Derren Brown Reviews – TV Specials

Following on from my previous post about Derren Brown’s various TV series, this time I’m revisiting his TV specials, including his televised stage shows. I own 4 specials and 5 stage shows on DVD, but the rest haven’t been released on disc. Most of these shows are on All4 as well though, and some are on Derren’s Youtube channel (in full along with many shorter clips), as he generously posted a lot of shows online during the Covid pandemic. So I’ve been able to rewatch all of them recently in one way or another.

Derren’s specials are all one-off shows (or occasionally two-parters) focused on a very specific subject, event or person. Nearly all of them were an hour long when originally broadcast (so around 45-50 minutes without adverts), with a few exceptions that lasted 90 minutes (so around 70 minutes without commercials). They’re always thought-provoking, and a few of the darker ones resulted in complaints (and thus extra publicity) from people who didn’t understand what he was doing or trying to achieve. But I find them all fascinating and fun to watch in any case. Likewise his stage shows are all amazing to watch, and I’ve grouped them together in one section at the end as I don’t need to go into heavy detail about them.

As mentioned before, none of this is sponsored, I’m just writing about them as a fan. And there are a few spoilers in here if you haven’t seen the shows before, but then it’s pretty common knowledge that Derren’s experiments pretty much always succeed as intended. The trhill is from seeing how he does it and the impact it has on those involved. So I hope you enjoy my descriptions and reviews.

Contents


Russian Roulette

This special was included in a DVD box set of 4 specials that I own, which doesn’t have any extra features, but there are subtitles and scene selection menus. It’s also available on All4 and on Youtube.

This show was naturally very controversial, as Derren placed a gun to his head live on TV and tried not to shoot himself with the only chamber that had a bullet in it. In the lead-up to that moment, we see him selecting the member of the public who will load the gun, by watching 1,500 audition tapes, inviting 100 to London to take part in a few simple tests, then taking 5 to Jersey for gun training and a final assessment.

It’s still tense to watch today, even though we know the outcome, and we know there’s some form of trickery to it. Jersey police did say that it was a hoax and that blanks were used, but even if that’s true it makes no real difference. If you fire a blank into your head at close range, the outcome won’t be good! Unless of course the gun was fake as well, but it does get fired twice – once by the expert and once by Derren – so it would appear to be real.

In any case, the odds were very much in Derren’s favour, as he must have known which chamber the bullet was in. We already know that he’s able to influence people through suggestion and work out which numbers they’re thinking of, and he openly demonstrates that during the show. So when participant James is loading the gun, Derren makes a firm point of telling him to “choose one” and “think of one”, which is indeed the chamber the bullet ends up in. For all we know he could even have implanted that number in James’ head during the earlier stages, and just triggered it – so to speak – at that moment. Derren also tells James to count from 1 to 6, which helps him to verify which chamber is loaded, as the more James tries not to draw attention to the number 1, the more that Derren will be able to pick up on it, even if viewers at home can’t tell. Of course, there was always a risk that James hadn’t chosen 1, but Derren was very careful to pick someone who was the most suggestible and trustworthy. Not to make a fool of him, but just to be certain of his safety.

Given that Derren knew the number, therefore, that means the apparent screw-up midway through the game was done for dramatic effect – where Derren fires chamber 5 away from him, discovers that it’s empty, then sits in anxious silence for about a minute as he considers his next move. But it makes for great telly of course. And when watching it live during the original broadcast, people didn’t have time to consider how Derren influenced the outcome, unless you were paying really close attention, so it would have seemed real and very tense. And ultimately the programme served its purpose – it was good entertainment (and still is), which got all the publicity that Derren wanted, drawing in millions of viewers as a result.


Séance

Available in the DVD box set I own, on All4 and on Youtube.

For a very long time, mediums have fraudulently used psychological techniques to make vulnerable, grieving people believe that they can contact the dead, with objects moving around in the dark, people being possessed by spirits, and so on. It’s all utter nonsense of course, fuelled by different forms of suggestion, and Derren demonstrates that in this special, including a spirit cabinet, automatic writing, a ouija board and a recreation of a Victorian séance.

From the outset he’s very open with his 12 student volunteers that he doesn’t believe in that kind of thing, and will show that there is trickery involved. Yet by the end of it the participants are still terrified, fully believing that they’ve contacted Jane, who Derren had deliberately steered them and the audience at home to think of. Indeed, people at home were also invited to ring in, and you hear some of their calls about unusual activity they’ve experienced during the show. But once it’s over, Derren proves it’s all been a hoax by revealing that Jane is still very much alive. So it’s a very interesting psychological experiment.

This show proved to be even more controversial than Russian Roulette, becoming the third most complained about programme. But the majority of complaints came from church groups, seemingly before the show aired – Channel 4 received nearly 500 complaints, but said only 30 of those were after the broadcast. And regulator Ofcom had over 200 complaints, but they sensibly ruled in Derren’s favour, as it was very clear what he was doing.


Messiah

This hasn’t been released on DVD, but is available on All4, and there are clips on Youtube.

