Having finally seen Derren Brown live for the first time recently, it’s been a good excuse to rewatch a lot of his old TV & stage shows. I own many of them on DVD, but there are also several programmes available on All4, plus he has his own Youtube channel where he generously uploaded some full episodes during the Covid pandemic and has lots of other clips too. Some of his stuff I haven’t seen for a long time, so it’s been a lot of fun to revisit it.
So here’s the first part of a special double bill of descriptions and reviews for Halloween weekend, and here I’m going to describe and review the various TV series that I’ve been rewatching on DVD and online. Naturally there are some spoilers in here, but after all this time I don’t think that matters – even when you know the outcome of some of his shows, given that he nearly always succeeds in his aims, it’s still amazing to see him at work. And none of it’s sponsored, I just wanted to write about it as a fan. So I hope you enjoy!
- Mind Control
- Trick Of The Mind
- Trick Or Treat
- The Events
- Derren Brown Investigates
- The Experiments
Derren Brown is well-known for his incredible trickery, including mind-reading, subconsciously planting his own ideas into people’s heads, manipulating people into doing things that they wouldn’t consider otherwise, and performing a variety of illusions. And, as he states himself, he uses a variety of techniques including magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship. Now and again you can roughly figure out how he does things, and occasionally he even explains what happened. But the majority of the time it’s a complete mystery. Most of his explanations never give you the full story, and a few of his reveals are actually false distractions to throw you off the scent or mess with your head even more.
So he’s very clever, and his tricks get increasingly ambitious and elaborate as his shows go on over the years. There’s often good humour in his act as well, but there are also some tricks, routines & stunts that have a serious or darker theme (though great care is taken to ensure all participants are robust enough to deal with things beforehand and are fine afterwards). There is inevitably some repetition in terms of his style when watching a lot of his work, but there are a seemingly endless variety of scenarios in which his techniques are used, so his shows always feel fresh.
He often explains that he never uses actors or stooges, apart from where they play a role in fooling or manipulating the victim of a particular trick or stunt, and I fully believe that. If it weren’t true, he would have been exposed long ago. And having seen his TV shows, plus a recent live performance in person, it’s clear he doesn’t need to use actors. He knows how to find the people who are most suitable and suggestible for every trick he wants to do, and with big audiences he’ll often ask people questions or get them to perform tasks in order for him to narrow down the field.
So he isn’t all-powerful with everybody, and doesn’t claim to be. He has said himself that there are plenty of people who some or all of his tricks won’t work on, and he even includes occasional examples of tricks failing in his shows to prove the point. It seems safe to assume that being visually impaired limits the possibilities in my case, but I can’t claim it’s impossible either, especially as there’s an impressive routine in one of his early series involving a blind man.
Derren’s first TV show on Channel 4, which brought him to the attention of the masses, saw him performing tricks and illusions with members of the public, and professionals in certain fields, often at iconic locations in London and elsewhere. These include mind-reading in various forms, making people hallucinate things or forget important information, influencing people to do certain things, and playing games that are rigged in his favour. It’s a fun introduction to his work, and very tame compared to some of his later stuff.
This series, and Trick Of The Mind that follows, also has a great theme tune that has become synonymous with Derren even though it’s not used on many of his later shows, though it does occasionally reappear. There are great unofficial remixes of the tune by AlDavisMusic here and here.
Note: This series isn’t to be confused with the Mind Control series Derren made for America in 2007. That show combined clips from his early UK TV shows with new segments filmed in America. It’s not available in the UK, so I haven’t watched it, but it does appear to be on Amazon’s US site for anyone who has access to that.
The show started with 3 hour-long specials in 2000, 2001 & 2002, followed by a full series of 6 half-hour episodes in 2003, which repeated a lot of segments from the specials alongside some new material. The show is available on All4, with every episode apart from the initial 2000 special and the final episode of the series. On Derren’s Youtube channel there are also a few full episodes and several other clips, some of which are from the missing episodes. So by watching the series on All4 and his Youtube clips, I’ve seen pretty much all of it.
I’m not going to list every trick of course, but several are quite memorable, such as the forgetful Tube passengers (including a moment where it doesn’t work), influencing advertising designers, mind-reading with blind Paralympian Bob Matthews, being paid for losing tickets at greyhound racing, the guy putting a needle through his own hand, scaring a girl in the woods and completing a dangerous assault course whilst blindfolded.
Online you can also watch interviews with Derren on The Jonathan Ross Show & RI:SE where he promotes his show.
Inside Your Mind DVD
I also have a DVD about the show called Inside Your Mind. It doesn’t contain the full episodes unfortunately, but it is a decent 75-minute compilation with a lot of the best tricks from the specials and the series, opening with a specially filmed amusing intro by Derren. And there are several extra features too, which are enjoyable to look through:
- Audio Commentary – Derren is joined by series producer Anthony Owen (who sadly died in 2019), as they give little insights into why the tricks work, the origins and inspirations for some of the sequences, behind the scenes anecdotes from the filming, and so on. It’s an interesting, light-hearted chat.
