John Walker's Electronic House

by on May.11, 2005, under The Rest

It appears that thanks to Stu’s two links in the last 24 hours, I am the recipient of many of his readers, chums, pals and viewers. Hopefully the level of scorn in the following shall have you feel right at home. But if anyone calls me their ‘correspondent’, I will chop them up.

I really don’t like Derren Brown.

Derren Brown lying, yesterday
Derren Brown lying, yesterday.

And as is always the case when someone finds the passion to dislike something a great deal, it’s because I so want to really like him, and am violently unable.

When he began appearing on TV, I was excited. I love magic, and I love watching it performed well. I can do the odd trick, and I have a fair idea how a few effects are achieved. I find pleasure in either seeing what I know done well, or being mystified by what I don’t. There were similar beginnings with David Blaine – that first Street Magic special showed great promise for the first half. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything unravel as quickly as it did in the second, however. The much-touted levitation was clearly pathetic wire work, with fake reactions cut in. He used the Balducci effect to get some shock/amazement from people on the street, then used those responses with his ludicrous two foot levitation. And the moment you sink so low, you devalue everything you do. Who cares if he guessed the person’s card? He uses camera tricks and editing. As soon as one section is faked, the rest must be assumed to be fake as well. That and the credit to LYING CHEATING MAGICIAN Uri Geller were enough to see him written off as the useless wanker he’s demonstrated himself to be since. (Ooh, you sat inside some ice! You mean like… the Innuit race did for generations? Moron).

Where confusion tends to arise is in the condemnation of deceit within magic. “But surely all magic is deceit”, you observe, sitting back smugly. Unfortunately you’re an idiot and haven’t thought it through. Magic is about a contract. You lay down some rules at the start, make some important promises, and then you deceive within the limitations you’ve left yourself. So if I do a card trick where I ‘guess’ the card you’re thinking of, clearly I’m not really guessing – were that the case I should be taken to laboratories and experimented upon. However, if I’ve told you at the beginning that I’ve not got any stooges behind you telling me the card, and then have a stooge behind you telling me the card, I’ve just lied to you, and achieved nothing. If I cleverly cause you to pick a certain card (A CARD FORCE – one for the precious magicians out there), or ingeniously learn your card through whatever means, I have tricked you. Not lied to you. Yes, it’s a bit ambiguous. I might say I’m reading your mind, or that you are drawn to a particular card by my actions, or whatever. But you know that’s bullshit – that’s all impossible, and you know it. The difference is between lying about what’s possible, and lying about what’s impossible.

Brown started off reasonably well. His first series was a new approach – one that Blaine’s special had created room for in the schedules. A man, wandering the streets, achieving extraordinary effects. But this time, instead of guessing the card they’d picked, he was causing people to forget information, make choices they seemingly had no control over, and influence people’s minds. Mind Control. Except, of course, none of it was. It was just the same old tricks wrapped up in some really nice new patter… for the most part. So when he has the advertising executives design the exact advert for a taxidermist that he had in the sealed envelope, and then showed us the super-subliminal journey the pair had been on to get to the location, we think two things: 1) Wow, he controlled their minds with similar effects used in advertising, how clever; 2) He showed us how he did it – we know the truth. Of course, both are complete bollocks. There’s no reason to believe that he achieved the result in any way different than the manner in which sealed envelope tricks are usually achieved. How many times have wee seen a perfectly accurate prediction located in an envelope and not thought, “Gosh, they must have seen an awful lot of Seven of Hearts on their journey to the studio that day.” But hey, it’s fun to believe in the impossible, and so we allow ourselves that thrill. Whatever. The problem arises when it comes to the effects that rely on lying. Take, for instance, people on the tube forgetting their destination. He babbles on about how things on the tip of your tongue can be lost, and he’s figured out how to achieve this. Rubbish. Clearly he has no such power, or again, laboratories. (This should be the constant mantra when assessing tricks – if it really happened, should he be in universities being studied as a superhuman?). So what is he doing? There’s no card force, no sleight of hand – there’s no real option either than to believe him when he says he has powers of Neuro Linguistic Programming (which slightly unhelpfully doesn’t exist), or that he’s lying and cheating. Troubling.

