About nine years ago, Channel 4 aired a show called Mind Reader where a man named Derren Brown claimed to be able to do just that – read the minds of the audience. It was astonishing. At the end of the show, he explained how he had done the trick – and it was just a trick, he never claimed to receive messages from the dead or to be psychic. However, it is incredible to understand how he did it.
Derren Brown is a very plain-looking, 38-year-old man with an ordinary middle class London accent. He doesn’t wear flamboyant clothes, he uses commonplace words, his name is unexceptional (apart from Derren rather than Darren). He doesn’t claim to be special or holy or suffering for his art in a David Blaine kind of way. He is so unlike the magicians of old yet much of the nation is talking about him.
He first started experimenting with hypnotism, conjuring and sleight of hand while at Bristol University. He realised he could learn a great deal about a person by watching subtle signals in their body language – shifts in the eyes, movements of the head that are barely perceptible to most people.
He also realised that he could influence what people do and say by putting suggestions into their minds without their knowledge. He keeps up a constant stream of chatter dotted with hidden key words in order to influence people in the ways he wants.
During another Channel 4 show, he took a group of people and pretended to hold seminar with them. What he had actually told us beforehand was that he was going to make them take part in holding up a van containing money – in other words stage a robbery. Obviously the van was all part of the show but the people did not know this. Worryingly, many of them did what he wanted and performed the crime.
Derren can persuade people in the street to give him their wallets, he can make a London taxi driver (who famously know every street in the capital) stand next to the London Eye and forget where it is. He can take a woman into a huge shop containing thousands of toys and make her choose a toy giraffe and name it Frank, both decisions she thought were done by her own free will. He can dress as a beggar and persuade people to part with large amounts of money – one man even gave him his shoes. Derren recently declared he would predict the lottery numbers. But as many people said, why did he not just buy a ticket with those numbers the day before and win!
His latest stunt has literally had the nation transfixed. With his studio audience and viewers at home he said he would have people stuck to their seats. I watched with my husband and son. We had to sit with our feet flat on the ground, our hands on our knees and upright on our seats. Then we watched a short film mainly of lines and shapes with the odd subliminal picture thrown in. Sadly, it had effect whatsoever on myself or my husband but my son said he felt as if a force was pressing down on his stomach. But later my daughter, who was at a friend’s house, rang to say she and her friend were completely stuck to their chairs. They were unable to move until Derren released everyone minutes later. More than half of his studio audience were also stuck.
Derren Brown is absolutely compelling viewing. He makes it clear how he achieves what he does, but nevertheless it is amazing, and very worrying, how easily human beings can be manipulated. As they joked on the radio, people will be ringing work on Monday saying, ‘I can’t come in, I’m stuck to my sofa.’