- Unseen Sequences – This section contains a synchronicity trick (2 minutes) that was cut from the dinner party in the series, plus mind-reading at a tea dance (2 minutes) and lie-detecting at a car dealership (4 minutes) that also failed to make the final cut. And in each case there’s an optional commentary by Derren. For the parties the commentary is just an alternate audio track as usual. For the lying car dealers, however, it’s a separate 7-minute clip, as he pauses on each person to explain their giveaway signs of lying, which is quite enlightening.
- Interview – This is a fun 15-minute chat where Derren talks about his act, how he got into it, his influences, his TV show, blind athlete Bob Matthews, SAS veteran Chris Ryan, Sacha Baron Cohen, people’s reactions to his tricks, and other interests like taxidermy and painting.
- The 50 Greatest Magic Tricks – Three of Derren’s tricks from the series featured in this Channel 4 countdown show, which are brought together in this 8-minute compilation, where the clips are commented on by Derren and a few celebrities.
- E4 Mind Control Night – Before the 6-episode series went out in weekly instalments on Channel 4, their sister channel E4 showed all of the episodes as a continuous 3-hour marathon. This amusing 8-minute compilation shows Derren’s specially filmed links between the episodes on that evening.
- Trailers – Here you get seven Channel 4 promos for the show. Two of them last for 40 seconds and are paired with a half-length variation, while the remaining three are short 10-second teasers. They’re nothing special, but they illustrate how the tone of the series was being advertised.
- Laughing Girl Easter Egg – If you let the music and animation play on the main menu, after 30 seconds the Zener cards at the top of the screen flip over to reveal shapes that were used for a mind-reading card trick in the series. That trick isn’t actually on the DVD – but, when the cards turn over, pressing Up on your DVD remote takes you to a 97-second clip showing the full reaction of the girl Derren did the trick with. He watches in amusement as she struggles to comprehend what just happened, and ends up laughing as she calls him weird.
Trick Of The Mind
This show, broadcast in 3 series of 6 half-hour episodes each, continues in a similar vein to Mind Control, with Derren performing illusions for people in the street, children, professionals, and even a few celebrities. I have the DVDs for Series 1 & Series 2, where the episodes are just 24 minutes without the adverts, and there a few extra features. The third series wasn’t released on DVD, but all 3 series are available on All4. There are also lots of clips and a couple of full episodes on Derren’s Youtube channel.
In the first series, set entirely in London, there are a few tricks that appear several times across the episodes, such as the people who are put to sleep when they answer a ringing public telephone, and street games where Derren guesses how many fingers people are holding up or teaches people to read each other’s minds. They are cleverly done, but they do soon feel repetitive.
Beyond that though, there are several other scenes that are quite fun and memorable, including the card trick that impresses Stephen Fry, object selections with Martin Kemp, the forgetful cabbie, playing chess against 9 pros, controlling a girl with a doll, conducting an orchestra without music, a teddy bear trick at a school (where he reveals how he did it), hammering a nail into his nose, word diss-association with a psychologist and influencing a supermarket designer.
The extras on the Series 1 DVD aren’t very substantial, but consist of:
- Audio Commentary – Well, there’s meant to be one. You can turn on the subtitles for it, but the audio track has been omitted in error. A couple of Amazon reviewers highlighted this back in 2007, yet I bought the DVD in 2012 and it still wasn’t working, so I guess it was never fixed. However, 5 of the 6 commentaries are on Youtube, so I’ve listened to them there instead. Derren is joined by a different person in each case, including creative partner Andy Nyman, producer Anthony Owen, director Stefan Stuckert and his brother Dominic Brown. They aren’t always as interesting as the commentaries on Inside Your Mind, as they sometimes struggle to find things to talk about, especially Dominic as he wasn’t involved with the show. But there are some nice insights and moments of banter here and there.
- Unseen Routines – 8 minutes of deleted scenes, with a taxi driver who forgets where Big Ben is, and the mental transmission of music with pianists. Given the other cabbie and the orchestra who were already in the series, it’s easy to see why these were left out, to avoid things feeling too repetitive.
- Interview – A 7-minute chat with Derren where he talks about his favourite moments in the series, gives a bit of explanation about how he put people to sleep over the phone, and talks briefly about his influences and motivations.
- Behind The Scenes – In this 6-minute clip we join Derren and his production crew as they prepare to film a trick with Mo Mowlam for Series 2, and he records a short interview for a TV clip show.