Then came his specials. Oh dear. Suddenly he seemed to be going the way of Blaine. Beautifully subtle sleights and cunning ideas replaced with big, stupid lies. Just as Blaine did not sit in that box for 40 days (“We have to put the crane up to the box and the curtain around it for… um, and important reason. Now go away.”), Brown did not risk shooting himself with a revolver. Yes, the build up was fun, with all those tricks with the group in some nonsensical pantomime of selecting a volunteer, and certainly the atmopshere of the trick was remarkable – breath held as he pulled the trigger. But he blew it twice. The first time was the ‘incorrect’ empty barrel into the straw bails. You can be sure that if something goes ‘a bit wrong’ in such a trick, but not enough wrong to spoil the result, then the whole thing is a fake. A hint of weakness is supposed to make the whole thing more believeable – this can go wrong! It must be real! But it’s so painfully orchestrated that it just reveals the script. The second thing was NO ONE IS GOING TO RISK SHOOTING THEMSELF IN THE HEAD ON TELEVISION. He deserves credit for having created such an atmosphere for what was, ultimately, the stupidest hour of television since the last Eastenders extended special. And of course it was subsequently revealed as a hoax from start to finish. Fine, again, whatever. But why bother?

This new series, A Trick of the Mind, at first filled me with joy. I’d pretty much written him off on the basis of his continued claims of NLP and mind control in interviews – something else that steps widely over the line between Trick and Lie. Ask someone even as wretched as Paul Daniels whether he has superhuman abilities or is good at magic tricks, and he won’t hesitate before telling you the truth. He won’t say how he does it, but he won’t lie about psycho-babble rubbish. Ask LYING CHEATING MAGICIAN Uri Geller how he achieves his effects, and he will LIE about being a psychic, and ask you to buy one of his magic tents. So, when Derren Brown is asked how he achieves his effects, and he lies about NLP, into which category should he be put? Exactly.

But wait! Suddenly something new has happened.

At the beginning of this new series, Brown annouces, “This programme fuses magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship. I achieve the results you’ll see through a varied mixture of those techniques. At no point are actors or stooges used in this show.”

Magic! At last, the truth. Yes, psychology is certainly used. When doing a basic trick like the rings in the boxes (three gimmicked boxes, three rings, when the punters open the box it’s empty, when opened correctly, a ring is revealed) it’s important for the participant to feel as though they are being manipulated so they don’t think too hard about other possibilities. That’s the misdirection bit. Excellent stuff, and I relaxed and enjoyed. Effects like the staring contest, where people are suddenly and wretchedly afraid to look at him, or people’s willingly handing over their wallets and keys in the street still trouble me greatly. University laboratories. But there were many really nice tricks happening, and a new-found humility in the presentation. Gone were the ridiculous attempts to appear as Mr Serious Face, all intense and brooding. Instead he was aimiable and silly, recognising his own ridiculousness. I became even more relaxed. Sure, he was deceiving me left, right and centre, but at least he wasn’t lying about it so much.

And then Friday’s episode. The entire second half taken up with the most stupid, cruel and pointless trick imaginable. Derren develops a computer game that can cause people to fall asleep when they play. Right. Not a great start – an obviously impossible feat on which to base the whole thing. Then once his hapless victim miraculously fell into a coma induced by Brown’s instructions to “have another two flashes now,” Brown kidnaps him in front of his gormless friends, takes him to an empty building, puts a pretend gun in his hands and has him wake up to find himself attacked by zombies. The man is a bit muddled, and then scared, and then shoots at them, screaming and swearing, rather than the slightly more obvious response expected of someone finding themself surrounded by people in zombie costumes – saying, “Hello, stop being silly.” Then when it all looks too much, Brown rushes in, gives him a coma-inducing cuddle, and then takes him back to the pub, props him up in front of the arcade machine again (this is one of those comas where you can stand up sometimes), and he wakes up (by the magical power of klaxon) and believes it to have all been an intense gaming experience.

