Derren Brown: Something Wicked This Way Comes

One of the Freeview channels recently repeated Derren Brown‘s Something Wicked This Way Comes. It was the episode which mattghg blogged about a while back, wondering about free will in a universe containing Derren Brown. You can find clips from the programme on Google Video.<lj-cut text=”Cut for people who don’t like talking about how tricks are done”>

Having finally watched the programme, I’m in awe of Brown’s showmanship. It used to be that people doing these sort of acts would claim to have psychic powers, either seriously, if they were charlatans, or as part of the contract between the magician and the audience (we know that the magician who says “I will now read your mind” isn’t really saying he’s psychic, it’s just part of the story told around the trick). These days, as part of our desire to be “scientific”, we sort of believe in pop psychological guff like neuro-linguistic programming. Brown’s hooked into this belief. He rightly lambastes the psychic industry for conning people (e.g. in his appearance on the Dawkins documentary). He’s careful to prefix his shows with a statement that he uses a mixture of “magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship”. But! The neat trick is that the misdirection includes the explanation of how he did it. Brown’s frenetic exposition at the end (starts about 4 minutes into this video) is part of the act, just as the claim of psychic powers was for older magicians.

Those of you with plenty of time on your hands can go and argue with all the commenters on YouTube who think that Brown’s an NLP guru. As the man himself says:

Years ago the issue was whether or not you told people it was psychic because people were prepared to believe in psychic ability–and how far down that road do you take them. Now we’re in a situation where we’re into pop psychology, and NLP [Neuro Linguistic Programming], all these huge industries, and people are prepared to believe in that, and maybe in a way that’s the new psychic realm.

The whole interview with Jamy Ian Swiss is an interesting discussion of the difference between what Brown does and what old-style mentalists did and the ethics of misleading an audience who are expecting to be misled. I’d recommend it.

19 Comments on "Derren Brown: Something Wicked This Way Comes"

  1. I came to the same conclusion as you: Derren Brown has found a way to perform the standard “psychic” tricks while making them seem fresh, by using people’s gullibility about “psychology” as a way to misdirect them. We’re all skeptical about tricks involving telepathy now, but when the identical trick is presented as involving reading people’s expressions or body language, then we fall for it all over again.

    Good for him: magic does need to be reinvented to remain entertaining, especially on television. The thing about magic on television is that we know that using actors, special effects, and editing, literally anything can be made to appear on our television screens. A magician pretending to read peoples minds is rather boring compared to an actor pretending to travel through time battling aliens. So the most important job of a television magician is to persuade us somehow that we are watching something that’s real.

    Different magicians have found different ways to achieve this feat of persuasion. Derren Brown pretends it’s science. David Blaine pretends he’s on the street performing impromptu tricks to ordinary passers-by. Penn & Teller pretend that they are telling you how they do it. The magicians on Channel 5’s “Monkey Magic” pretended they were total amateurs by using cheap sets and improvised props.

    David Blaine in particular is a master at misdirection. He persuades you that he is doing cheap impromptu tricks, so that you never think “hang on, what if the whole street is fake?” whereas in a David Copperfield type show that would of course be the first thing you would think.


  2. I read Brown’s very interesting book (it’s part autobiography, part “how-to” guide and part exercise in debunking all sorts), and one of the things that really interests me is that sometimes his “explanation” is itself bunk. In the book, he reveals that sometimes, when he claims to be using psychology, he’s actually using memory, or that when he claims to be showing a feat of memory, he’s actually conjuring. A lot of what he claims to be psychological magic is really just sleight-of-hand, but then some of his close-up tricks which are presented as parlour tricks are enhanced by psychological effects. There’s a lot of complexity and density to what he does, and it’s almost never what he claims he’s doing the act. I find this makes his performances even more fascinating.


  3. Sorry to come out of nowhere, but I found your article called “Losing my religion” on Google and was wondering if you’d mind if I friended you here on LJ. I’m always looking for intelligent people to bounce ideas around with, and most of my friends on LJ don’t oblige me, heh. I thought your article was pretty consistent with my feelings and it’s helped me clarify many thoughts I’ve been having since I left evangelical Christianity.

