Friday, 10 September 2010

Derren Brown: Hero a Fake?

To cut to the chase, the answer is no.

Hero at 30,000 Feet is the latest TV special by mental illusionist Derren Brown. In the show, Derren took Matt, a fed-up Leeds man lacking in confidence, and
transformed him through a series of set-ups into a courageous, outgoing, risk-taker--the hero of the title. Matt had applied for the programme believing it was a new quiz show, but was unaware that Derren was behind the strange, life-changing series of events he was experiencing.

The events included a fake armed robbery, a night-time encounter with a crocodile and being put in a straitjacket and tied to a railway line as a train approached. The finale was a plane journey where--and this could never happen in real life, due to regulations--a pilot fell ill on a plane, and it was up to Matt to volunteer to land it. Through "hypnosis," Matt was taken from the real plane into a flight simulator, where he successfully overcame his fear of flying and landed the plane. Up to this point, Matt had been the archetypal passive bystander. Earlier, for example, we had watched him sit by saying nothing as smoke started billowing out from under a door, all because he did not want to be the first to take action. But now, Matt the Unconfident was Matt the Hero, Matt the Brave.

For me, it was a strangely intense and emotional experience, perhaps because I identified with Matt's fears and anxieties about taking risks and stepping out in life.

For others, Derren Brown's Hero at 30,000 Feet was just a hoax.

The belief that Hero--and the entire Derren Brown phenomenon--is fake rests on two flawed ideas. The first is that what Derren does is truly "extraordinary." In one sense it is; in another sense, Derren uses psychology that is in fact quite ordinary. We are simply unaware of it. Derren Brown forces us to think about the incredible powers of the human mind that we take for granted every day.

Second, there's the idea that the theatricality of Derren's stunts invalidates them. Actually, Derren has consistently prefaced his shows with the disclaimer that what he does is "a combination of magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship." Derren is a mentalist, a magician.

So, what was it about the show that made people cry "Hoax!"? One was the suggestion that in Derren Brown's Hero at 30,000 Feet, Matt was an actor. I'm not sure of the basis for this, other than that people just can't believe it was all real. Again, it all seems extraordinary, but in fact, Derren is relying on established principles used by hypnotists and mentalists. In general, it is easier than most people think to convince the mind it is in a different reality, and it is possible to convince a suggestible person that anything is true, given the right conditions. Yes, Matt could be an actor, but why would he need to be? There is nothing Derren does in the program that couldn't have been done with a real person.

It's necessary to appreciate that with any reality or documentary show, a lot more goes into production and post-production, including editing, than most viewers realize. Certainly there are huge parts of what Derren accomplished and how he engineered it that are never seen on the screen. Some armchair critics see this as evidence of deception and fakery, but this is just TV production.

Derren explains a lot of it in this article, in which he answers fans' questions about Hero.

Aside from questions of fakery and such, I must say I thoroughly enjoyed the show. The thing I have always appreciated about Derren Brown is that he adds some new dimension to what he does every time he presents a new show or stunt. In The System, for example, he pressed mental illusionism into the service of critical thinking and skepticism. Now, in Hero at 30,000 Feet, Derren applies his psychological techniques to personal development and mental well-being. Derren Brown is an astounding showman, but he strikes me as a man with a mission, too.


  1. I didn't enjoy the show because Derren seems to have completely moved away from anything in this show that represents "psychological illusion" and presented a reality/documentary show about how he empowered and made this chaps life better.

    Fine, not what I go to see Derren Brown for and I wouldn't watch it or anything like it again, but if thats what he wants to do now fine. As long as this was the factual programme that he claims it was.

    And this is another difficulty for me. In the past he has used psychological illusion to get participants apparently doing outrageous things. This show though wasn't like that at all, this was in effect a totally real self help show where the participant was pushed along with some mid-night hypnosis and some staged events that he knew nothing about in advance.

    Except that Matt is a long time fan of Derren and has seen all his shows including his stage shows. Matt applied to be a participant on a Derren Brown gameshow but was supposed to be unaware that weird things might happen ? With his knowledge of Derren that is a stretch.

    And I think thats why so many people have assumed Matt was an actor, because his playing along was pretty obvious.

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  3. The British public are fools - simple as that. Too much TV and being dumbed down by corrupt politicians. Very few can now even think for themselves.

    Derren Brown has gone beyond 'illusion' into sheer fraudulent claims because it makes money for him, TV producers and all involved. Do I believe any of these scam programmes? Of course not - it's all crap! Paid actors - simple.

  4. I wrote a LONG, DETAILED reply to your piece - which your service promptly LOST, damn them.

    SHORT version - this was excellent, moving, involving TV - unlike most crap you get these days - and was achieved by a MASTER, using hypnosis - which Derren never denied.

    Matt was NOT an actor.

  5. Even if it was fake... it has inspired me to become a better person my self... People are way too Critic these days,Just believe what you want to believe Wether its Realistic or not As long you understand it and its meanings

  6. being a psychology student i thoroughly enjoyed this one. ive yet to discover all the theories derren used but some of them have very empirically backed theories behind them. if anyone has discovered all of them it would be really cool...