In Series 2 the show settles into its stride more. There’s no repetition across episodes, there’s a bit more focus on longer routines, and he goes out of London to a variety of locations across the UK, including a few seaside resorts. There are also more celebrities involved, as he convinces Simon Pegg that he wants a present he hadn’t asked for (including an insight into how it worked), plays a coincidental card trick with Jonathan Ross and his wife Jane Goldman, gets Mo Mowlam to think of a newspaper story, performs rapid calculations for Jo Whiley, manipulates author Iain Banks into picking a specific word from all of his books, and does a psychic test with impressionist Alistair McGowan & his subject Richard Madeley.
Other impressive and intriguing highlights include an unnerving staring competition, telling people how much money is in their wallets (including one he gets wrong), tricking people into giving him their wallets (with one failed attempt), trapping a lady on a zebra crossing, a card trick with 52 people, identifying phone owners from their ringtones, making a student feel drunk without alcohol (then triggering him in a library with a text message), and the arcade game that becomes a real-life zombie shooting experience (perhaps the most memorable moment of the series).
There are just a couple of extras on the Series 2 DVD, but they’re worth going through:
- Behind The Scenes – An enjoyable 24-minute video diary of Derren and his crew as they get ready to film with Robbie Williams for Series 3. It includes an interview with Derren about Series 2, chats with his PA Coops and director Stefan, a look inside his trailer, the rehearsal, having a laugh during lunch, preparations for filming, and Derren’s photoshoot for Channel 4.
- Audio Commentaries 0n Episodes 1 & 2 – Thankfully the commentaries work on this DVD, where Derren is joined by director Stefan Stuckert and creative partner Andy Nyman for both episodes. There’s a good mix of informative insights and amusing banter, as they all get on very well together, and they acknowledge that they struggled to fill the time for every commentary on the first series DVD, hence only doing 2 on this occasion.
Series 3 is only available on All4. To keep things fresh it has a different stylistic feel in terms of the music and graphics, and has an international flavour with routines filmed across the UK, Europe and America.
Again there are a few celebrities featured in the series, as Derren gets Matt Lucas to perform a card trick, does surprising predictions with Kelly Holmes, sticks long needles in Robbie Williams’ arms, plays a Yes/No game with Stephen Merchant, and does a spirit ring trick with Meera Syal before taking the unusual step of revealing how it was done.
And other memorable routines include the psychic clown, becoming someone else while asking for directions, fooling a guy that the sun has disappeared, manipulating a guy’s weird dream and making it reality, getting a guy to identify a criminal in old photos, ‘bespoke’ personality readings that are all identical, a subliminal CD that makes people draw the same picture, a subliminal cinema advert that makes people forget the film they’ve watched, a time-setting trick on a ferris wheel in Vienna, and an amputee feeling with his non-existent hand.
Trick Or Treat
This series was never released on DVD, but all episodes are available on All4, along with several clips and a few full episodes on Derren’s Youtube channel. And it has a fun concept that works pretty well.
Each episode focuses on person who has applied to be on a show with Derren, without knowing if they’ve been accepted or what will happen to them. Derren then turns up in a surprising and sometimes scary manner, presenting them with a blind choice of 2 cards – “Treat” or “Trick” – which determines whether what happens to them will be nice or not. However, they don’t know what they’ve chosen, what will happen or when it will happen. They just have to sign a contract giving consent for Derren to do whatever he likes with them.
He tailors the experience to each participant, having done extensive research and covert surveillance beforehand to see what type of person they are. The idea, even with the less pleasant experiences, is to take them out of their comfort zone in a way that gives them a fresh outlook on life, often increasing their confidence or self-esteem in certain areas. So it’s a really interesting experiment in each case.
In the first series the cards are cleverly designed ambigrams, meaning they read “Treat” when held up one way, and “Trick” when the text is flipped upside down. This means Derren can force the outcome if he wants to – and we know it happens for definite in one episode, as we see him turn over the “Treat” card, meaning the guy will get “Trick” whichever one he chooses.
And there are mainly Tricks in the first series, with Richard falling asleep in London and waking up in Marrakech, Andy believing he’s a dummy, Steven behaving like a lunatic in public and, darkest of all, Jules witnessing her own death as a lesson for her to pay more attention when driving. In all those cases we don’t see a chat with the person afterwards, but captions on screen do assure us that they were ok.
There are, however, post-experience reactions from the two Treat recipients, as Derren rapidly teaches pensioner Anne to play professional poker and student Yshani to be a concert pianist, each in the space of just a week. These are both really sweet and lovely scenarios, where you feel very nervous for each of them as they face their final challenge, and movingly proud of them when they complete it.
Those experiences only take up about half of each episode though. They’re broken up into parts, in between which Derren performs illusions for various other people to add variety, just like in his earlier shows. Famous faces include The League Of Gentlemen with some chocolate mini rolls, Martin Freeman with some crystals and Simon Callow with some portraits. Derren also meets several people in America, where he was much less well-known at the time, including a sweet-counting game, making a woman colour-blind, paying in shops with blank pieces of paper and spotting lies told by car salesmen (similar to the deleted scene on the Inside Your Mind DVD). But he still performs at home in London too, such as turning people into statues at Madame Tussauds and a word prediction game in Covent Garden.