Oh, for the love of God.

It’s hard to imagine a more stupid conceit, or how he could have fit in any more flaws into the entire affair.

1) Occasional flashing lights do no induce comas (Yes, high frequency flashing can cause epileptic fits, amongst the epileptic – that has nothing to do with this).
2) People do not fall asleep standing up.
3) If those people were his friends, might they have reacted in the slightest way to
a) His falling asleep
b) Derren Brown appearing in a room with a camera crew
c) Their friend being kidnapped
d) The astonishing cruelty of the trick
4) Klaxons do not remove mystical comas
5) Being given a hug is unlikely to have the same magical effect as the magical computer game
6) People wouldn’t shoot at pretend zombies – they’d wait to see if they were real, as stupid as that might be

And so on.

So that means Brown leaves two options:

a) He defies all known science
b) He is using actors and stooges despite having said he would not

Hmmmm, which could it be?

Which means everything on the programme is now a lie. There’s no reason to ever believe he isn’t using actors. Every impressive effect? Actors. Every celebrity endorsement of a trick? A lie. Why believe otherwise, as he’s clearly shown that the statements at the beginning, the laid down rules, are lies. When he somehow knows the word being thought of, it’s because he arranged it with that guy earlier. You want to believe otherwise? Why? He’s already shown that he has no problems with using actors. Why go to all the effort of achieving a great effect when you can lie to the camera, and have a mate say the word you asked him to. The lazy, stupid conman.

There’s a fine line to walk for magicians. Brown has decided to spend his time on the wrong side of it, and has some rather unpleasant company.


Edit: Oh gosh now, this is embarrassing. I appear to have made a terrible mistake above. It turns out that Uri Geller is not a LYING CHEATING MAGICIAN, but in fact a real, proper psychic. Why this sudden change in conviction? I’ll tell you. It was from reading the validating and absolute proof by Dr. Edgar Mitchell for the 267th time:

“Uri Geller has ability to perform amazing feats of mental wizardry is known the world over…Uri Geller is not a magician. Uri Geller is using capabilities that we all have and can develop with exercise and practice.”
– Dr. Edgar Mitchell,
Apollo 14 Astronaut and sixth man to walk on the moon

I don’t know about you, but I’m not about to doubt the words of the sixth man to walk on the moon. So to apologise to genuine real psychic and not LYING CHEATING MAGICIAN Uri Geller, I would like to help him advertise his latest miraculous gift to the world: The Uribike.

28 Comments for this entry

  • Andrew Grafham

    I think it would be more correct for him to say “This programme fuses magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection, showmanship AND HYPNOTISM”. I don’t think there’s actors or stooges involved though. Seeing as he started out as a hypnotist, it shouldn’t come as a great surprise that he uses it in the show.

  • John

    Yes, but seeing as hypnotism doesn’t exist in the form people pretend, and relies on the subject’s willingness to enter a state of hyper-suggestivity, that doesn’t explain anything of that trick. If he was ‘hypnotised’ beforehand, then everything I said remains valid – he was a stooge.

  • Festoon

    “Derren develops a computer game that can cause people to fall asleep when they play. Right. Not a great start – an obviously impossible feat on which to base the whole thing.”

    You not played any of the Final Fantasy Series, have you?

