John Walker's Electronic House

Too Many Words On Derren Brown & Crippling The Nation

by on Sep.18, 2009, under Television

A number of people suggested to me after the disgraceful embarrassment of Derren Brown’s lottery Event that this may be part of his building up to something. That he may have gone in this direction for a reason, with the intention of a big reveal at the end of the series.

I wasn’t convinced. His act has always consisted of performing regular magic tricks with the current vogue of mentalism patter over the top. His act has always been about the grand misdirection of stating his effects are achieved through suggestion, hypnotism, and other baloney, while quietly palming the card. He has always implied that there’s something scientifically verifiable about all manner of woo-woo bullshit, while proclaiming his wishes to denounce woo-woo bullshit. This hypocrisy just seemed to reach a new, grotesque depth with the lottery episode, promoting utter rubbish like automatic writing, and talking complete and utter nonsense about statistics.

But then this week’s episode, so stark-ravingly stupefying, has gone some way toward convincing me that these optimistic people might be right. Because at one point this evening Brown uttered the words, “the energy”.

His absolute adoption of the vocabulary of the snake oil salesmen and conmen seems a step farther than I can believe he would ever go. This evening’s episode was a slow build up to a farcical attempt to cripple the nation with a magic film. To fill in the 45 minutes before this, Brown rehashed a bunch of tricks we’ve seen him do again and again, each with his flare and showmanship. The Hamleys giraffe trick was utterly ridiculous and great fun. From the moment he did his idiotic mime at the start it was numbingly obvious he was setting up a giraffe-based pay-off. But of course it doesn’t matter how much you decorate a toy shop with giraffe patterns, it won’t have a greater influence over someone’s choice for a present for a child they know, than their own knowledge of what that child would like. The giant giraffe with the correct name on it is a great punchline, and it’s a beautifully performed trick. But it’s a trick. Why? Because if Brown’s stated methods worked, he’d be working for universities teaching these extraordinary breakthroughs to academics.

This is underlined by the trick with the man selected from the audience by a magic tune. (A tune that won’t affect viewers at home, magically!) Everyone knows that’s a trick. A brilliant one with so many reveals: the choice of chair, pen, order of cubes, and the ticket stub. All superb. But here we’re not being asked to believe that he caused those choices in someone, because he at no point did he attempt any of his “perception without awareness”, and the notion that the tune could be involved is too laughable. It was, rather, an undisguised fantastic piece of magic. And the same principle is applied elsewhere.

More peculiar was the homeless bit. Decorating a mall in “suggestions” he extorted members of the public for huge amounts of money. He claims. But he obviously didn’t, because if it were possible to achieve this effect by a few signs in some shop windows, PEOPLE WOULD ALWAYS BE DOING IT. (Insert your own smug remark about how shops trick you into spending blah blah – but that’s based on the shopper’s greed, not their sudden involuntary altruism.) The idea that a man would give his shoes away because he walked past a shop window with a shoe-based pun on it is berserk. And of course for any of those people to have appeared on the programme they would have to have signed off on permission for their faces to be shown, and thus know what happened. So forget the idea that they were innocent passers-by who unwittingly emptied their wallets. (Oh, and what was with Brown’s joke at the end about buying a new pair of shoes? We’d just been shown a guy giving him new shoes. Brown wasn’t the one who lost any. Um, huh?) The premise beneath it is that yes, of course, we’re all influenced all the time. I find my choice of sandwich filling can completely change by the choice of the person in front of me in the queue. So we believe in that bit, and are asked to extend this to an absurd degree. For some reason.

So we are being primed for this big finish, where he will cause people watching to become stuck in their chairs. Throughout there’s childish faux-subliminal flashes of Victorian-style drawings of people fixed to their chairs. This is emphasised by Brown’s explanations that subliminal flashes aren’t being used, and his mentioning of how such things are feared and outlawed. These flashes aren’t subliminal, of course, because otherwise we wouldn’t have seen them. They were displayed for long enough not to constitute a violation of the rules, but quickly enough for people to believe they had spotted something they weren’t meant to – more misdirection.

