July 19, 2005
British magician revitalizing dead genre
By Mimi Turner
LONDON (Hollywood Reporter) - Three years ago, British
"psychological illusionist" Derren Brown put a gun to his head
in a live television special for Channel Four, using only his
mind-reading powers to identify which of the gun's chambers had
been loaded by a hand-picked volunteer.
The stunt made for gripping television -- predictably
drawing howls of outrage from newspaper commentators. It also
propelled 32-year old Brown onto newspaper front pages and into
the media mainstream.
Three years and three series later, Brown -- and production
outfit Objective Prods. -- have revitalized British magic,
delivering a younger, upscale audience to a genre that
broadcasters had left for dead.
Homegrown performers like Paul Daniels and imports like
David Copperfield and Penn and Teller have connected with
audiences, but the last decade has been fairly fallow. Across
Europe in territories like Spain, France and Germany, magic has
largely fallen off schedules.
"I think it was (U.S. magician) David Blaine that really
changed it -- what Blaine did was that he turned the camera
back onto the audience and their reactions," Brown said.
"Magic (on television) had become a bit of a mainstream
light entertainment thing, a bit of a cliche. I wouldn't have
had my show if it hadn't been for Blaine, so I think that he
should take the credit for making that change."
Brown is candid about his lack of eerie supernatural
abilities, stating in lawyerly boilerplate at the start of each
show that the brew is a cocktail of "magic, psychology,
misdirection and showmanship."
But by adding a darker performance agenda, Brown and
Objective have succeeded in getting audiences to reconnect with
magic and illusion, said Channel Four program head Kevin Lygo,
who originally commissioned the show.
Lygo believes Brown has succeeded where others have failed
because of his convincing screen persona, and Objective Prods.'
managing director Andrew O'Connor -- a former magician in his
own right -- agrees.
"I feel very strongly about this. 99% of magicians are just
terrible performers -- they are drawn to magic to compensate
for atrocious social skills," he said, only half-jokingly.
"Will Derren's success open the floodgates? No, because the
harsh reality is that the performers are just not there."
Brown divines personal bank codes and the names of
childhood sweethearts just by looking into people's eyes;
induces London cabbies to "lose" key city landmarks and
persuades passers by to give him their wallets after a few
In a more sinister sequence, he hypnotizes an arcade game
player and transports him to a life-size mock-up of the game --
"Attack of the Killer Zombies" -- complete with an imitation
rifle. Within seconds the terrified victim has segued from
pitiful remonstrations with the zombies to violent and
Despite Brown's ability to deliver the kind of male-skewing
16-24 audience that has advertisers drooling, Channel Four's
Lygo admits that scene gave him pause for thought.
"I was worried about it, it looks like the guy is murdering
them," he said, but added that once the psychological
background had been explained to him he felt "completely