If television is the idiot's lantern then the subjective opinions of someone unqualified to write about television must surely be the idiot's lectern.
Derren Brown – Trick or Treat
I watched the first episode of the first series of Trick or Treat when it was shown last year and I wasn’t very impressed. It sounded like a good idea on paper – giving a member of the public who volunteered for a future TV series the random choice of a nice experience or a not nice experience, all engineered by television’s most fascinating prestidigitator – but I thought it fell rather flat. We’re used to Derren Brown doing amazing things which baffle everyone including Stephen Fry. But now we had Derren getting dangerously close to a gothic version of Beadle’s About and it seemed a step too far. But then – with series two in an attractive double header with Peep Show – I decided to go back and watch series one and give it another chance. I watched the five I hadn’t seen back to back (to back to back to back) on an otherwise hollow and worthless Saturday and the series was much better than I’d expected. The main story of each episode was still of variable interest but his interludes – such as going up to American street vendors and buying things with blank pieces of paper instead of cash – were still classic Derren Brown.
In that first series the Trick or Treat element was a bit of a con as the two cards were in fact ambigrams which showed trick if you held it one way or treat if you held it the other. For the second series they were straight and above board – one card for each. Though that didn’t matter at all to someone whose job it is to make people pick the card he planned for them to pick.
So to the second series of what I now knew was a cross between a gothic Beadle’s About and watching a successful self help course through a sound proofed window. Gone were most of the magical interludes and the twenty five minutes were now given over entirely to Derren and his so called victim. The first one was a jolly middle manager type who Derren decided would win a super-pup quiz on his own. He taught him speed reading and memory techniques (we saw and heard only frustrating hints and snippets amongst the shots of the contestant looking at book after book after book). He didn’t win – like the little old lady Derren taught to play poker in the first series – he came second. Still, a remarkable achievement and the feel good moment of the year so far.
The second one was more uncomfortable – though still classed as a treat – as a pretty young lady was told not to electrocute a kitten. The point of the episode is that people told not to do something will inevitably do that thing once the opportunity arises and they think they can get away with it. He sits down and has a chat with her while the kitten plays in its death trap. His now familiar blend of hypnotic patter and suggestive dialogue puts her into a suggestible state, he regresses her to childhood, she presses the button and electrocutes a kitten. The point apparently was that an internal dialogue which is dominated by negative phraseology – "I must not kill the kitten" instead of "I want the kitten to live" – will lead to negative results. The kitten doesn’t in fact die as this is Channel 4 not Hale and Pace.
Episode three opened with the now familiar shot of our victim filmed by hidden cameras. "That looks like David Tennant" I said to nobody at all because it was Friday night. "David is an actor originally from Scotland but now living in London" said Derren. "That’s a coincidence" I said to the same nobody as before. "Them both being called David." It turns out it was indeed everyone’s second favourite Doctor Who that had applied to be on the show and ultimately chosen for a hair raising experience. Only it wasn’t – it started with a simple take-back-in-time hypnosis gimmick, then went on to have him draw an object which a random person on the street then drew as well and ended with him predicting a story which would be in the Guardian three days later. Much more standard Derren Brown fair – and all of it nicely there to be speculated and wondered upon – but not really Trick or Treat material.
The fourth episode was all about training a girl to be an escapologist so that – a few months later – they could kidnap her, throw her in a lake and not get put in prison. It was another heart-warming story of triumphing over adversity but it left us – by which I mean me and anyone like me – frustrated because I didn’t want to see a random stranger taught these secrets off camera. I wanted to know them myself. We got one little bit of the puzzle (and that was something she had to figure out herself) and the rest was just left a secret. It’s undoubtedly good television but not terribly satisfying by the end. Because the end is so predictable – she will escape from the sack and there is absolutely no doubt about that at all because it is a recorded programme and murder is still probably illegal – it becomes about everything which leads up to that end. Someone we don’t know being taught things we’d quite like to know doesn’t leave us satisfied little tele-bunnies.
If being thrown into lakes isn’t your thing then what about self confidence and the ability to chat up a bunch of people from your sexual preference group? That was what episode five was about. Derren took an awkward IT person with no self confidence and uses his techniques to transform them into a confident, charming, witty, go-getting super hero. Yeah – I want to spend half an hour seeing that happen to someone else. The only bits of the method we were allowed to hear are ones that are either in Derren’s book (which I’ve just read for the second time) or are in the first chapter of most NLP cash in volumes. It was of course lovely that this shy retiring soul should’ve been reinvented as Captain Charisma but it did make me yearn for the days when Derren used to not shoot himself in the head or convinced a bunch of wide-eyed students that they were experiencing genuine paranormal shenanigans.
The final episode brought back all five of the above for what they thought was a civilised party – in what looked like a gutted office block – but was in fact an experiment. The experiment was lifted straight from Derren’s book – which I’d finished that day – so it bored the pants off me. I knew exactly what they were doing and what the outcome would be. More interesting were the interludes in which he got back to doing what he does best – he totally predicted what lottery numbers a group of people would predict and somehow got an Australian girl to throw a dart (blindfolded) through a centimetre wide circle hidden behind a random playing card. That’s more like it. The experiment proved that humans are obsessed with superstitions and other behaviours which they construct in order to convince themselves that their actions can affect things which they really have no control over. It’s a sort of mental homeopathy. David Tennant and co were told to score 100 points but not told how. The points total actually went up whenever a goldfish swam past a sensor. They played around with various props left in the party area and began to believe that swinging a hula hoop or putting an orange on a circle was scoring them points. We laugh at the fools – or were probably supposed to – but didn’t get to see the looks on their faces when they were told what really happened. That would’ve been the best bit.
Now the point of the series seems to me that Derren – who is a genuinely nice guy – wants people to be better and to stop limiting beliefs from ruining their lives. So he shows us that you don’t have a bad memory, you just don’t know how to use it. The way your internal dialogue runs affects how you think and act even if two thoughts mean the same thing. You can achieve an incredible feat if you dedicate yourself to it and don’t let the belief that it is impossible hold you back. You can be confident and liberated if you stop focusing on bad events or obsessing over a bad slant on events. And that everyone builds up superstitions to try and control their environment and their lives instead of actually doing something to control those things which we might control and simply reacting to those things that we can’t. It all makes perfect sense and Derren is undoubtedly very intelligent and is capable of turning anyone into a god. But can we get back to card tricks soon as I get the feeling he’s never going to actually tell us how to achieve everything in this paragraph, merely show us that it can be done for other people.