Thursday, January 05, 2006

Someone needs to keep Derren Brown under constant supervision...

I was going to go on and on and on about last night's 'The Heist' but Sam Wollaston sums it up. If you didn't see it, just have this uppermost in your mind as you read Sam's review (he says it himself but it's important!): Derren Brown is not with the 'guinea pigs' when they decide to hold up a security guard and nick his money: he's planted the seeds and so when they simply see an opportunity - which they had no prior knowledge of - they do it. It was mouth-open-wide tv.

Sam Wollaston
Thursday January 5, 2006
The Guardian

Vicky is walking along Gresham Street, in the City of London. A green security van is parked a little way up the street. A car drives past, blasting out music - Can You Feel It by the Jacksons. From the direction of the Bank of England, a uniformed security guard carrying two cases walks towards the van, just as Vicky reaches the same spot. She stops, pulls a very realistic-looking toy gun from her pocket, points it at the guard's head and orders him on to the floor. Then she grabs the two cases, each containing £50,000 in cash, and runs off down the street.

This is not normal behaviour for Vicky. She's usually a law-abiding business woman, a sales executive. But this is Derren Brown: The Heist (Channel 4) and he tells her to do it, so she does. Actually, he doesn't tell her directly to commit a crime, she does it of her own free will. Derren's last words to Vicky, spoken over the phone, are: "Make that decision to steal yourself. And grab that opportunity to make all this work really pay off. It's just about standing in the way of security and life and making it do what you want it to do. You're the one with the weapon of absolute unquestioning power."
These words are the last part of a meticulous two-week process. Vicky and 12 other middle-management business people go on what they think is a motivational course with the well-known TV psycho-magician-wierdo-con-artist. He whittles them down to the four most persuadable - including Vicky - whom he will turn into armed bank robbers. The purpose of the whole thing? To demonstrate that, as history has often shown, normal people can be persuaded to act in deviant, criminal and irrational ways.

It is certainly a fascinating process to watch. He says he's teaching them some of the genuine skills he uses, but admits to peppering it all with a fair amount of bullshit. Somehow he instils in them a can-do attitude, gets them to achieve a pumped-up emotional state that can be triggered by the colour green or the Jacksons singing. And then, slowly, he manipulates them into crossing the line into criminal behaviour.

At times it's hilarious. For their first little foray into the underworld, Derren encourages them to steal something from a sweetshop. The poor boys behind the till can't understand why smartly dressed executive types keep coming in and nicking Twixes and packets of Fruit Pastels. Eventually one of the boys plucks up the courage to confront a suited man who is blatantly walking out with a packet of biscuits. "Do you want to put those Jammy Dodgers back, please?" he says politely to Phil. Phil may be a security operations manager, whatever one of them is, but when it comes to Jammy Dodgers he's no Artful Dodger. He does, however, turn out to be a much better Ronnie Biggs in the end.

At other times it's more disturbing. The re-creation of the Stanley Milgram test, for instance, in which Vicky and Phil and the rest of our middle-management business people are made to think they are administering excruciating electric shocks to someone. It's a well-known experiment to show that people will do outrageous things just because a person in authority has told them to. Some of them are quite happy to carry on upping the voltage, even though the victim has apparently passed out from the pain.

The climax, the robbery itself, is extraordinary. Three of the four chosen people - Vicky, Phil and Danny the IT consultant - all decide, when the opportunity arises, to hold up a security van.

Whatever you think of Derren Brown, he's definitely succeeded in creating the subject of this morning's oh-my-god-did-you-see television conversation. Everyone will have their theories of how he does it, they'll wonder if they would have been susceptible themselves, some people will question the morality of creating three new criminals.

I don't know any of the answers. But I do know that Derren Brown is a very persuasive man. As well as persuading three people to nick £100,000, he also seems to have persuaded them that the experience has been a positive one. He must also have persuaded the police to cordon off a sizable area of the City for him. And although I find him a bit creepy, he's certainly persuaded me that he makes very good telly.

A BIT CREEPY? I want the man locked up (apart from a few days a year in which to make wonderful TV). As SW said it was hilarious and disturbing in equal measure. The funniest part was when, having stolen the money, the guys just ran down the street, obviously coming out of their 'motivateaggressiveve' state, and suddenly having no idea what to do. Funny in a horrible way, of course, but funny.

