How does Derren Brown do it? No, this is not a rhetorical question. I'm really asking.
No one in the audience is an actor or stooge, we kept being told as Derren Brown brought his Svengali stage show to telly.
Derren Brown can't read minds as it appears, so what IS going on?
He kicked off in style, in one shoe, inviting the audience to guess which box the other one was in. This was really the Monty Hall problem, presented with a stylistic flourish, but the real quality came as he tried to ‘help’ his audience member, telling her ‘you should always change your mind.’ He kept the shoe.
Just statistically likely...?
For his second trick, he plucked a random tombola token, which corresponded to a lady in the audience. Within minutes, he’d ‘read’ her to the point where he deduced her embarrassing confession. What was he doing? He seemed to be laser-focused on her while his chat went on automatically, but what did he see?
In the third trick, he got Anthony to put a bag over his head and think of a famous figure. Of course, by the time Derren Brown was painting it – upside down – and presenting his portrait to the masses, his hard work was long done. He had obviously known it was going to be Elvis Presley all along, the portrait work was mere flower-arranging, but but that made it no less impressive. Was it really just that someone of Anthony’s age, class, appearance, was statistically likely to think of the King when asked for an iconic celebrity figure? Or… ?
By the time Brown was getting his spooky Victorian doll – ‘Svengali’ – to communicate through another random member of the audience, it was clear what was going on… Derren Brown knows stuff we don’t.
We don't really want to know...
The thing we have to remember in the face of such wonder is that this is NOT a supernatural event, it’s just a great series of tricks. We’ve come a long way from the evenings when Paul Daniels and co could get a primetime show by cutting a woman in two, or shuffling a pack of cards. Audiences are evolving beasts, who’d make light work of the ball in the bottle these days. However, just as computer hackers continue to break down whatever firewalls scientists come up with, so the magicians have sneaked off again to play with what we hold most dear, our perceptions of our own minds and the borders we take for granted around our inner thoughts.
Because Derren Brown taps in… and appears to know ourselves as well as we do, and when we try and trick him, he knows that’s going on too and, most impressively, makes allowances for this. It becomes a conspiracy between you and him. His is the trade of the ‘mentalist’ - I can tell you from first-hand experience how disarming it is to have this happen to you, disturbing but incredibly charming and seductive too.
And that’s why, in our heart of hearts, we don’t actually want to know how it’s done. A practitioner of this art once explained to me that the reason we need performers like Derren Brown and Dynamo is that, at a very fundamental level, we’re all terrified of death and detachment (where’s Freud when you need him?) so we need to cling onto something more clever, more mischievous, wiser and kinder… Father Christmas… God… Daddy... Yoda...? Call it what you will, but it’s immensely comforting to have these people in our midst and, even if we have to remember they’re tricksters not gurus, such comfort has a magic all of its own.
Do you think you know how Derren Brown does his 'mind-reading' tricks? Share your ideas below...
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