Urbane, charming, sophisticated, charismatic, magnetic, entertaining, intriguing. These are the kind of words a significant majority of the viewing public would use to describe to the dashing Derren Brown. You can now add charlatan to that, if you like.
If we had given it a moment’s dispassionate consideration, we’d have realised only a psychotic programme controller would commission a snuff magic show as a career-furthering move.
To my knowledge – and he’s welcome to saw off my head with Fred West’s rusty razorblade if I’m wrong – Channel 4 chief Mark Thompson is not psychotic.
Even if the odds against a Jersey barn being splattered with bits of Brown were a trillion to one, no producer on earth would have taken the risk. In retrospect, we should have known it was always going to be rigged.
But we got caught up in the drama, the excitement, the expectation, the revelations about the three-second delay, the anti-gun lobby up in arms (ha ha) and all the rest of the ballyhoo.
Ballyhoo that spread itself across every paper in the land: perfect pre-publicity. We were suckered. Or, more honestly, we suckered ourselves, and that’s the best kind of suckering there is.
We kind of knew Brown would not die. Then again, we couldn’t be absolutely certain.
There was always a chance he would blast himself all over his Ant-from-the-Royle-Family lookalike assistant, which would be terrible and not something you’d want to admit to even wanting to watch.
But (like porn) the fact there’s some stigma attached, lends it an extra frisson, thrill and allure.
The upshot? We wanted to see Derren Brown Plays Russian Roulette Live. Or at least 3.3 million of us did. That’s the showman’s trick: first pull in your audience. (David Blaine please note: a sympathetic audience that wants you to succeed).
The next showman’s trick is to build the tension, which Brown did superbly through the process of selecting his assistant.
It was entertaining in its own right: it created a platform to showcase the man’s undoubted talent and to emphasise the sense that the guy is for real: he knows what he’s doing.
The denouement was consummately managed, right down to his mis-selection of the fifth barrel. Note, of course, that the stunt went right to the wire. If the first barrel had held the bullet, in some way we’d have felt conned.
The conclusion was a triumph. Brown confirmed his status as the master risk-taker, mind-reader and magician. Fantastic. Brilliant. He did it.
Then, in the finest tradition of investigative journalism, a hack makes one simple call to a Jersey plod and unravels the fix. The bullet was a blank. Which explains a slightly curious insertion in the show. Remember when our weapons expert revealed even a blank can drill a hole in a plastic bottle? Hmmm.
Where does all this take Brown? Banished to the outer darkness as a cheat, rogue and charlatan, doomed to scrape a living in fifth-rate pantos and dodgy downmarket clubs for the rest of his derailed performing career before he dies a lonely, alcohol-sodden death in a down-at-heel seaside boarding house?
Not at all. The majority response an informal straw poll has elicited is interesting. It’s a three-point defence that runs as follows:
1: Of course he was never going to die – I knew that. (Yeah well, you didn’t say that before the event. Not many of us did.)
2: Anyway, that’s not the point – he was right about the barrel so, if it had been a live bullet, he’d not be dead.
3: Didn’t you see the bit about how blanks can cause real damage if you fire them into your head?
Brown’s continuing celebrity is assured. This has been a PR triumph of pre- and post-show media frenzy par excellence. He engaged us and made us complicit in the event and we went all the way with him.
At the end, a substantial majority has emerged from the experience thinking it’s largely irrelevant whether it was a real bullet or not. That’s some trick. The real bullet was the big sell. So it wasn’t real? What the hell – it was pure entertainment, anyway.
It’s a bit like the Iraq war. We were promised weapons of mass destruction, we went to war and, in the end, it emerged the weapons weren’t there in the first place. The only problem being that, unlike Brown, the stars of this production weren’t genuine showmen and they never courted their public properly.
This takes us, ineluctably, to David Blaine (again). If Blaine had pulled the Russian roulette stunt, and the bullet was revealed to be a blank, he’d have been hung drawn and quartered. Which doesn’t seem altogether fair. But if you’re utterly unlikeable and lack the essential component of true showmanship – an ability to relate to your audience – what can you do?