Being friends with Derren Brown must be simultaneously fascinating and utterly terrifying. A vastly intelligent natural performer with charisma and charm to spare, Derren has been confounding audiences with his brand of “magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship” for something approaching two decades and has successfully pulled-off a remarkable evolution from skilled street magician to performer of increasingly ambitious television events.
Over time, Derren’s material has become as much about helping and inspiring people as it is shocking them, separating his work from that of the TV magician pack. Specials such as Hero At 30,000 Feet and Apocalypse were intended to not only entertain the viewing audience but to enrich the lives of their unsuspecting subjects. After scaring the living daylights out of them, naturally.
In spite of the odd fail, Derren Brown shows are rarely less than essential viewing, not only for magic fans but for anyone with a vague interest in the psychological, paranormal or with a sadistic desire to see an innocent member of the public genuinely convinced they’re about to die. In celebration of this modern day illusionist extraordinaire, here are Derren Brown’s eleven best televised stunts.
The Guilt Trip
The art of extracting criminal confessions from detained suspects is a controversial area of legal and psychological discussion and proved a fascinating subject for The Guilt Trip, part of 2011’s notably darker The Experiments. The premise of the episode rests on whether Derren can make an innocent participant confess to a faked murder using a variety of mental techniques.
Poor Jody was invited to what he believed was a seminar on student employment, however the whole event was set up by Derren to function as the setting for a real-life murder mystery. When Jody is finally taken in for questioning by ‘police’, he shockingly admits to the fictional killing.
Derren uses a mixture of guilt triggers, memory manipulation and Tim Minchin in this chilling episode to demonstrate exactly how fragile the human mind can be and the tears on Jody’s face as he confesses make for tough, yet compelling, television.
Most people with Derren Brown’s mind powers would be down the betting shop faster than Biff Tannen in Back To The Future II and The System purports to show exactly how Derren could gamble his way to wealth. However, whilst The System initially appears to offer a foolproof method for success, the stunt is soon revealed to be a systematic confidence trick that simply sent different batches of predictions to thousands of people until one set all came true.
Derren provides the metaphor of a coin toss to explain his system, impressing viewers by landing on heads ten times in a row but later revealing that he spent nine hours filming before performing the feat.
The episode’s finale sees a woman bet £4000 of her own cash on a horse based on Derren’s bogus predictions, only to lose. Happily, in one final twist, Derren’s mystique is rebuilt as he reveals the bet was changed at the last moment to the winning horse, leaving viewers questioning whether the man does truly have some sort of predictive gambling method.
The Piano Recital
With great power comes great responsibility, or so a wise rice merchant once said and accordingly, Derren hasn’t just used his mental prowess to bring nightmares to life, he’s also produced plenty of episodes where the intention was purely to help in one way or another. Perhaps the finest example of this ethos came in Trick Or Treat series one’s piano recital.
In this episode, subject Yshani is given one week to prepare for an official piano performance at a prestigious music venue…without practising beforehand. With the girl possessing only the most basic musical skills, Derren purports to use subliminal learning techniques to teach Yshani the piece of music without a single ivory being tickled.
While a crash course in music may not be a particularly impressive endeavour by Derren Brown standards, a dramatic twist reveals that Yshani was already a highly skilled pianist and Derren had made her forget her musical ability to reignite Yshani’s lost love for the instrument.
On completely the other end of Trick Or Treat’s intensity scale is series two’s Escape episode. Unlucky enough to select a ‘Trick’ card, poor Angela was given brief tuition in escape artistry before Derren, quite literally, threw her in at the deep end.
Handcuffed, secured in a sack and submerged underwater, Angela must use her newly acquired skills to escape before she drowns (or Channel 4’s divers drag her out) and after what feels like an eternity, the woman eventually breaks the surface of the water, free from her shackles.
Delving deep into the magic section of his skill-set, Escape is one of Derren’s most difficult stunts to figure out the mechanics of and from an outside perspective, appears to be one of his most dangerous in terms of the risk involved.
Arguably the darkest of Derren’s rather disturbing The Experiments was his twisted take on a TV game show. An audience is assembled believing they are taking part in a new series called Remote Control, where the studio audience dictate elements of an unsuspecting subject’s day, with the action captured on hidden cameras.
The experiment begins innocently enough, with the audience voting to have subject Kris wound up at a bar but the decisions rapidly escalate and by the end of the episode, the group has voted to have Kris kidnapped by masked thugs.
Gameshow is intended to demonstrate the psychology of mob mentality and the phenomenon of deindividuation that can make upstanding people act in a sinister and aggressive manner. The experiment ends with Derren turning the situation back onto the studio audience by tricking them into believing their decisions have resulted in Kris being hit by a car. After lifting the lid on the stunt for the assembled crowd, Derren departs to chilling silence from the stunned audience, concluding the episode on a poignant but distinctly dark note.