    (Sorry for the off-topic comment!)


  4. Well, I guess I can rest easy then, for the moment. Although I’d still really like to know how he did do the trick.

    This reminds me I promised Steve Carr a more detailed post on free will. Hmmm

    mattghg (for some reason I can’t sign in with openid atm)


    1. scribb1e is much better at working this stuff out than I am, so this comes from my telling her about it (she’s not watched the programme yet, so might have more insights if she did). The trick seems to be to think about what you actually saw happen. What did we actually see in the newspaper trick?

      Brown has a chance to fiddle with the combination lock as he takes the case from Danni (who’s far too awkward to be a stooge unless she’s a very good actor, plus there’s the monkey throwing to randomise it). She’s distracted getting her necklace back. After that point, I’m guessing any combination will open it.

      Brown “predicts” the page number. He does it by getting Danni to tell him to stop when he reads a particular headline in the (different) paper he’s holding. That’s a bit odd: why doesn’t Danni just think of a number? He gets his paper from the front, so he knows where it was. I’m guessing that one’s rigged: all the page numbers on the inside are 14. He throws the paper away onto the stage when he’s done, the audience member doesn’t get it back. (Anything he chucks away like that is suspect: the bag with the black and white balls earlier in the show, for example: either that had two mouths, or he’d palmed the black ball and dropped it into the bag as he passed it to the penultimate guy, making his chances at least 50% from that point onward).

      When the other girl hands him the papers, I noticed he’s got a chance to faff with them as he distracts Danni by giving her the mike, and turns away from the audience. Don’t know what that gets him, unless they’ve all got “influential” on them as the most interesting word. He does say there are other long words on the piece Danni ends up with and she doesn’t disagree, so I’m not sure about that bit.

      I’m not sure how he rigged it so it was the Daily Mail. If he threw nothing but Daily Mails to the audience, again, someone would have noticed I think. Have to think about that one some more.


      1. I’ve just watched the frenetic ending bit where he pretends to show how it’s done. It’s lovely. He turns an ordinary word-prediction trick into a demonstration of his superpowers, *and* he hammers home the misdirection. By saying over and over again how fair he was and how his volunteers ‘chose’ the number 14, the paper the Daily Mail, and the word ‘influential’, he makes the audience forget the details of what actually happened.

        >Danni(who’s far too awkward to be a stooge unless she’s a very good actor, plus there’s the monkey throwing to randomise it)

        That’s a rather naive reason to think she’s not a stooge 🙂 And if she were, the entire thing would be trivial. I can’t find the monkey-throwing thing on Youtube but I can think of a few ways to make that not random.


        1. Subject: Derren Browns Newspaper trick?
          Hi – may i join in the discussion on this?
          Ive been looking for a forum type place where “i love derren brown” isnt used every other thread. Anyways have you seen this tirck on the web.
          Would love a theory debate on its possible delivery and the tricks used.
          I truely believe he has not shown how it was really done – although i have my own ideas.

          Sun x


          1. Subject: Re: Derren Browns Newspaper trick?
            You’re welcome to discuss it (although this posting is quite old so you might not get many responses other than from me… and from scribb1e, because I can poke her from here). 🙂

            I agree that DB doesn’t really tell you how he did it: his “explanation” that he does it with suggestions of key words is itself part of the act. I still think he’s clever, because, as gareth_rees says, he’s found a way of making standard “psychic” tricks seem fresh.


            1. Subject: Re: Derren Browns Newspaper trick?
              I think the main thing to remember is that he is a magician first and foremost and that everything else around that is pure misdirection etc etc, but that the core of the act is magicians props, sleights of hand etc.
              I agree he used the final “how i did this” part as pure misdirection. People search for answers to things they dont know, by providing an answer, albeit a wrong one, it would mean less poeple would look at how it was done and would miss other bits becuase they would not be looking for it as they would already have in their brain the reason given. Mmmmm double bluff effect i think, and im impressed and annoyed at how hard figuring things out are now going to be. :0)

              Sun x


      2. Subject: answer
        look closely at the pieces of paper on the table….. (you can see something wicked this way comes on 4OD)

        notice how the top pieces are all VERY similar sized, with conveniently straight edges???? then look at the ones underneath, they are nearly twice as big and all rough and shitty looking. The bottom ones are the ones that the girl in the audience ripped up and the top ones are ones that derren placed on top himself.