This is a thought-provoking documentary where Derren goes to America, as he’s less well-known there, and with some ease is able to persuade 5 influential professionals that he possesses special abilities in each of their belief systems, even though he’s faking it by just using his usual skills of psychology, suggestion, magic, etc:

The show isn’t about attacking anyone’s beliefs, and he doesn’t accuse the practitioners he meets of faking their abilities. From the outset he stated that if any one of the practitioners had asked him if it was a trick, he would have immediately come clean and admitted what he was really doing. But none of them doubted or challenged him, they all accepted what they saw.

So he’s demonstrating the importance of questioning our beliefs. We often just accept them blindly, being ruled by passion rather than knowledge, and it’s easy for all of us to fall into the trap of confirmation bias. Fact is, it’s very much possible to convince people to believe in anything merely through the power of suggestion. That’s not necessarily what all practitioners are doing, but if you’re changing your behavioural patterns and making big life decisions based on the information these people are giving you, it should surely be common sense to verify that they’re legitimate, assuming it’s possible to do so. And as Derren says, the ability to question these things is part of what makes us truly human. So it gives plenty of food for thought.


The Gathering

This hasn’t been released on DVD, but is available on All4 and on Youtube.

This special is much more light-hearted than the previous ones, as it’s simply a live show with a specially invited audience of 200 people, including celebrities, students, psychologists, psychics, magicians and cabbies.

Derren performs various tricks with people chosen at random, such as presenting a lady with a 50/50 choice of envelopes to win some money, predicting a drawing by The League Of Gentlemen’s Reece Shearsmith, getting news presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy to mentally transmit two numbers to a blindfolded girl, proving that he’s memorised the entire Greater London A-Z map, and influencing a cabbie’s route on the map so that his destination is the location of the show (which had been kept a mystery from everyone, as they arrived in coaches with blacked-out windows). He also makes most of the crowd forget what they’ve seen, by flashing the word “Forget” every so often and taking a moment during the show to explain and reinforce it with his mental trickery.

So it’s good fun, and it’s also technically his first stage show to be broadcast, before the bigger ones that were shown on TV and/or released on DVD in later years.


The Heist

Available in the same Specials DVD box set as Russian Roulette & Séance, as well as on All4 and on Youtube.

This is a really interesting experiment where Derren tries to manipulate a group of ordinary law-abiding business people to commit an armed robbery, without them realising that’s what the aim is.

He begins by inviting 13 people to what they think is a motivational seminar where, even though he does indeed teach them some genuinely useful techniques to improve their lives, he also subtly conditions their minds to the idea of stealing and romanticising criminality, using a wide variety of methods. That includes giving them a toy gun as a present, and having them form motivational associations with the colour green and the song Can You Feel It? by The Jacksons, among other things that will trigger them later.

He then starts to narrow down the field, firstly by persuading most of them to steal sweets from a shop, framing it as a harmless activity. 4 people are eliminated at that point. The remaining 9 are then invited to take part in a research experiment about the effects of punishment on learning, where they think they’re electrocuting someone with increasingly high voltages for giving wrong answers – but, as one of them realises, it’s actually a recreation of the famous Milgram Experiment, to see if they’ll commit awful acts purely because an authority figure tells them to. So nobody is actually electrocuted. That allows Derren to choose his final 4, who he then trains to create a feeling of aggression, and teaches them a supposed martial arts exercise to knock someone over.

Then, on the big day, Derren invites the participants to meet him for a false reason, and asks them to bring their toy gun. One at a time they’re dropped off in a cab at the bottom of Gresham Street and, as they walk up, a car drives by blasting out the Jacksons’ song, and a security guard brings 2 cases of money out to his bright green security van. And incredibly it works, as 3 out of the 4 participants make the snap decision to rob the guard at gunpoint and run off – where they’re instantly intercepted by cameras and Derren of course, and the true nature of the programme comes to light.

It understandably comes as quite the shock to them that they could be driven to something like that, and it’s fascinating to see their transformations. But Derren de-programs all the participants of any criminal thoughts and triggers, while leaving them with the more positive things they had learned. We’re also told they had a lot of aftercare to make sure they were ok, from Derren and an independent psychologist. Derren always ensures that people are fine in the end, no matter how extreme the scenarios he puts them through.


The System

Available in the DVD box set mentioned above, and on All4. Derren hasn’t posted it on his Youtube channel, but it has been unofficially uploaded by other users.

In this special, we meet Khadisha, a single mother who has to work 2 jobs to make ends meet. She has no history of gambling, as she has no interest in it and can’t afford to waste her money on it. But, as part of a TV documentary she’s been invited to appear on, she receives messages from an anonymous tipster, who correctly predicts the winners of horse races 24 hours in advance, even if they’ve picked an outsider that gallops over the line first. And these are real victories in genuine horse races, there’s no fixing involved.

As the tipster gains her confidence, Khadisha has a little flutter on a few races and is thrilled with her winnings. Derren then reveals himself to be the tipster after the 5th race, and invites her to place a large amount of money on one final prediction. So she scrapes together £4,000 with the help of her dad and a loan company, which Derren uses to place the bet for her.

Derren also demonstrates to us that beating the odds in this way isn’t impossible, as he tosses a coin 10 times in a row so it lands on heads every time. And he does a trick with some racing experts where he predicts their seemingly random choices from hundreds of photographs.

