Show Notes: Secret by Derren Brown


From The Magic Circle Jerk, June 2005

About a month ago I was watching Derren Brown's Russian Roulette special with a friend of mine. At the climax of the show, where Derren is purportedly playing Russian Roulette with a real gun on live tv, (well, on the night it originally aired it was live, not on the night we were watching it) my friend turned to me and said, "This is terrifying." Now, my friend has zero interest in magic, but she was really enthralled with the whole show and I was happy that she enjoyed it so much, and I was impressed that Derren was able to evoke that type of reaction because I think it's a difficult thing to do. When David Copperfield suspended himself over that pit of fire or whatever he called it and escaped from a straight-jacket, I think some people were probably interested, but I doubt many people were actually frightened for him. (Probably because the whole thing was too "show-biz." Note to performers: If you want people to really believe you're putting your life on the line, tone down the theatrics. Someone in a real life and death situation would have a hard time remembering the choreography to whatever soft-rock, Peter Gabriel, bullshit they're supposed to be dancing to.)

I've been an unabashed Derren Brown fanboy since he arrived on the scene. I've read all his books and I've illegally downloaded every special of his I could for the past 15 years. His TV series are great, but his specials are some of the most fascinating things I've ever watched and are, I think, such a brilliant evolution of the Derren Brown "character." I'm completely on board for anything he ever does. 

So when I heard he was bringing a show to NYC I knew I had to find my way back there to see it. I was the ultimate fan so there was no chance I was missing this.

And while I'm thrilled I finally got a chance to see him live, the truth is that being the "ultimate fan" probably diminished the potential impact this show could have had on me. I wish I could have come to the show with no knowledge and no expectations, it would possibly have been the best magic show I'd ever seen. But since this show was Derren's first show in America, it served more as an introduction and a "best of" so much of it felt very familiar, of course. 

I'm not complaining about that. I'm not a moron. "Why didn't Derren workshop a full show of new material for his first show in America! I demand an answer!" I'm just putting it into perspective that it's difficult for me to give an objective view of the show due to the nature of my fandom, and the nature of the show that was put together.

There were still a few moments that caught me off-guard. The end of the first "Act" leading into intermission was great and totally new to me. It also fooled me with a classic stage-magic technique that I don't think I've been fooled with in 25 years. 

But by and large, what I enjoyed most was watching the enjoyment of others as they watched the show.

I can't count the positive things I heard from the audience during and after the show. Overwhelmingly people were truly blown away by what they saw. 

The only thing that didn't come off that well to me was the Q&A part of the performance. It was interesting to see this classic effect performed, but I think it might not hold up to the scrutiny of a modern audience. It didn't seem to resonate like it should. I think the effect might not be completely clear. Are you reading people's minds? Are you reading the contents of a sealed envelope? Is it psychometry? Are you telling the future? I guess you're doing all that, but when the effect is a little murky I think some things that are clear stand out more to the audience. And one thing that was clear in this Q&A routine was that they wanted a lot of information from us on our cards. As I heard one audience member say outside the theater after the show, "They had our first name, and last name, and seat number, and our date of birth, and our secret questions... I could have found out a lot about anyone with that much information."

And while it's true there are layers of deception to the effect, I think when you're writing down your full name and date of birth you just assume that much of your life is an open book to whoever has that information (or an open facebook, at least) and it kind of chips away at those layers of deception. If I ask you to write down your social security number and seal it in an envelope and later I tell you where you were born, you're unlikely to think, "Wow, he determined where I was born and he had no way of knowing that because my social security number was sealed in that envelope!" You're more likely to think, "Well, he must have gotten in that envelope somehow." As I said, my feelings on this only come from watching the audience and, at least on this night, the audience wasn't buying it.

The only other somewhat negative thing I heard was during intermission and it came from a woman a row or two behind me who was apparently not really impressed with the show to that point. "Of course he can know what you're thinking," she said, "because he can make you think things." That is, I think, the danger of Derren's style. It's almost too believable at times. I mean take a look at the Magic Cafe's mentalism section from 2003-2008 or so. Those dingbats were trying to create material where the methods were based on Derren's presentations. They didn't get that he was goofing around. Those fucking dipshits. 

Outside of that one woman's comments though, I think Derren does a good job of presenting things that are somewhat believable mixed with things that are unbelievable and magical. And I doubt there is another performer alive who cold put on a 2 hour 40 minute show of material I had mostly seen before and still have it fly by.