Showing posts with label Derren Brown. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Derren Brown. Show all posts

Saturday, 3 November 2012


The conclusion of Derren Brown's zombie apocalypse prank was everything it needed to be, although more issues with the concept bubbled up in my mind. The biggest being how the psychological changes to Steven didn't require such an elaborate fraud, and there were times when the narrative worked overtime to make you believe Steve was undergoing a huge transformation of personality... when he was only behaving like any sane person would in this situation (surely), prodded along by actors with earpieces. For instance, when the show cut to behind-the-scenes—with Derren watching everything on a bank of monitors, and grinning when Steven decided to persuade brash Ian to trust a timid survivor called Danny—it made me question the assumption Steven wouldn't take pity on a nervous man before the show and argue the case.

Saturday, 27 October 2012


I've been a huge fan of Derren Brown's work since he exploded onto Channel 4 about 10 years ago, bringing his psychological illusions and mind trickery to the Great British Public. His impact on magic can't be underestimated and, for my money, eclipses what David Blaine did for street magic in the late-'90s. The only problem Derren faces is the growing feeling that every TV series/special he comes up with is just a twist on something he did years before, or at the very least an embellishment of an old trick. I guess there are only so many ways of hoodwinking people, or using hypnotism/suggestion to manipulate people into doing extraordinary things. It hasn't been a huge problem yet, mainly because the new wrinkles Derren's creative team dream up are always entertaining—even if the underlying principles and mechanics feel recycled.

Sunday, 13 November 2011


The last of Derren Brown's experiments was rather sedate and probably the least impressive of them all, but it was still good fun and had its heart in the right place. In "The Secret Of Luck", Derren sent TV's Dawn Porter on a mission to plant a lie in the Yorkshire village of Todmorden, by pretending to be filming a documentary about luck and wanting to hear from residents about an untrue myth that a local statue of a dog brings good luck to those who rub it.

Over three months, Dawn's barefaced lie started to catch on thanks to gossiping locals and an article in the local newspaper, leading to hidden cameras catching people visiting said dog statue and giving it a pat for themselves. But more interesting than seeing if a lie could spread in a small community well-known for a history of weirdness and superstition, was the explanation for luck itself. What makes lucky people lucky? Is there anything magical happening, or is it all a state of mind?

One downside of this episode was how the answer was blatantly obvious to any rational viewer. People make their own luck, usually because they're a personality type that takes more chances and grabs every opportunities. To illustrate this in an amusing way, Derren set about presenting dour butcher Wayne with various chances to be "lucky" (posting a winning scratchcard through his letterbox, giving him the chance to earn £20 for participating in market research on the street, laying a £50 note on the ground for him to find and pick up, and finally by driving past him with a billboard asking him to call a number to claim a prize). Hilariously, only the billboard managed to grab the blinkered Wayne's attention... eventually!

Contrastingly, the owner of a local pub leaped at the chance to help a man with a flat tyre, who turned out to be comedian Jason Manford. She was repaid by a money-spinning free gig from Jason at her pub, which became national news (in fact, I remember reading about this, so it was funny to see it explained as part of a Derren Brown stunt).

"The Secret Of Luck" was definitely a pleasant way to spend an hour, but it lacked a certain bite because it wasn't tackling anything all that mysterious to me. Despite that issue, the conclusion at the Todmorden village hall was wonderfully effective—with Derren offering a villager the chance to win five times their stake in a game of luck with the roll of a die. The fact Wayne the "unlucky" butcher was chosen and staked £1,000 (his life's savings) gave the event a really tense, dramatic edge. Watching Wayne roll for a four on the third roll of a die was far more compelling than ITV's Red Or Black gameshow, which gave away £1 million on a 50/50 chance. That just goes to show how smaller stakes can lead to bigger drama if the story and people are more emotionally engaging. I won't spoil if Wayne managed to change his luck, you'll have to watch the episode for yourself.

The Experiments has been a good four-part series, which was certainly more successful than The Events awhile back. Only "The Assassin" and "The Guilt Trip" really worked for me, but "The Gameshow" and "The Secret Of Luck" both had their moments. It was certainly worthy of your time every Friday. And while Derren Brown is unlikely to ever recapture his early glories (his brilliant Trick Of The Mind series, the "Russian Roulette" live stunt), his move into a kind of quasi-documentary territory where he tackles various little projects can still entertain, fascinate, inform and delight.

