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.