  • bob arctor

    I shall be honest, hating the man I did not watch that trick, but read about it on Prey’s World forums.
    I do science. I think sciency. Flashes make people hypnotised? Games are bad in that way etc.
    If that is true then THERE WOULD BE STUDIES. He would go to a University, and do EXTENSIVE REPEATED REDOABLE STUDIES. What you said about the lab etc is so true. He would now be employed in Iraq sending out flashes saying “Stop using weapons, stop being insurgents” on the TV and on public screens etc.
    Now what are people going to think?
    Games = confuse reality.
    Magicians do not tackle big things. They do little things with cards. Derren tells us big things. Like Uri Geller. Big things that defy science etc.
    You get the point.

  • always_black

    “Derren develops a computer game that can cause people to fall asleep when they play. Right. Not a great start – an obviously impossible feat on which to base the whole thing.”

    I admire your restraint, but expect to see the repressed gag in a future They’re Back.

  • bob arctor

    As in THE always black????

  • DAT500

    Strangely enough, my old bandmate, Mick Grierson, was in charge of “developing the game”. I’m completely with you on Brown as a fraudster, Mick’s keeping schtum, of course, lots of legal stuff going on there.

  • John

    As in THE DAT500????

  • John

    Having read his blog, and the stuff he links to, I find myself deeper in that love/hate place.

    That people are writing stuff like

    “After I sat bolt upright and rewound the tape to watch it again, I noticed he said something like “Picture your *favourite* card” – which of course by using the word “favourite”, suggest “liked” or “loved”. Apart from Motorhead, who has a favourite card ?! And somewhere close to that word he must have said “free” as in “feel free to pass them around”.”

    makes me think he’s brilliant. He’s doing regular dull old card tricks, and people are rewriting their understanding of the human mind. It’s fantastic. And all credit to him for it. The better you can disguise the force, the more entertaining the trick.

    What makes me really sad is that he doesn’t just stick to this sort of thing, but feels the need to wander down the Blaine/Copperfield road of great big stupid rubbish.

    It’s a shame your friend has so deeply bought into it. I’d really like to see this one exposed properly, as I think it would force Brown to stick to what he’s good at in future.

    Most sad is that Paul Zenon remains mostly unnoticed, despite doing far better ‘street magic’ than the rest of them.

  • always_baulk

    Nah, it was a misprint.

  • Bobsy

    I really liked the russian roulette thing he did. Not the actual shooting itself, which was self-indulgent bullshit, but the process of elimination, which was the show proper. And like all magic, I only ever get entertainment out of it if it’s explained how it works afterwards.

  • John

    If there’s an explanation afterwards, you can guarantee that it has nothing to do with how the trick was done. It’s part of the misdirection.

    So, f’rinstance, the trick with Simon Pegg and his BMX. Which is more likely – that Brown can change Pegg’s mind by saying “Be My eX-girlfriend Simon” and drawing some circles in the air, or that they switched the note in his wallet to say “leather jacket”? The more he tries to convince you how it was done, the less you think about the far more obvious and reasonable solution.

  • Andy Krouwel

    Good old Uri Geller.
    But why just a bike? He should be more ambitious.

    With his powers he could TAKE OVER THE COUNTRY.

    Of course we’d then have to put up with being called the ‘Uri nation’, which might have some drawbacks.

  • antichaos

    “A person tells one lie, therefore everything that person has every said is a lie”

    uh no.

    I didn’t see the zombie game episode in question, but I have watched the rest and been mostly ‘meh’ about it. The card trick he did on Jonathan Ross was almost certainly done using cards with faces on both sides, but I think the basic psychological manipulation he does is real. The weirder control effects are most likely hypnosis, which really is a lot more powerful than most people think. Suggestable people can be placed in trance states remarkable easily.

  • John

    If you’re going to use quote marks, could you quote? I certainly don’t say anything of the sort.

    If he used involuntary hypnosis (which doesn’t exist) on that man in the pub, then he adds another awful crime to the horrific nature of the act.

  • Richard

    “The weirder control effects are most likely hypnosis, which really is a lot more powerful than most people think.”

    No, because most people think of it as guys with watches magically persuading people to abandon reality in favour of clucking like chickens, which is the nonsense.