Saturday, 5 November 2011


After a few weeks of entertaining "experiments" that felt flawed or underfed in some ways, "The Guilt Trip" was a brilliant return to form for Derren Brown and a highly entertaining way to answer a simple question: can an innocent person be persuaded to confess to a murder they didn't commit?

Enter likeable everyman Jody; another of those people who volunteer to participate in a Derren Brown show months before their life starts to take a crazy direction. Don't they ever stop to consider this may all be part of a dastardly plan? Oh well. Jody soon found himself staying for a weekend at a country mansion, unaware he's entered a version of the board game Cluedo. A game where everyone's an actor and the house is full of cameras to watch his every move, with Derren and a production team lurking in a van full of monitors just outside. Their plan: to manipulate Jody's weekend stay, so he begins to doubt his own memory and associate certain things with a feeling of extreme guilt.

This was all very interesting, as Jody met his comedy hero Tim Minchin and was gutted to discover he may have offended him during a chat (according to his lying new "friends"), just as Derren rang a house-wide chime to make Jody subconsciously link the sound to the emotion. A chime that would be reused numerous times to nudge Jody into a culpable state of mind. There were also what could charitably be described as "practical jokes" to make Jody begin to doubt his own memory/sanity, as an expensive pearl necklace went missing and appeared in his room (did he steal it without even realizing?), people changed their clothes when they just out of Jody's sight, furniture in rooms was moved around, and people swapped dishes of food around at a dinner table. It was all very amusing, really, as poor Jody was left to look quizzical about these odd changes.

Then things were ratcheted up a level, by giving Jody a loose motive for murdering Dr Patrick Black, a man who beat Jody at a game of croquet before someone revealed to Jody that his opponent had been cheating. More importantly, Jody was put into a "hypnopompic state" while he slept, thanks to a microphone in his bedroom that Derren could communicate through, leading to the house guests lifting Jody up out of bed and carrying him outside to wake up on the lawn. The next day, with the arrival of police detectives investigating the murder of Dr Black, Jody's recent doubts about his memory, his feeling of enmity towards the cheating doctor, and the knowledge he woke up having "sleepwalked", all led to him suspect he may have done the need and simply forgotten about it. In fact, it worked so well that after Jody's awkward police interview, he promptly left the mansion and travelled to the village police station to hand himself in. A sequence that was presented as an instance of Derren's plan going awry, but it turned out Jody was playing into his hands, as Derren stepped into the police interview room to break the news that everything had been staged, before revealing the interview room itself had paper walls—beyond which stood all of the mansion's actors and a very much alive Dr Black.

A simple idea, but aren't those always the best? Like much of Derren's recent output, there wasn't anything here that hasn't been done before in different ways, but the situations were very enjoyable to watch unfold and Jody was very engaging. It also didn't feel so crazy that you had a tough time believing in what was happening. A few times, it even made me wonder if I'd be convinced I'd killed someone in similar circumstances. I'm sure Jody was selected because he was a particularly "weak minded" soul (I mean that in a nice way), but the seed of doubt would perhaps still be there for everyone if they had a similar experience. Or so it felt. Maybe most people wouldn't even pick up on half the things that was happening around them, but Jody was a particularly attentive, observant and malleable character?

It's the final experiment next week. I hope it's up to this standard.

4 November 2011 / Channel 4

Saturday, 29 October 2011


The second of Derren Brown's "Experiments" was a curious hour of television; an enjoyable disappointment with a decent ending, but nevertheless fairly hollow and conceptually flawed. "The Gameshow" concerned the social psychological concept of deinviduation (the idea that normal people can make monstrous decisions while anonymous in a large group). It's the kind of thing that leads to so-called "mob mentality", which is rather prescient after a summer of rioting across Britain, where deinviduation played a part in proceedings. Its effects can also be seen with the Ku Klux Klan, Nazism, and the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

"The Gameshow" took a different approach to Derren's usual style of shows. This was effectively the pilot of a realistic gameshow called "Remote Control", where the life of one man (unaware he's surrounded by cameras and actors) was momentarily controlled by the vote of a large studio audience. The audience could collectively give the man positive or negative experiences; ranging from being accused of sexual harassment, to being arrested for shoplifting. Unsurprisingly, all the positive experiences, like being awarded money, never won a studio vote, so the poor guy had a memorably eventful and dispiriting night out.

