Magicians, mentalists and the like are, these days, in an awkward position. If any of them wishes to see the inside of the Magic Circle, they must first agree to the proposition that it is unethical to lie to an audience; they must foreswear themselves as entertainers, not hucksters. In the last decade, this has intensified; encouraging people to believe in the supernatural is what many believe to be behind events such as 9/11, not least evangelical atheists like Richard Dawkins. Derren Brown, who has always been careful to emphasise his lack of mystical powers, has proved that this need not be the death knell for magicians; several times through the course of a show Brown will pander to an audience’s rationality, reassuring them “You’re intelligent people” before he nonetheless unveils some mind-blowing magic effect intended to confound that rationality. Brown is in this sense the natural successor to the magician and skeptic James Randy, exposer of shameless hucksters like Uri Geller, and his new show Derren Brown Investigates, in which Brown exposes people claiming to have supernatural powers, confirms this.
Perhaps Brown, like Dawkins, sees this as the good work, peddling rationality in a world seemingly under attack from religious zealots.
The first episode examines Liverpudlian clairvoyant Joe Power, who claims to be able to communicate with the dead using a primitive piece of psychological trickery exposed as such long ago. Episode two introduces us to Vyacheslav Bronnikov, a man who has built up a lucrative organisation that promises to give blind people the power of sight. Both shameless exploiters clearly in it for the money, the only interesting thing about them is to wonder if their need for cash is profound enough to outweigh their sense of reason and has allowed them to genuinely believe in their “powers”. Episode three presents a far more alluring character, ghost-hunter Lou Gentile, who seems to genuinely believe in his work and doesn’t charge for his service since that wouldn’t be “ethical”. An unbearably sweet man, even Derren Brown can barely bring himself to voice his skepticism.
What function does a show like this fulfill these days? Do we watch it for the same reasons we used to, because we want a glimpse of the fantastic? Or do we now simply want to have our rationality confirmed in a time when those who entertain notions of the supernatural are increasingly ostracised? Watching blind people being sold false hope for money is no doubt distressing and should be exposed, yet there is something disingenuous about the whole affair. Perhaps Brown, like Dawkins, sees this as the good work, peddling rationality in a world seemingly under attack from religious zealots. You’ll find Brown on the back cover of The God Delusion, declaring it as “brave”. There’s no doubt religion seems to give license for people to commit atrocities, but what’s less acknowledged is that the need to commit atrocities in the first place has more to do with material conditions, and that political injustices and acts of imperialism are the real root of such anger, as opposed to the Koran. The problem with this idea is that it doesn’t fit in so well with Western capitalist industrial society; we needn’t change our way of living to shoot down supernatural beliefs, but to forego the benefits of our imperialism in the East, that’s a different matter. When will someone be courageous enough to expose that? Derren’s new show is simply another way to distract from this, however righteously it seems to seek to defend those susceptible to supernatural beliefs from being preyed on by chancers; in an attempt to expose one level of exploitation, it services another.