It’s all rather incredible – and then there’s a twist when Derren reveals to Khadisha how his system works, before her final race begins. Because in reality she wasn’t the only person who was involved. Derren had actually contacted 7,776 people for the first race. They had been divided into 6 equal groups, and each group was tipped the name of a different horse. By chance, Khadisha was in the group of 1,296 people that won. Those 1,296 people were then taken forward to race 2, where again they were divided into 6 groups, 1 per horse, and again Khadisha was in the winning group of 216. And so it continued for races 3, 4 & 5, the latter having just 6 people remaining, 1 per horse, and they were each filmed attending the same race without being aware of each other.

So Khadisha was there purely by luck, Derren hadn’t really predicted any of the winners. But because she hadn’t been aware of everyone else, she had believed that he was an expert tipster. Likewise, Derren shows us the coin trick again, revealing that it took 9 gruelling hours of coin-flipping to get 10 heads in a row. We had only been shown the final minute before, without any mention of what came before it.

Of course, discovering that the predictions weren’t real made Khadisha rather anxious about the final race – and she was understandably devastated when her horse came last. But Derren had seen from the odds that the horse he had named wasn’t likely to win, so when he placed the bet for her on the day he actually did put it on the winning horse. So she went away with a tidy amount of money after all. And all of the other participants who were dropped at earlier stages were also offered refunds on their bets. So there was a happy ending for everyone.


Hero At 30,000 Feet

Available on All4 and Youtube.

This is a fascinating and ultimately very moving episode where we meet Matt, who is stuck in a rut, has low self-confidence, and is terrified of flying. He and his girlfriend still live with his mother, and he’s never taken any action to try and fulfil his dream of working in the police force. Matt had auditioned for a supposed game show that Derren was working on, but he has no idea that the ‘game’ is actually in progress with him as the only contestant, with Derren orchestrating events and secretly monitoring him with the help of his family. Derren’s aim is to improve Matt’s self esteem, by showing him the importance and benefits of taking up opportunities.

So there are various steps along the way, to pull Matt out of his passive existence, make him consider the choices he makes in life, and be open to taking risks. It starts with a cruel but necessary shock at a petrol station, where he’s involved in a hold-up at a petrol station and the robber berates him for doing nothing with his life. Then there a couple of night-time meetings, which Matt just thinks are weird dreams, where Derren keeps him in a sleepy state and delivers powerful messages, as well as having him touch a live crocodile on one such occasion.

From these seeds, big changes start to happen in Matt’s thoughts and behaviour, which are immediately obvious to his family and friends. And he finds himself taking the bait from other opportunities that Derren sets for him, by breaking into a policeman’s house and using a van of supplies to organise a street party. Derren then meets Matt in a normal waking state for the first time since the auditions, and has him face fear head on by tying him up on a railway track so he can try and escape before a train comes. Sure, it’s a slow moving train that the driver (who would have been in on the stunt) can stop at any moment, but you don’t think about that when you’re lying in its path. It shows Matt that he can face fear and control it, which is important for later. And as a result of everything so far, Matt makes some big changes in his life, by improving his relationship with his family, getting a new place with his girlfriend, and taking steps to get into the police force. So it’s clearly working.

For the final test, therefore, Matt is told that the game show he applied for is taking place in Jersey, so he has no choice but to fly there. So he’s very nervous as he boards the plane which, unbeknown to him, has been privately chartered and all the passengers are actors. But it is a genuine flight, with real cabin crew, and everyone around Matt supports him as he gets very anxious during take off. Things take a turn, however, as it’s announced that the captain has fallen ill and they need a passenger to help land the plane – a completely unrealistic scenario that would never happen, as Derren explains to us, but as with the railway stunt it’s not something you consider when at the eye of the storm.

As nobody else offers to help, a terrified Matt decides to bite the bullet and step up to the task. As he approaches the cockpit, Derren quickly puts him to sleep, and from there the flight continues as normal. Matt is then transferred to a highly realistic pilot training simulator, where he’s woken up as he enters the cockpit, thus believing that he’s still on the real plane as he thinks no time has passed. And with the help of an air traffic controller talking to him, he successfully lands the plane. He then emerges to a grinning Derren, who congratulates Matt on his heroism, explains the real situation, proclaims it to be the proudest moment of his career, then takes him to see his family, girlfriend and all the actors who give him a huge ovation. It’s a really moving end to the show given the huge amount of pride in how far he’s come.

Derren also answered some questions in a blog post following the show, to deal with some conspiracy theories, clear up some confusion and give some nice insights.


Behind The Mischief

Available on All4 and Youtube.

This enjoyable documentary celebrates 10 years of Derren’s TV shows, by taking us behind the scenes and giving us a glimpse into his private life. He talks to members of his production team, as well as celebrity guests Stephen Merchant and Matt Lucas, while there are interviews with others who have also been involved with his shows. We also learn about how he got into hypnosis and magic, the writing process for his shows, insights into some of his most popular and most controversial tricks, his love of performing live in theatres, his taxidermy collection and his passion for painting. Plus he visits his parents and has a look around his old school. He also notes that his specials are becoming more about facilitating a process of development for other people, rather than performing stunts himself, and he visits Matt from Hero At 30,000 Feet, who is continuing to do very well with his life.