But was this 70-minute special really showing us that groups of people, anonymous behind white masks (more for effect than practicality), turned into a nasty mob when their individualism was removed? I'm not entirely convinced. Everyone voting was doing so in the context of being part of a television show (anonymous or not), and that backdrop comes with certain expectations that everything's been approved, tested, and is all good fun. Despite being made aware the "victim" believes whatever happens is genuine, the audience know actors are involved every step of the way. Take any member of that group and have them make a decision as an individual, and I'm sure most would still choose the "negative" experiences... because those were also the most entertaining experiences. You probably wouldn't want to choose the least entertaining "good" option, for fear of upsetting the majority of people watching you. And that's peer pressure, something entirely different.

So I think this special was conceptually flawed from the start. The TV gameshow format comes with cultural baggage that the experiment didn't take into account, in my opinion. However, the ending of "The Gameshow" offered a very enjoyable twist, as the studio audience opted to have the man kidnapped by a gang of thugs, before witnessing him unexpectedly escape from his attackers and get hit by a car while running away. Suddenly it dawned on everyone in the audience that their decision had led to someone possibly dying on television. Of course, the footage was actually pre-recorded with a stuntman, and no harm had come to the gameshow's unwitting star. But again, were the group culpable here? Weren't they all just shocked because the car accident proved the TV production team's negligence? Or does my thinking prove I'm perhaps more willing to offload responsibility onto other people, if I was ever in this situation myself?

Whatever you think, "The Gameshow" should be congratulated because it did make you think. It's just a shame it took so long to make a fairly simple point, although the actual gameshow was surprisingly good fun (Derren's a great host, the fake show's actors improvised brilliantly), and the finale just about rescued it from being a flop. But the more I think about it, the more I'm unconvinced the idea was a watertight way of testing deinviduation.

28 October 2011 / Channel 4

Saturday, 22 October 2011


Master illusionist and psychological trickster Derren Brown returned for the first of four specials last night, collectively known as The Experiments. The first owed a debt to one of his most popular specials from 2006, The Heist, where a group of people were brainwashed into stealing money from a security guard on an empty London street. The Assassin was a personalized version of the same basic principle, as Derren selected a highly-suggestible young man called Chris to shoot a celebrity dead—inspired by the conspiracy theory surrounding the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in 1968, as gunman Sirhan Sirhan claims he was "programmed" by the CIA to carry out the deed.

The Assassin followed what's become a successful basic template for most of Derren Brown's Channel 4 specials: starting with fun ways used to select the best candidate for a mission they're never fully briefed about (can you hypnotize people to throw beakers of acid in people's faces, or have them sit in freezing water as if it was room temperature?), and once Chris had been chosen most of the hour focused on his "training" (where polka dots and a specific ringtone became "triggers" for a trance-like state, during which time his accuracy was significantly increased when shooting firearms), before Chris was unwittingly sent to "assassinate" Stephen Fry during a lecture—as Derren's version of The Manchurian Candidate in a similar setting to that of Abraham Lincoln's murder.

While it's true most of the underlying principles and methods of Derren's work aren't totally fresh these days, they remain brilliant pieces of television. Coming off the back of some comparative flops (How To Take Down A CasinoHero At 30,000 Feet), this latest special felt like a return to form. It helped that there was no live element (which can be fun in the right context, but isn't always necessary), and the idea fitted the hour-long timeslot without overstaying its welcome. As I mentioned, this was largely just a twist on The Heist idea, but I didn't mind too much. By focusing on just one person it added personality, and some of the diversions were very amusing—such as the moments of "magic" when Derren removed Chris's shoe (seemingly in the blink of an eye) by simply putting him into a trance and having Chris take off his own shoe, before forgetting his actions.

