcasts of his stage shows highlight this aspect of his craft, undiluted by bigger-picture concerns. While that sometimes makes them seem shallower than the documentary specials, they also place greater emphasis on the skill with which he performs. When he gets something wrong, he’s not afraid to admit it – it doesn’t happen that often.
Speaking Of Skeptics
Before I first saw anything by Brown, I had discovered a TV series shown late at night on Australian Television – I think it was sourced from Cable TV in the US. This was Penn & Teller’s Bullsh*t.
From Wikipedia’s article on the show: “In each episode, Penn and Teller debunk a chosen misconception such as cryptozoology, debate a controversial topic like gun control, or “expose the truths” of an organization like PETA. Sometimes their objective is not to completely dismiss the topic at hand but to decry certain aspects of the topic that they believe to be pernicious, misleading, unnecessary, or overemphasized.
“Proponents of the topic make their case in interviews; however, they often end up appearing fallacious or self-contradicting. For example, in “Safety Hysteria”, a manufacturer of “radiation guards” for mobile phones admits that there is no proven link between mobile phone radiation and brain cancer, but assures viewers that “you can’t be too safe” (mobile phones use conventional radio waves for communication, which are non-ionizing radiation). When he states his background is in advertising, not medical science, it is implied that he knows his product is useless but exploits people’s fears to turn a profit.
“Opponents are then interviewed and they offer rebuttals to the proponents’ arguments.
“Penn and Teller often conduct informal experiments. For example, in the episode “Bottled Water”, diners in an upscale restaurant are presented with a variety of apparently fancy bottled water brands. After the diners praise and pick a favorite, it is revealed that each bottle was filled by the same garden hose behind the restaurant.”
The above quotes are very selectively sourced. I enjoyed the first season so much that I ate breakfast cereal for a week in order to save enough money to buy a copy on DVD, and subsequently purchased seasons 2 through 4, often before they were broadcast here in Australia. I didn’t, and don’t, agree with everything the duo have to say, but many of the opinions expressed on various topics resonated strongly with me.
A consistent sub-theme of the series was the undercutting of pomposity, pretension, and grandiosity for its own sake. This series, and especially the first two seasons of it, primed me for Derren Brown, and provided the background context within which I watched the first of the shows listed below.
Derren Brown: Apocalypse
This is a two-part special in which they subject was tricked into believing that the Apocalypse had occurred while he was traveling on a bus. The setup was of a giant meteorite hitting the earth; Steven woke up two weeks after this disaster in an abandoned military hospital to find that he is one of a small group of survivors now living through a Zombie Apocalypse. Steven had, prior to these singular experiences, been described as suffering from a “lazy sense of entitlement”, and he admitted in one trailer for the show to being “lazy” and “Irresponsible”. The goal was to give Steven a second chance at life by leading him through a carefully-planned storyline designed to make him realize how important life really is.
Steven had submitted his name to the show, volunteering to be part of a Derren Brown special, because while this was the first one that I had seen, Brown was now an established performer in England. A great deal of the planning involved ensuring that Steven suffered no unwanted aftereffects and he was monitored throughout by a psychologist and medical team.
The first episode focuses on convincing Steven that the world is about to end, the second on the life lessons to emerge from his continuing efforts to survive. They were first aired on successive weeks in 2012.
The show was described as having taken months of planning including hacking Steven’s phone, controlling his news feeds and Twitter accounts, recording special versions of TV and radio shows, and using over 200 actors. Despite all the preparations, not everything went according to plan; and Steven was a free agent, able to make decisions for himself, throughout, with Brown and the team sometimes needing to scramble when those decisions were unexpected. Throughout, the viewer is placed in the position of privileged observers, shown the preparations and with a running commentary by Brown.
At the end, the deception is revealed to Steven, and interviews of his friends and family make it clear that he has been profoundly changed for the better by his experiences. (I wouldn’t normally reveal that sort of thing, but the special is not available on DVD. UK readers can stream it from Amazon UK as episodes 3 and 4 of “Derren Brown: The Specials” from this page – not to be confused with the US DVD of the same name, which collects four of the specials described individually below, and which we reviewed as part of the Essential Reference Library for Pulp!
