From the most ordinary of beginnings in the clutches of Croydon in Surrey, a young University student by the name of Derren Brown decided on a life changing career in hypnosis purely by chance. After an inspirational dip into such a ‘job,’ he became fascinated with psychology, illusion and magic, yet staying firm that anything to do with ‘the other side of life,’ as Colin Fry affectionately terms it, is a belief best left to the believers. As time went on, he delved into deeper questionable theories. Quickly learning magic, he embarked on mind reading and suggestive techniques to prove that the human mind was easily ‘suggestible.’ Eagerly focusing on how a person can be predictable in thought, decision and activity, Derren Brown first came to our cynical screens in the form of his first television series, ‘Mind Control,’ aired in 2000, which explored these possibilities.
Energetic, entertaining and dusted with characteristics of Victoriana and Music Hall, this modern day Vaudeville wonder man comes complete with a smile warm enough to melt even the most sceptical of hearts. Using humour, charm and grace, he becomes an easy focus of attention. The eyes of the gazing audience are quickly taken in by his mesmerising being, so much so that we are totally under his spell.
It was no wonder to a perplexed television audience, that these first shows gathered astonished praise and equal scepticism. When the generation of the audience and magician are the same, one can’t help thinking of the mediocre Paul Daniels as a figure to compare any future talent with. Who else did we have in those days? Derren Brown is, without saying, a far cry from the sword throwing Hans Moretti and the fumblings of Mr Daniels, who used his assistant as a simple and visual distraction, so when we looked upon Derren Brown, we could only stand in disbelief. From cold sweats of a possibly fatal shot to the brain in ‘Russian Roulette’ (Ch4, Oct 2003) to appearing to cut off the oxygen to the brain to walk on broken glass in ‘Something Wicked Comes This Way’ (Ch4 Dec 29, 2006) we have witnessed pain manoeuvring illusions that have made us gasp, cower, cry, laugh and even at times, jump to the safety of behind the sofa.
‘Mind Control’ Comprised of six programmes to wet a tricksters appetite, he skims the surface of a human being with such depth that he merely entices us with his unique style of ‘magical’ entertainment that only became apparent to his audience over the coming years. When one looks back on this, ever so primitive series of DB skills, (rather like a visually, circus paraded C.V,) it only becomes clear to us how much he has ‘grown’ with us over the last , now, seven years.
The programmes were shown in 2000 as follows but not in the right order of broadcast…
Powers of Suggestion…
Pinpointing a theme where upon he presents himself to us in nothing far from the style of American nut, David Blaine, he immediately captures the ‘street theme’ of displaying his suggestive powers over the most diversely, mutant cynics – the reluctant shopper.
A Saturday afternoon, wandering around the Whitgift Centre in Croydon has never been a mind altering experience, especially if you live close by, yet the ‘off the cuff’ tones of Derren Brown gently coming across the public speakers shouldn’t have made any cause for alarm. Yet, whilst no one actually noticed, the man himself emerged from the top of the food hall with microphone in hand and a trusty cameraman at his side, he begins what appears to be a dull, non eventful monologue about a special offer situated by the lifts. On mentioning the lifts, he drops in a subtle comment about stopping suddenly and asking everyone interested in the offer to put their right arm up in the air on the word ‘now.’ Allowing the fading in of some creepy music, the shoppers stun themselves as well as each other in realising that they are all standing around with their right arms in the air.
The idea behind this suggestive persuasion is a fairly simple one; we are born into a world that his already suggestive in itself. Many mind theorists had already decided that we live in a social climate where we are ’rounded up’ mentally and socially. The extremist of this would be George Orwell’s 1984 and the Big Brother theory that we are ‘conditioned’ to think and act in a certain way that is regarded as acceptable as we are taught these structures from our surroundings. Here, the microphone is the authority, just like telling a child not to go near the oven when it’s on as it is hot, a crowd of wandering shoppers are relaxed and hearing instructions subconsciously and act accordingly in their conscious world. It is known as the ‘thinking in a box’ theory.
