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17 August 2020 00:37

Broadway theatre Derren Brown Derren Brown: Secret

To watch 20 years of the physical and metaphysical evolution of Derren Brown compressed into 130 minutes is to realise that the man is honing himself into the purest essence of … something. Even if you didn't know that Derren Brown: 20 Years of Mind Control (Channel 4) was written and produced by Brown and Andrew O'Connor, the man who gave him his first television show and has worked with him ever since, it was clear from the off that we were in for an unchallenging ride. Even if you didn't suspect anything, any programme about a man whose life's work is all about controlling environments and people was unlikely to be a ruthlessly interrogative affair. How the hell did he persuade the dog track teller that a losing ticket was a winning one and hand over the money (Mind Control 3, in 2002) or take all those phones and wallets from suddenly compliant passers-by? How the hell did he do that thing with Simon Pegg and the red BMX in 2005's Trick of the Mind?

Past footage was interspersed with clips of Brown being interviewed in his home which, pleasingly, looks exactly like the home in which you would hope and expect Derren Brown to live – leather club chairs, mesmerist paraphernalia, masks, stuffed animals, glass cabinets … basically an antiques shop with a really good cleaner. The lack of pushback became conspicuous by its absence as we moved through the early years when, as he says: "It was a bit more 'Look at me, I have secret powers!'" and on to the more elaborate and increasingly dark TV work. But there were equally troubling stunts, such as The Heist, which saw him persuade (if that's the word – one of the greatest tricks Brown has pulled is to make it impossible to know which verbs to use when talking about what he does) a group of middle managers to stage an armed robbery. The latter was backed up by remote testimonies from former participants, but even allowing for the dystopian feel that Zoom-style technology imparts to appearances, it felt unconvincing, and certainly ripe for a bit more in the way of genuine questioning. As well as a new live illusion, 20 Years of Mind Control was to be followed by one of his greatest stunts according to the great British public, who cast their votes for one of Russian Roulette, The Heist, Hero at 30,000 Feet, Apocalypse and Pushed to the Edge.

Their choice had not been revealed at time of going to press, but I hope it was Apocalypse, in which a man was convinced that he had woken up amid a zombie epidemic, which seems less of a stunt now than a survival manual. Derren Brown returned to Channel 4 to celebrate his television career with a special, 20 Years of Mind Control – Live, featuring a special stunt with two oblivious members of the public, friends Rihanna and Tameeq. The two fans were chosen at random and driven to the studio to play live his "favourite" nail-in-a-secret-cup trick, based on the classic "shell game". Now there's a chance of a nail being under a red cup. Brown's powers of suggestion remain undimmed, which many watching the two-hour special commented about on social media.

#derrenbrown yo she chose blue then red and red is in position 1 — Angelica Bunting (@Jelly_TTBunting) August 16, 2020 As the stunt played out, Brown slammed his hand down on the blue, then the green cups. He admitted at his relief that the stunt and the subliminal messaging had worked out and then explained the ruse to his two guests. The special had included subliminal red, nails and number one imagery all the way through it and key images had been placed at various points on the women's journey into the TV studio. The production team had even created a special TV ad for a new nail polish, "Red One", to hammer the message home. Great show even if the red nail number 1 cup subliminal info was a little too obvious and made the final act a little anticlimactic.#DerrenBrown#20YearsofMindControl#Channel4#NowWatching — Bᵢₘ …is happy????