Derren Brown: The Experiments
“The Experiments” is a quartet of related specials, three of them exploring darker sides of humanity and one rather lighter in tone. This was reviewed as item 1176 of the Essential Reference Library, so I won’t go into it again. These all date from 2011, but I first saw them aired some months after “The Apocalypse”, and confirmed me as a fan of Brown.
Derren Brown: The Great Art Robbery
This special centers on a bet between Brown and an art collector, Ivan Masslow, who is planning an exhibition for charity. Brown bets that he can steal one of the paintings from under the nose of the collector, even if he has told the collector exactly when it will happen, which painting they are going to steal, provided a photograph of the person who will commit the robbery, and given the collector a week to lay on as much additional security as he wants. Brown then recruits a team of senior citizens to carry out the robbery and trains them; his thesis for the episode is ageism and how people tend to ignore and undervalue the older people around them. He hopes to take advantage of this phenomenon to get away with his brazen daylight robbery. We follow the team as they are taught the skills they will need, as they rehearse the plan, and as they put it into action. What ensues is a triple twist (or maybe its a quadruple twist) that leaves the audience as blind-sided as the collector. The outcome? That would be telling! This special was nominated for an award by the British Academy Of Television for best Entertainment Programme of 2014.
I’ve actually found a link that permits you to download this special from YouTube – if it’s still available: http://igetlinkyoutube.com/watch?v=pCTiUFxFCl0 – but, if that link lets you down, there seem to be a great many other places from which to download or stream it, as this Google search reveals.
Derren Brown: The Events
…and “The Events” dates from 2009, two years earlier again. This is another quartet of specials; it’s possible that they were originally aired in Australia before “The Apocalypse” brought Brown to my attention, though the title of Episode 4 would probably have attracted me if I had noticed them, and I normally pay close attention to the TV guide, so I suspect not.
The four specials included are:
- “How To Win The Lottery”
- “How To Control The Nation”
- “How to Be a Psychic Spy”
- “How to Take Down a Casino”
These were filmed in front of a live studio audience and blended “interactions” with the audience and pre-recorded location segments, each building up to a major “effect stunt”.
“How to win the Lottery” showed Brown correctly predicting the winning national lottery numbers hours before the draw. This was demonstrated with a series of numbered balls being revealed one at a time next to a television displaying a live feed from the lottery draw; after the draw, the numbers predicted were correct. The next part of the special took place two days later which offered three techniques for appearing to win the lottery. The first, faking a winning ticket, was quickly tossed aside; the bulk of the episode deals with automatic writing and crowd psychology. Unusually, Brown does not reveal how he has done the stunt, and the explanation offered – despite the attempts to make it convincing – fails even a mild credibility check.
This was such a disappointing special that if it had been the first thing I saw by Brown, I might have skipped everything else described in this article. I mention the fact specifically for anyone who fell into that trap!
“How To Control The Nation” dealt with subliminal messages as a means of exerting control over people. About half the studio audience appeared to be affected by the short film brown had produced which was supposed to make people unable to get out of their seats using subliminal messages. Various in-studio stunts and prerecorded segments on the technique and its history make for interesting viewing. At the end of the show, Brown reveals that there were in fact no subliminal messages in the film and that the seemingly-effective technique was in fact a demonstration of the power of suggestion. The result is a comprehensive examination of the concept of subliminal messages and their limited effectiveness in real life – with sufficient preparations, they can influence, but anything more is nonsense. Along the way, however, the effectiveness of persuasion is also clearly demonstrated, with everything that is shown being designed to convince the studio audience that the “subliminal message” will be effective in having the effect he has told the audience to expect.
“How to Be a Psychic Spy” debunks remote viewing by making it appear possible, until Brown reveals how it was done. The implication is that this, and all other ‘psychic abilities’, are nonsense, which becomes a recurring theme within Brown’s mentalist performances thereafter. This, of course, has been a technique employed by Magicians to debunk spiritualists and psychics since the time of Houdini.