The special demonstrated the amazing power of hypnosis in  amazing and frightening ways—perhaps lending some credence to the theory that Sirhan Sirhan may have been subjected to a similar ordeal by the US government. Or maybe that's just what Derren Brown wants us believe, as the show is notorious for entangling truth and fiction in a way that makes engrossing television. And that's what people love about Derren's shows. He offers viewers the rare opportunity to be put under a spell for an hour; a time where the impossible becomes possible, and the world feels just a little bit more uncertain and magical than it did before. Maybe there's trickery in what happened with Chris, and you could never really "program" someone to become a crackshot assassin in a matter of weeks, because it would break their moral code, but... maybe you can?

21 October 2011 / Channel 4

Thursday, 9 September 2010


Psychological illusionist Derren Brown returned for another special on Channel 4 last night, this time trying to secretly "program" an unremarkable creature-of-habit into seizing his life more proactively, before giving him the chance to become a hero and land a stricken passenger jet at 30,000 feet...

It was a peculiar 75-minute special with silliness padding out the titular stunt, gradually revealing itself to be far less crazy than it first appeared. The subject/guinea pig was Matt, a young man stuck in a rut -- unremarkable dead-end admin job, a steady girlfriend, aspirations to be a policeman he's never acted on, still living at home with his mum and her boyfriend, with an easily suggestible personality. The perfect ball of clay for Derren Brown to mould into a hero over 30 days; presenting Matt with carefully-constructed challenges and events designed to boost his self-confidence, make him re-examine his daily routines, and develop his bravery...

Matt became the bystander in an armed raid at a petrol station, found himself locked inside a police superintendant's plush home after trying to return a missing wallet, stroking a crocodile in a rainsoaked corn field (don't ask), and even tied to a railway track in a straight-jacket as a train slowly approached. All before travelling to Jersey, under the pretense of appearing on a Derren Brown gameshow, only to find the pilot taken ill and the flight attendants asking for a volunteer to land the plane. Would Matt put his debilitating fear of flying to one side, in order to save the day?

As always with these Derren Brown specials, it feels like you're not quite seeing the full picture. I'm sure there are many levels beneath the surface of what we see, which means there are times when the "story" being told encourages incredulity. Matt was regularly awoken in the middle of the night by Derren (talking to him via a speaker hidden in his bedroom), and told to meet him outside in the garden. We're led to believe Matt's just in a suggestible, half-dreaming state of mind, but wouldn't any normal person just sit up in bed and wonder where the creepy voice is coming from? It often feels like there's more hypnotism going on in these specials than we're led to believe -- certainly, it's a definite component of the trick, as Matt was clearly put into a trance seconds before he was about to step into the cockpit and insted transferred to a flight simulator.

Does nitpicking spoil the fun, or is that part of the conversation you're expected to have afterwards? I think it's a bit of both. I'll always wonder why Matt (who had volunteered to be on a Derren Brown gameshow) didn't wonder why his audition was followed be a month of bizarre events happening to him. Surely any rational man would suspect they're the ongoing victim of a Derren Brown stunt? This isn't the first show Derren's done when people recruited for a fake show become the unwitting stars of the real one, so wouldn't Matt realize this? It's likely his misgivings were edited out of the show, of course, because a lot of the joy is in believing Derren has this peculiar power over people and can bend their reactions to his will.

Overall, Hero At 30,000 Feet wasn't the most remarkable special Derren Brown's done, because they tend to use the same basic principles in different ways, or for a different outcome. In that respect, it's more evidence that Derren's genre of magic is beginning to flag, but it's still great fun watching credulous people have their lives manipulated in such an amusing and life-affirming way. There was a positive streak behind this special that worked very nicely, and perhaps inspired a few viewers to likewise break out of their routines and, well, host a street party for a neighbourhood they barely interact with.

Plus it was fun to spot the nods to Donnie Darko (the sleepwalking, the month countdown, Derren Brown as a Frank the Rabbit figure in the garden, the golf course). The homages would have been complete had Matt's plane lost an engine and fallen through a cloudy time portal, but I guess that's beyond Derren's abilities.