Some years later, Derren performed another trick with Martin Freeman and his wife Amanda Abbington on Stand Up To Cancer.
Series 2 has a sharper focus on each participant that takes up most of the episode. There are still a few instances where Derren performs illusions with other people, but this time they are in keeping with the theme of the participant’s experience, and help to explain certain concepts to the viewer. The “Trick” or “Treat” cards are also much more distinct this time – so, while it’s still perfectly possible for Derren to influence the choice, it is assumed the participants are making a free and random selection.
There are mainly Treats in this series as well, including David Tennant experiencing time travel to predict a future news story (the only celebrity featured), and Jason’s self-confidence improving with techniques including glass-eating so he can go speed dating. Plus there’s my namesake Glen subconsciously learning huge amounts of information to take part in a major pub quiz competition. That latter episode includes a memory trick with coffee expert James Hoffmann, and James has posted an interesting video about what it was like to film with Derren. It doesn’t expose anything underhand, but they did do a bit of sneaky editing to get the best reaction shot.
But there’s also a particularly dark Treat for another participant, as Lauren is led to believe she’s killed a kitten, after Derren regresses her mind to a mischievous childlike state and uses negative suggestion to make her press a big red button. It’s an unsettling but cleverly thought-provoking scenario that’s designed to compel her to think more positively in the future.
There is one Trick in the series, meanwhile, where Derren rigorously trains Angela’s mind and body so that she can cope with being kidnapped, tied up in a sack and dumped in a freezing cold lake. How she does get out I have no idea, but it’s really impressive.
The final episode is different, however, as all 5 participants are brought back together to play a game. They are placed in a room with lots of random objects and told that the doors will open and they’ll win £500 each when their score reaches 100 points. So they start playing around to see what actions increase the score. However, they don’t realise that the score is actually being advanced randomly by a couple of goldfish in another room, irrespective of what they do. So they get into increasingly bizarre behaviour, as they make false connections between what they’re doing and how the score is increasing. Whereas if they’d stopped and looked up, a notice on the ceiling explained how to get a lot more money more easily. It’s the human equivalent of B. F. Skinner’s pigeon experiment that proves superstitious behaviour – i.e. we believe that certain things bring us good or bad fortune when there’s no actual link.
This series of four 1-hour specials were never released on DVD, but they’re all on Derren’s Youtube channel, and all except the first one are on All4.
While there are some good tricks and interesting topics that make it worth watching, the episodes do feel a bit anticlimactic as well, as the outcomes aren’t as amazing as the build-up in each case leads you to believe. And Derren doesn’t perform all the finale tricks in the way he initially implies, so his explanations are sometimes red herrings. There are also segments with a live audience in each show, but some of the tricks he does with them feel a bit repetitive, as they often involve him influencing or predicting people’s choices from a selection of things. So it’s not his best work, but it’s still fun.
How To Win The Lottery
Available on Youtube.
This is a strange show, even by Derren’s standards, that purported to explain how he predicted the lottery numbers live on TV a few days earlier. But it just confused people further, because he didn’t explain it at all. And in a Behind The Mischief clip, even he admits it was a bit cringeworthy.
He first demonstrates his ability to influence people’s choices, especially when they’re in a highly suggestible state due to feelings like fear – all of which is irrelevant as the lottery is drawn by a machine. And then he talks about the wisdom of crowds, showing how he got 24 people to look at the last year’s worth of results and use their subconscious instincts to predict the result of the next draw. They never get all 6 numbers this way, but he claims to use this method for his live prediction. You never see their final calculations on the day though, and Derren only shows his prediction after the draw has been broadcast.
So the most likely theory is that a split screen effect was used for the live prediction. Derren stands well clear of the balls while the draw is taking place, so the view of the podium on the left side of the screen can be frozen, which allows an assistant to sneak in and put the right balls in place during the draw. A bit of camera movement is also digitally added to the whole frame to sell the illusion that it’s a single hand-held shot. The split screen effect is then secretly removed before Derren walks back over and reveals what the balls say – and one of the balls does appear to be slightly raised from the others, as if it wasn’t quite put in properly. So that’s the method that makes most sense to me.
How To Control The Nation
Available on All4 and Youtube.
Here Derren claims to have developed a short subliminal film that will stick you to your seat at home, and talks about subliminal messaging – or PWA (Perception Without Awareness). It is quite an interesting topic, and he does show some good examples of it in action, such as influencing a lady’s choice of toy in Hamleys and making people feel very generous at a shopping centre.