Miracles For Sale

Not available on All4, but can be watched through a playlist of clips on Derren’s Youtube channel, and there’s a low quality unofficial upload of the whole episode by another user. This is a longer special that lasted for 90 minutes (so is around 75 minutes without ads).

This programme exposes the world of faith healers, who falsely claim they can channel the Holy Spirit to perform miracles on sick people, curing them of any ailments, diseases, disabilities, etc. There is of course no evidence whatsoever that anybody has such God-given powers, but in heavily religious parts of America in particular it’s a huge business, with pastors whipping their congregations up into a frenzy, so they can take advantage of their vulnerability, suggestibility and adrenaline-fuelled states of mind to claim they’ve been healed, in return for huge amounts of money. And not only are people fleeced of their finances, but many even throw away or refuse to take proper medication, in the misguided belief that they’ve been healed, and they inevitably get worse as a result. Faith healing is literally killing people sometimes.

So in order to expose the fraud, Derren goes through a selection process to choose a member of the public called Nathan, and attempts to train him to be a convincing faith healer who can put on a show in Texas. Nathan is given a fake name, backstory and website for anyone who tries to look him up, and Derren sets about training him, with the aid of experts including former faith healers who have since turned their back on the profession and are now happy to expose it for what it is. And as Nathan’s training progresses, Derren shows ample evidence of how faith healers really do their ‘miracles’ and con people into thinking they’re real, including open attendance at one guy’s service, and secret filming of another. It’s disturbing but necessary viewing.

It’s far from an easy journey for Derren, Nathan and the team though, as they struggle to promote themselves in the States, find themselves questioning the morality of their actions, and nearly get arrested. And Nathan even falls out with Derren when he feels too much is being demanded of him on a couple of occasions. But ultimately, after doing some very successful healing on the streets, Nathan does give an excellent performance in a theatre in America, to an audience who completely believe his claims. But instead of asking for money at the end, he gives a carefully worded speech to enlighten the audience about how fraudulent faith healers operate, warning them about the dangers of rejecting medical treatment, and explaining that they shouldn’t spend lots of money to be healed by God. It really does strike a chord with them.

Ultimately, Derren isn’t attacking anyone’s beliefs here – having faith in God is absolutely fine if it makes people happy and isn’t used to cause harm to others. But faith healers are exploiting the vulnerable, sometimes even leading to their early deaths if they stop taking life-prolonging treatments as a result of it, and that’s what this programme highlights really effectively. If a man off the street can be trained to do it convincingly in just a matter of weeks, as Derren proves, then it very much calls the whole practice into question.


Apocalypse

Available in 2 parts on All4 and as a complete 90-minute special on Youtube.

In a similar style to Hero At 30,000 Feet, this BAFTA-winning episode is another brilliant special, where Derren gives someone the opportunity to transform their life, but in an even more ambitious and extreme manner, hence it needed to be a 2-part special. And once again he targets someone who has applied to be on one of his shows but is led to believe he has failed the audition, so he has no idea that Derren is taking over his life. He has also been independently assessed to ensure he is psychologically robust enough to endure what’s about to unfold, and suggestible enough to be placed under hypnosis when required.

The subject this time is Steven Brosnan, a likeable but self-centred guy who takes everything for granted, and openly admits that he’s lazy and irresponsible. He doesn’t show affection for his family or compassion for his friends, he never holds down a job for very long, and he’s stuck in a rut without any motivation to better himself. So Derren’s plan is to help him appreciate what he already has in life, by making him think he’s lost it all.

So Derren’s impressively elaborate plan swings into action, with the help of his family and friends. After filling his house with hidden cameras to monitor him closely, Derren controls the flow of information Steven has access to, by employing a hacker to break into his phone and computer as well as broadcasting specially recorded editions of his favourite TV and radio shows. This allows him to plant the seeds of a potential catastrophe, building it up bit by bit so it seems realistic. Then there is supposed interference with the TV, phone and his van as the meteor shower gets closer.

Derren then brings about the end of the world during a coach trip that Steven believes is taking him to a concert, but the vehicle is actually full of actors. So Steven is taken aback when an emergency news broadcast comes over the radio, and the coach is rocked by explosions outside. Then everything goes black as Derren puts Steven to sleep, so they can take him a 1000-acre former nuclear weapons site that the production team have taken over, rigging it with over 60 hidden cameras, 150 microphones and 2000 metres of cable. There is also a cast and crew of 250 people who have spent a long time preparing for this, all of whom are wearing hidden earpieces so that Derren and his team can give them instructions. The actors in this show do an incredibly convincing job, it has to be said.

What follows is a cleverly choreographed horror movie that feels terrifyingly real for Steven, as he wakes up, learns about the situation he’s in, desperately tries to discover if his family is still alive and tries to figure out how he can reach them, all while trying to avoid a highly infectious virus that turns people into zombies. And along the way he meets 3 characters specifically designed to bring out the best in him, including young Leona who is looking for her mother, paramedic Ian who is looking for his wife, and a guy called Danny who has been trapped in a building on the site. From their actions Steven learns about bravery, decision-making and compassion, given him courage, a brain and a heart. As Derren has since remarked, therefore, it’s effectively The Wizard Of Oz with zombies. There are twists and turns along the way, and ultimately Steven has to take charge when he and Leona try to make a dramatic escape.

