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.