I'm living for the fake adverts in this #DerrenBrown special. Some viewers wondered if everything in Brown's television career had been leading up to this point. Can you imagine if @DerrenBrown spent the past 20 years putting red in every show just to make this one?#derrenbrown #DerrenBrownLive —????☀️TheSunnyyOne☀️???? #derrenbrown — Harry Patches (@Patch221596) August 16, 2020 Fans have always wanted to understand the powers of suggestion that mark Derren Brown out as an unreal entertainer. Whatever #derrenbrown trick is the answer is red. If all this red/1/nail stuff turns out to be a red herring I will be so mad #derrenbrown — Natalie (@NatalieDawns) August 16, 2020 Brown delivered on the promised stunt as the show cycled through many of his greatest experiments and TV events. Some viewers felt a bit letdown by the trick, as a celebration of his 20 years on screen. 20 years of #derrenbrown and he does a trick with a cup. This man posted about his firsthand experience of the Derren Brown phenomenon. While this man was just grateful for his career: "A wonder of a mind, artist and showman, and thoroughly lovely chap as well." Amazing look back at 20 years of @DerrenBrown tonight on C4. Derren Brown: 20 Years of Mind Control – Live was followed by a repeat of his favourite TV stunt, Apocalypse, which was chosen by the public. Compared to some of what's been served up lately, Derren Brown: 20 Years of Mind Control is a rich imaginative feast. The live trick at the start and the repeated vintage trick at the end weren't available to previewers, but the clip show that makes up the meat of the evening was a 90-minute celebration of Britain's preeminent mind control jockey. In the rundown of his career, taking in the stage shows and series and one-off specials, we see Brown holding a séance, stealing wallets, crawling in broken glass, playing Russian Roulette and guessing the lottery numbers. He tricks Simon Pegg into wanting a red BMX and unsuspecting members of the public into pushing each other off buildings, having a religious experience, shooting each other or believing they're in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Celebrities appear via Zoom to pay homage to the maestro: Claire Danes, Stephen Merchant, Simon Pegg, Tim Minchin, JJ Abrams, Michael Cera, Mark Gatiss, Stephen Fry, Dawn French. More interestingly, Brown is interviewed at home, at a respectable social distance, allowing himself a bit of rumination on his career and, more importantly, giving us a glimpse of his gaff, which sits at the apex of murderous taxidermist, as we'd expect, and Hoxton web designer, which we don't. You know with Brown that you'll never get a full story, but he remains a curious figure in the best sense of the word, a true showman genuinely in love with his material. The programme is also a good chance to assess Brown's shifting personal style. Derren Brown - 20 Years Of Mind Control: Live (Channel 4) turned out to be manipulating us all along. Via the power of suggestion and subliminal imagery, he turned a simple fairground trick into a smart piece of screen showmanship. The psychological illusionist marked 20 years of televised brain-bending with a slightly luvvie-ish but highly entertaining look back at his career. The two-hour special culminated in a daring live stunt which had been kept a closely guarded secret prior to transmission. Having been brought to a secret location ("it's in Hounslow," whispered Brown conspiratorially) on a rain-lashed evening, charity worker Reanna and her friend Tamique participated in a quickfire stunt called "Injury". Tamique placed a vicious-looking 4in nail beneath one of three coloured cups. Brown slammed his hand down on one. Brown promptly rewound the action to explain how he'd steered us all towards the red cup and its position in the line-up. He'd slipped fleeting mentions of nails, cups, the colour red and the number one into his script. The stunt was less high-concept than many of Brown's recent escapades but no less satisfying for it and all the more impressive for being pulled off on live TV during what Brown called "a plague". His stage shows soon began to feature what Brown called "carny tricks": walking on broken glass, banging a nail into his nose, holding his palm over a candle until the smell of burning flesh was almost palpable. It was surprisingly affecting when Brown gave a profound religious experience to a non-believer or turned a shy man into a have-a-go hero capable of saving the day by seizing the controls of a packed aeroplane. His head-scratching feats still impressed - correctly guessing the lottery numbers, "sticking" viewers to their sofas and convincing a man he was living amid a zombie apocalypse. Headline-grabbing stunts included his grim-faced game of Russian roulette, staging an armed heist and the séance which became the most complained-about show in TV history. Archive material was interspersed with a recent interview with Brown at his £5m East London home. He called this special stunt "a sort of sparkler on the 20-year birthday cake". The programme was immediately followed by Derren Brown's Greatest Stunt, which saw viewers vote for their favourite past programme from Brown's TV CV. A poignant dedication came at the end of the closing credits: "In celebration of Anthony Owen, with love from us all." Owen was a fellow magician who worked as a consultant on many of Brown's shows.