The conclusion, where Steven is put to sleep and wakes up again at home, is very moving, as he embraces his family and Derren with deep relief and gratitude. Steven is very much a changed man for the better, as Derren confirms when he revisits him a month later to see how he’s doing. All the time, money and work that Derren and his team had put in paid off perfectly as usual.

Derren also shared a fair amount of extra material online in relation to the show, partly in response to the hurtful and inaccurate conspiracy theories about Steven being an actor, and also to give some behind the scenes glimpses into the programme:

In addition:


Fear And Faith

This is an interesting 2-part special about the placebo effect, whereby the mere suggestion that something is having an effect on you makes you feel, think and behave differently, and thus believe it’s true, even though there is no such effect and the changes are all in the mind.

Part 1

Available on All4 and Youtube.

In this first episode, Derren follows 4 participants with various phobias who have been invited to test a new wonder drug called Rumyodin, which eradicates the experience of fear and has been used by the military. However, the trial subjects don’t realise that the drug is a completely fake sugar pill, and that the corporate office they are taken to is just a very well-decorated building full of actors.

But because everything appears to be above board, they believe it’s real and expect it to work, so it has a big impact on them. Two of them, Daniel and Dan, find that it cures their fear of heights, in one case instantly after the first injection. And Nick becomes far less afraid of confrontation and more able to stick up for himself and his friends.

It isn’t quite so beneficial for Katie though, as the placebo effect doesn’t work on everyone. She has a major fear of singing, especially in public but also just in private, and the drug doesn’t seem to cure it. When Derren has her try busking on the street or auditioning for Mamma Mia!, neither of which she had done before, her nerves still get the better of her.

It’s then revealed that a few other groups of people are also taking the pill, all unaware of each other and all being told different things. One group are told it will cure their allergies – and their self-belief means that it does, even eliminating dermatitis for one guy. Another group is told that it will improve their intelligence – which works a bit too well, as one or two of them rumble him and realise it’s a placebo. And another group is told that it will help them to give up smoking – and it works on all those who want to make the change, while it has no effect on a guy who doesn’t wish to stop in the first place.

The groups are then all brought together in the now empty office complex, where Derren reveals the truth about it being a placebo. And they’re happy to find that out, as it empowers them with the realisation that everything they did was from their own mind, giving themselves permission to get over their fears. It particularly helps Katie, who finally understands that being able to try busking and auditioning was fully down to her. So when given a snap induction by Derren and taken to a theatre, she’s able to give a superb and moving performance of a song she had previously learnt, in front of a live and adoring audience that includes Derren and the other trial participants. So the experience benefited her after all, just as it did for everyone else.

Part 2

Available on All4 and Youtube.

This second episode looks at what is arguably the biggest placebo of all – God. Derren shows how religious experiences can be explained by psychology, whereby the belief in an all-seeing and all-powerful supernatural being causes people to think and behave in a particular way, even if there’s no actual evidence they exist. And we’re all hardwired with a tendency to believe, as we inherently don’t like randomness and unexplained events, so we look for patterns and connections in our lives to try and make sense of it all (called pareidolia), which can include the notion that a supernatural deity must be in charge of our destiny.

Derren demonstrates the power of suggestion in relation to this in various ways. Some people are told to do a buzzwire challenge, with instructions to be honest about how many times they set the buzzer off, and the group who are told there is a presence in the room don’t cheat. The audience in Derren’s studio are told to say if they smell peppermint when a small bottle is opened, and several do even though there is no such odour present. Likewise, people at home are told a sound wave will make them smell it, but that’s also a lie. And Derren invites a lady called Emma to take part in a gameshow called Intervention, where he will make things happen in her life, and she has to keep a video diary about what those things are – but in reality he isn’t doing anything and isn’t filming her, and she’s just making false connections, yet it still has a positive impact on her life and behaviour.

Most significant, though, is Natalie, a stem cell scientist with a very sceptical and analytical mind who is happy with her life. Unlike most other participants, she doesn’t sense a non-existent presence when placed in a pitch black crypt and told that it’s haunted. So Derren decides to give her the experience of a religious conversion. He takes her to a church and, without mentioning God at any point, chats to her in a particular way for 15 minutes, eliciting thoughts and emotions about the importance of a father figure, being loved and cherished, feeling awe and wonder, and considering how things that have gone wrong could be for a reason and part of a bigger plan for her life. He also sets some unconscious triggers along the way as well, such as tapping his fingers.

He then leaves her alone on the pretence of popping out for a minute, and invites her to get up and have a walk around – and, because of all the thoughts and triggers coming together, she becomes immediately overwhelmed with emotion as soon as she stands up, before breaking down in tears as she apologises to God. It’s an extraordinary and moving moment. Derren of course interviews her afterwards and explains what he really did, so that she can separate her own self-generated emotions from any form of religious belief. So she doesn’t walk away believing in God, but she is still enlightened in a deeply emotional way.