It’s all a bit smoke and mirrors though, as the film he plays isn’t subliminal at all, it’s just a moving pattern and some random noises. The reason that about half of his test subjects are unable to move from their seats, along with some people at home, is all down to suggestion. Over the course of the programme Derren had formed an expectation in the audience’s head of what the film will do, then just before he played the film he instructed people on how to imagine being stuck. The only real subliminal elements were a few flash frames of a man tied to a chair, before and after the film. So it’s a great demonstration of the power of suggestion, but the actual trick didn’t have any effect on me personally.
How To Be A Psychic Spy
Available on All4 and Youtube.
This is presented as a nationwide experiment in remote viewing. A curator from the Science Museum is invited to draw a picture, which is then covered in newspaper and put on display in the museum for people to guess what it is. About a third of people in the live audience at the museum, and lots of people at home, think that it’s concentric circles, and a further 10% or so think it’s Stonehenge. And it’s revealed that she has indeed drawn concentric circles, with lines representing Stonehenge.
That seems to imply that remote viewing is real. But then Derren reveals it’s all been a trick as usual. He had subconsciously planted the idea in the woman’s head before she drew her picture, he had put small classified adverts in the national newspapers for the day of the broadcast telling people at home to think of concentric circles, and he was somehow influencing his live audience in the museum too. In addition, the curator had been transported to a location that was secret even from her, from where she tried to mentally project the image through the camera – and it’s revealed at the end to be Stonehenge.
The rest of the episode is actually more interesting than that finale though. There are tricks involving imaginary bricks in a box (another example of suggestion), a lightbulb seemingly coming to life and a real life game of Guess Who. He also uses a mirroring technique to make a member of the public steal from a shop and meets a man who claims to be able to see through the eyes of others, but his abilities aren’t so impressive when put under objective scrutiny.
Perhaps inevitably though, the most fascinating thing for me is a real life bat man called Daniel Kish, who is totally blind and uses clicking noises to form a detailed image of the landscape and objects around him. He’s a genuine expert in human echolocation, who teaches others to do it as well, and it’s incredible to watch him in action. He’s also given a TED talk and been featured by the BBC and Buzzfeed, as a few examples from his other media appearances. So for that segment in particular, along with the others noted above, this is probably the most interesting of the 4 episodes in this Events series for me.
How To Take Down A Casino
Available on All4 and Youtube.
To prepare for this episode, Derren approached a guy called Ben who had applied to be on one of his shows, did a rapid induction to put him into a trance, got him to withdraw £5,000 from his bank, and then made him forget the meeting had ever taken place. So it’s only when Derren calls him live during the show, and plays the footage of their meeting, that he realises it’s his money being used. The idea is that Derren will go into a casino and place Ben’s £5,000 on a single number at a roulette table, predicting where the ball will land.
Before then, Derren explores how it might be possible to beat a roulette table. He talks to Paul Wilson from The Real Hustle about casino scams, concluding that it’s all down to physics when it comes to roulette. That means he’ll have to calculate the speed of both the wheel and the ball, along with the trajectory of the ball, very quickly in his head, as it would be impossible to sneak some kind of computer in. So he tests himself by working out the speed of cars on a motorway and predicting where a ball will land when thrown into a squash court (though we only see it happen once, which makes you wonder if he filmed any other attempts that didn’t work).
Ultimately, Derren loses at the roulette table, albeit only by the narrowest of margins, with the ball landing in the very next slot, and the producers do promise to give Ben his £5,000 back. So it proves that Derren isn’t perfect, and it’s also a great demonstration of how risky gambling is, even if you think you have a system for winning. Nevertheless, after all the build-up to that moment, the ending does feel rather flat and unexciting as a result. And as we only see Derren having a single attempt on the roulette wheel, we can’t be entirely sure if it was really skill or just luck on his part that the ball was so close when it landed. So it’s a bit of a mixed ending to what is a somewhat mixed series overall – very good in some ways, but a bit underwhelming in others.
After that final episode, Derren posted an amusing clip referring to it and promoting his next tour, while doing an impression of Stewie Griffin from Family Guy (plus an animated version using visuals from the cartoon).
Derren Brown Investigates
In this strange but interesting mini-series of hour-long specials, Derren meets 3 people who claim to have paranormal abilities, to see if he can establish whether or not they’re genuine. But he remains very sceptical after each encounter. He can’t absolutely prove beyond doubt that these people don’t have the abilities they say they do, but there are lots of reasons to be doubtful and he doesn’t see any hard evidence that they’re genuine. And I agree with him, there is nothing whatsoever in these episodes that convinces me, even though Derren gives them plenty of fair opportunities to prove themselves. The first 2 episodes are on Derren’s Youtube channel, while the third is on All4.
The Man Who Contacts The Dead
Available on Youtube.
This is perhaps the most memorable and notorious episode of the three. Here Derren meets Joe Power, who makes his money by claiming he can contact the dead through personal readings and performances for live audiences. So we see him in action, but a lot of doubts soon creep in.
