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Derren Brown: Magician or Charlatan?

Stage and television magician Derren Brown is something of an enigma. That is not to say his ‘magic’ or his stage persona is enigmatic. It is enigmatic, but there is no such thing as magic. Enigma is the path taken by the con artist that wants to entertain. There is only trickery and the presentational flair to make the perfectly possible seem like an aberration of nature’s laws. Brown is good at both. He is talented at sleight of hand. He is talented at manipulating individuals and using suggestion. He has the storytelling skill to gild a simple illusion with half an hour of anticipation. Magicians like Brown are inevitably enigmatic by necessity, if their illusions are to be entertaining. But the enigma of Brown runs deeper than showmanship. Brown sometimes does things that are far from necessary. In particular, he has a wonderful talent for exposing sham, when he wants to. At other times, he is the opposite. He can wrap up the most straightforward of tricks with pseudo-scientific codswallop. So what is Brown: president of debunkers or crown prince of bunkum?

As the opening illusion for his new television series, Brown correctly ‘predicted’ the numbers to be drawn by the National Lottery. I say he ‘predicted’ the numbers because, of course, he did no such thing. He just implied he had predicted the numbers in advance, waited until the numbers were drawn, then used some simple deception to reveal a previously hidden ‘prediction’ which perfectly corresponded to the lottery draw. All of that is fair enough. It is yet another variation on a very old theme: “think of a number, don’t tell me, I’ll write it down… what number did you think of?, look at the number I wrote on the paper… wow!!” What made the trick slightly different was that Brown promised to reveal how he did the trick. The disappointment was that, in the follow-up show, he did no such thing. No secret was revealed. He just talked nonsense and showed some other tricks that had nothing to do with his original illusion.

Brown claimed to have predicted the lottery numbers using a combination of automatic writing and the wisdom of crowds. The prediction was not revealed until after the draw, because Brown was not allowed to. Two straightforward observations should be made. To begin with, the National Lottery cannot stop people from predicting the National Lottery and telling everyone their prediction. Let me give you an example. 8, 10, 22, 27, 30, 39. That is my prediction for the next National Lottery. If it turns out wrong, then roll it over to the next lottery and keep on doing so until eventually it turns out right. Now everybody knows my prediction, the National Lottery’s secret police force should be banging on my door, desperately trying to shut me up, though even they do not know what the results will be… and hence should have nothing to fear from my tomfoolery. Wiser people in the audience would also have noticed Brown was not daft enough to tell the particular ‘crowd’ of gullible people their collective prediction. He added up their numbers, divided by the number of people involved, but did not share the ‘prediction’. For all we know, he added up their numbers, divided by the number of people involved, subtracted twelve and multiplied by the number he first thought of, before throwing his irrelevant arithmetic in the bin. The important part of the trick was not to reveal the prediction prior to the actual lottery draw, even to the people making the so-called prediction.

All of this is fine enough, but Brown publicized himself by saying he would reveal how he performed a trick, and then did not reveal how he performed a trick. What a very tedious lie, neither magical nor enigmatic. You might as well applaud makers washing powder that claims to clean clothes whiter than white, but actually leaves them grey.

Perhaps realizing how much of a risk he was taking, Brown even gave a comical, and equally irrelevant, spiel about how he did NOT do the trick. He did NOT do the trick by having an insider rig the National Lottery. Presumably the denial was meant to deceive those people who had seen through his ‘wisdom of the crowds’ codswallop into thinking the ‘wink, wink, nudge, nudge’ denial was the real revelation. But it was not a revelation either. It was perfectly accurate denial in that Brown is obviously not the ringleader of a conspiracy to rig the National Lottery. Any insider willing to rig the National Lottery, and ruin their career in the process, would expect a much bigger payout than could be offered by Brown’s television production budget. On top of that, if any person seriously implied that the lottery could be tainted, then Camelot, the business that runs the lottery, would sue that person to the point of extinction. Brown is telling the truth when he says he did NOT rig the lottery draw. It is also true that the moon is NOT made of cheese, that the streets of London are NOT paved with gold, and that I am NOT a monkey’s uncle.

Brown augmented his program by showing the ‘wisdom of crowds’ doing a reasonable job of guessing earlier lottery draws. In each example, the likely explanations of how the trick was performed are mundane, and have nothing to do with the final illusion. Based on previous tricks, Brown could have simply performed the stunt with multiple groups, and only shown the results that came out well, or he would have planted one or two assistants into the group, and had them do some mental arithmetic and submit numbers that would alter the group’s totals and hence decide the result. My guess is he used the latter technique. A similar trick in one of his stage shows involved audience members – probably including Brown’s helpers – writing ‘random’ numbers that would total to give a predetermined answer.

