A couple of weeks ago the Ladyfriend took me to see Miracle, Derren Brown’s latest stage show. Ostensibly a gift, she seemed every bit as excited to see him as I was. More so even.
It’s a hard thing to talk about. Not traumatised or anything (although parts did bring back strange memories of my religious childhood), but he gave a highly impassioned plea for no one to write any details about what happened in the show; so there will be no specifics in what follows.
I’m somewhat easy to please when it comes to Derren Brown – I’ve seen almost everything he’s made, and either liked or loved the lot; the only exception being the placebo thing he did for Channel 4, which I just found I couldn’t buy into – but it’s not immediately clear why I would be a fan. I can’t really remember enjoying another magician, like, ever.
Except maybe Patrick Jane, but he’s kind of based on Derren Brown anyways. And also fictional.
Dynamo and David Blaine just irritate me, they’re the sort of yappy nerd who talks a lot about how good he is at the one thing he’s good at. Penn and Teller have made some good TV on skepticism, but the magic stuff just falls flat for me. And almost everyone else, I just change the channel on.
So watching the show did set me to wondering why it is I like him.
It helps that DB is charismatic, has a sort of Victorian steampunk wonder-worker vibe, and doesn’t make any effort to be ‘cool’. But as a writer, I can’t help think that it has more to do with the way his shows work as stories.
Miracle in particular brings that out, there is almost nothing in the show that a long term Derrenophile won’t have seen before. But in the context of this show as opposed to the other, it becomes – for the most part – a very different thing. And this is his forte, taking a mundane trick and cloaking it in something else.
He also walks an interesting line ethically. Hypnosis, suggestion, faith, self-help are all tied in thematically to the show in Miracle. All things that intrude on control, consent and self. Some of the frisson as an audience member comes from being aware of that line. There is a real sense of psychological danger, in a way that is absent from so many magicians who often try to sell a sense of physical danger to us. Do you ever really believe there is a chance of the escapist drowning? No. But you do believe that Derren Brown can rewire a person into shoving someone off a building.
The other thing I noticed is how much of the show is about us the audience. He addresses the the show to us. The people on stage are expected to go away with an experience, they are not just props. Compare something like David Blaine’s record breaking breath-holding show, or the spectacle of David Copperfield travelling through the great wall of China. Both are striking images, but not terribly involving. Derren Brown’s live broadcast at the end of Russian Roulette, was a similar sort of stunt TV. But unlike the other two there was a real sense of involvement in watching that. Deciding to watch a man play Russian roulette makes you complicit if it goes wrong. Even if it goes right, you have to wonder about your own motivations for watching. And so the spectacle is about the viewer, not about the magician.
That lack of ego in his stage persona is probably a large part of it. He is likeable. All his shows begin with a caveat often delivered by him to camera: it will all be illusion, trickery and suggestion. Where most magicians beg you to believe their impressive feats, seeming to want one over on you, Derren Brown makes an offer to join him for something that he hopes we’ll like. And as a result, I do.
That’s his real magic.