Since the time of Chung Ling Soo, fraudulent mediums have been a subject of intense scrutiny from magicians, often finding their methods exposed and their careers in tatters. However self-styled psychics of today can often manage to continue generating a less-than-meagre income even if it has been made clear that all they are doing is a spot of cold reading, perhaps coupled together with an earpiece. In this case, it is not the debunkers which pseudo-clairvoyants have to fear, but the competition instead.
To date, I have seen two genuinely remarkable demonstrations of what appears to be (but which I must point out is definitely not) psychic ability. The first was some years ago on television, where no camera tricks were involved, while the second was on Tuesday; the opening night of a live tour at the Theatre Royal in Brighton.
Since you're reading this article in the first place, it will hardly be surprising for you to hear that both feats were achieved by one of the greatest showmen of our generation. Derren Brown.
So what exactly did he do? It's no secret that Brown requests the contents of his show remain...errr, well...a secret. However his reasons for asking us to stay quiet are not quite the reasons as to why I will not divulge. I'm not going to tell you what happened, because the knowledge that any audience members involved were completely unaware as to what was going to take place before they walked into the auditorium, makes what he did even more impossible. All the standard pre-show methods which a medium may use to obtain detailed information are totally useless when applied to a crowd who have absolutely no idea about what's coming.
On the subject of methodology, anyone who reads the comments on Derren's Facebook page with reasonable regularity will inevitably stumble across a number of people asking to learn how he accomplishes such seemingly impossible effects. So I suppose now is the point where I reveal to you the truth. Where I tell you how Derren Brown does it.
Of course most of you can guess what's coming and those who can't will be disappointed by the answers. Yes, I followed how he did some of his stuff. Yes, when he led me down a blind alley, I eventually backtracked to the only possible solution (his trickery in the finale left me with an enormous grin on my face). And yes, there were some things which I can guess towards but I may be no closer to the truth than any laypeople in the audience.
Yet Brown's true secret is not his fantastic blend of classic and innovative techniques. It is not how he knows the colour of your neighbour's car or what you had for breakfast. Those are all mundane and simple, though often ingenious things.
It is his partnership with Andy Nyman and their ability to assemble process upon process in such a way so as to make it look like you are witnessing true magic. It is the original presentations, the striking imagery, and the fantastic use of psychological subtleties; which may not be difficult in principle but have taken years of experience to mould and perfect.
His showmanship is utterly sublime: without this the performance would not have been anywhere near as convincing. I sometimes wonder, as others do, how big an impact Brown's public image has on the suggestibility of a carefully selected volunteer and the ease with which he can put them into a trance. After seeing him live, I can tell you that while this undoubtedly had an effect, it was not the critical factor. He draws you in with his way of twisting the raw methods into something unbelievable. Even those who are difficult to hypnotise may find themselves beginning to succumb to quite brilliant techniques which, with Brown as the catalyst, can have a phenomenal effect.
My only reservation with the show was the recreation of a situation that can lead to a heightened emotional state - for those of you who have seen it, we're talking about the pseudo-paranormal here. Despite constant assurances that it wasn't real, Brown's convincing performance resulted in one girl being reduced to tears. This makes me wonder just how much of a moral high ground he can take over charlatans when the end result is just the same.
Nevertheless, it is still possible to summarise the events of Tuesday night in a single sentence.
When someone tricks you with principles that you yourself know and use, or when you can follow exactly what they are doing but still fail to keep up, that is the mark not just of a great magician, but of a truly amazing performer.
Derren Brown: Infamous is showing at the Theatre Royal in Brighton until Saturday 15th February, followed by The Swan in High Wycombe between the 17th and the 22nd. A full list of tour dates can be found here.