Brown said he would reveal how the trick was performed, but he did not do that. The most common explanation for how the trick was performed involves TV camera trickery. That seems very plausible, given the trick was performed in front of a camera crew but not an audience. Why else would Brown, stage magician, be scared of performing in front of a live audience? What clinches it for me is that, in the early shorts, the leftmost ball appears to be on level with the other balls. Just before the prediction is ‘revealed’, this same ball is distinctly higher than the others. Somehow, it is now squeezed between the side of the stand and next ball to it, leaving a little gap underneath it. How did that happen? Was there a minor earth tremor, or a very major quantum fluctuation? It is more likely that somebody, hidden by a split-screen camera trick, was in a bit of a rush to change the balls during the seconds between the lottery announcement and Brown turning them around to show the ‘prediction’. The balls had to be placed tightly within a stand so there would be no clue from their having rolled around. Unfortunately for Brown these balls were a little too tightly packed in this particular stand, causing the leftmost one to stand proud and reveal how the trick was performed. The real trick was in creating the illusion of a handheld camera filming the entire event, by cleverly swapping between a shot of a real handheld camera and one that had been placed on a stand and programmed to perform predetermined motorized movements that mimic the shakes and judders of a human cameraman. Why do this? Because then you could film a precise match between both halves of the split screen, whilst using the shakes and twitches to help hide the transitions where the splitscreen is in use.

Instead of making any real revelations about his latest trick, Brown talked about a hitherto unknown ‘deep maths’ and encouraged the audience to believe in superstitious nonsense. He was a whisker away from endorsing a latter-day variation of numerology. If he had to fill another ten minutes of airtime, he may have started talking about the innate clairvoyant powers we all possess, and all sorts of other balderdash. Compare Brown’s deception in this show to some of the performances he has given previously. In the past, Brown has used a masterful combination of truthfulness and powers of suggestion to undermine nonsense whilst generating results that both entertain and startle. Brown has persuaded people he can talk to the dead, by picking up on hints and reactions from the audience. In doing so, he prefaced his act with an explanation that he has no special powers. Instead of listening to the dead, Brown said he was reading the audience, but many in the audience rejected this truth and preferred a supernatural explanation for what occurred. In another show, Brown convinced people there was foolproof system for gambling, only to later reveal that he had bet every possible option and only highlighted the examples where he won. For example, he showed how to toss a coin so you get ten heads in a row. To do it, you just toss a coin repeatedly until you get a lucky sequence of ten heads. No mystery, only probability. In Brown’s case, it took nine hours of filming before he produced the desired sequence on film. In The Heist Brown showed how a skilled manipulator can pick the most suggestible people from a group, then train and educate them to behave differently and respond to subconscious stimuli. The end result was that three out of four ordinary people performed a hold-up which they believed was real at the time. Though disturbing on one level, the results are well known to any student of human nature. Whether the Milgram Experiment, suicide bombers or the Manson family, there is a litany of demonstrations about how ‘ordinary’ people can be influenced to do the most terrible of crimes. In all of these shows, Brown has revealed himself a talented enough storyteller to not need to lie in order to entertain. Or rather, he can let the audience in on how the lie works, and intrigue and amaze even more as a result. It may not be magic, but is much more impressive.

One Response

  1. Generally I’ve enjoyed Derren Brown’s TV programmes in the past. The Lottery episode was a massive disappointment to me – and presumably everyone who has any video editing skills. I guessed from the set-up, in the first 5 minutes that he was going to use a split screen effect, augmented by fake handheld camera movement, and he did. (The only reason to have a camera shot from rear of the studio was to reinforce the idea that camera one was handheld throughout).
    We went to see the enigma stage show. He is undoubtedly a great showman, but I was glad that I hadn’t been one of the many audience members who wasted their time by going to the edge of the stage in the interval to write a list of their 5 favourite things – clearly from the ‘reveal’ at the end of the show (explained in a McFly pre-recorded video)- none of this information was used.
    Apart from the dubious ethics of some of his tv tricks (e.g. the ‘out of the body’ car accident illusion), my main criticism is his assertion that what he does is ‘part illusion, part psychology, part mind control’ etcetera. This is only marginally true. It was clear from seeing his act, that what he does is 98% standard illusion, and 2% suggestion. People are fooled into believing they’ve been subtly manipulated by words and images in full view – when in fact he’s more often than not simply used illusion. This is a little disingenuous.

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