Sunday, 13 September 2009

Derren Brown: How He REALLY "Predicted" The Lottery

James Poel has a very convincing webpage that appears to have explained how Derren Brown really "predicted" the Lottery, with Flash and YouTube clips to illustrate his point. Take a look! Is this the final word on the matter? I think so. I particularly like James' spot that continuity of Derren's arm placement when he waved to the rear-studio camera was wrong when we cut back to the handheld camera. Or, even better, the answer to the snowflake clue: Derren was subtly alluding to the fact that side of the screen was "frozen". Clever, huh?

Box-Eyed: Lost Land Of The Volcano, Harper's Island & Derren Brown's The Events

This week's Box-Eyed column features capsule reviews for Lost Land Of The Volcano, Harper's Island and Derren Brown's The Events. Head over to now for a look-see!

"The joy of LOST LAND OF THE VOLCANO is how it cultivates a pioneering sense of discovery and adventure. You half expect the team to stumble upon a tribe sacrificing a blonde showgirl to a giant gorilla, or for a T-Rex to explode out of the foliage and chomp the head off one of the bearded eggheads." Continue reading...

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Derren Brown: How To Win The Lottery (The Events)

Here's a prediction: at least half the audience who watched Derren Brown on Friday night, to learn how he predicted the mid-week National Lottery, will be very frustrated right now. Why? Well, because the illusionist didn't really reveal anything –- he just gave us 60 minutes of a persuasive mathematical argument (that lost credibility when it strayed into that automatic writing nonsense), before giving us a tongue-in-cheek account of how to fix the Lotto machine itself.

Ultimately, it was left up to individuals to decide which "explanation" for his Lotto feat was more likely: a mathematical system based on the "wisdom of crowds", or a covert operation to manipulate the National Lottery from the inside? Of course, both theories distracted us from the altogether more plausible third option: that it was, indeed, a simple trick that the nation had probably worked out for themselves. Ater all, I'm now doubly suspicious that Derren Brown didn't even show his 24 "oracles" their own group prediction before the draw was made. Seriously, what did he have to hide? Five blank balls would be my guess.

But while the destination reached may have created animosity in those expecting a black-and-white answer, I think the journey was worth it. To illustrate his psychological ideas, theories and principles, Derren employed enjoyable set-pieces –- from a man being asked to crush dozens of plastic cups underfoot (one of which contained a knife, ready to stab his flesh), to a fun piece of "deep maths" that explained how seemingly unpredictable coin tosses can be influenced.

Ultimately, How To Win The Lottery was an entertaining and enlightening hour that sidestepped the audience, making it easy to forgive the lack of a definitive answer to the titular trick. After all, Derren Brown created a national talking point for a few days, drew more ratings for his Wednesday night prediction than the lottery draw itself, and I dare say has boosted lottery ticket sales in the process. In this day and age, where television is fragmented and moments of collective wonder are in short supply, I continue to admire Derren's showmanship and his ability to get audiences thinking, so I find myself commending the fact he didn't break the Magician's Code by just spilling the beans.

I'm happy to be left with a head full of theories... but I still say he used a split-screen...

11 September 2009
Channel 4, 9pm

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Derren Brown: The Events (Lottery)

What have Doctor Who, Simon Cowell and Derren Brown all got in common? That's right, they can all cause the nation to stop and collectively watch TV, even in this digital multi-channel age. Illusionist Derren's latest stunt was even broadcast across every Channel Four-affiliated station for 10 minutes last night, as he kicked off his "Events" series by predicting the result of the National Lottery, live...

Standing in an empty warehouse with two cameramen and a plasma screen, Derren had already predicted 5 of the 6 numbers on ping-pong balls aligned across a podium. The BBC broadcast was shown live on his TV (prompting most people to channel-hop just to make sure the delay wasn't big enough to be abused), and the numbers 2 11 23 28 35 39 were drawn by Camelot. With the draw over, Derren wrote those numbers (ignoring the bonus ball) onto a card and revealed that his own balls (which had been in full view to us, albeit from behind, the whole time) were indeed marked with the same numbers. He'd done it!

