The trouble with Derren Brown

You either love him or hate him. Or like this writer: both.

“I really enjoyed his early stuff but he’s shit now isn’t he?” It’s a cliche heard a million times and yet it’s true. I loved Derren Brown’s early work. I figured out the trick quite quickly mind: he’s a magician. It’s just that rather than tell people he does his tricks with ‘magic’ he tells them they’re done with ‘the power of the mind’, often including some semi-scientific explanation as to what is supposedly happening.

As an act, it’s genius. As kids, we looked at magicians with a sense of wonder, stemming from a belief that ‘magic’ was actually possible. As adults, we know it’s all a trick. Brown bought back the wonder by talking about psychology and wrapping his most impressive tricks up in claims that we could just about believe. He wasn’t a wizard, but rather a master of observation and human behaviour. By dressing up the tricks in different clothes he made magic fun again.

The good
And then he went in a wonderful direction. He made some shows exposing the techniques behind séances, faith healers and other such con-men. As a rationalist I loved that stuff. Sometimes you weren’t sure if he was being entirely truthful in what he claimed his (and their) methods were, but the message was clear: this stuff doesn’t exist, it’s all quackery.

The System was another highlight: he correctly helped someone predict the winners of six horse races in a row. Except he didn’t, he just used nearly 8000 people and covered every permutation. He was exposing how TV itself and the provision of selective information could be used to tell a story that wasn’t real.

The bad
Then it all went badly, badly wrong when he said he was going to predict the National Lottery. What we got was 50 minutes of nonsense, taking a valid scientific theory (the wisdom of crowds) and perverting it in a way that made no sense, only for the final prediction to be done using a camera trick. It was a watershed moment. Up until now there was an implicit contract with the viewer: even though he would be using misdirection and tricks, what we saw on the screen was what was actually happening. Yes, he’d do tricks, but the filmed event would be an accurate portrayal of the trick, not part of it.

So it was with some trepidation I started watching his latest series, The Experiments. I was hopeful, I really was. The concept of the first episode was to ‘prove’ whether or not someone could be hypnotised into assassinating someone. The answer of course is: ‘no’. If it were possible, there would be a lot more cases than the odd conspiracy theory. But I was hopeful Brown would prove why this was the case, explore the limits of hypnosis, discuss how stage hypnotism is a huge confidence trick, talk about how compliance works and so on. Proper scientific, rationalist stuff. I mean, this is called The Experiments right?

But no, it was just some bizarre staged event, ending with Stephen Fry pretending to get shot at a talk and the entire audience barely reacting to a crazed gunman. Not to say there would have been mass panic, but in an audience of a few hundred, I’d think at least one would have the sense to take cover and at least one would make a run for it.

The second episode was at least honest, if no less silly. It was meant to demonstrate another scientific principle: deindividuation. In practice, a bunch of audience members voted for funny and slightly nasty things to ‘sort of’ happen to a guy. ‘Sort of’ because he told he’d lost his job, he didn’t lose it. They suggested someone smash up his TV, in the full knowledge that the show would have to buy him a new one. It’s all fake, and nothing worse than what Beadle’s About did every week for the best part of a decade.

Experiments like this have been done, but for it to work the people inflicting the suffering have to believe they’re doing something real. I’ve no doubt that if the guy being ‘tricked’ started breaking down and crying the audience would have felt bad and given him a break. But he didn’t, he took it all in good spirits, and the profiling they do to choose someone helped to ensure that.

There was a show in Edinburgh this year by Ontoerend Goed where the ‘performers’ find a young, vulnerable looking woman in the crowd and pick on her, subjecting her to verbal abuse and sexual aggression, while encouraging other audience members to join in. The point of it is to get someone to step in and intervene. As an artistic experiment it has merit, but also demonstrates why this episode of The Experiments didn’t work. Because to make that point, you actually have to hurt someone. Ontoerend Goed would genuinely upset and scare a young woman every night. There’s no denying it makes a powerful statement. It’s also an utterly despicable and nasty thing to do and I’m somewhat confused as to why no-one has punched them in the face yet. It would never (and should never) be allowed on TV, and for the same reason this second ‘experiment’ could never really take place.

The ugly
And so to last week’s show, which had me for about half of the episode. It’s a good concept: can you guilt-trip someone into confessing to a murder they didn’t do? I wondered for a while if it might be genuine, right up until the point where they carried him out into the garden without him waking up.

Now don’t get me wrong, that could have happened. I’ll grant that they could have got him out of the bed, down the stairs and out the door without him waking up. But you, dear reader, have to admit that there was also a good chance it would go wrong, right? Which would have ruined the whole show. That’s the problem with the whole episode. So many things needed to go right for it to work. Imagine if he’d Google’d the conference before going. Or had slept naked instead of in a dressing gown. Or decided not to drink that night. Or the TV had woke him up. Or someone had knocked him while they were carrying him. Or he’d caught them switching the food. Or he’d run instead of going to the police station. Or he’d called his girlfriend who felt bad for him and gave up the plot. Or he’d asked for the polices’ credentials. Or he’d had asked for his own lawyer.

I was really hoping that the reveal was going to be that this was the 30th time they’d tried this and the first time they’d got all the variable just right. That’s what the Derren Brown who spent all day flipping a coin to get footage of ten heads in a row would have done.

But really, why bother? That would cost a fortune, and your a famous TV illusionist and people will believe you anyway. You’ve always been proud of the fact that you’re “honest about your dishonesty”. You start your shows with disclaimers that say everything you’ll see is true, or even that it isn’t. A disclaimer that was conspicuous by its absence from last week’s episode. Why not fake it? You know that with enough time and money to try as many times as you needed you could make this happen, so why not just pretend it did? It’s easier, and just as you can’t prove this was real, I can’t prove it was fake either.

The problem
Which brings me to the problem I have with Derren Brown. It stems from being a rationalist. It stems from believing that hypnosis, outside of some medical applications, is largely bollocks. It stems from being a fan of Ben Goldacre and hating it when the media perverts and mis-informs people about science.

And that’s what makes me angry about this series. Yes, in previous series Brown has used pseudo-science to disguise his tricks and perhaps misled people about certain things, but it was all in the name of entertainment. He never pretended it was anything more. This show is different. It’s The Experiments. He claims he’s going to prove things. He pretends the results might go either way, when the entire deck is stacked. He takes the language of science and perverts it.

It frustrates and upsets me that millions of people who watch this show will now give credence to wacky conspiracy theories about programming people to kill because ‘Derren Brown proved it could be done’. I can’t understand why other rationalists give Brown a free pass in spreading pseudo-scientific crap. I don’t get why Tim Minchin, the guy who wrote Storm, actually agreed to appear in a programme that may as well be a lost verse of that same poem.

The argument, of course, is that it’s harmless fun and we all know it’s not real. But we don’t. I’m going to use my Derren Brown-like powers to predict that this very article will get a whole bunch of comments about how and why I’m wrong and how Derren Brown really does have superpowers and his voice on the TV can totally stop someone waking up when mixed with champagne.

But of course, I still watched it. I’m part of the problem. Because I still want him to do something brilliant. I still have hope. I want him to get back to exposing con-men instead of being one.

What do you think? Has Derren Brown lost it, or do you still think he’s as good as he ever was? Let us know in the comments…

Dean Love

Updated: Nov 11, 2011

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