Sounds easy, so what do we have as a result? A miserable afternoon around Croydon’s dullest shops turns into a spectacle of wonderment and intrigue. For once locals didn’t have to rely on hoodies invading Burger King for equal delight…
Seeing the Future…
In a programme aiming at the nervous sector of the sitting at home audience, DB focused on clairvoyance, but not how you and I would know it. Whilst having the ability to grab complete and utter strangers in the the middle of the street, presumably still in London, (which is not a great idea on the best of days,) he engages on a tour of how he can tell these innocuous shoppers tell about themselves that they could only know. How does he do this, well, if you can follow the last explanation, then it shouldn’t be do difficult; this approach to ‘mind reading’ is actually a trick used by more people around us than we care to think, called ‘cold reading.’ No, it is not the Gas man coming round, but the simple way of asking a question and getting the right response. If it can be seen it generalist terms, one can tell someone something about themselves and wait for a physical answer; the way they respond in nervous laughter etc, acts as a strong guide as to how that person is feeling or what they do for a living….and in conclusion in this programme…?
Mr Brown is perhaps the only man alive who can stop the only happy, smiling Ethnic man in Carnaby Street who works in a police station.
Most wouldn’t have cringed at being called ‘shifty’….
The Art of Distraction…
A programme in which DB plays the Artful Dodger by ‘fleecing’ some unsuspecting chap haplessly sitting on a bench on a platform, waiting for a train. DB takes his watch, tie and wallet out of his inside pocket, all on account of handing it back to poor Anthony after the experiment had concluded.
So perhaps Channel Four might have received a few complaints when it was shown that Derren Brown managed to swindle the winning ticket out of a cashier at a dog track (probably Wimbledon) but this ‘skill’ had already been handed to us a century ago in the form of the Artful Dodger. Orphaned children in a Dickensian world were used by thieves to pick the pockets of wealthy gentlemen because they were small, nimble and unassuming. Although these attributes don’t work well for DB, the theory is still there, by cheaply, if you like, distracting the victim with one hand and allowing him to focus his mind on something other than your thieving hand, so much can actually be achieved as being fleeced is the last thing they expect is happening to them…
Now, now, come on, hand it back…
Memories are made of this…
DB is unwisely let loose on a casino den and wins (naturally) above everyone one else at the table. How? By placing little red stickers on certain everyday objects around the room, of course!
By focusing on a room full of clutter, it should be easy to play a game of blackjack. As DB allows us to say, ‘why didn’t I think of that,’ a few times, he shows us how you recognise objects around the room and relate them to a certain card. You do this 52 times, of course. Great, if you have 52 objects in the room that remind you instinctively of a particular card. Each time the card it used, you remove a red sticker…
Since your opponents are bound to notice you hoping about the room removing little red stickers off the Wedgwood, we get to wonder if Mr Brown is telling us how he really wins two and a half grand at the table in the space of ten minutes or is he pulling our legs?
If you could do it, would you really tell everyone else about it? So this is the thinking behind it all; He imagines the room and all the objects in it, (of course!). It is a feature in his series that shows his great skill in memory, procedure and focus on each card that it is dealt and striking it off an imaginary list. A craft that was used by the Greeks from around 82 BC…
Well, who the Hell can remember back that far..!?
Illusion or miracle…?
Again, DB stuns the English speaking world at a posh black tie party full of debutants and young conservatives with parents with too much money (or the Oxford University Ball, in other words). Perhaps on hindsight, the last person you would invite to such a shin dig would be Derren Brown especially if he has been clutching a black envelope in his hand all evening, and then suddenly asks for everyone’s attention. The agreeable young Stephen Fry wanna bie steps up to be blind folded, (perhaps only the second time in his life, the first being, to choose a title). DB offers the rest of the crowd to take a look at the picture from the envelope without breaking into hysterics. No noise must be given away to the blinded chap by his jolly good chums as they are then asked by DB to scream out in their minds only, the name of the picture on the card. A few sniggers are let out accidentally when they are presented with a picture of a tractor.
Although screaming in ones’ mind is perhaps only a past time that us parents perfect over the years, it is still just as difficult to figure out how before un blind folded, the chap in the chair got the picture right.
On reflection, the tractor boy thought it might have been some art of suggestion before he was originally sat with black cloth over his eyes. We spend the rest of the evening, mildly pondering over how it was done, but this is what we can gather…
A little more tricky to explain, but the general reasoning is what has been labelled since the Victorian times as ‘sixth sense.’ A cop out, it would seem, but there is a definite common ground found in the art of thought transference and what is also known as ‘cryptesthesia.’ This is the basic power of transferring thought onto paper in a sealed envelope. Again, it is the power of suggestion. Hudson in 1893 said that ‘..when suggestion is actively and intelligently employed, it is always effective…’ To write an account of what is a logical explanation for thought transference and in this case, on a wide scale where a room full of people are engaging in the same thought, is fairly unrealistic. We are all capable of powers beyond belief. As DB himself says, he doesn’t claim to be anything or do anything that the rest of us can’t achieve ourselves after careful study and practice.