But how? There are a few common theories doing the rounds:

Clearly, Derren didn't predict the numbers in any psychic way, unless he's a supernatural being (a possibility) or, literally, the luckiest man alive. Otherwise he'd be a millionaire by now, let's face it. My own initial thought was that the camera was locked-off once Derren was standing next to the plasma watching the result (notice how he adopted a clenched, unmoving posture), the screen was cleverly split-screened and his podium of balls replaced by aides for balls with the correct numbers. However, others have reviewed the footage and say any screen-stitching is impossible to detect, which seems to rule that out.

Maybe there was some high-tech laser etching technology that can mark the balls with numbers seconds before Derren revealed them? I also heard a theory that the balls never had anything written on them, but technology exists to simply transpose a set of numbers onto some empty white balls (which were effectively tiny greenscreens). Hence why there was no live audience, as they'd have seen the blank balls he was holding?

I think the key thing to remember is that Derren didn't show us his prediction before the lottery draw, for suspiciously vague reasons of legality. But that makes no sense, because they're just numbers at the end of the day, and nobody could have quickly bought a ticket using his prediction anyway. So why all the secrecy? Hmm. It suggests his balls were unmarked beforehand, but somehow replaced or written on in the seconds after the draw had taken place...

Anyway, it was a fun TV moment (however it was achieved), and Derren will be back on Friday to actually explain how he did it. A part of me hopes the solution isn't as dryly technological as most people's theories are, but I'm at a loss to explain a more down-to-earth reason. Any imaginative ideas?

9 September 2009
Channel 4/More4/E4/FilmFour, 10.35pm

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Derren Brown: An Evening Of Wonders

This man is unfathomable, and easily the most entertaining performer on television today. "An Evening Of Wonders" was a recording of a recent live stage-show, with psychological illusionist Derren Brown once again bewitching an audience with his brand of magic and "psychic" ability. The wonderful thing about Derren is how he goes to great lengths to talk-down his "powers" (making it crystal clear he's not clairvoyant), before doing seemingly impossible things that has your mind tied into knots.

After so many years spent watching his material, you find yourself critiquing ever utterance and twitch Derren makes, convinced he's somehow influencing your decision-making or brainwashing you with his body-language. This time, I noticed his peculiar tendency to jut his chin out as punctuation to his sentences. Has he always done that? Or was that part of the mind-trick? See how paranoid he makes you?! As usual, a pre-show credit makes it clear there are no stooges or backstage crew feeding Derren answers with hidden mic's, which makes the show's content all the more astonishing. Like all great magic, the joy comes from seeing the impossible become possible -- with Derren's twist being that he tells us it's genuinely not what it seems.

A random audience member's father guessed the serial-number of a bank-note over the phone! Incredible. Derren guessed objects people are thinking of! Amazing. He answered questions hidden inside envelopes that the audience wrote during the interval! Remarkable. There was also examples of tricks used in spiritualism ("table-tipping", levitating), a few magic tricks to make us giggle (a well-timed "teleportation" from behind a board into a gorilla costume off-stage), amusing playfulness (are you playing his childish "hole taunting" game yet?), a quick-fire round of "20 Questions" where he never needed to ask more than four, and many more.

I'm sure the show lost some of its edge and atmosphere on television (and nothing could beat first-hand experience of being a "target" of Derren's), but this was still a superb show that amazed, delighted, confused and amused me in equal measure. Infuriating, in the best possible way.

13 January 2009
Channel 4, 10pm

Saturday, 3 May 2008


Is there anything left for devil-faced mental illusionist Derren Brown to do? Since he exploded onto our screens back in 2000, we've had three TV series (Mind Control/Trick Of The Mind/Trick Or Treat), one-off specials (Russian Roulette, Séance, The Gathering, Heist, Messiah, The System) and his stage shows (Something Wicked This Way Comes/Mind Reader), plus some books.

He's surely done everything he can possibly do! But no, while it's true that many of his tricks work on principles he's already established and shown (lessening their impact), there's still an abundance of clever ways for him to amuse, astound and sometimes anger...

