Suspenseful, thrilling and brilliant fun, albeit questionably credible
Illusionist, Derren Brown, returned to our screens on 12th January with yet another daring new feat, in what he describes as a combination of “magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship”. The one-off special Derren Brown: Pushed to the Edge, sees Derren in one of his most shocking and controversial challenges yet, as he tries to manipulate members of the public into pushing a man to his death. (Or at least into thinking they are.)
The show follows Derren piecing together an elaborate set up involving over 70 actors, celebrities such as Martin Freeman and David Tennant, and a scarily believable prosthetic of a dead body. Events occurring within just one evening show how the primary mark of the episode, Chris, is manipulated to undertake morally questionable acts he would never normally do. The show culminates in the attempt to convince Chris to push a man off a roof to his apparent death, with a shocking result and revelation.
The show provoked an outcry of Twitter, with viewers calling Derren “evil”, “cruel” and “morally wrong”, and Ofcom received 14 official complaints of a similar nature. One man commented on a Guardian article drawing attention to the legal culpability of the participants, indicating that pushing a man with the intention of killing him (even if such an outcome is impossible) is more than enough justification for a thorough attempted murder investigation. This is not the first time Derren has delved into such morally dubious waters, having previously manipulated members of the public into committing what they thought was armed robbery, trying to assassinate Stephen Fry and even believing that they were dead.
The ethical position of the special has not been the only controversy though. A ever with Derren’s ‘stunts’, the authenticity of the events shown has been called into question. All magicians and illusionists are subject to such accusations, but Derren has received particular scrutiny since his 2009 show How to Win the Lottery, which promised to predict the National Lottery, but did not in fact reveal the numbers he had written down until after the result was announced. The follow up show provided a rather ridiculous explanation as to how he had ‘predicted’ the lottery, based on ‘wisdom of crowds’ theory, widely disputed by journalists and academics.
The most viable explanation for this show seems to be one involving fake walls and/or camera tricks, which many fans consider cheating. The event raised suspicions in the eyes of many, as to what kinds of techniques Derren might consider acceptable to fool his audience. Some even began wondering if some of his experiments could be completely scripted and performed entirely by actors?
Many critics were quick to call out the show for being too far-fetched and outrageous, suggesting anybody in Chris’ situation would have to realise that it was all a hoax. It is true that the comedy of the show did at times seem to push a little too hard for it to be believable, such as when Chris lifts the arm of a ‘dead body’ and manages to have him accidentally bid in the ongoing auction. There is also the choice to name the ‘dead body’ Bernie, a not-so-subtle reference to the 80s comedy Weekend at Bernie’s, in which the protagonists similarly pretend their deceased CEO Bernie is still alive.
Regardless as to what degree Pushed to the Edge was scripted, it is without a doubt extremely entertaining. The dramatic escalation of events, the gradual reveal of information to the audience, and the sudden tonal shifts from humour to edge-of-the-seat tension, make it a terrific performance if nothing more.
While many will feel their nostalgia for Derren’s earlier shows, when he could baffle us with a mind-boggling card trick or a little experiment in negative suggestion, Pushed to the Edge solidifies Derren’s position as something far beyond a magician. After all, Derren had never claimed to possess any supernatural abilities; could his biggest trick then, be not on his marks, but on us?
Derren Brown: Pushed to the Edge aired on 12th January on Channel 4.