    “A person tells one lie, therefore everything that person has every said is a lie”

    No, more like:

    “A person tells one lie, therefore that person loses the right to complain when people call bullshit on him for doing it again”

  • bob arctor

    Does it count as magic if he (deliberatly or no) cock up with the gun. If you shoot the sandbag IMHO you MUST then shoot all the others into your head. You had your chance, blew it, now go shoot yourself please…
    Otherwise he could just shoot all 7 rounds into the sandbag and call it magic or something.

  • Max the Felicitous

    “he says he has powers of Neuro Linguistic Programming (which slightly unhelpfully doesn’t exist)”, actually it does exist – it’s just a load of bollocks. It was founded by Richard Bandler and John Grinder in the late 60’s.

    My sister did some filming with him in the last Trick of the Mind series, so I know exactly how he does some of his stuff, but I still like his shows. Except for the zombie computer game routine, which was just ridiculous.

  • John

    I’ve deleted two comments. Just to explain why: Max’s reply gave away how a trick worked, rather than displayed how Brown was going against his claims made at the beginning of the programme. It was my fault for encouraging him to do this, and not expressing what I meant properly.

    I’m not a fan of editing comments, so if Max wishes to repost the same, I won’t remove it again. I just feel I unfairly encouraged him to needlessly spoil a nice magic trick, and in doing so put his sister in an unfair position.

    If anyone desperately wants to know, email me. But I think it’s more fun to not know how effects are achieved.

  • Clare

    “If he used involuntary hypnosis (which doesn’t exist)”

    Is that a fact, or is it one of John’s opinions that he presents as facts?

    My old psychology teacher claimed he could perform hypnosis. He said it was kind of like making someone drunk and that you couldn’t make anyone do anything that they wouldn’t do after a few pints, and so the majority of the stage hypnotist’s act is working out who would act the silliest when drunk.

    I don’t know if he was telling the truth, but I’m inclined to believe him because he had a professional reputation as a clinical psychologist that would have been destroyed if we got the chance to expose him as a fraud. So I doubt he would have taken that risk just to make an A level class take interest in his lesson. Then again we were a difficult class to keep interested!So who knows.

    Anyway, what is your evidence for it not existing John?

  • Richard

    Leaving aside the bunk, humbug and romanticised flapdoodle that is the intricate mystery of hypnosis, doesn’t that pretty much tie precisely into the ‘no involuntary’ thing?

    (The first part ties in with what I’ve heard from a couple of hypnotists I’ve chatted to in the past – that basically it’s not that much different to the kind of exercises any amateur dramatics class might do, and largely entails giving people permission to goof around on stage)

  • John

    Key question: what is your proof that it does exist?

    I really want to see the results of properly observed scientific studies using double-blind tests, with all data published. Rather than anecdotal evidence.

    In any case, I said “involuntary hypnosis”, rather than hypnosis at all. I am convinced the former is hocus pocus. The latter I wait to learn about, as I’ve yet to see any useful proof.

  • John

    Yes, as Randi puts it, ” In any case, hypnosis is merely an agreement between the subject and the operator that they will fantasize together, nothing more. It may well have some limited value as a psychiatric tool, but it’s not a “power,” it’s not a “force,” it’s a role-playing game.”

  • John

    Here you go – the Skeptic’s Dictionary entry on hypnosis:

    Key phrases:

    “We know the greatest predictor of hypnotic responsiveness is what a person believes about hypnosis.”

    “Baker claims that what we call hypnosis is actually a form of learned social behavior.”

    “When one strips away these dramatic dressings what is left is something quite ordinary, even if extraordinarily useful: a self-induced, “psyched-up” state of suggestibility.”

  • Max the Felicitous

    I suppose you’re right about not spoiling it, John.

    Well, elaborating without giving anything away, I would say this: Derren does lie, cheat, and even steal, but he still has to be credited as the most innovative mentalist (as psychological magicians call themselves) that has ever lived, and a fantastic entertainer.