Trick Or Treat returned last night for a second series. As you probably know, in this series Derren gives members of the public (ordinarily fans) the chance to have a "trick" or a "treat" played on them. The tricks are usually the most interesting and entertaining (for viewers, if not the "victim"), but this first episode concerned a treat. Glen was the subject, and he was given just 7 days to "speed learn" in preparation for a champion of champions Pub Quiz. Using a special technique Derren taught him (to scan-read thousands of books and rely on his subconscious taking all the information in), Glen set about pouring through an entire library of tomes.

It worked. At the competition, Glen sat alone (well, with his wife for moral support), and came joint-first! An amazing accomplishment for someone who ordinarily wouldn't know the answers (they seemed to bubble up in his mind, sometimes as visual clues), and astonishing considering all the other participants were in teams of 5 or more. Apparently, the technique only lasts for a short amount of time, before the mind actively forgets what has sunk into the subconscious.

Of course, you always have to look at Derren's work with a critical eye. Did this technique really work? I do find it difficult to believe the mind can digest that much information just by scan-reading books. A few things might sink in (visual drawings, mainly) but you're not properly reading and understanding the words, are you. Did Derren perhaps know what the quiz questions would be, and drop the answers into Glen's mind in other ways? Were most of the books rigged to have the quiz answers written into them? Who knows. Maybe the mind really is that clever. Students; take note next time you're trying to cram for an exam -- just drift your finger through your text books without trying to remember anything!

A very entertaining episode, as you expect and usually get with Derren Brown. His TV shows aren't as jam-packed with tricks as they used to be, but he always has interesting twists on old themes and ideas. And I chuckled at his sly allusion to the fact he's gay, when stating he's not used to "flicking the bean". Next week seems to be a trick-based episode about the power of negative suggestion, and already sounds twice as interesting. It's always more fun when Derren's "powers" are used in creepy, insidious ways...

2 May 2008
Channel 4, 10.00 pm

Saturday, 2 February 2008


Warning: spoilers! Only read if you have watched this episode!

Is there a perfect "system" for predicting the winners of horse races, time after time? Derren Brown says there is. He's apparently worked out a full-proof method of prediction, and secretly shares his knowledge with a young Londoner called Khadisha, via anonymous racing tips…

Initially intrigued, she sees that the first predicted winner romps home. Khadishais told to put actual money on the second horse, and it wins. The ordinarily cash-strapped Khadisha now has a decent wad of cash (£975), and growing belief that her mysterious tipster may be onto something.

Can you really can predict the outcome of horse races… despite odds of 1.48 billion to one against discovering a system?

Then Derren makes his presence known to her at a race-track. Uh-oh. It must be a trick, right? Well, yes -- but of the mathematical kind. Derren wants Khadisha to place another bet: the sixth and final one. His system hasn't failed her yet, so she's keen to cash-in – sweet-talking £1000 from her father and £4000 from a loan company.

It's £5000 to win on Moon Over Miami at Sandown racecourse…

To try and persuade us discovering "a system" could be possible, there was an intriguing side-game he played with four racing experts. Each were told to choose a photo of a random person, from a choice of 500 suspended from strings in a warehouse. They did so, returning to stand on circles drawn on the floor.

Derren had predicted the order they would stand in, the photo they would choose (each person in the photo had the same initials as the picker!), and numbers on the back of each photo equaled the massive improbability of Derren predicting all these circumstances. Pretty cool, eh?

But, y'know, this was Derren Brown. Nothing is quite what it seems with the goateed mind-fiddler. And so it proved with The System, which was amusingly simple once it was revealed…

Look away now if you don't want it spoiled!

Essentially, Derren had actually sent his first racing tip to 7,776 people (dividing them into groups, and giving each group a different predicted winner)… he only continued giving the winners a further tip, in the same way … meaning he was gradually filtering the group down like a pyramid. Poor Khadisha just happened to be one of the "lucky ones" to have fluked 5 wins in a row. She wasn't alone. A number of others were being filmed for the programme, too.

But it all came down to the sixth race. Derren placed her £5k bet, and eyes expectantly followed the green-white jersey around the track. Moon Over Miami wasn't doing very well, though In fact, the nag was last for pretty much the entire race… eventually plodding across the line to lose Khadisha her 5 grand – and disprove "the system". Oh well.