He gives an accurate reading for a lady at home, but has a god opportunity to glance around her home when he uses the loo first, and it later turns out his sister is a neighbour. In a session with some Hollyoaks stars he remarks that one of them has a Mini, but it transpires they pulled up in their car right in front of him earlier, plus he gets some details wrong for another guy. He does a live show in front of a large audience, but an expert observes him doing a lot of cold reading techniques, and there are some people at the show who have had readings from him before. Joe also refuses to do a controlled scientific test, but Derren does set up a personal reading with a lady, who uses a false name and address to rule out Joe doing advanced research or house-snooping, and Joe gets angry after the reading goes badly. And Joe refuses to respond to Derren’s queries in their final chat together, denying any wrongdoing.
So Derren is left unconvinced and very uncomfortable, as am I. Given that Joe could easily be doing things in non-psychic ways, that leaves wide open the possibility that he is taking advantage of people’s vulnerabilities for his own personal gain. There is no absolute proof of that necessarily, but it feels extremely likely based on the evidence at hand, and nothing to counter it. There are too many coincidences, doubts and unanswered questions, and Joe’s aggressiveness doesn’t help either. It seems that the people who love so-called psychics like him do so because they get the comfort and reassurance they’re seeking, and thus don’t bother to question or examine his techniques and abilities. But that just makes it all the more important for people like Derren to investigate them, without being blinded by emotions and trauma.
The Men With X-Ray Eyes
Available on Youtube, though it’s only 30 minutes long, whereas the other 2 episodes are just over 45 minutes each without the adverts.
Derren is joined by a blind lady called Judy Dunk, and together they travel to the Netherlands to attend a school that claims to teach people the Bronnikov Method. It’s framed as a human development course, but they make the outlandish claim that they can train blind people to see, even those without eyes. It’s all about working up through a series of levels, through which you generate balls of energy, supposedly from your uro-genital system, use it to imagine a blank screen in your mind that acts like a computer, and then learn to form images of the world around you on that screen. And people are charged a lot of money to learn these supposed techniques.
It’s as bizarre as it sounds and, unsurprisingly, no proof is provided that it works. Judy certainly doesn’t see any improvement in her eyesight. And when the founder of the method, Vyacheslav Bronnikov, is invited to prove his abilities by telling Derren what’s in a sealed box, he refuses to do so, claiming that Derren isn’t a scientist and is looking to make a negative documentary, and so it won’t work because of that. Vyacheslav also claims that there is a boy in Russia with no eyes who can see perfectly, but doesn’t offer any way to contact him and the production team can’t track him down.
So it doesn’t persuade Derren or Judy in the slightest. However, Derren does get a little taste of what it’s like to be blind, as he’s taken through a pitch black obstacle course that gives him a small flavour of a blind person’s daily life. So he does come away with a bit more insight into that, so to speak.
Available on All4, and there are clips on Youtube.
Whereas the people being investigated in the previous 2 episodes could easily be seen as frauds or con artists, in this final show Lou Gentile from America appears to have a genuine, if deeply entrenched and misguided, belief that he can actually see and hear dead people. For 20 years he has helped people who are haunted and possessed, without charging them a dime, and he takes Derren on one of his investigations, which results in an exorcism taking place, as well as showing him various things from his archives that he claims prove the existence of ghosts.
But, again, it’s all very inconclusive and open to a lot of interpretation. There are photos that apparently show faces of the dead in the shadows and textures, but Derren notes you can see all sorts of other things if you put your mind to it. Lou also makes audio recordings where he asks questions and leaves pauses for the spirits to answer, then plays the recordings back, and he claims to hear words in the static noise and interference (called Electronic Voice Phenomena, or EVP). But you do have to stretch the imagination to hear them yourself. Plus there’s a video of a guy thrashing about who is supposedly possessed, but Derren talks to a scientist who recognises it as a type of pseudo-seizure.
So Derren comes away feeling that Lou is an honourable man who sincerely believes that ghosts exist, but that he still hasn’t seen any proof himself. It’s also noted that Lou died several months after filming due to cancer, and that his family were trying to preserve his archives. So whether you believe in it or not, Lou did come across as a nice guy, and he’s left a lot for people to think about.
This was the last series that Derren produced for TV back in 2011, as he’s focused on one-off specials and stage shows since then. But these 4 hour-long episodes are very enjoyable and thought-provoking, as Derren carries out some experiments that are as enlightening for him as they are for the audience. It was one of his most successful series as well, winning BAFTA & RTS Awards for Best Entertainment Programme in 2012.
I own the series on DVD, and all of the episodes are available on All4 & Derren’s Youtube channel.
