Missing a trick

Derren Brown was firing a gun at his head - not at society's morals.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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Recent reports suggest that illusionist Derren Brown’s Russian roulette stunt live on UK TV on Sunday night was a hoax. Superintendent John Pearson of Jersey, where the stunt was held, said that they had allowed the stunt to go ahead because ‘no-one was in any danger whatsoever’ (1).

Now we have the scandal that ‘the illusion was an illusion’. Before that, the stunt had been greeted with cries of shrill moralism you would expect to greet an actual TV suicide. Over the past few days, Brown has been accused of everything from sparking copycat suicides to causing the degeneration of society. These critics miss Brown’s powers as a showman – and instead invest him with powers to bring down the walls of civilisation.

In stark contrast to David Blaine’s fast-in-a-box, Brown’s stunt was furious and nerve-wracking. After choosing a volunteer to place a single bullet in one of six chambers, Brown fired twice at his head. The third time he fired away from himself, at the wall. But again, there was no bullet in the chamber. For an agonising few seconds, a white-faced Brown appeared to be trying to regain his composure. Then in quick succession he fired at his head then shot the bullet at the wall.

As drama, this was perfectly constructed. No other possible scenario could have achieved the same tension and finale.

Unfortunately, many failed to appreciate the illusion. The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy said that Brown could push young men over the edge. ‘I fear tragic responses in young men especially. When adults offer a role model of such nihilism to youth, who can blame them for loving it?’, said one representative. Rick Naylor, vice president of the Police Superintendents’ Association of England and Wales, said he was ‘flabbergasted’ by the stunt. ‘You’re going to get copycat kids doing this and we’re possibly going to end up with some tragedies’, he said.

Behind this lies an idea that society is akin to a finely balanced pack of cards, ready to collapse at any moment. The description of nihilism as a ‘role model’ that youth couldn’t be blamed for ‘loving’, speaks volumes about the state of adult morals. The illusionist Brown is invested with magical powers to influence the real world only because of a sense that that world is weak and impressionable.

Given the lack of news about actual copycat tragedies, the three million-plus viewers must have had more of a sense of proportion. After all, it’s not as if dicing with danger is a new addition to the magician’s repertoire: from throwing knives to cutting ladies in half, there has been a long and hair-raising tradition of this kind of thing. In the early twentieth century, for example, the American Chung Lee Su really killed himself doing a Russian roulette stunt in London.

No doubt cultural studies academics could read all kinds of significance into Brown’s stunt. Perhaps it represents an enactment of the senseless way in which we experience fate. Perhaps the huge audience betrays a lusting to view the extremes of pain and death.

Or perhaps not. In any case, magicians merely reflect the world: they can’t be asked to change it. When it comes to magic, there are only good acts and bad ones. And this, from where I was sitting at least, was a good one.

Read on:

(1) Roulette gun stunt ‘a hoax’, BBC News , 7 October

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Topics Politics


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