        Notice how he asks her to chose a number between 1 and 10….. when she lifts off her 7th piece there are conveniently 3 pieces of the much smaller ‘neater’ looking paper left underneath so it didnt matter which one she chose. They would have all had the word influential on them.

        Take a newspaper and try to rip a page up into little 4cm by 4cm squarish pieces with almost straight edges…. not possible.

        He makes the switch as he has his back to audience and is walking towards the table you can see him do it you can actually see him put his hands together and mess around with the paper bits.

        Also the only reason that she choses the daily mail is that he throws the daily mail paper to the girl in the front and middle of the audience. The rest he throws up in the higher levels or to the very back of the audience. The girl on stage can only see about 16rows into the audience when she is looking because of stage lighting. This is probably therefore one of the only hands (and definitely the closest) that she sees up so she picks it. Derren guides her towards that woman by turning her shoulders to face her straight away.

        Also the girl didnt choose page 13 or 14 derren says hold it up and then says ‘what page is that’ and she says 13 so then he says ‘right so you’re showing me 14 so you’ve chosen 14’ she is actually looking at 13 but she goes along with it cos she’s not sure whether she was showing him the page she wanted or looking at the page she wanted!

        As with the ‘stop me whenever you want’ bit, generally people stop on the third option its common behaviour. Also the first two headings that he reads out are absolutely ridiculous and then he reads out one about cancer and she says ‘stop’….. oh surprise surprise!!! He also makes sure he rapidly flicks the pages until he gets to near p14.

        Lastly listen to what he says at the end ‘oh Majik boy here jus switched some bits of paper….’ he actually tells you how he does it!!! clever irony and twist at the end.

        Hope that helps.


        1. Subject: Re: answer
          I agree with this analysis – had the same thought myself regarding where he threw the daily mail, the fact that the paper could have had only ‘page 14’ on each page, and that he put his own prepared newspaper pieces on top of the pile. The question is whether she did in fact have the opportunity to pick another word besides ‘influential’? What would he have done if she picked a different word? Seems like a lot riding on that if she has any choice at all.


  5. May I join in? I again was not convinced by the snippet of film he showed at the end by way of explanation – any chance it could have been spliced together with anything he may have recorded before the show, for example? (I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist, though – others usually have better ideas!)


    1. When I watched it on the PVR, I remember that during the show he did use some of the odd phrases he later uses in the clips for the “explanation” (if you know he does slip words in, you’re on the lookout for them, and I remember noticing him doing it). So there’s no reason why he couldn’t have filmed at least some of that as part of the show, but there’s no reason why he couldn’t have pre-prepared them either. I’d have to go back and watch the whole thing to be sure.

      Whichever it is, the NLP/suggestion explanation (that he was using concealed trigger words) is, I’m pretty sure, misdirection. It doesn’t matter that he inserted those words into his patter while he was doing the tricks, because saying those words isn’t what makes the tricks work.


    2. yes i think some may have been done before the show.
      Talking to another nerd like me, he does the same thing on the other dates of his live show as well, with it being either a different page and word, but always the daily mail,


      Sun x


  6. Hi, I’m here to talk about the Glass walking trick that Derren did in the show. This was very cleverly done as we think that both participants are random BUT he actually chose the women who ultimately took the pulse. Also, he used two buckets of ‘glass’ one I think was real glass which he tipped in front of the Man who I believe to be a normal person and the other which is fake glass in front of the girl who I’m sure is a stooge. She checks his feet beforehand and says they are soft but if she was a stooge he could’ve easily had some toughening on it. Also note how he takes his time when walking on the real glass in front of the male and it isn’t until he reaches the women’s side that he starts to become extravagant in his movement including the swiveling and lying down and being stood on.


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