The DVD has a few extra features too. There’s a commentary for the first episode, which I’ll mention below. Plus there’s a viral trailer that was posted online at the time. It lasts for 4½ minutes and shows Derren giving a rapid induction to a guy in the street, before taking him to a mock operating theatre where he wakes up and thinks he’s having surgery done, before Derren puts him back to sleep and returns him to the street as if nothing has happened, leaving the guy quite bemused. There’s an optional commentary on this trailer that’s fun too, with Derren Brown and co-writer Iain Sharkey. They reveal that when the guy was debriefed afterwards, he assumed he’d been in a car crash and had ended up in hospital, so they had to persuade him that everything was alright.
There was also another creepy trailer made for the series that was shown on TV, but isn’t included on the DVD, featuring people whose mouths have been digitally altered to look like those of ventriloquist dummies.
Available on All4 & Youtube, plus an online interview about the episode.
In this fascinating episode, Derren wants to see if he can program someone to shoot another person and then forget they ever did it. He got the idea from the conspiracy theories that the CIA used hypnotism on unsuspecting people to make them carry out assassinations, particularly Sirhan Sirhan, who assassinated Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Sirhan has always claimed that he has no memory of doing it or being told to do it, and there are various conspiracy theories about the killing, of which hypnosis is one. One of those theories involves a woman in a polka-dot dress, which Derren uses in the show as well.
So Derren gives a live demonstration of hypnosis to a live audience, who have no idea what his real goal is, to find the right person. And through a few tests involving acid and an ice-bath, he hones in on a guy called Chris. And from there he sets up triggers in Chris’ mind to become a marksman and get temporary amnesia, including an impressive visit to a rifle range where the hypnosis has a remarkable effect on his aim. There are also captions that appear on screen occasionally to highlight certain things that Derren is saying, so we get a sense of how he’s implanting the messages. And a test run in a restaurant involving a water pistol proves to Derren that the triggers are working.
The live test then takes place in a theatre where Stephen Fry is giving a talk. Stephen is in on it, as are the people sat around Chris in the upper circle. But the rest of the audience have no idea what’s about to happen, and Chris has no idea that he’s on camera. He’s just been given a gun to carefully look after for some filming he’s supposedly doing with Derren later – and given what Derren’s like, including the gun training they had previously been doing, it’s not as unusual a request as it would otherwise sound. But then the triggers are set off, with a ringtone playing and a lady in a polka dot dress sitting in front of him and, after a pause, Chris does indeed stand up and shoots Stephen Fry. The audience are left in stunned shock until Derren comes out to explain things. Chris is then woken up just as Stephen resumes his talk as if nothing has happened. It’s only afterwards that Derren confronts Chris and reveals the truth, much to his relief and Stephen’s fascination. Chris is then de-programmed for safety of course.
There is an optional audio commentary on this episode as well, where Derren is joined by co-writer Iain Sharkey. And it’s very interesting, with some nice banter between them, as they talk about the idea for the show and the various scenes throughout. Derren in particular talks a lot about hypnosis, repeating some of what he says in the show but also expanding upon it. He also admits his own surprise at how well it worked, as even he had been sceptical at just how far a person’s behaviour could be pushed in that manner.
They also discuss the team’s surprise that the theatre audience didn’t panic when Stephen was shot, as they had security staff and crowd control experts at the ready to calm things down. It seems that the audience were wondering if it was part of the show, as Chris didn’t shout anything and didn’t fire any other shots, and the idea of somebody actually killing a national treasure like Stephen Fry seems absurd. It’s a bit like when Tommy Cooper collapsed and died on stage for real many years ago, and the audience laughed thinking it was part of his act. You just don’t expect something like that to happen during a show.
Available on All4, with an edited version on Youtube that removes the first part, plus an online interview about the episode.
In this episode, Derren hosts a game show called Remote Control, where the audience are given face masks to hide their identities, and are asked to make several 50/50 decisions – each with one good choice and one bad choice – that influence what happens to another guy called Chris, who is being secretly filmed on a night out with his mates.
These choices become increasingly extreme as the show progresses, and the majority of the audience plump for the more evil choice every time, relishing in his discomfort. So things escalate from an angry boyfriend and being overcharged for drinks, to being arrested on suspicion of shoplifting and a group of thugs kidnapping him. But there’s a big shock for the audience as Chris tries to escape his kidnappers, which brings them crashing down to earth and suddenly makes them feel very guilty.
Ultimately, the whole show was really a test of the audience, not Chris, demonstrating a psychological phenomenon called deindividuation. A mob mentality developed as people lost self-awareness and moral judgement, because they felt anonymous and part of a crowd, so they were more comfortable doing horrible things. It’s the same process that turns innocent people into internet trolls, rioters, hooligans, etc. Not all of the audience fell into that trap – there were a fair number of people who consistently voted for the good options each time – but it was never enough to be a majority. So Derren leaves them with a lot to think about. It was a powerful lesson delivered very effectively.
The Guilt Trip
Available on All4 & Youtube, plus an online interview about the episode.
This is another very compelling experiment, where Derren wants to see if he can persuade Jody, a really nice and innocent guy who would never hurt a fly, to confess to a fictitious murder that he believes he’s committed.