Then we get that hilarious VT of the testing process for the creation of the broadcast video. Six subjects shown videos, with extreme results! One man in a trance! Another man with his arms stuck in the air! What is this potent force he’s discovered?! It’s obviously too stupid to even bother discussing how pointless such a trial would be. However, what’s more important is to once again observe that Brown is teaching the direct opposite of scientific scrutiny and intelligent method – reinforcing stupid, unscientific thinking, and endorsing the lunacy of alternative therapists and their brethren.

The video itself must have made Brown and his production team roll around on the floor laughing. “So, some rotating lines on the screen then?” “Oh, with some plinky plonky music over the top!” “YES!” Gales of laughter. And finished.

My housemate Graham suggested to me earlier in the week that Brown may follow the video by asking people to call in to report if they got stuck. I felt horrified, and said, “No. No way. He wouldn’t sink that low? There would then be literally no way to differentiate his act from Uri Geller’s.”

There isn’t. Unless, as the optimists suggest, he’s building up to something.

Uri Geller used to go on live television, draw a picture on a piece of paper concealed from the camera, and then BEAM IT INTO OUR MINDS. He would stare at the camera with those ghastly beady eyes and shriek that we were picking up the picture, and we should draw it ourselves. He would then reveal a picture of a house or a sailboat or a tree, and the viewing public would be asked to call in to say if they had drawn the same thing. He’d do the same with his claims that he would start watches and clocks and bend cutlery by shouting, “START!” or “BEND!” at the camera and into our houses. And the result would be the same each time. The switchboards would be “melting under the number of calls” or whichever hyperbole. They’d take three calls on air all of which confirmed, “YES! I drew a house!” Or, “YES! My watch started! It hasn’t worked for forty years!” And this would be proof of his powers, and the programme would end/move on.

The two different tricks used different methods. People tend to draw houses, boats or trees. And those that don’t, well, guess what! They don’t call in. The starting watches is slightly different, but old watches will sometimes start working again if warmed up and jolted, which is always part of the process (“Grip it tightly in your hand!”). But the same principle applies. The vast, vast majority of watches won’t start, the tiny minority that do call in. And if you’ve got, say, twelve phone lines at your TV station, you can “melt” them with thirteen calls. Of course, neither of these requires causing a physical manifestation to have occurred for a viewer. However, it demonstrates that you can create the implication of national success by taking very few calls. Geller relied on it.

The point being, you need three or four calls out of your audience of millions to appear successful. Brown took, what, four calls? Last week’s episode got around 5 million viewers. Without the “how to win the lottery” pull I imagine this week will have dropped. Let’s be pessimistic and say he got 4 million viewers. To seem effective, let’s say he takes five calls. That’s 0.000125% of your audience. I’m not a qualified statistician but I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that’s not a representative proportion. Let’s be more fair. Let’s say that the station received, say, 10,000 calls in those few minutes. That’s a big number – the sort of number that would look great in the news. “Ten thousand try to call Channel 4 to report Brown’s paralysing success” the credulous press might say. That big number, that would remain a minuscule quarter of one percent of the people watching. 0.25%

The point is, asking the public to phone in to demonstrate success is a whopping waste of time, and an extremely effective means of creating the illusion of success.

But, still you cry, what about that quarter of one percent? They got stuck, right? I truly believe he could have announced he had a video that would make the viewers fly, and received this many calls reporting success. Idiots are in enormous supply. One thing Brown is correct about is that people are open to suggestion – it’s all there is to hypnosis. Simply telling someone they’re hypnotised is all you need to achieve a stage hypnotist’s pratting around. Tell people they’re stuck in their chair, and stuck some will get.

