A Tribute to Derren Brown
In my article The Importance of being satirical I talked about the effectiveness of entertainment in communicating important principles and ideas. I can think of no-one better to personify this idea than psychological illusionist and mentalist, Derren Brown. I expect the vast majority of my UK readers will be familiar with Brown and his work, and I expect that the majority of my American readers will not. I hope this article will address that anomaly at least a little.
Brown possesses a collection of qualities that are rare to find together in one person. He is a very gifted and skilled magician, as well as a seasoned stage hypnotist in his time, the fusion of which has lead to his unique brand of performance. He has a very charming, extrovert personality and is renowned for his quick wit and repartee. He is also a superb intellect, widely read and deeply knowledgeable on the history of his profession, and of religion and the paranormal industries. As a former devout Christian turned atheist, he does not misrepresent the beliefs and delusions he now opposes, but faces them head on, as he once knew them. And then, in his spare time, he is a brilliant caricaturist.
Brown was born in 1971 in Croyden (London), England. He went to university in Bristol to study Law and German, and it was there that he went to see a hypnosis show at his students union that changed his life. It was his first step towards his new career, as well as his eventual deconversion. He worked tirelessly to master hypnosis and began to do small performances and shows for his fellow students. An interest in magic followed and again he slaved relentlessly to master the art. After graduating he remained in Bristol and performed in restaurants and bars, before Channel 4 approached him in 1999 about the Mind Control program which was to make him famous.
Mind Control was an instant hit, captivating audiences across the country. Viewers and reviews alike were amazed by his abilities, particularly his illusions of mind reading. One of the most famous press captions was “the closest our galaxy can boast to a Jedi Master” (Colin Kennedy, Empire Magazine). Subsequent seasons followed, with growing success, and the 5th season of Brown’s work is about to air in the UK next month.
The fascinating thing about Brown’s work, is that he is happy to admit that it is all achieved through natural means, misdirection and suggestion. He freely confesses that he has absolutely no supernatural abilities at all, or as he prefers to say “I’m dishonest, but I’m honest about my dishonesty”. Despite this, amazingly, some people still claim that he has genuinely psychic abilities.
The tradition of magicians debunking charlatans goes back almost as far as the paranormal phenomena to which the latter claims. Most famously, Harry Houdini spent the last years of his life exposing fraudulent spiritualists, which in turn inspired James Randi to work as he has to promote scepticism and criticise the paranormal claimants. Brown is not out of his depth in their company. He has made a number of special documentaries to encourage people to think critically about extraordinary claims. In Séance, he used a group of impressionable students to show how the phenomena associated with Victorian spiritualism (Ouija boards, automatic writing etc) can be made to seem very real. The spontaneity of this tour de force was chilling, and the surprise ending to the exercise both moving and powerful. In Messiah, he went undercover in America, pretending to hold claims to various supernatural abilities and then presenting them to the people behind the industries, to see if they would endorse him as the real thing. He posed as a psychic and an alien abductee, among others, and was readily believed. He proudly claimed at the beginning that if anyone actually asked him if he was a fraud, he would immediately own up. He was never put in a position to keep his promise.
His work poses a major blow to the claims of psychics and mediums. He freely admits that he achieves his results through natural means, that if he were put in controlled test conditions, he would fail, his effects work because he manipulates the conditions and environment. With this in mind, having seen that Brown can cheat so successfully, why should we believe that any psychic or medium is genuine without them proving it in controlled test conditions? The principle of Occam’s razor leaves the likes of Sylvia Browne and Colin Fry without a leg to stand on. As James Randi famously said of Uri Geller, “if he’s bending spoons with his mind, he’s doing it the hard way”.
As well as his television work, Brown still thrives on a live audience, and has completed two sell out tours of his live show Something Wicked This Way Comes. I had the privilege of seeing it in Southport last year, and I can honestly say it was one of the most enjoyable and enthralling live events I have ever been to. His new UK tour with an all new show begins next month, and I recommend anyone who is able to get to any of the dates to buy tickets (but get in the queue behind me!).
Earlier in his career, Brown wrote two books for magicians, Pure Effect and Absolute Magic, which he did not release publicly. I have read them both through curiosity and they are excellent, but really are aimed at a very specific audience. Last year, he released his first book to the general public, Tricks of the Mind. It is very difficult to categorise it under a particular genre, so varied is its content. It is partly autobiographical, but also contains many of Brown’s views and analysis of magic, religion, the paranormal and alternative medicine industries. To add to this, he teaches some of his techniques on basic magic, hypnosis and memory aids. It is wonderfully, refreshingly well written, and immensely entertaining, with many hilarious anecdotes and one liners. Interwoven though, are many profound and serious arguments and moments of introspection. In performance, Brown presents an endearing, feigned arrogance which often incorporates self deprecation, but in many points in his narrative, he speaks with touching honesty that I think he conceals on screen or stage, as it would be out of context with his work. Again, my highest recommendations apply.
Some people say that Brown was destined for fame and fortune. I don’t believe in destiny, I simply think he was too good not to be discovered. Had he not been, it would have been a silent travesty, forever unknown to all but those who knew him. But don’t take my word for it! Please find out for yourself. Please follow these links and enjoy the work of one of the greatest characters, and talented performers of our generation.
Buy Tricks of the Mind from Amazon
You can search for clips on Youtube, there are plenty, but this is a particularly good one (a bit of trivia: It is set in Epping Forest in Essex near where I grew up – my mother used to take my brother and me on walks there when we were children).
List of tour dates