As with previous explorations of religion, Derren isn’t attacking believers of God here. People believe in God because it makes them happy and that’s absolutely fine, as long as it’s not used to harm others of course. But it is important to recognise and understand the psychology of why such beliefs are so powerful and how people can be converted to them, and Derren’s explanations are very enlightening.


The Great Art Robbery

Available on All4 and Youtube. This is a longer 90-minute special (so around 70 minutes without ads).

This is a fun episode where Derren bets an art collector, Ivan Massow, that he’ll be able to steal a painting from an upcoming exhibition, even telling him the date and time of the theft, and showing him a photo of the guy who will do it, so he can prime his security team. In return, Derren receives a scale plan of the gallery to help him out, as Ivan cannot imagine how a painting could be stolen from under the nose of his security guard.

The thieves that Derren recruits are 4 lovely old-age pensioners, none of whom have a criminal history, but they all have a lot of life experience and skills that they can bring to their assigned roles. Older people are often ignored by the general public as if they’re invisible and unimportant, and are thus the least suspected to commit a crime, especially one as audacious as this. So the aim of the show is to remind us that older people actually have far richer stories to tell than the rest of us, and talents that can they can still use to their advantage. We don’t suddenly stop being interesting just because we’re over 65.

So Derren works with the group for a month, training them in various skills that they will need to use. he first teaches them about misdirection and distraction, as they attempt to steal people’s chips and watches. But he also gives them a more serious lesson, as he has them spray paint a wall, only for them to get arrested by the police – who turn out to be fake police that Derren had set up, but he didn’t want them to know that at first. It was important that they knew how it felt to be caught red-handed. Then there are extensive rehearsals in a replica of the gallery space, with a carefully choreographed routine that involves distracting the guard and fooling the view of the CCTV security camera. They even successfully practice in front of a real security guard. And they do some preparations in the gallery itself on the opening day of the exhibition, the day before the actual theft.

So on the big day, Derren takes Ivan to watch a security camera feed of the gallery as the theft takes place. However, 2 of the pensioners are caught and detained in the security guard’s office, and Ivan takes his £1 winnings from Derren. But then it transpires, in typical Derren fashion, that everything is not as it seems. There are a couple of big twists that are very cleverly done, which Derren explains on the show for Ivan to watch when it gets broadcast.

Derren also shared a behind the scenes video online, revealing that the image of him used for the show wasn’t an artwork of him, but an actual painting on his own face with very clever use of makeup. And you can also see an interview with Alan Carr about the show.


Pushed To The Edge

Available on All4 and Netflix (called The Push). This is a longer 90-minute special (so around 70 minutes without ads).

This fascinating special is all about social compliance, which makes us do things just because a person we believe is an authority figure says it’s the right thing to do, or we see other people doing something or following an ideology. We assume that others know best and we want to fit in, whether it’s to be acknowledged by them, impress them or avoid trouble. And so Derren tries to take this to the extreme, to see if a perfectly nice and innocent person can be manipulated through social pressure to push someone off a tall building to their death.

The unwitting subject of the experiment is Chris Kingston. He’s invited to a special gala night for a new charity called Push, in order to help win over the rich investors. But it’s all fake. Everybody there is an actor who Derren can talk to via earpieces, everything’s being secretly filmed, and the celebrities who give video endorsements are also in on it. And very gradually, Chris is drawn into increasing subservience, starting off in a relatively small way as he’s coaxed into mislabelling real sausage rolls as vegan ones, carrying bags, fetching drinks, etc.

But when their big millionaire VIP guest, Bernie, collapses and dies in the conference room before people are due to enter for the big auction, Chris finds himself drawn with growing discomfort into a huge and increasingly elaborate lie, where the body is hidden and moved around the building, and he has to pretend to be the millionaire himself. There are a couple of moments where he refuses to do something, but on the whole he’s increasingly obedient.

And then there’s a big twist, when it’s revealed that Bernie is still alive after all, having just suffered an attack of a deep sleeping sickness, and has evidence of what they’ve been doing to him. So the final act takes place on the roof, where an angry Bernie is sitting on the outer ledge having a smoke. The board members of the charity explain to Chris that if he pushes Bernie off the roof, it will look like he slipped and none of them will go to jail.

But Chris adamantly refuses to do so and walks away, thus reclaiming ownership of his own decisions, at which point Derren Brown comes out, congratulates him and explains everything. Not only was everyone an actor, but the body he was carrying around wasn’t Bernie playing dead – it was an extremely detailed and realistic special effects creation that took 2 months to build. It was a first in the history of special effects, making a human body that moves right, feels right and looks perfect. It is really impressive.

Derren also reveals to us that he performed exactly the same experiment with 3 other people on separate occasions. And, with huge reluctance and hesitation, they did all push Bernie off the roof (he was wearing a concealed harness of course). That doesn’t in any way cast any aspersions on their characters, as they’re all decent people like Chris. It just demonstrates that anyone can potentially be manipulated into committing such an extreme and horrific act. Chris just happened to be the one who stood out as he didn’t do it. And all 4 participants found the experience encouraged them to have more control over their lives, so it had a positive impact on them, which is always Derren’s intention.