Why do I not believe that his video could cripple someone? Firstly, he’d never be allowed to broadcast it. As he said himself, he can’t control our minds. What he can do is take advantage of stupid people. As he introduced the video he said lots of things that people associate with hypnosis. Telling us that we feel heavy, telling us to slow our breathing, and so on. His voice pattern changed, the camera zoomed in on his face, he stared directly into our eyes and told us to relax. Lots of “ooh, I’m being hypnotised” cues. Then he showed a spinning pattern. Then some people in a studio pretended they couldn’t stand up.

But the key moment was when Brown declared that those sitting nearer the screen would likely be more affected. He states earlier that if others in a room can stand, someone else is more likely to be stuck because of “the energy”. “…which we’ve found concentrates the energy on you.” At this point it all snaps. At this point, when this man starts using terms like that, surely, SURELY, he has to be building up to some grand reveal in the final episode? “Energy”. What “energy”? The light from the screen? The heat the screen generates? The gravitational force exerted by the Earth and Moon? I cannot believe that Brown, a man who wrote a book debunking such bullshit, is really willingly embracing these terms without a larger motive.

I’m willing to sadly accept that he may have sold out on all his principles for the sake of upping his act and thus gaining more screen time. Last week’s lottery show was evidence of that. But I cannot accept that he has suddenly become a man who says “The energies work better if you’re nearer to the screen.”

EDIT: And how could I forget?! The beautiful explanation that the video won’t work at a lower resolution, so if it’s posted on the internet it won’t work. Um, Derren. It’s not 1997. The web can stream videos in HD, likely at a higher quality than the average television. Really, come along.


24 Comments for this entry

  • Leon

    he said nothing about the energies to my knowledge, I remember he said it will have a better success rate the closer you are to the screen.

    Derren has not ever in the past supported “all manner of woo-hoo bullshit” Did you ever see Messiah? What was the point he was making in Messiah?

    This whole post just seems to be a scathing attack on an excellent entertainer; one who illuminates or at least attempts to illuminate those idiots who are in “enormous supply”

    I can be happy knowing that the explaination for the lottory prediction wasn’t the truth, he needs to build up an audience and the truth isn’t neearly as mysterious, and tonights show you said so yourself he couldn’t use effective subliminal messaging because it’s banned so he had to settle for the less effective variety, had he been allowed to use the effective version I am very sure it would have been effective. I know from the work this man has done in the past that his next shows will worthy of viewing by the entire population, unfortunately he will have to settle for millions instead.

    You imply that the success of this test depended upon intelligence, which is not necessarily true; it relies more on suggestibility than anything else, plus if you had any knowledge of how he was doing it or were skeptical of it in any way, it would be less likely to work.

    while it didn’t work fully on me I did feel slightly heavier in my seat, my arms felt heavy and it was difficult to stand for a moment, to be honest i was suprised at the quality of it, I thought he would use the best quality version.

  • Chris

    Have you seen this interview – – it’s with Richard Dawkins, as part of ‘The Enemies of Reason’ show. If so, what did you make of it?

    And didn’t Patrick Moore pull the ‘you can float’ trick 30-something years ago? Something to do with Pluto passing behind Jupiter and lessening the gravitational pull? Hundreds of people phoned the BBC after that, claiming they had floated.

    I really hope this whole ‘Events’ sequence does end with a big old twist, otherwise it’s just a bunch of rehashed tricks with some psychic ju-ju sprinkled on top.

  • John Walker

    Leon, you’re saying he DOESN’T endorse woo-woo bullshit, but he DID tell lies about the lottery and the woo-woo bullshit he claimed to have used, but that’s okay because he needs to build up an audience by lying about woo-woo bullshit to them? I just want to be sure I’ve understood.

    Why do you think you felt heavier in your seat? Do you think it was because of the video you watched?