Of course, in true Derren Brown trickster fashion, he'd actually decided to put the bet on a different horse at the last minute: the winner! Khadisha gratefully collected her £13,000 winnings, as the other potential stars of this System special had their dreams dashed at the final furlong.

But they were compensated for any losses after the show, don't worry.

The System wasn't the best Derren Brown special, primarily because common sense screamed at you that it just can't be true. If it was, any sane person would keep their system a secret and pocket millions. But these shows are brilliantly constructed and it managed to stretch a thin narrative story (and a simple "trick") into an entertaining hour. Derren Brown is always great fun to watch, and the trick with the racing experts and the photos was impressive… as was the commitment Derren showed to toss a coin 10 times to reveal heads!

So, yes; definitely one of his weaker specials (a sign he's running out of ideas?), but it was still a great deal of fun and definitely worth watching. I just prefer his creepier (and live) specials. The ones that have genuine affects on peoples' mental faculties. The System was a more straight-laced study in belief and probability, really. Entertaining and enjoyable, but below-par considering how mind-boggling Derren Brown's stuff usually is.

1 February 2008
Channel 4, 9.00 pm

Monday, 28 January 2008

MUST WATCH: Derren Brown: The System

The entertaining (and often inspired) illusionist Derren Brown returns with another one-off special: The System. This time the goateed mind-bender will show that he can predict the winners of horse races 24-hours in advance, with complete accuracy...

Derren Brown: "I realize that this is a farfetched claim, but it really does work -- it’s not hypnotism. I take a member of the public. She gets an e-mail in advance, not mentioning my name, and at the bottom is a racing tip to whet her appetite. She watches, out of curiosity. The horse does win, and she’s intrigued."

"Then she gets a whole series of tips, and they win, so she starts to bet her own money on it: first a fiver, then a tenner, £20, right up to £150, and then finally a whole lot of money, much more than she can afford… and I can’t tell you how that ends because it would spoil the show!" Read more here.

It sounds like a lot of fun. If you're a fan of Brown's brand of mentalism, The System will be must-see stuff. If you've somehow managed to miss his essential specials, Trick Of The Mind television series, sell-out stage shows, and book… do yourself a favour and tune in.

1 February 2008 – Channel 4, 9.00 pm.

Update: reviewed here.

Monday, 3 April 2006


Sundays 9 p.m, Channel 4

I'm a huge fan of Derren Brown, so I'm obviously glued to the TV every Sunday night at 9 p.m now his Trick Of The Mind series has returned to Channel 4. Brilliant, brilliant stuff. I'm sure everyone knows who Derren is (certainly if you live in the UK -- not sure if he's gone international yet...), but if not, well, he's basically a psychological illusionist. Or "mind reader".

However you categorize him, he's been making magic/hypnosis cool again in recent years. Yes, David Blaine pioneered "street magic" to phenomenal effect, but his increasingly surreal and pointless endurance stunts have become old very fast. All exemplified by the "living in a box" debacle above the River Thames! Watching Londoners turn his stunt into a living hell was pure TV gold...

But I'm not dissing Blaine, really, as he's clearly very talented and still an interesting performer, but at least Derren Brown is personable and, for my money, has a brand of magic streets ahead of Blaine and co in terms of interest.

Last night's Trick Of The Mind was particularly good. In one standout, a volunteer was blindfolded at a train station, driven across town in a taxi playing classical music, told to get into some pyjamas, quickly (and bizarrely) shown subliminal messages on a projected screen, then told to go to sleep. Simple.

However... the fun began when it became clear Derren had been able to plant ideas into the guy's mind and prompt his dream! At one point, Derren woke the sleeper and was told he'd been having a dream about a "hospital", an "old woman", "sheep", "grass", "snow" and other dream-like oddities (all predicted by Derren on a board).

Then came the masterstroke: the sleeper's bedroom was slowly altered during the night to resemble his dream! The poor bloke woke up to find himself in a snow-covered grassy hospital full of sheep and a creepy old lady lying in bed! Bizarre. Very strange to see the poor lad wander around, acting as if this was still the dream, before being told by Derren (via intercom) to head back to bed...

Fabulous stuff. If you're new to Derren's work, check out his own website and the CH4 microsite for more information, DVD's, tour dates, and other goodies!