The curator of the Science Museum was asked to paint a simple picture on a canvas that was then covered over and placed on ‘display’ for a week with visitors given the chance to draw what they thought was on the canvas. On the night of the broadcast, the artist was taken to a secret location, and had no idea of that location. Viewers at home are as well as in the studio were invited to draw images of what was under the covers for themselves. The four main things that were drawn were trains, Stonehenge, horses, and concentric circles. Towards the end of the show, it was shown that 30-35% of people drew some form of concentric circles; the second most common image (10%) was of Stonehenge. The ‘secret location” was then revealed to be Stonehenge, which she admitted was the inspiration for her painting of concentric circles. Brown then revealed that the program had been recorded three weeks before broadcast, and that on the day of broadcast, he had arranged for adverts containing concentric circles to be placed in all the major newspapers, ‘priming’ the home audience to draw circles themselves. These were reinforced by content within the show aimed at suggesting the abstract notion of concentric circles. No explanation was given as to why many thought that the painting would be of horses or trains, but the answer to that question seemed obvious to me – steam trains (the most commonly-drawn variety) have prominently-revealed wheels, while horses go with carriages which also have concentric circles in the form of large wheels. The result was another demonstration of how a convincing demonstration of a fictitious phenomenon could be staged with appropriate preparation, building on the premise of the preceding special.
“How to Take Down a Casino” followed the same blending of live and pre-recorded segments and centered on Brown attempting to win £175,000 by gambling £5,000 taken from a member of the public on a roulette wheel in an undisclosed European location – with that person’s consent. Despite showing the training that Brown has put himself through in order to estimate where the ball will land on the roulette wheel, he makes a point of stating that while he has vastly improved his odds of success, there is still a 2-in-3 chance that it won’t work. In fact, he turns out to be one number off, losing the £5000 – though only being one number wrong was still mighty impressive! He then promises to repay the lost money, even though the ‘donor’ had been aware of the risks, and would have been permitted to keep the proceeds had Brown been successful. The unstated implication is clear, however – if Brown couldn’t succeed with his skills and specific training in the necessary skills to achieve superhuman levels of speed and accuracy, what chance does a lay person have? If gambling, you may as well throw your money away, most of the time. More to the point, only gamble with money that you can afford to lose, and don’t throw good money after bad.
Derren Brown: The Heist
Collected in the US as part of “Derren Brown: The Specials”, this originally aired in 2006 and was reviewed as item 1175 in the Essential Reference Library series. In that review, however, we incorrectly used the term “convinced” – in fact, we should have said “manipulated into spontaneously” committing the robbery. From an initial field of 13, four were primed to carry out the robbery in broad daylight – the van’s driver and guard were played by actors and the ‘criminals’ used a realistic-looking toy pistol. Three of the four went through with the robbery as a result of the conditioning that they had received from Brown, showing in the process how opportunity and mindset could combine to turn otherwise good people into criminals. Refer to the Essential Reference Library for purchase links.
Derren Brown: Miracles For Sale
This is a special about faith healing in which Brown turns a member of the British public into a convincing “Faith Healer” and wins endorsements from several of the leading “practitioners” in the US. Originally airing in 2011, this documentary exposes many of the techniques employed by confidence tricksters to prey upon the vulnerable. Although he does his best to maintain his composure, there are moments when Brown’s dislike of such practices is palpable.
At the same time, he is careful not to dispute anyone’s sincere religious beliefs or theology. If anything, by exposing those who perpetrate fraud in the guise of religion, he affirms and purifies those beliefs for those who hold them.
Derren Brown: Fear and Faith
This is the second two-part special which was produced in 2012. It focuses on the placebo effect.
In the first part, “Fear”, this takes the form of a fictitious drug developed by an equally fictitious pharmaceutical company for the inhibiting of fear. Most of the subjects of the fake clinical trial of the drug, who suffer from various forms of intense fear that have been ruining their lives, succeed in overcoming their fears through belief in the placebo, vastly improving their lives. These improvements persist even once the truth is revealed. By the end of the programme, it is also revealed that the same experiment had been conducted with two other groups promised, respectively, smoking cessation and allergy relief, again with positive outcomes for a number of the participants.