    Chris – I’ve watched the whole hour of that interview, and Brown is fantastic in it. This is why these programmes upset me so much. Were this show hosted by someone who hasn’t so eloquently argued against the stupefying of the public, nor lamented the evils of psychics and mediums, it wouldn’t be nearly so devastating to watch his pathetic crap.

  • James G

    I’m sincerely hoping that there is some kind of pay-off at the end of all this, last week’s episode in particular felt like one giant shaggy dog story, and left me feeling decidedly short changed. I realised that some bullshit would be involved, but I was disappointed in exactly how far he decided to stretch it. Furthermore, the apparent use of a cheap camera trick in the ‘prediction’ itself, only serves to undermine everything Derren does in the past and future. (Camera tricks are not magic, they are special effects.) I’m assuming that you are implying that the giraffe trick was a stooge, another cheap tactic. (I had previously assumed Derren wouldn’t stoop to stooges, and as a result the tricks were impressive, even if his explanations weren’t necessarily entirely truthful)

    Oh, and I don’t know if you caught the trailer for the next episode, but its precisely the ‘image beaming’ thing you were criticising Geller for. I’m sure Derren won’t try and claim to be psychic, but I also doubt we’ll have any decent halfway form of data collection.

  • John Walker

    In the online trailer for next week’s he says, “Now I don’t believe in psychic powers, so this could be interesting.” Whatever that means. Again, it COULD indicate that he’s going somewhere with all this. If not, next week’s could be the most harmful of the lot.

  • John Walker

    And Leon, watch at 36.20 for Derren’s pronouncement that if others in the room can stand up, this then “concentrates the energy on you.”

  • Masked Dave

    Ah right, yes he did say it then. I was going to say that he definitely didn’t say it when mentioning it worked better if you were closer to the screen. I remember because I burst out laughing.

    I hope he is going somewhere because last night’s big ol’ heap of crap just made me angry.

    “This isn’t really subliminal, but it’s like subliminal.”

    “It won’t work on the Internet.”

    “It won’t work if you don’t want it to!”

    “This is going to make you stay sat down. In order to work assume this position I like to call a ‘sit’ and then stay there. If you move it won’t work.”

    It just felt like he’s become a Cult Leader. If he offers a recipe for punch in the final episode, DON’T DRINK IT.

  • Kowalski

    Leon: You felt heavier in your seat? Really?

    You appear to be able to string together coherent sentences so I’m assuming you’re not completely brain-dead but a man, on television, made you ‘feel heavier in your seat’?


  • NM

    Subliminal messages have been proven to have no effect, by the way. Their being banned is just a hysterical reaction to earlier panics.

  • Llewellyn

    Re: The homeless bit. What Derren said at the very start of the piece was that it was based on a piece of scientific psychological research where it was found playing word games could have an effect on generosity.

    Using my sceptical, critical thinking brain as recommended by Mr Brown, Mr Dawkins and Mr Goldacre (Bad Science), I figure if this were true, it’d be available somewhere on the internets. I did a quick search and here’s a news story, a blog post and a link to a paper that sounds like what he mentioned – last one’s not free tho :(

    The interesting one is the Deric Bownds one (yeah, granted, the name’s a bit dodgy considering our subject…), in particular the last two paragraphs of the post where it confirms the effect. Interesting that Mr Brown made zero mention at all of the thrust of the report about religious terms :o)

    Anyway, if you remember the way the homeless skit played out, you’ll remember at the start that he had a person stopping people and asking them to do the word games (this is actually the meat of the trick) before they carried on their journey, past the Perception Without Awareness stuff (the, err, icing on the cake), and then finally Derren-as-Tramp (I can’t think of a suitable food metaphor).

    Here’s some flaws to my argument:
    1) I don’t know how reputable the report writers are, nor the journal it’s published in.
    2) I only did a quick search and used the first report I found that sounded about right. I don’t know if there are any others to back up that first report.

    In response to the “people would have to sign off on permission for their faces to be shown”, you’re completely correct. However, it’s perfectly acceptable to be filmed first without knowledge, and give permission after. The producers of the show then wouldn’t show the ones who didn’t give permission, nor the ones it didn’t work on.