Derren also promoted the special by appearing on TV in America, including The Late Late Show with James Corden, where Derren had the host eat some glass while reading his mind, and The Today Show with Megyn Kelly, where unsuspecting audience members took part in a social compliance test.


Sacrifice

This is a 50-minute special on Netflix, with audio description available, and there are a few clips on Youtube. Because this is Derren’s first special exclusively for Netflix (as The Push was a Channel 4 show originally), he does have to explain who he is for the benefit of those who haven’t seen him before, and the directorial style feels a bit more cinematic. But otherwise it’s a typical Derren Brown production and is very good.

So in this special, which takes it cue from the deeply-entrenched opinions held by certain people in the world today, Derren wants to see if he can manipulate Phil, an American man with strong anti-immigration views, into putting his life on the line for a person who he believes is an illegal immigrant. Derren puts a lot of effort into this as usual, but there is genuine tension as to whether it will succeed or not, as things don’t go to plan early on.

Phil is told that he’s told that he’s taking part in a documentary about biotechnology, and is led to believe that he has a microchip implanted in his brain, which is linked to an app he has to use daily, and it will help him to take more control over his life and the decisions he makes. But it’s all about the placebo effect again. The chip doesn’t exist, the app is implanting certain thoughts and triggers into his head, and Derren is attempting to make him fearless and have empathy for others.

Along the way Derren performs various tests to see how Phil is progressing. Phil is able to put a needle through his hand without feeling any pain, but balks at the idea of jumping off a high platform into freezing cold water, despite the triggers having some effect. So that puts the experiment into doubt. What has the biggest impact on Phil, however, is learning about his widespread international heritage from DNA analysis, which comes as quite a shock, and then sitting and staring into the eyes of a person of another race for a few minutes, which causes an emotional response he hadn’t expected.

Derren then tells him filming has finished, and Phil returns to his home in America, where they let him get back to his life for a few months, while still using the app. But naturally Derren hasn’t finished and, using a friend of Phil’s to lure him on a trip to Vegas, Phil finds himself in a car that breaks down by a remote bar in the Mojave Desert, which is rigged with actors and hidden cameras. Before long he finds himself becoming friends with a biker gang, who then become enraged at the presence of two Mexicans, who they discover are in America illegally. As Phil watches a violent scene unfold, a fake radio station plays a jingle that incorporates Derren’s trigger sound, and Phil plucks up the courage to confront the bikers and be shot by one of them in defence of the immigrants. Phil had earlier been given a biker’s jacket to wear as an honorary member of the gang, which had hidden squibs containing fake blood, so of course he was never actually shot.

Derren then quickly reveals himself to a very shocked Phil, to reassure him and explain everything, while his wife is also there too. It’s a very moving conclusion, and Derren gives a powerful message about kindness at the end. It’s a show that every viewer can take something positive from.

Online in relation to the show you can also watch a Q&A with Derren, a short interview with Phil, another impressive trick on The Late Late Show with James Corden and interviews Derren gave on Absolute Radio, The Russell Howard Hour & Build Series LDN.


20 Years Of Mind Control

This isn’t available in full online, so I can’t fully revisit it, but I did see it when it was originally broadcast, and it was a really nice insight into his work, much like his 10th anniversary show Behind The Mischief. It had lots of clips from his many tricks and stunts, and we got to see some of the items from his shows that he still keeps at home.

Although you can’t see the whole show, there is a 17-minute extract on All4, where Derren recreates his favourite ever trick. He surprises a viewer at home, Rihanna, who has been set up by her friend Tamique, and they are both brought to Derren’s secret location. Tamique is asked to place a nail under one of 3 cups and then mix the cups around, all unseen by Rihanna and Derren. Rihanna then has to guess which cup the nail is under, so that she and Derren can slam their hands down on the other two. And even though you know they’ll get it right and avoid injury, you still feel tense watching it.

But that part isn’t Derren’s favourite trick. It turns out that the choice of cup and its position was influenced by Derren in various ways during their cab ride to the location, and viewers at home were also manipulated to think of it during the show as well. It harks back to the trick Derren did with a couple of advertising designers, when he asked them to create a logo for his taxidermy business, and had influenced them during their taxi journey. So it’s a nice callback to that.


Stage Shows

Some of Derren’s stage shows have been filmed for TV, edited down to fit a 90 minute slot (so they’re 70-75 minutes long without adverts). They are all available on All4, while the first 5 are also available on DVD (which I own) and the 6th show is on Netflix. A few shows have also been uploaded to Derren’s Youtube channel.

These shows are very interactive, as Derren invites people up on stage to take part in his tricks. These regularly involve reading their minds or subliminally influencing their thoughts and actions, and sometimes involve snap inductions to put people into a trance-like state. Plus there are occasional darker and more dangerous stunts too, as he can get away with more stuff than on TV. And there’s always a big mind-melting finale too, built on things that happened earlier on. So the shows are always entertaining, with lots of good humour, and they all leave you with a sense of amazement as to how he pulled off his illusions.

