I have seen several of his shows and they all contain tricks that would convince you that Brown has “real” psychic powers (the payouts at the dogs, the word in the wine bottle, the PIN, the guy in the jail cell) except he says he has none.
Simon Singh’s piece quoted above is no surprise as Singh is a professional rival of Brown. The idea that Brown is being “tricky” by using magic is nonsense - Brown had a successful career as a magician before deriving his current act. He has written magic books that explain many of his current tricks.
The point of the lion thing was that people would pick a lion, in spite of it being a plains animal, and not a jungle animal. And well, there certainly are people who have played Russian Roulette for real. So I don’t think saying nobody would do it is a very logical statement. And people take risks all the time; David Blaine could certainly come to harm with some of his “endurance tests”, and people get hurt all the time by overestimating their own skills and talents - even professional entertainers. Siegfried and Roy, anybody?
That said, I don’t believe it ever would have aired had it gone wrong. Which I guess was why the ending was the least fascinating part of the show - I knew he wasn;t gonna buy the farm at the end of the program.
And in regards to the article, the author seems pretty confident that all of his tricks are mere “magic tricks” and yet fails to offer any evidence of this for several of them - only pointing out that no one can figure out how they’d be possible, but not offering explanations as to how Derren might have been manipulating the results.
Skill-wise, he is a standard magician and illusionist. Never does anything every other decent magician couldn’t do, including exploiting the medium of television to its limit.
But his gimmick is excellent - just to emphasise the control an illusionist has on his audience. There’s nothing new about what he does, but by a combination of psychobabble, intense control of the edited videotape, acting ability and basic dishonesty he just makes us go “wooo! you made me think stuff!”
There’s NOTHING wrong with this, because it’s a SHOW. He’s no more dishonest than a magician who calls himself “The Amazing…”, or who plays music during the act.
Basically, people’s occasional annoyance with Brown is not based on his being adept at the advanced sleight of hand and such involved in magic. People get annoyed because he doesn’t guess people’s dogs’ names because he can read their facial tics, which he claims, but because he has the sense to get a researcher to do a background check on the people coming on the show.
However, in my view there’s nothing wrong with that. Times change and it’s all part of the show. It’s not like he gets someone and says “Is your dog called Basil?” and then claims the applause. He puts a very great deal of showmanship and class into the act, and he does a lot of confusing stuff to his guests and his audience. This is really as far as the psychological manipulation goes, so that when he actually reveals the dog’s name, it’s more impressive and worthwhile. The “jungle animal” bit was not cool because of its very basic understanding of the most popular wild animal - it was cool because it was funny. The only people who are really, truly being led around by psychological manipulation are we, the audience. And that’s what we pay for! IT’S A SHOW!
Oh, I know. The “trick,” if one can call it that (I think I would be more observation rather than trick), just struck me as funny in this instance. I’ve received e-mail spam and the like that challenges the reader to “think of a color and a tool.” The gambit is that a high percentage of people will quickly respond with “red hammer,” enabling the spammer to engage in a bit of “mind reading.” The “lion” bit is funny because so many people would automatically respond to “name a jungle animal” with “lion,” even though their answer is incorrect!
OK, yeah, it may be going to far to say that nobody would play Russian Roulette. Maybe I should have put it as “nobody who knows what they’re doing, and doesn’t have a death wish” would play it. David Blaine doesn’t come to harm with his endurance tests because he knows what he’s doing, and has put checks and balances into his act to bring it to a halt in case something untoward happens. Siegfried and Roy…well, it brings to mind the adage that one should never work with animals or small children. But no gun safety officer would permit Russian Roulette for the sake of entertainment. The gun was surely gaffed. Not that it wouldn’t make for a great spectacle, that I don’t doubt.
I wouldn’t call them all “magic tricks,” as I mentioned above. They’re more like “observations.” Take the “two-digit number, over 50, containing two even numbers” gambit. When he said that “I knew it would contain a 6 or 8”–well, of course it would, as all numbers in that category contain a 6 or 8 (the only qualifying numbers are 60, 62, 64, 66, 68, 80, 82, 84, 86, and 88). It was a throwaway line that made it seem as if Derren was on top of everything, when, in retrospect, he was only making an obvious statement. Before the trick you ask 100 or so people what “two-digit number, etc.” they would choose. If 90% or some other high percentage pick “68” (kind of like the “red hammer” gambit above), you predict that your subject during the show will also pick “68.” You’ve got a pretty good chance of succeeding.
And if your subject doesn’t pick “68”? Well, you cut tape. This is a TV show, after all.
I have difficulty understanding what you mean when you say Brown and Singh are professional rivals. Singh writes books and columns primarily to do with mathematics and history, and take son other media work related to his writings. To the best of my knowledge he is not a magician or an illusionist and has never worked professionally in either capacity.
Derren has written two books for the magic fraternity and also released a DVD of the card magic he used to do before his current fame and specialisation in the mentalism field. None of these published works will tell you much about how any of the ‘tricks’ (your word, not mine) in his TV shows or his live stage show are accomplished, as there is very little overlap. At most, I would say just two or three of the things that Derren has done on TV correspond to tricks explained in any of his published works.
Several magicians have commented - in interviews about other things - that Brown is using straightforward old tricks. The only one I can think of right now is the extraordinarily offensive, hilarious Scottish comic Jerry Sadowitz, who is a highly-skilled close-up magician in his own right. In this interview he says that
Now, regarding actual cites as to Brown’s use of editing, camera tricks, researchers getting hold of background data on audience members, etc, I can unfortunately provide none. In fact I am assuming them, and I didn’t really mean to imply that I had evidence of some kind. I would point out, though, that it’s not really a dramatic accusation. There is a long and noble tradition of this sort of thing in magic, and that many a mentalist’s powers have been founded on stuff discovered by a few pickpockets and eavesdroppers planted in the theatre foyer before the show. The use of such tools is a skill in itself, and no more or less legitimate a manipulation than camera trickery. I am not suggesting that Brown uses only camera tricks, editing and filched info, only that he does not actually have the power to manipulate humans to the extent that he claims. Best place to look for more of this sort of thing is probably something like Corinda’s 13 Steps to Mentalism, though I’ve actually lost my copy, so it might not provide as much history as I think.
I just feel we should start off assuming it’s all an illusion, based on the fact that all the other illusionists are just illusionists, too.
All reminds me of an Alexei Sayle monologue, where he relates watching Paul Daniels on telly one night, getting two Asian women out of the audience and faffing about making their hankies disappear. Not understanding how it was done, Sayle was forced to the conclusion that “this unlikely little man really did have magical powers - the gift of the shaman”, and was in contact with powers not of this world. He then proceeded to become bitterly angry with him for not using this power to bring about world peace and make the guns fall silent, choosing instead to faff about with Asian women’s hankies on telly. The piece ended with Sayle in tears of rage over Daniels’ selfish, selfish behaviour.
This is pretty much the conclusion we are forced to with Brown, surely. Either it’s all bollocks, or he should have been dragged off and forced to work for shadowy government agencies long ago.
That reminds me - is it not the case that one of the chess players involved that trick, the players’ spokesman in fact, is a Doper? I remember him posting about it long before the program aired, but that post seems to have been lost in the technical snafus of late 2003. I won’t identify the Doper in case for some reason he is keeping schtum about it.
Sadowitz’s comedy schtick is rather… direct. I remember once occasion where he appeared at the Montreal Comedy Festival, took to the stage, looked out at the largely Canadian audience, and said “Good evening, moose f-ckers”.