Derren Brown's Best Magic Tricks and Mind Illusions
Derren Brown is one of the best magicians of our era and who better to create this special list for you than UCSD theater Ph.D., magic scholar, university professor, author, and all around smart guy. If you can't experience his performances at one of his London magic performances, then sit down in your favorite chair, put your feet up on that fancy ottoman, grab your two olive martini, shut that music off, and read on...
Best Magic of Derren Brown Ever!
by Dr. Will Given
University of California, San Diego
Derren Brown is the ultimate showman. Combining mentalism and magic with a theatricality that nods to performances one might expect to find on a Victorian-era stage, Brown has been amazing audiences for decades. From his first controversial special, where he played Russian roulette live on television in 2003, to his television series such as Trick or Treat, Mind Control, and The Experiments, that blur the line between reality and drama, to his numerous stage shows, Brown is constantly challenging audience's notions of what a magician is (and what a magical performance can be). When you go and see one of Brown's shows, you generally get a single man, alone on stage, with a microphone. There are no grand illusions, clouds of dry ice fog, or dancing showgirls. Instead, audiences get an intimate experience. Brown does this by involving the audience directly in his performances and communicates with them throughout his show, ultimately creating a shared experience for all those involved. It is not simply him performing magic, but the entire theatre creating that magic together. Let's take a look now at Derren Brown's Top Tricks!
When Derren Brown first started out, he performed magic in restaurants for customers. Strolling around and approaching tables of diners eagerly awaiting their food to perform a trick or two allowed Brown to hone his skills not just in quickly developing a rapport with a spectator, but also in creating magic with everyday objects. In this trick, performed here for the actor Stephen Fry (A Bit of Fry & Laurie, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows), Brown recreates one of the signature tricks he used to perform in the early days. Despite how it may seem, this isn't your standard card trick. Just wait until the ending.
Even when he is playing a large theatre, Brown still is able to create a sense of intimacy with his audience. While Brown oftentimes obfuscates his methodology behind terms and techniques like "auto suggestion" and "neuro-linguistic programming," watching how he handles someone when he is performing something one-on-one for him or her is a masterclass in itself of audience management. In this example, Brown has the actor Simon Pegg (Star Trek, Shaun of the Dead) write down a gift he wants on a paper, seal that paper in an envelope, and then sign and date it. Brown sits down with Pegg and is able to deduce what the gift is that he desires. He then presents it to him in a box that has been in plain view the entire time. The kicker to this trick though comes after the reveal of the gift.
Reframing a classic magic or mentalism trick in a completely fresh and new way is the hallmark of Brown's genius. A lot of mentalists will ask a spectator to write something down and then will try to ascertain what precisely that may be. While this can be impressive at times, it also is, quite honestly, precisely what the audience is expecting the mentalist to do. For Brown though, he reveals his prediction in quite an unusual way. In this routine, Brown is able to pinpoint a thought of celebrity by painting an enormous canvas. And he paints the portrait upside down. Seriously. This is beautiful to watch and reveals just how monumentally talented Brown is as not only a performer, but also as an artist.
Cell Phone Prediction
(Jump to minute 16:53 on the video above.) This routine is a great example of how Brown can take what could be just an ordinary bit of mentalism in the hands of a lesser performer and make it into something completely devastating for the audience. The routine is a bit protracted, but the journey is well worth the effort. Brown makes a bet with an audience member that he will be able to predict some numbers. The spectator joins Brown on stage and is asked to call a relative on a cell phone Brown provides. The spectator asks the family member to name some numbers that Brown is hoping match the ones he has written on a large board. Of course, this is a red herring. The numbers do not match, Brown loses the bet, but when he tries one more time to win his money back from the spectator, the result is astonishing.
Brown tells the audience that at some point during the show, a man in a gorilla suit is going to come out and steal a banana that is placed in clear view of the audience on a stand on the stage. Basing the routine on "The Invisible Gorilla" experiment conducted by Daniel Simmons (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) and Christopher Chabris (Harvard) that explored inattentional blindness, Brown is able to, indeed, fool the majority of the audience who do not notice the gorilla stealing the banana. When the gorilla returns though later in the show and attempts to abscond with the banana before the interval, the result is pretty shocking for the unsuspecting audience.
Svengali is more a dramatic recreation of a nineteenth century act involving an automaton than a "magic trick." The audience is presented with the story of an old automaton of a child named Svengali that has the power to control an individual. In the story, the automaton was even once exorcised by the Catholic church. After Brown demonstrates exactly how Svengali can exert its control over the audience by having members raise their hands in front of them, seemingly against their own wills and not under their own control, Brown brings a single spectator up on stage to continue the demonstration. The spectator is taken through a series of experiments to see how much power Svengali holds over him until he finally pushes a sterilized needle through the skin of his own hand. What makes this routine so brilliant is not only how Brown combines multiple elements from other routines (spirit writing, ghost touches, etc.), but also how focused the routine is on the story being presented, drawing the audience into it through a heightened sense of fear and tension.
The Oracle Act
In The Oracle Act, Derren taps into how a mentalism routine would have appeared in the early part of the twentieth century. In the act, audience members are asked to write down personal questions, seal them in an envelope, and leave them in a large bowl on stage before an interval. Brown proceeds to seemingly answer the questions (in all their varying degrees of bizarreness) that were written on the cards just by looking at the spectators' handwriting on the outside of the sealed envelopes. He is able to predict zodiac signs and the contents of audience member's pockets. What makes the routine spectacular though is when Brown wraps his head in an elastic bandage to hide his sight and begins to answer the audience's questions in an increasingly frenzied pace before ultimately collapsing on stage to dramatically end the routine. This is Brown's showmanship at its finest.
With Derren Brown creating so many great tricks and illusions, it is very difficult to narrow this list down. Contact us and let us know what you think. Was there an illusion you remember from one of this TV specials you think should have made the list? Have you seen his show live? Let us know!