It was interesting to see how they guy who didn't go through with it reacted to seeing the security guard - his first reaction was to go for it, you could tell. Then he screwed up his face, quickened his step as if to get away from the temptation as soon as he could, and shook his head in disbelief of what he nearly did. The same group of people who had silently but forcefully stopped the previous three at the end of the road gather round him - 'I'm a good person' he said, more to convince himself than in any sort of celebration. The others looked like they'd just been woken up after sleep-walking. Thoroughly weird. Great tv though.

A quick blog search has thrown up some intersting reactions, by the way. Bathtubgingirl likes to think she'd have been more polite (though they were pretty polite themselves - the best one was: 'Scuse me, mate, sorry to bother you but... this is a hold-up'. Classic) and brings up the point that 'Derren Brown is a hotty'. Nac's friend Jen was actually in it (though not chosen for the heist itself), and coolnina97 voices all our concerns about messing with people's heads.


Deano said...

Ahh Derren Brown, ever the cause of much controversy - I should say at this point I've not actually seen this show yet, but I'd imagine it pulls the same con trick most of his shows do.

Derren is a magician, or an illusionist if you will. And when magicians first came on the scene, they'd do thier tricks and when asked how they did something seemingly impossible, they'd go 'Hey, it's magic', and people believed they had some special powers.
Most people these days, don't believe in magic, they know that when they see a magician there's a trick behind it - that's not to say they don't enjoy it, but nor do they seriously believe it's actually magic.

Derren is a magician for the new generation, the generation that read about mental health in the papers and in the news, the generation for whoom depression is a medical condition that entitles you to sick leave, and seeing a psychologist isn't seen as at all strange.
You see, Derren does tricks, but when asked how they're done he doesn't say 'It's magic' he says 'It's psychology', and we swallow it, as it seems feasible. It brings back that mystical sense that's been missing from magic ever since science prooved it was codswallop. We're back to believing the man has some special powers, not that he's received from the gods, but that he's trained himself in. In many ways, this is even more appealing, as intrinsic in that is the suggestion that with enough work, we could perform such magic too.

It's a little more complicated than that though - the best lies are hidden in truth, afterall. Much of what Derren bases his act around is of some scientific or psuedo scientific principles. It's partly actual psychology, partly a spin-off of the field know as Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP). This is a field of psychological science developed by John Grinder and Richard Bandler in the 80s, and is basically an altogether different approach to psychology - it's about developing mental structures that show how people form feelings and beliefs.
It's sort of hard to explain but it's what Paul McKenna uses to cure people's phobias and help them quit smoking, it's also what Neil Strauss mainly used to pick-up women in that book The Game that was in the press a few months ago (
It's also what Derren uses in the first stages of most of his tricks. He lulls people into a false sense of belief to start with, as he claims that there's no trick to what he's doing, and at first there generally isn't - he's extremely good at observing human behaviour and picking up on body language, and making simple suggestions.
An example of this is when he plays scissor, paper, stone with someone, and constantly wins, he's just reading them. But then comes the kicker, then he'll do something crazy like turn his back to them and still win, something truely shocking and impressive - but at some point between the two, the observation has stopped and the 'trick' has started.

This isn't to disparage Derren Brown in any way - he's a phenomenal entertainer, and a master of his craft, the fact that he still has so many people fooled is a testement to that.

This might all sound like conjecture so I'll offer some proof - the Russian Roulette thing. Even with all the confidence in the world in his abilities, do you really think any TV station would take the risk of showing a man blowing his brains out on live TV? It wouldn't happen.

Dave Rattigan said...

Hey, I've really enjoyed trawling through the archives of your blog here. Keep it up. I'll be adding you to my Bloglines!

MR. MIKEY said...

I was pretty worried about the guy who was shouting at the guard to not look at him, or he'd kill him. When he was saying stuff about his family too, I could imagine it getting pretty out of hand. Afterwards, I thought he was gonna collapse or something.

Mikey - 'Lowering the IQ of the blog by double figures'

I try :(

AnnaWaits said...

Not at all, I love getting your comments! Yeah that guy went pretty far, I wonder if he's watched it back?

And thanks for the science, Deano, I'm afraid I'm only qualified to critique the tv so it was great to read your stuff.

Lisa Rullsenberg said...

Can I just say GREAT piece and good comments added, esp. Deano. But I thought I better let you know that when you select this post you have to scroll down a LONG way to get to the post itself as it doesn't begin until after the left-hand side bar text has finished...!