  • Something Wicked This Way Comes – On DVD, All4 & Youtube. This show, which won an Olivier Award for Best Entertainment, was filmed at The Old Vic, on the final night of Derren’s second tour. The first half of the show is edited down to just 24 minutes, including a trick where he figures out who’s telling the truth amongst a group of liars. But the second half is included in full, as Derren shows how pain is subjective by hammering a nail into his nose, walking on glass and laying in it while someone stands on him, and being slapped hard while counting buttons. Then there’s a clever finale where he gets an audience member to pick a word from a newspaper that he’s influenced during the show. The extra features include 24 minutes of deleted material from the first half of the show, including the matching of Zener cards with an audience member and behavioural predictions after a subliminal film. Plus there’s a fun 12-minute backstage feature, consisting of an interview with Derren Brown and co-writer Andy Nyman along with some audience reactions.
  • Evening Of Wonders – On DVD & All4. In this show from the Garrick Theatre, the first half is a mixture of shorter routines, including a guy choosing between boxes containing different amounts of money, a Yes/No questions game to determine what objects people are thinking of, predicting the numbers someone will say over the phone (after fooling people that it’s gone wrong), and silly diversions like hole-tempting and someone in a gorilla suit stealing a banana. The second half then looks at routines performed by mediums, starting with moving and floating tables, before Derren performs the Oracle Act, whereby he guesses the questions that people have asked and other details about them, merely from their handwriting and personal appearance. It comes to a dramatic conclusion, before he reveals a long scroll that he’d written earlier, predicting lots of things that would happen during the show. The DVD also includes over 20 minutes of deleted scenes, consisting of a 6-minute film of interactive instructions that was played to the audience, an 11-minute card routine (where a lady thinks she’s transmitting and receiving mental images of cards with other audience members), and 5 minutes of extra material from the Oracle routine. Finally, there’s also a 10-minute interview feature with Derren that includes some clips from the show.
  • Enigma – On DVD & All4. This was recorded at the New Wimbledon Theatre. There’s another nice variety of routines here, as Derren guesses a person’s favourite things using word dissociation, plays a real-life mind-reading version of Guess Who?, reveals a well-hidden box containing a specially engraved coin for an audience member, re-enacts how mediums put people in a rigid state so a guy can lie across the backs of two chairs, has a woman drink a glass of vinegar while in a trance before she miraculously predicts how much money someone in the audience has, and Derren does a classic demonstration of a spirit cabinet with audience members inside it. And for the big finale, he demonstrates that he was able to influence people’s seemingly random choices, with a pre-recorded song by McFly to prove it.
  • Infamous – On DVD, All4 & Youtube. In the first half of this show from the Leeds Grand Theatre, Derren talks about being trapped inside our own heads, then figures out a pet’s name, influences a man’s choice of word, and gets a guy to feel objects in a box before putting him into a deep trance, leaving him there during the interval. In the second half Derren then talks about how homeopathy is proven not to work, as he pretends to do psychic surgery by pulling fake tumours and organs out of the guy’s chest. He then has the guy feel an invisible object inside a box, which matches an object his mother was thinking of. Derren then involves other members of the audience in a demonstration of a fake psychic medium act, giving them very accurate information but making it clear that their dead relatives aren’t really coming through. And in a very busy and entertaining final routine he shows how he got the nickname Dickbrain at school and how it’s nothing to be ashamed of, involving the complete works of Shakespeare, hundreds of bus routes, dice, rice and Rubik’s cubes. Online you can see a What’s On Stage interview with Derren Brown and Andy Nyman about the show.
  • Miracle – On Netflix with optional audio description, and on All4 without AD. Filmed at the Palace Theatre London. Derren opens the show by talking about how our fixation on specific future goals can hinder or prevent us from being truly happy, and how embracing the journey is important – e.g. you don’t just skip to the end of a piece of music or the final chapter of a book. Then he gets into a variety of routines, where he gets audience members to create a story, persuades a lady to eat a piece of glass (like he did with James Corden), plays a game involving grabbing coins from a guy’s hands, and slams his hands down on paper bags to avoid the one that has a nail underneath (after showing clips of people getting it wrong). Then in the second half he gives people the experience of faith healing – which he openly debunks in the show, just like he did in his Miracles For Sale special. Yet it still works, as he uses psychological and evangelical techniques to seemingly heal pain in several people, give a guy extra strength, improve a woman’s eyesight (her reaction to which is hilarious), remove the ability to read from a sceptical man, and perform an anointing where a guy is lifted up in the air. Finally, he concludes the show with a reminder that each of us is a miracle of existence, before talking about how the media sell us stories, and reveals a copy of the Mail On Sunday that shows how it influenced the story made up earlier by the audience. It’s all very clever. You can also watch audience reactions from the opening night and Derren’s LBC interview about the show.

Conclusion

And that’s it for this second epic post. Obviously Derren has made appearances in other shows, and has been involved with other productions and publications, but he is by far best known for the shows covered in my 2 long posts here. Along the way I’ve linked to some relevant interviews and other videos, but there are lots of other clips out there that you might want to check out, including (but by no means limited to):

So there you have it, that’s the end of this Halloween double special. I hope you enjoyed looking through all of that and checking out Derren’s stuff!

Author: Glen

Love London, love a laugh, love life. Visually impaired blogger, culture vulture & accessibility advocate, with aniridia & nystagmus, posting about my experiences & adventures.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: