Thursday, January 05, 2006

Derren Brown: The Heist

Christ almighty, what unalloyed bullshit.

Derren Brown is a problematic figure if ever there was one. American viewers may not be familiar with his schtick. Here's how he describes himself:-

Derren Brown is a unique force in the world of illusion - he can seemingly predict and control human behaviour.

He doesn't claim to be a mind-reader, instead he describes his craft as a mixture of magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship.

Whatever you choose to call it, his unparalleled performances amaze and unsettle all those who watch him. This is a powerful and provocative form of entertainment, unlikely to be imitated for a long while.

In other words, he's a magician. He calls himself a "psychological illusionist." But Brown has always played down the magic and played up the psychology. He claims to be able to influence behaviour and read subconscious cues through his mastery of NLP techniques. If pushed, he might possibly concede that he makes those claims as part of his act - but that's not the way he generally presents it. Brown's unique selling point is his seemingly remarkable skills of psychological manipulation, skills which he claims anybody could learn.

The remarkable thing is that by presenting all this in a totally naturalistic way, Brown has actually convinced a large segment of the public that his abilities are for real. In many ways this is a very clever and remarkable extension of the original principles of stage magic. You imply that the trick is being done in one way, and that means the audience won't be looking when you actually do perform the trick (usually some time before they even started looking). In a similar way, by convincing people that he's using Incredible Psychological Techniques, Brown gets away with doing the same old parlour tricks that mentallists have been doing for centuries.

Lest there be any doubt: these techniques do not exist. Neuro-linguistic programming is a far vaguer science than Brown makes out. Save for a few minor things he throws in for credibility, it is not possible to achieve Brown's feats using any techniques known to science. That only leaves two possibilties. One, Derren Brown is decades ahead of mainstream science, thanks to his superhuman powers of insight. Two, Derren Brown is a bullshitter, who throws in the odd reference to "magic" and "illusion" and claims to use psychological rather than psychic abilities, but is ultimately just a 21st century Uri Geller.

This was relatively harmless when he was just using it as a framing device for magical tricks, although even then there was a good argument that he was crossing the line into dishonesty. In The Heist, Brown claims to use subliminal influence to make law-abiding citizens attempt an armed robbery. This subliminal influence includes heavy use of the colour green, the usual gibberish about word choice, and so forth. At no point is anyone shown being actually asked to perform an armed robbery. The conceit is that as they walk down the road and are presented with the same triggers, they spontaneously decided to attempt an armed robbery.

And if you believe that, you'll believe anything.

Brown has been caught in outright hoaxes before, when he claimed to be playing Russian roulette on live TV. This too was utter nonsense, but ultimately it was a standard magic trick dressed up as something more. But The Heist bothers me. The only way to achieve this is to hire a bunch of actors and fake the whole thing. (In any event there's no way the police would co-operate in doing it for real, since all four participants would promptly be arrested for attempted robbery.)

The thing is, this isn't even a trick. There's no underlying illusion being dressed up in a dodgy way. This is just an entire hour devoted to hoaxing the public as a whole, and building the myth of Derren Brown, Evil Superman. And that troubles me enormously. It's not a satire, it's not a trick - at best it's some sort of experiment to see what the idiot public will believe if a compliant TV channel allows you to promote yourself in a particular way over a period of years. And really, is that such an achievement?