Okay, so this one does go beyond the realms of sheer human belief. Actually turning pain on and off like a tap it something that would have come in handy during child birth, so why turn it into an art form. Surely, the switching it on should be left in the capable hands of sado masochists. Apart from being a fairly good album by Judas Priest, ‘pain Killer’ takes is into the cliff hanger part of the series, a little something for the audience to chew on until the next show which wouldn’t be on for another year.
So, in this programme, DB gathers together four medical students which drops down to three when one of the girls, suddenly decides that she doesn’t want to participate as soon as the words ‘tooth ache’ are mentioned, a sensible girl. Then by subtle voice and suggestive words, the two of them start to rub their jaws complaining of toothache. The understanding here being that ‘pain is objective,’ once the thought or the idea or the sight of blood it that, that it the point that pain is then felt….
In an instant at a slap of the DB’s hand on the table, the pain is gone. A moment later, after asking permission, our two giddy med students are then shocked once more to find DB threading a needle through the other students hand who is unaware that he feels any pain. Dazed students sit in front of him wondering how the hell he did it. Meanwhile, the forth unparticipating girl is still running…perhaps not.
So the theory is? DB’s answer is again simple; ‘…pain is subjective…’ He believes that you feel pain if you can witness the point of where that pain is being felt. If a finger bleeds, you do not feel that pain until your eyes are directed to the sight of the blood pouring out. That sounds fair enough, so yet again, we are faced with that infamous power of suggestion. Not a feat that you could master in the advert break of Corrie, yet this theory, obviously from years of practice actually works. It has, at times, been proved to be of great use, especially for women experiencing fears of child birth pain. (If only I had known that six years ago, perhaps I wouldn’t have bothered with gas and air,) yet surely this now proposes the question of painkillers in the form of aspirins and the like. Do they work or is it the power of suggestion in out minds that makes us believe that taking it will make the pain go away? Studies of this question crossing over the barriers of science is a conversation best left after a bottle of Jack Daniels at three in the morning…
It is sad, yet it has to be noted that this man who makes you proud to come from near Croydon has also had his fair share of broad critics since the word go. Somehow, what one reads from the severest of sceptics, seems all too complimentary rather than insulting. Brown has, and also makes a point of stating at the beginning of his shows, that ‘..I am often dishonest in my techniques, but always honest about my dishonesty…’ thus showing that he his always willing to be open about any form of category that his audience cares to put him it. He allows us to be open with our own understandings of his illusions at the same time as he is shows us he is also open to questionable arguments. He does not ever label himself as a magician, a hypnotist or psychologist, yet if one was to describe him with these words, he would, I think, blush, and accept them as compliments.
He is whatever you wish for him to be, just the same as he allows us to be what ever he wants us to be in his company. He won’t harm, insult or put anyone in a situation where they would feel threatened or uncomfortable, but if you feel the curiosity take hold a little, he will warmly welcome you to experience the delights he offers. Magical, illusionist or just plain confidence trickster, he is a warm echo from the past of how entertainers of a different century conjured up the senses and the imagination enough to make eyes light up and mouths drop open.
Let us embrace a forgotten era where men inspired us to be amazed at the feats a human mind and body could withstand, from plunging into a tank of water, chained with little way of escape to tricking you out of your last penny, it’s an art that needs to be applauded, in what ever shape it shows itself in.
So, the next time Mr Blaine wants to shut himself in a box somewhere above London without food, water or any means of getting down, I suggest you watch a few re runs of David Copperfield magically making a tiger disappear on stage with his twinkling eyes and equally twinkling teeth.
Yet, if you want something that won’t shock you, or make you work out where all the mirrors are, but entertain you in it’s traditional sense and allow the possibility of perhaps, just for one second, believing, then please allow me put a suggestion of my own into your thoughts;
Mr Derren Brown appears on our stages across the country in another tour this year, do what I have done and buy a ticket…
Mr Brown is currently filming for Channel Four for another series scheduled for Spring this year.
He will be appearing in his one man show this year on tour. For dates, please go to his website, http://www.derrenbrown.co.uk (It is a website that also displays his intriguing and rather unusual caricatures of famous people.)
©Michelle Duffy (sam1942 ciao/dooyoo and anywhere else in cyber space)
Find some highlights of ‘Mind Control’ on the DVD; ‘Derren Brown – Inside Your Mind,’ although an actual DVD of the original series is unavailable.
DVD – amazom.com £62.
Channel Four Shop online – £19.99
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