So Jody is invited to give a talk at a completely made-up conference at a country house hotel. He doesn’t know that everyone he meets there is an actor, or that there are hidden cameras all over the place, or that Derren is involved and watching with his producers in a truck nearby. But while he’s there, Derren sets up various incidents and triggers to make Jody feel guilty (including a belief that he’s offended his hero Tim Minchin) and to make him him doubt his own memory (with things inexplicably and amusingly changing around him). Those triggers appear to work when a missing necklace is planted in Jody’s room. And Derren also plants the seed of a motive, as the intended victim is shown being rude and obnoxious to the guests.
So with everything in place, the plan then swings into action. The other guests get Jody drunk at an evening party so he sleeps well, while Derren also talks to him to reinforce his deep sleep. Jody is then carried outside, so that he later wakes up alone on the grass, and returns to his bedroom in utter confusion. The police then arrive the next morning to reveal that a murder has taken place, and immediately you Jody’s panic and fear as it dawns on him what must have happened. He doesn’t confess to the police there and then, so Derren sends the away to give Jody some thinking time. And it keeps eating away at Jody, to the point where he eventually leaves the hotel and heads to the local police station, where he anxiously admits to the murder, convinced that he must have done it.
You can therefore imagine Jody’s relief when Derren walks in and explains everything, before tearing down the paper wall of the fake police station to reveal everyone applauding Jody. Derren also shows him where all the hidden cameras were, and the truck where he was being watched from, and makes sure he’s alright (he had already been psychologically screen for robustness beforehand). And ultimately, Jody is able to laugh about it, concluding that it was a really enjoyable experience.
So it’s a brilliant episode. The actors are all fantastic at keeping up the pretence, which isn’t easy when your central subject isn’t in on it and has no script, plus it’s all planned and engineered so well by Derren and his team, and the music score by Nick Foster really adds to the atmosphere and tension as well. It just all comes together really nicely.
The Secret Of Luck
Available on All4 & Youtube, plus an online interview about the episode.
This episode concludes the series on a much lighter note. And this time Derren isn’t testing one person, but the entire town of Todmorden in West Yorkshire, again without their knowledge that he’s involved. It’s all about testing people’s attitudes to luck, and if they can make themselves more lucky.
So he gets journalist Dawn Porter to arrive in the town with a film crew, ostensibly making a documentary about luck. And she asks the locals if they’ve heard about the lucky dog statue in the park. Of course, they haven’t – the statue’s been there for hundreds of years and gone largely unnoticed. But the seed is planted, and over the next few months the belief and interest in the statue takes hold, with more people, the local paper and even other media organisations taking an interest. Self-proclaimed psychic Sally Morgan even turns up, and claims to feel a lot of energy around the dog statue.
7 local residents are also invited to be part of the supposed documentary, with several of them believing that they have had greater luck since touching the statue. Some of them are even taken on a day trip to Blackpool and do well on the arcade games, because their belief in luck means they play for longer, concentrate more and thus win more. Meanwhile 2 publicans in Todmorden with contrasting views on luck are given a test with the same potential outcome, when comedian Jason Manford breaks down with a flat tyre. And only one of them takes advantage of the opportunity, resulting in a free stand-up show by Jason that draws in hundreds of paying customers to their pub.
The star of the show, however, is Wayne the butcher. He has never won anything, and is so convinced that he’s unlucky that he doesn’t bother taking up any opportunities. So he ignores a fake scratchcard that’s posted through his door (which would have won him a free TV), he ignores a market researcher on the street (who would have given him money for answering an easy question) and he fails to spot a £50 note left right in his path. It is only when a huge truck drives by him a few times, with a message for Wayne to call a phone number, that he reacts and makes the call to see what happens.
Derren then arrives in the town, 3 months after starting the rumour. He visits Wayne and explains all the opportunities that he’s missed, works with a few other residents on how to play his final game, and speaks very carefully to the media who are interested in his presence there. He then meets a large audience of people in the Town Hall, where he reveals what’s really been going on.
Then he explains that he wants to play one final game to test someone’s luck. Residents had been invited to write down how much money they’d be willing to gamble on the roll of a dice and, while many opt for small amounts, one decides to take the opportunity to gamble their life savings of £1,000 – and it’s Wayne, having taken on board a lot of what Derren told him. So the audience choose the number on the dice, and he chooses the roll on which that number will land – and he wins! It could be luck, but of course it could also be a trick on Derren’s part, switching the dice for one that’s weighted or magnetic. But as Wayne walks away with £6,000, he doesn’t care! It’s a happy ending to a series that is really enlightening and enjoyable to watch on the whole.
And that’s it for this first epic post. I really do like the variety of shows that Derren has made, he’s always very impressive and entertaining. Come back for tomorrow’s concluding post, where I look through all of his TV specials and stage shows!
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