    Any thoughts, anyone?

  • mr magico

    I think he’s good because he shows that a lot of people are really guilable and will ebleive what they are told, not susceptable to subliminals as he sued none (it was a plain white screen…I was laughing my head off!), but gullible, and also that people who are lonely will beleive anything to get some human contact and inclusion, it shows how mediums con people who are lonely, bereaved etc. So I think some people got ‘stuck’ because they wanted to get stuck (especially those people who desperately want to beleive in some ‘force’, ‘energy’ or whatever) and some did because they were lonely and wanted to go along with their comforter ie. TV and do what they were told by it.

    As for the shoes…the people walked by a lady with a clip board who prob told them, ‘your going to be on TV, give that man some money’, she may even have given them the money to give him, she may have even told them it was Derren Brown, she prob told the guy to give him his shoes, she prob told 100 people to do that and one actually did it.

    As for the giraffe, he obviously knew the girl had a daughter or reklative with that name who loved giraffes etc. but it’s got to be something even simpler than that. Ie. he says the names, words etc. and because she under the pressure of being on TV, with the cameras, lights etc. and it’s all happeneing so quickly she just says ‘yet’ to whatever he says, he could say ‘baked beans’ and she’d say yes.

  • Blissett

    Hi John,

    I said in the comments to your Lottery blog that I thought this was all part of a series theme to show how easy it is to get people to believe in nonsense with a few simple tricks. I still stick to that theory but I have to say, I am a little nervous.

    The more Derren builds up layer of irrationality on irrationality, the higher the stakes get. Every show that goes by just results in even greater risk to his reputation if the pay-off never comes. I hope to God it will but even if it does, there is still a clear risk that you’ve alluded to before. What if noone is watching when the “reveal” arrives?

    The publicity around the Lottery stunt must have exceeded his grandest hopes. Last night’s show was lower profile but still seems to have been popular. He better have a damn good hook for the climax. After all, who wants to tune in to a show just to be lectured on your stupidity? If most of the “believers” miss it then it really will be a pyrrhic victory over his harshest critics.

    I’m going keep the faith for now as I have a huge amount of respect for DB and things like the Richard Dawkins interview make it very hard for me to believe that he would sell-out in this way. But he sure is playing a dangerous game.

  • James T

    But hasn’t Derren Brown always worked this spooky mind control/psychic angle? Isn’t that what originally caught people’s attention and elevated him above his peers? That’s what he does; that’s his act!

    I don’t really see any inconsistency in performing the act with all the misdirection and hokum he sees fit and then going on to point out at some other time that his act is really just a trick. Where the line between reality and fiction lies is a bit of a grey area but I don’t see why it should be incumbent upon the performer to make it any clearer.

  • John Walker

    He certainly has always straddled the line regarding this. In his earliest shows he would lie about subliminal messages and suggestion and so on, and while dubious, it was as a new patter for old tricks (as part of a larger movement of “mentalists”, reinventing hoary old tricks with a new angle). It was having a serious negative effect, encouraging people to believe in nonsense like NLP, and making people accept some very stupid and uncritical understandings of the brain. It was problematic.

    But my argument is he has now stepped over into something far worse. Pretending he had an understanding of psychology unknown by the medical/psychological world was daft. But using the vocabulary and methodology of the mediums and psychics – those who prey on the grieving, frightened and vulnerable – is sickening. In doing so, and especially in doing so in a pseudo-scientific way, he gives weight and credibility to the most vile scum out there, and I contend thus becomes vile scum. If there isn’t a pay-off at the end of this run, then he’s without question utter scum.

  • Rosti

    If this is a build up to a capstone program exposing the sillyness of these illusions, I can see why Derren chose this format. It’s quite hard to convince people to tune in willingly each week if you want to spend 40 minutes tricking them then 20 minutes pointing out why they were fools to be fooled.