If the first part was fascinating, the second – “Faith” – in which Brown examines the psychology of religious beliefs, conversions, and ecstasies was compelling. Using a number of established psychological experiments and techniques, Brown tests a group of subjects, eventually choosing one named Natalie, in whom he is able to induce a ‘conversion experience’ despite her being a self-identified atheist, i.e. an experience which convinces her that the religion is genuine, persuading her to convert. Once again Brown skirts the dangerous terrain of these demonstrations without offending anyone’s religious beliefs, targeting cults and related groups/individuals like Jimmy Swaggart who give religion a bad name (some would argue that they don’t need any help, being quite capable of moral failures on their own). In fact, the program shows that a pseudo-religious experience can take place with absolutely no involvement on the part of the congregational leader simply because the subject is in a receptive state; the environment and context then prompts an ‘appropriate’ interpretation of the experience.
Derren Brown: The System
This special is included in the box set that we have recommended as a source of item 1175, The Heist, in the Essential Reference Library. It centers around pyramid schemes, confirmation bias, and convincing one participant that Derren has developed a “100 percent guaranteed” system for winning on horse racing. The principle subject, Khadisha, so comes to believe in the system after Brown correctly provides her with the names of five winning horses in a row that she invests every cent she has and borrows more to raise a £4000 wager. To demonstrate the system’s validity, which rests on the fact that such correct predictions are not impossible, just very unlikely, Brown had previously shown a sequence of tossing a coin and getting heads ten times in a row. After the bet is placed, Brown reveals that the system makes no predictions whatsoever; he had simply tossed a coin repeatedly until ten heads came up in a row, then discarded the footage that didn’t show what he wanted it to show – it took him over 9 hours. In a similar fashion, he had started with 7,776 participants, discarding those who lost along the way (and refunding their wagers), until he was left with only the one who had been successful five times in a row. When the predicted horse fails to win, and Khadisha is convinced that she has lost everything, Brown tells her to take another look at the betting slip he gave her; she discovers that it bears the name of the winning horse, meaning that she not only keeps her stake but also receives winnings of £13,000.
Derren Brown: Séance
Parts of this special were excellent, parts were less thrilling to watch. Students from Roehampton University are brought together for a live séance in Eton Hall, a location chosen because of a (fictitious) history of paranormal activity after an (equally fictitious) suicide pact led 12 people to kill themselves in 1974. Having set the stage, Brown then proceeds to demonstrate the methods used by spiritualists to convince their victims that they are genuinely able to contact the dead. Using pictures of the twelve “dead”, Brown employs a sophisticated Magicians Force to lead the students (and the home audience) to select the photograph of “Jane”. During the subsequent Ouija Board sequence, the ideomotor effect was employed to cause the board to spell out “Jane”. The “Séance” then followed, with more demonstrations of ‘contact’ with ‘Jane’s Spirit’. Brown then revealed some of the manipulations that he had used to produce such a convincing demonstration, ending by introducing the alive-and-well “Jane” to the participants. There were about 700 complaints about the show before it aired, many by organized religious groups, not realizing that the intent was to debunk the practices. The Séance is another of the specials that accompanies The Heist in entry 1175 of the Essential Reference Library.
Derren Brown Plays Russian Roulette Live
Although the game of Russian Roulette forms the climax of the show, this is actually all about the selection of the assistant to load the gun into numbered chambers within the revolver; Brown’s goal was to select someone whose choice of number he could predict, based on the testing that the prospective assistant underwent. If this episode were viewed live, as originally broadcast, it would have far greater impact; we clearly know that Brown survived, so the show is a little anticlimactic when viewed on DVD or non-live TV. This is the fourth special included in the collection that includes “The Heist” (Entry 1175 of the Essential Reference Library).
Derren Brown: Hero at 30,000 Feet
The Subject in this special was an ordinary man named Matt Galley, one of a number of people who had applied to take part, who felt his life was stuck in a rut and wanted Brown to coach him in how to take control of his life and achieve his aspirations. The special was divided into chapters, each with a defined transformational objective; in the early ones, Gallow didn’t even know of Brown’s involvement, thanks to the assistance of Gallow’s parents and girlfriend. At one stage, Brown visited him in the middle of the night but left Gallow believing that the experience was just a dream, thanks to hypnosis. During the show, Gallow was presented with a number of challenging experiences – being the victim of an armed robbery, touching a live crocodile, illicitly entering a policeman’s home, and even being strapped to a railroad track in a straitjacket while a train approached – which was the first one in which he knew that Brown was involved and that he was awake. The climax involved Gallow taking spontaneous control of an aircraft whose pilot had been ‘incapacitated’ despite his fear of flying. En route to the cockpit, Brown placed him in a hypnotic trance and, after the real aircraft had been safely landed, escorted Gallow to a flight simulator where he awakened, believing this to be the real aircraft. Using directions from “Air Traffic Control”, Gallow successfully guided the “aircraft” to a safe landing without realizing that the incident had been staged. Gallow then exited the simulator, discovering the deception, and being greeted by Brown, the actors involved (many of whom had played the role of passengers on the ‘distressed’ aircraft) and his family and friends.
This special can be streamed from Amazon UK at this link: http://amzn.to/2nqLHV8
Derren Brown: Something Wicked This Way Comes
The first of two televised live stage performances by Brown that I have seen, this one is themed on the vaudevillian mentalist of the Victorian era. If you think stage hypnotism is all about getting people to bark like dogs, watch this show to see what a real hypnotist can do. There’s so much going on in this show that it’s hard to distill down into anything meaningful. The show starts with Brown asking the audience to think of an animal. Audience participant selection follows: throw a stuffed monkey into the crowd, get whoever catches it to toss it again, repeat a second and third time, then call whoever now holds the toy up onto stage. The first audience member so selected is asked to turn a large card with a question mark around to see a prepared picture of the animal she was thinking of. The result is a stick figure that could be almost anything, and the disappointment in the stunt is palpable. He then tells her to open the envelope next to the picture and read it, then turn it over and show the audience. It bears the printed word, Horse. And so begins a roller-coaster ride through the great vaudeville stunts and a few of Brown’s own devising, all delivered with warm and friendly patter, climaxed with a truly amazing mentalist stunt – and then explanations of exactly how it was all done.
Amazon US has a limited number of UK imports of the DVD (won’t play on most US equipment) http://amzn.to/2nquKu2 and an even smaller number of boxed sets that include this special, the one below, and one more that I haven’t seen yet: http://amzn.to/2mN5JMA.
Oh, and one insight: the “Great Prestoni” (name-checked during the patter) only exists in an episode of the Dick Van Dyke show.
Derren Brown: Mind Reader – An Evening Of Wonders
I’ve saved the best till last! This show starts with a locked box suspended from the ceiling in full view of the entire audience, follows with gorillas playing table tennis and the warning that at some point in the show someone in a Gorilla Suit will steal a banana from a bowl without the audience even noticing him. Audience selection this time is with Frisbees that, with a good throw, can even reach the back rows of the balconies. A series of mentalist tricks then follow, with a few bits of hypnosis thrown in. The most impressive trick (aside from the finale) is getting an audience member to phone his father (who is at home) to ask various questions with the hope that the home participant would say numbers which Brown had already written on a whiteboard. After several failed attempts, Brown awarded the man a ten-pound note to compensate him for the failures. Brown seemed about to move on with the rest of the show when he paused and had the man check the ten-pound note – to find that the numbers chosen by his father over the phone were the serial number of the ten-pound note!
Some of those DVDs are also available as imports to the US (but won’t play on most US equipment) http://amzn.to/2mU1G1A.
The Unseen Shows
There are other Derren Brown shows that I haven’t seen yet, some of them available on DVD. I am happy to commend these to your attention, sight unseen.
And for my American readers, who will have trouble accessing many of the shows listed above, permit me to point you to Brown’s official YouTube channel where you can find excerpts from many of them. Several places around the world also stream specific shows – you may have to hunt a bit through Google Search results, but it’s worth doing.
I’ve found connections in these shows to everything from confidence schemes to Nazi fanaticism, from Cults to Clerical Magic. I defy any GM to watch them all and not be inspired.