    I’ve been a fan since the first Mind Control special and watched him for over 5 years both live and on TV, and yet his flagrant disregard for others never ceases to amaze me. For example, the chess routine in Trick of the Mind series 1 was actually taken from one of the founding-fathers of mentalism, Corinda, and not credited anywhere. Corinda’s book “13 Steps To Mentalism” is generally held to be definitive beginner’s guide, and several different chess routines are laid out in it.

    [Incidently, I don’t think much of that particular book, as it doesn’t really hold up in today’s mentalism scene. Other books, such as “Psychological Subtleties” by Steve Shaw (aka “Banachek”, the dominant force in mentalism over in America), and “Miracles Of Suggestion” by Kenton Knepper, detail effects which are more suited to today’s audiences, but the routines are fairly difficult to carry off. Email me if you want more book references.]

    The major difference between mentalism in the days of Corinda and mentalism now is the spin that the effects are given. From the Victorian era, when mentalism took off, to the late-90’s mentalists usually explained their “powers” by saying that they were psychic. The forces at work were always supernatural, and sometimes a few routines of the seance type were included. Derren changed all that by passing off his skills as psychological, and in my opinion that’s where his genius lies. He reinterpreted old mentalist standards, such as envelope predictions, and capitalised on the modern pop-psychology phenomenon.
    Neuro-Linguistic Programming [again, email for book references], and its founders Bandler and Grinder, are icons in pop-psychology. NLP was founded in the late-60’s as a kind of tangent off the work that Bandler and Grinder were doing in linguistics and hypnosis with the famous hypnotist Milton H. Erikson. They saw that they could sell the techniques that they learnt off Erikson to businessmen who wanted to be more influential. Of course, Erikson’s techniques were virtually all based on hypnosis, which would be no good to these aspiring businessmen, so they ended up writing whole books based around bollocks like “eye-accessing cues” and “matching predicates”. After the first dozen books or so, the mantle was taken up by every other Californian, and hundreds of books were published, with countless seminars by so-called “masters”. These days NLP is a slush of half-baked ideas and crack-pot theories, which is why Derren Brown can quote NLP without having the public realise that he’s just bullshitting.

    A lot of his routines do involve hypnotism, though. You’d be surprised how powerful rapid-induction hypnosis and suggestion can be. I’d recommend Bandler and Grinder’s original book here, “Patterns of the Hypnotic Techniques of Milton H. Erikson, MD”, volumes 1 and 2. Whilst the routine with Simon Pegg was a bit farfetched for hypnosis, the last series’ routine with the film student where Derren makes himself “invisible” isn’t that hard to carry off if you’ve set the mood, and the numerous routines he does on the radio and in restaurants, where he sticks a persons hand to the table and then makes them forget their name, are standards. You’ll notice that whenever Derren wants to take the volunteer into a slightly deeper trance he takes their hand, usually from a fake handshake. That’s a hypnosis standard, too – Erikson and Bandler both had their own versions of the Handshake Induction.

    I’ve now completely forgotten where I was going with all of this, so I’m just going to stop.

    Oh yeh, Derren lies about stooges, but he still puts on a good show. And this comment box is really small, isn’t it?

  • Richard

    “The major difference between mentalism in the days of Corinda and mentalism now is the spin that the effects are given. From the Victorian era, when mentalism took off, to the late-90’s mentalists usually explained their “powers” by saying that they were psychic”

    Changing the lie doesn’t stop it being one. There’s nothing special about someone who can lie – look, I’m really the Queen of England and my hair is made of green cheese. Can I have some money now?

    A good magician plays fair. Anything goes, as long as it’s actually a trick. Not getting into the box? Fair, because they have to stop you seeing them not do it. Stooges, camera tricks and the like? Not fair. It’s just a lie. There’s no magic to that, no matter how stylish the wrapper.