    Plus, it’s easier to pad out than an hour of “here’s a bag of tricks I could play on you!”. This isn’t necessarily a good thing for viewers, mind.

  • Leperous

    Re. the homeless bit – I’d be willing to bet my own shoes that he did this through having a fully visible camera crew, and thus simply relied on people trying to look good for TV.

    I’m still hoping he’s going to fess up at the end. He’ll surely be aware of the mass-criticism he’s receiving, and it can only hurt him professionally if he maintains all of these pseudo-scientific pretenses (he can already fill his stage shows without doing this TV series). “I was really leading you all on look how easy it is HA HA HA.”

  • John Walker

    Looking at the plan for this Friday, it seems increasingly hard to believe he’s not aiming for something. Because otherwise, brrrrrrrr.

    He’s going to do a “is the nation psychic” experiment, and hilariously he’s going to base this on a phone-in too. His angle is to say that he doesn’t believe in psychic powers, but presumably is using this to put his audience further off-guard. So, if his aim is to leave people thinking that they or he is psychic then we’re back to his either being about to do a giant reveal in the end, or his having become beyond wretched.

  • SuperNashwan

    If there *is* a big reveal of “it was all a trick to demonstrate this nonsense” then a lot of people are going to be insufferably smug about pointing out the stupefyingly obvious. On the other hand, if there isn’t a payoff at the end where reason is reasserted then Derren’s tv career has well and truly run its course. I think he might be setting himself up to fail either way, I can’t see the series ending in a satisfying way.

  • cullnean

    lol, its only tv fellas, its not like his claiming theres a god or anything mental like that.

  • John Walker

    cullnean – we’re having a slightly more complex discussion than can be dismissed by “lol, its only tv”. Please either participate, or just ignore it. I suggest the latter.

  • cullnean


    im a no writer but

    Remember back when you were a kid watching the likes of Paul Daniels and David Copperfield, and the sense of wonderment as they did cool “trick’s”.

    Then as you get older you learn a few card tricks and what have you and you start when ever you see a magician or illusionist looking for the gaps and the sleight of hand and all you look for is how the trick was done.

    I have gotten over that now and try to take it for what it is entertainment

    If there’s a big reveal ill be happy, if there isn’t ill still be happy because ive been entertained.

    One thing that annoys slightly is this remote viewing lark, the format will be the same and the outcome as well.

    Ill end on something nice

    sorry for the dismissive post

  • Blackberries

    OK, reading what his plans are for Friday it seems that he must be leading to a reveal. There’s no way he could genuinely peddle this without being an -enormous- hypocrite.

    But like SuperNashwan said, I’m not sure what his point will be exactly. To point out and laugh at people who believed him when he came on TV and claimed to be telling the truth? “Pwaha! Twats! You actually trusted me you idiots? Oh man.” There’s little to be gained from that, even if he is trying to urge people to be wary when charlatans make spurious claims.

    I suppose one could argue that by doing these nonsense programmes he’s generating more interest than if he did a straight out highlighting-tricksters documentary – and perhaps attracting the very people likely to fall prey to such things. But I think he risks coming off as a bit of a prick and alienating people.

    This is, of course, all relying on him pulling out a reveal in the last show. He might just be a prat.

  • graham

    think alot of people on this thread are definetly taking things to seriously, db is a showman and he tells us that he is going to mess with our heads, does it really matter what he is using or if its magic or not. its entertaining, its fun to watch and for someone like myself who is very interested in nlp i find it extremely interesting and fun to watch which i thought was the point of entertainment tv.

  • John Walker

    My theory is: anyone who can not see a problem with this programmes is either a) a sociopath, b) a sympathiser, or c) hasn’t bothered to think about it.

    You’ve hit b. Although ironically enough, you might be interested to buy Brown’s book and read his debunking of NLP, since it doesn’t exist.