Derren Brown has been refreshingly vocal in his criticism of psychics and mediums that purport to possess genuine paranormal abilities, and Séance provided an opportunity for the self-confessed sceptic to prove he could achieve the same results using trickery and psychology.
The premise of this one-hour special saw a group of students taken to an old manor house where they were told a cult had carried out a suicide pact in the seventies. Alongside Derren, the group conducts an Ouija board session, a séance and several other mediumship standards to contact deceased cult member Jane and one subject even channels the fictional ghost through their own voice.
Derren’s final reveal to the students that Jane is a complete fabrication acts as the final nail in the charlatan coffin in this damning indictment of the psychic industry. Far from just being a big middle finger to those that claim to commune with the dead however, Séance is also one of Derren’s most entertaining hours of television.
It’s easy to see why The Heist is one of Brown’s personal favourites. After all, there is a common misconception among casual viewers that the performer brainwashes his participants and The Heist is perhaps the stunt that perpetuated this myth.
A group of unsuspecting Derren Brown fans (although surely by now there’s no such thing) are invited to a seminar that promises to reveal the performer’s secrets. Unfortunately for them, these students are actually being implanted with subliminal instructions to willingly carry out an armed robbery on a fake security van at a later date.
That Derren could indirectly pull off such an audacious act is a scary reminder of what somebody could potentially be persuaded to do, should Derren have chosen to pursue crime rather than showbusiness.
Pushed To The Edge
Derren’s most recent special proved to be one of his most impressive as, not content with simply compelling people to commit robbery, poor Chris was persuaded to carry out cold-blooded murder.
For this stunt, a phony PR event was held with actors and some of Derren’s celebrity pals even offering messages of support via video. The evening was designed to use social compliance to make Chris push another attendee off the roof of the building but in an unexpected twist, the visibly upset subject refused and walked away.
What initially looked like an anti-climactic ending was quickly turned on its head when Brown revealed that although Chris had refused to be ‘pushed to the edge’, the experiment had been repeated on several other applicants, all of whom committed the act and Chris was actually the only one of Derren’s subjects able to resist the social pressure to kill.
No, not a Derren Brown-led spinoff of The Walking Dead (although how great would that be) but arguably the illusionist’s most controversial stunt to date. As part of 2005’s Trick Of The Mind series, an arcade video game was designed, built and innocently placed in a pub for unsuspecting punters to play.
What looked from the outside like a zombie-themed first person shooter was actually programmed by Derren to put players into a trance-like state. Of course, simply putting someone to sleep was only half of the act. After Waking Dead had rendered pub customer David unconscious, Derren swooped in to multiply the terror tenfold, transporting the subject to a nearby location decorated to look like the video game and populated with actors playing zombies. David is then ‘brought back to the room’ and left to fend off zombies with a realistic-looking firearm.
Unsurprisingly, the stunt drew plenty of controversy from those worried about the ethics of such a stunt, while others accused the performer of having colluded with David previously in some capacity. Wherever you stand on either debate, the episode is unequivocally and undeniably gripping.
Russian Roulette is not only responsible for bringing Derren Brown to the attention of the mainstream, but was also the stunt that involved the highest personal risk to the performer himself. Being broadcast live from a more firearm-friendly location also contributed hugely to the sense that viewers were seeing something taboo; a one-off, death-defying display of audacity.
For his debut special, Derren selected one lucky participant to load a single bullet into a six-shot revolver before Derren would point the gun to his own head and attempt to guess which chamber was lethal. Adding to the already considerable tension, Derren’s third guess proved incorrect, as he pointed the gun to a nearby sandbag and pulled the trigger, only for that particular chamber to be empty. The lengthy pause that followed truly gave the sense that something had gone awry but Derren soon recovered, correctly firing the fifth shot – and the bullet – into the sandbag.
Russian Roulette has perhaps been one of Derren’s most criticised acts, with widespread claims that blanks were used in the stunt. As the man himself correctly stated however, a blank fired from short range is still potentially lethal.
Continuing his interest in zombies, Brown took the concept of convincing someone they were in post-apocalyptic world and introduced Hollywood-levels of production. Having selected a – for want of a better word – victim, in lazy twenty-something Steven, Derren sets about attempting to convince his subject that the end is nigh, even going so far as to hack Steven’s phone and plant fake news stories into his social media feeds.
When a ‘meteor’ hits Earth, Steven is put to sleep and moved onto an elaborate set where a group of actors attempt to convince him that the world as he knew it had ended. In true Derren Brown style however, Apocalypse wasn’t merely about tormenting an innocent member of the public and was intended to inspire a new lease of life in its apathetic subject. The fact that Derren and Steven remained friends after the show suggests this goal was achieved. Due to its sheer ambition and scale, this two-part 2012 project remains Derren Brown’s magnum opus.